Madagascar lies 250 miles east of the coast of mainland Africa, steady and sizeable amid a swirling Indian Ocean and the flowing Mozambique Channel.
As one of, if not the, poorest country in the world not currently at war, its people reflect its diverse heritage, its landscape a paradise for nature.
Sparkling beaches, spear-tall jewelled rocks, leaping lemurs and humpback whales.
In Antsiranana, or Diego Suarez, in the north of the island, the main street has houses painted yellow and cars in green. Open-doored cafes beneath peeling paint balconies serve local Three Horses Beer and Coca-Cola, the odd television pinned to the wall.
It’s a short walk to the coastline, a mix of Baobab Trees and haunted homes: grey-streaked, open mouthed buildings left to decay. Whispering in the salt and sweat of the seasons and erosion of time.
It’s a short drive to a cemetery, an unexpected stop. Our guide brought us here because we are British, as is, apparently the cemetery.
We step out and into the sun.
“The French one is down the road,” he says, voice thick with conspiracy. “And it’s really nowhere near as good.”
Through the buzz of heat and the sweet scent of flowers, the curator, for want of a better word, approaches and shakes our hand.
There is history upon history in this land, it appears. With machinations in London involving the War Graves Commission, I only partly manage to follow along.
Two gardeners shelter from the sun, a small canopy of shade, boxed in tight like a canopy.
Surprised as I was to find these graves, the surprise runs deeper still.
These are indeed British, only it’s no longer a Britain we know.
Rhodesia. Lancashire. Cameroon. The Scottish Highlands.
The truly global nature of that war and this world echoed bare in chiseled stone.
As often happens, a coolness, a shiver, a tear for lives I never knew, lives that war tore away, drains the heat from the sky.
But why, I wonder, is the French cemetery so different, so unkempt, so far away, when the two countries fought shoulder to shoulder as allies through World War One and Two?
And then came the biggest surprise of all.
When France signed its armistice with Hitler’s forces, the French Empire reached around the globe.
And that brought this heavy conflict to the shores of Diego Suarez.
In early 1940, France counted Madagscar as one of its colonies: a strategic landmass perfectly placed between the shores of Europe, Africa and Asia.
Churchill assumed, as allies, that France would pass her colonial ports and air space to Britain. Hitler and Vichy France did not agree.
A global race was on: who could reach France’s distant territories first.
The Vichy government of France gave an order: Britain was the enemy and all weapons and control should support the Third Reich.
The order received different interpretations across the world.
French Indochina gave access to Japan, ushering in invasions throughout Malaya and Singapore.
And in Berlin, the Japanese naval attaché met with Germany’s Maritime Warfare Command to discuss The Seychelles and Madagascar.
As it happened, the British navy reached the French port first. And battle amid these sparkling shores began.
We never did reach that French cemetery as the light drifted from the sky into amber and clouds passed, burning red into the night.
Back sipping Three Horses amid the fluorescent moonlit of modern Diego Suarez, now Antsiranana, I turned the page on a flattened grey book I’d found on the region.
Britain won this battle. And the Allied Forces won the war. But in those footnotes of history, and amid these thick, yellowed pages, a new horror rose in textured ink.
Before Hitler settled on the Final Solution, there had been other plans.
One of which was named Madagascar.
It involved the forced resettlement of Europe’s Jewish population…to the glittering African island that held the same name.
Defeat in Diego Suarez took that option off the table.
And back at my table, in 21st century Antsiranana, a new game of what-ifs begin.
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