Suez Canal commemorative stamp

Teaching ideas

After an introductory activity which outlines the reasons and course of the war, five areas of enquiry related to the Suez Crisis are suggested.

Why was the Suez Canal so important and what happened there?

Start with the stamp and ask the students to work out as much as they can about the country and the event it is commemorating. What does the event’s presence on a stamp tell you about it in the eyes of the government of the country? Explain briefly that this act of nationalisation led to an international crisis that tells us a lot about the politics of the world in 1956 and how they were changing.

Show students the French medal from 1869 in For the Classroom. What does this celebrate? Look at the map of world empires in 1914, focusing on Europe and Asia, and locate Egypt and the Suez Canal – see For the classroom. Ask students why the creation of a canal was so important for European nations - look particularly at the pink (Britain) and blue (France). Explain the purchase of shares by Britain and their significant ownership and interest in the fate of the canal.

Now look at the world map of 1953 alongside the earlier map. Ask pupils in groups to identify changes in geography and nation boundaries. Note particularly Indian independence and the creation of Israel.

Explain that the key nations involved in the conflict at this time were: Egypt, France, Britain, Israel and the USA. Use the BBC page about the leading individuals in For the Classroom to create profiles of each person. Create a table with headings ‘Threats’ and ‘Preferred course of action’ with the names of the countries down the side. Divide the class and give each group the profile of one leader. Ask them to fill in their tables in draft prior to feedback as a class.

Describe the countdown to war to the students: ask them to research the images from the Imperial War Museum - see the link on For the Classroom. Ask them to choose 3 images that show different aspects of the war, for example, combat, deployment of weapons and troops, damage and impact, and to explain their choices. Also ensure they consider who was taking the photographs and how this affects how we use them.

Why did the USA not support Britain and France in Suez?

Examine the short and long term factors leading to the crisis: show students the British political cartoon The last straw (in For the Classroom) which shows a camel straining under the weight of all the factors. Discuss the reference to the saying ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and why this had added relevance as a saying in Egypt. Ask students to research quickly any events not yet covered in class. Now discuss the USA’s stance on each of these, recalling their motivations from the introductory activity. Would any of these lead them to support military intervention? One of these factors is: ‘Western political blunders’. The US President, Eisenhower, reportedly stated “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things”. From what students have learned about the crisis, what events do they think these might be? Watch the British Pathé film summarising the key events of late October and early November 1956. Ask students to discuss the perspective of this film which has an American commentary. Discuss how differently it might have been presented had it had a British commentary.

What was the effect of the war in Britain?

Start with the Impact of war cartoon to discuss briefly the fears of the British public – what are they afraid of? Remind students that this was just ten years after World War II which had crippled the nation. Eden’s military action was directly influenced by the criticism of one of his predecessors, Neville Chamberlain, who notoriously had tried to negotiate with Hitler in a policy of appeasement. Why might he have thought the British public would support him? Watch the video of Eden in For the classroom and identify his reasons for intervention. The result was widespread condemnation of Britain and France – use the Divided we stand cartoon in For the Classroom to discuss this with students. For an extended activity, use the National Archives sources - link in For the Classroom - which discuss whether or not the 1950s were a golden age.

Is it right to see Suez as a symbol of the end of old empires and the beginning of new?

Explain to students that a historian said that the Suez Crisis ‘signified the end of Great Britain’s role as one of the world’s major powers’ [Silvia Ellis, 2009]. What evidence is there for this? Run thorough the introductory activity with the students so that by the end they have a grasp of the main players and what actually happened. Read the two documents from the National Archives and discuss what they tell us about the relationship between Britain and the USA. Look at the map of 1914 and compare it with the map of 1961 in For the Classroom. Discuss the very great changes from 1914. Look too at where Britain still retained influence. Have a balloon debate with groups of students representing Britain, France, the USA and the USSR. They must all argue for their right to stay in the balloon as powers most vital to maintaining global stability. Teach an outline of the period from the Suez Crisis to 2000 bringing out key moments of crisis and of positive action: who were the key players, what role did they take? Discuss a conclusion to the question and examine what if any role the old imperial powers may retain.

What lessons about intervening in the Middle East should the West have learned from the Suez Crisis?

The crisis can be interpreted as the story of a small Arab nation standing up to world powers and also as a diplomatic and political fiasco by Britain and France, whose subsequent attempts to hide their planned involvement provoked widespread condemnation and suspicion of politicians’ motives.

Ask students in groups to identify 3 key lessons learned for Western powers. Ask them also to identify one moment when they would have acted differently. When receiving feedback, debate amongst the class what effects this might have had. Eden’s justification – that one man cannot act without impunity – is one which resonates with actions by the USA and Britain in the Middle East in the last twenty years. Furthermore the region remains critical as supplier or conduit for oil provision, as well as enduring religious and political tension. Ask students in their groups to look at the conflicts in the Middle East since 1990 and ask them to identify what influence the factor of access to oil and the desire to impose international law has had. Discuss whether any lessons have been learned.

What are the chances of a lasting peace in the Middle East between Israel and the surrounding Arab states?

Use the link in For the Classroom to the Historical Association T.E.A.C.H. Online study unit. This enquiry positions the current conflict in the longer history of the region; the Suez Crisis is an important element in that history and could act as a good starting point for the enquiry.

Next section: For the classroom

Suez Canal commemorative stamp