Archive for the ‘Armistice Day’ Category

A Journalist’s Sarajevo Sojourn, December 1992 – January 1993.   1 comment

Former Yugoslavia in Crisis: Views from Beyond the Borders:

The successful conclusion to the prosecution of Ratko Mladic at the International War Crimes Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague last week (22 November 2017) has taken me back in my mind’s eye both to January 2001, when I witnessed some of the evidence being presented at the War Crimes Tribunal during a trip to the Hague, as well as to 1992, when I was on the periphery of the events themselves. In August of that year, I moved back to Hungary with my family, to the beautiful southern cathedral city of Pécs, close to the border with ‘Former Yugoslavia’, which had recently become four borders, with Slovenia in the west, Croatia and the UNPROFOR disputed territory to the south, and Serbia to the east. Pécs is just a few hundred kilometres from the Croatian border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, and yet the scenes shown on British (ITN) television and on networks around the world that August were like those shot on cine-cameras on the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau nearly half a century earlier: pictures of barbed wire and skeletal figures from the camps run by the Bosnian Serbs at Omarska and Trnopplje. As I sat outside the glass courtroom in the Hague almost a decade later, I had those unforgettable images in my mind as the commandant of one of the camps was listening to the evidence brought against him for his role in what had already been presented to the world as a second Holocaust. That ‘presentation’, of course, was erroneous from the first suggestion that the term could be applied to any events other than the original ones.

Yet, not all was as it seemed from those pictures. Somehow along the way, the reservations of the ITN team which had filmed the camps were cast aside. The ITN reporters had been careful not to make an analogy with the Nazi concentration camps, but others did in their own voice-overs and commentaries. The skeletal figures shown weren’t inside the barbed wire, for instance, but outside it. The wire was old and ran around a small enclosure, and the cameraman got behind it to shoot the scene. There was also a famine-like food shortage at that time and place, which meant that everyone in the locality was starving. The most skeletal of all the prisoners shown, Fikrit Alic, was just as thin weeks after his release. ITN’s reporting was accurate, but the pictures seemed to speak for themselves. They caused a sensation in the United States, forcing the Executive there to act.

In October 1992, the United States announced that it would contribute an additional $900,000 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to support refugees from the former Yugoslavia who were in Hungary. Many of these were Hungarian-speakers from the Vojvodina province in the disputed area between Croatia and Serbia. I remember a former English teacher from the town of Osziek who was also fluent in German, in addition to her ‘native’ languages of Hungarian and Croatian. Not qualified to teach in Hungary, she had found employment in a travel agency, where her multi-lingual abilities were put to good use in a time before people began to make their travel and accommodation arrangements online. My work involved placing and supporting teachers from the UK in various towns and villages throughout Baranya, the county surrounding and including the city of Pécs, including Harkány, Siklós and Mohács, along the southern borders. Driving between them and visiting even more remote villages, I was struck by the lack of any development in a long belt of land, due to the constant threat of conflict between Yugoslavia and the Warsaw Pact which had been one of the untold stories of the Cold War. More recently, during the brief but fierce war between the Serbs and Croats in 1991, stray mortars had landed on or near some of these villages. The most serious incident of this kind was when a bomb fell on the town of Barcs but fortunately did not explode. In total, the borderline between Hungary and the former Yugoslavia stretched over six hundred kilometres. Legislators and executive authorities, both national and local, were faced with adjusting to a significant security crisis to the south of this border at a time when they had just embarked upon a path of civilian democratic development, in which I played a modest part between 1992 and 1996. They could ill afford for the newly-independent central European states to be dragged back into another Balkan Crisis like that of a century before.

The intensity of this crisis had caught Western Europe and the United States unprepared. These regional powers were already hardly coping with the swift changes that were taking place following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, so that they were even less equipped to cope with the internal tensions and conflicts related to the creation of new nation states. A multitude of small and medium-intensity armed conflicts differing in character from the conflicts previously known emerged in Bosnia-Herzegovina from the autumn of 1990, and even more violently from July 1991. Neither the United Nations, nor the European Union, and not even the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, proved capable of coping with the crisis. There was general agreement among the Hungarian political élite, both at a national and local level, that the only real means of breaking away from a disintegrating central-eastern European region was by gaining access to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although not a template for the rest of central-eastern Europe, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former member of the Warsaw Pact within the NATO alliance was possible.

By the Spring of 1992, the actual warfare had shifted considerably further south of the Hungarian border, to the territories which had only recently become known as Bosnia-Herzegovina. But with the intensification of the civil conflict came an intensification of ‘western’ involvement, and of Hungary’s strategic role within it. At the end of October, with the permission of the Hungarian Government of József Antall, AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, under NATO command, began flying missions from Hungarian airspace to monitor the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Throughout this period, UNPROFOR convoys of blue-helmeted troops were a common sight on the roads through the city, headed towards the borders with humanitarian aid and supplies for the peace-keeping operation. The Hungarians quickly realised the necessity of replacing their membership of the Warsaw Pact with a collective security system based on NATO. As a country neighbouring the Balkan region, which had turned into a hotbed of crisis, Hungary was already experiencing the economic and political implications of that crisis directly, not to speak of the danger, felt to be very real at the time, of a territorial spillover of the hostilities. Neutrality was not a viable alternative for a people living in the centre of Europe, since risks existed irrespective of the independent status of their country, and by their nature, these risks did not halt at national borders. Following its own peaceful transition to independence in 1989, Hungary had begun to develop its own external relations with five neighbouring countries as one of the smallest countries in the region, but by the mid-nineties, five out of its seven neighbours had a statehood younger than its own, and Hungary had become one of the medium-size leaders in the region.

In both the regional and international contexts, second-rate journalism was bound to be commonplace. Editors wanted from their reporters what other editors were getting from theirs. The hunt was on for Nazi-style atrocities, and several reporters won major awards for revealing them, even though their sources were questioned afterwards. Atrocities certainly took place, and more were carried out by the Bosnian Serbs than by anyone else, but a climate began to be created in which it became very hard to understand what was really going on, because everything came to be seen through the filter of the Holocaust. As a result, and as the war ‘progressed’, there were stories about extermination centres and mass rape camps, as if the Bosnian Serbs were capable of a level of organisation akin to that of the Third Reich. The fact that they were believed meant that the Bosnian Crisis began to monopolise the foreign policy of the major Western powers in a manner in which the three two previous Yugoslav crises did not.

What was the Bosnian War?: A Chronology of the Conflicts:

The Bosnian War was an international armed conflict that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The war was part of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Following the Slovenian and Croatian secessions from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – which was inhabited by mainly Muslim Bosniaks (44 percent), as well as Orthodox Serbs (32.5 percent) and Catholic Croats (17 percent) – passed a referendum for independence on 29 February 1992. This was rejected by the political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, who had boycotted the referendum.

Following a number of violent incidents in early 1992, the war is commonly viewed as having started on 6 April 1992. However, there is still debate over the start date of the war. Clashes between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats started in late February 1992. Following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of independence (which gained international recognition), the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadžić and supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), mobilised their forces inside Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to secure ethnic Serb territory. War soon spread across the country, accompanied by ethnic cleansing.

Nevertheless, Serbs consider the Sarajevo wedding shooting, when a groom’s father was killed on the second day of the Bosnian independence referendum, 1 March 1992, to have been the first incident of the war. The Sijekovac killings of Serbs took place on 26 March and led to the Bijeljina massacre (of mostly Bosniaks) on 1–2 April. On April 5, when a huge crowd approached a barricade, a demonstrator was killed by Serb forces, and it was widely reported that full-scale hostilities had broken out by 6 April. This was the same day that the United States and the European Community (EC)  recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although BBC correspondent Misha Glenny gives a date of 22 March as the starting point, Philip Hammond, then a junior minister at the Foreign Office and currently the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, claims that the most common view is that the war started on 6 April 1992. It ended on 14 December 1995.

The main belligerents were the forces of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and those of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia, which were led and supplied by Serbia and Croatia, respectively. The conflict was initially between the Yugoslav Army units in Bosnia which later transformed into the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) on the one side, and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) which was largely composed of Bosniaks, and the Croat forces in the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) on the other side. However, tensions between Croats and Bosniaks increased throughout late 1992 and in 1993 the war evolved into a three-cornered conflict between the three armies.

Ethnic map of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991
  Bosniaks (Green)   Serbs (Blue)   Croats (Gold)

From the very beginning, it was accompanied by war crimes against civilians and acts of ethnic cleansing on all sides, which became, on the Serbian side, an attempted genocide against ethnic Bosniak populations, as demonstrated in the trials at the International War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia at the Hague. However, the first atrocity following the outbreak of war occurred when, on 21 June 1992, Bosniak forces entered the Bosnian Serb village of Ratkovići near Srebrenica and murdered 24 Serb civilians.

In the same month, UNPROFOR, originally deployed in Croatia, had its mandate extended into Bosnia and Herzegovina, initially to protect the Sarajevo International Airport. In September, its role was expanded still further in order to protect humanitarian aid and assist relief delivery in the whole Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as to help protect civilian refugees when required to do so by the Red Cross.

On 4 August 1992, the IV Knight Motorised Brigade of the ARBiH attempted to break through the circle surrounding Sarajevo, and a fierce battle ensued between the ARBiH and the VRS in and around the damaged FAMOS factory in the suburb of Hrasnica. The VRS repelled the attack but failed to take Hrasnica in a decisive counterattack. On 12 August 1992, the name of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was changed to Republika Srpska (RS).

By November 1992, 400 square miles of eastern Bosnia was under Bosniak control. On 21 July 1992, the Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation had been signed by Tuđman, the Croat President, and Izetbegović, for the Bosniaks, establishing a military cooperation between the two armies. At a session held on 6 August, the Bosnian Presidency had accepted HVO as an integral part of the Bosnian armed forces. Despite this, the Croat–Bosniak alliance was often far from harmonious. The existence of two parallel commands caused problems in coordinating the two armies against the VRS.  Tensions steadily increased throughout the 2nd half of 1992 and on 18 October, a dispute over a gas station near Novi Travnik that was shared by both armies escalated into an armed conflict in the town centre. The situation worsened after HVO Commander Ivica Stojak was killed near Travnik on 20 October. On the same day, fighting escalated on an ARBiH roadblock set on the main road through the Lašva Valley. Spontaneous clashes spread throughout the region, resulting in almost fifty casualties until a ceasefire was negotiated by the UNPROFOR on 21 October. However, on 23 October, a major battle between the ARBiH and the HVO started in the town of Prozor in northern Herzegovina and resulted in an HVO victory.

The Serbian forces were not slow in taking advantage of these divisions. On 29 October, the VRS captured Jajce although the town had been jointly defended by the HVO and the ARBiH. The lack of cooperation between the ‘allied’ forces, combined with an advantage in troop size and firepower for the VRS, led to the fall of the town. Croat refugees from Jajce fled to Herzegovina and Croatia, while around 20,000 Bosniak refugees settled in Travnik, Novi Travnik, Vitez, Busovača, and villages near Zenica. Despite the October confrontations, and with each side blaming the other for the fall of Jajce, there were no large-scale clashes and a general military alliance was still in effect. Tuđman and Izetbegović met in Zagreb on 1 November 1992 and agreed to establish a Joint Command of HVO and ARBiH.

Bosnian war header.no.png

Above: The executive council building burns after being hit by artillery fire in Sarajevo May 1992; Ratko Mladić with Army of Republika Srpska officers; a Norwegian UN soldier in Sarajevo.

Who killed Sarajevo?:

John Simpson, BBC correspondent and (in 1992) a journalist at The Spectator magazine, first went to Bosnia in December 1992. On arrival in Sarajevo, he decided he would use an approach to reporting which had served him well in the past: the night walk. He had taken long walks after dark in Tehran, Baghdad and other weird places, writing about them for the Guardian. Why not, then, in Sarajevo? Despite much advice to the contrary. he decided to walk back to the Holiday Inn where he was staying from the television station from where they sent their material by satellite. As he walked, he began to think that he should have accepted his colleague’s advice:

I was in a world of utter darkness, loneliness and cold, and it was clear to me directly the glass door of the shattered building swung laxily closed behind me that I had made a terrible mistake. There was no sound except for the grumbling of artillery on Mount Igman and Zuc Hill, a few miles away, and no light except for the occasional distant magnesium flares, which gave a blueish tinge to the skyline, like the fingernails of a corpse. The besieged city was dead, and sprawled around me abandoned. Not a window glowed in the huge blocks of flats which lay along the line of the main avenue. No street lamp was left standing. The snow itself barely glimmered in the darkness.

Simpson’s colleagues had headed off in their armoured vehicle, having failed to persuade him to go with them. He made his way down the front steps of the television station. It had taken a lot of hits, and every step was difficult. He made his way gingerly to the main street, which he had only seen from the safety of the vehicle before. Under Tito this had been named The Boulevard of ‘something empty and pompous’, but it had been renamed Sniper Alley since the beginning of the war.  Every intersection along its course was dangerous and in the daytime, those who couldn’t avoid crossing did the nervous, stuttering dash for which the journalists also had a name: the Sarajevo shuffle. The snipers were holed up in buildings which lay a hundred yards or so back from the southern side of the road, the right-hand side, as he walked in the direction of the Holiday Inn:

Within thirty seconds the cold had worked its way through my protective clothing. Protective in a double sense. I had put on the whole armour of Messrs Tetranike, complete with the latest ceramic plates to the chest and the back. It bound my ribs and stomach like a Victorian corset. Usually I hated it. Not now; it gave me warmth and the feeling that even if something struck me I might live. I especially didn’t want to die in this loneliness and dark.

Later in his sojourn, he got into trouble with the BBC when he told them he had given up wearing his flak-jacket. He was embarrassed to walk among the people in the streets who had no such protection against the shells and snipers’ bullets. Kalashnikov rifles were trained on every crossing along the road. Cars raced across the intersections as bullets cracked, but the echoes from the vast, smashed, empty buildings of Tito’s dream deflected the sound so that it was impossible to tell the direction of the firing. The buildings weren’t entirely empty as some had windows left in them. lit by candles and the sounds of the last inhabitants coming from within:

Who killed Sarajevo? I mused as I left the little flicker of life behind me.

Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Serbia, whose ambitious, angry nationalism had broken up the Yugoslav Federation in 1991 and led to three ferocious wars of liberation, complete with the horrors of ethnic cleansing?

Radavan Karadzic, the ludicrous Bosnian Serb leader, with his mane of greying hair and the psychiatrist’s diploma on his office wall?

Ratko Mladic, the psychopath who could have been his patient but was his military commander instead, playing him off against Milosevic?

The predominantly Muslim government of Bosnia, decent enough in its way, which had insisted on holding a referendum on independence and had given the Bosnian Serbs the excuse they needed to attack?

Tito, who had bottled up the vicious nationalistic passions of a century and insisted that nothing but Yugoslavism existed? The Germans, who unwisely recognised the independence of their friends the Croats and so helped to spark off the fighting?

Britain and France, united only in their determination to avoid getting involved in a shooting war? The United States, which liked to criticise everyone else but refused to stir from its own sloth?

It doesn’t really matter, I thought, as I headed towards the first sniper intersection; but people in a state of advanced despair need someone to blame, and most of the candidates were too vague or too distant to qualify. Only the United Nations, driving round the streets in the daytime in its large white vehicles, was on hand for everyone to see and revile. 

On reaching the pavement on the other side of the road and came to a line of burned and looted shops, there was a crack from a high-velocity rifle nearby. Something slammed into the concrete above his head and, as he ran along, bent double, there was another crack even closer to him. He sprawled on the pavement. After a while without hearing more shots, he got up and began walking again. There was the distant sound of artillery and an upward rush of rockets from a mile away. In a minute or so, he was alongside the white wall which marked the museum dedicated to Tito’s socialist revolution. The building was burnt out and empty. The Holiday Inn was just ahead of him.

A Tale of Two Christmases and two Cities under Siege:

John Simpson spent a lot of time in Sarajevo during the war, but Martin Bell had established himself as the resident BBC correspondent in the former Yugoslavia. So Simpson had spent much of his time up to Advent and Christmas 1992 doing other things while the series of ugly little wars had erupted. He had always enjoyed working over Christmas and New Year. The audience for the news bulletins was huge between watching the Queen, Christmas pudding and the family blockbuster shows and dramas. On Christmas morning, 25th, his crew drove into Sarajevo in a fleet of aid lorries manned by volunteers, unemployed drivers from his own home county of Suffolk. It was a terrible drive through smashed tanks, wrecked cars, burned and ruined houses. It wasn’t the most damaged city he had seen, but it was the most miserable. The lorries, probably the same ones I had seen in convoys leaving southern Hungary, were bringing flour to the last bakery operating in Sarajevo, though what the bakers needed most of all was fuel for their ovens. They filmed the last loaf coming off the conveyor belt, and then the bakery closing down.

The Holiday Inn, the only hotel left operating, was a hideous construction of concrete and yellow plastic facing, standing at the end of the motorway leading to the older part of the city. It had been hit many times by shells and mortars, and the upper floors were closed, as were the rooms at the front. They looked out on a Jewish cemetery a few hundred yards away on the opposite hillside, marking the Bosnian Serb front line. They parked their armoured Land Rover, brought in by the BBC, behind the hotel, and worked their way nervously around the outside of the building. The big plate-glass windows on the ground floor had been smashed and replaced with thin clear plastic sheets. Inside, the hotel was dark and very cold. It had been in an ‘atrium’ style, with a large, open space, bigger than the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

The reception staff huddled together in a small room, around a stove which ran on bottled gas, wearing overcoats and gloves. Simpson and his crew were given rooms on the fourth floor. His crew consisted of a producer, a sound recordist and a huge South African cameraman. They were not made to feel particularly welcome by those already resident on the floors below. These included Christiane Amanpour from CNN and John Burns from the New York Times, but the rest were mostly young ‘daredevils’ who had arrived there early on in the war, attracted by the danger and hired by better-known news organisations who couldn’t get more famous reporters to go there. The temperature inside their rooms was indistinguishable from that outside which, within a day or so of their arrival, had dropped to minus nineteen degrees centigrade. The windows had long since been blown in, so there was nothing between the curtains and the outside world except for a single thin sheet of clear plastic. There was no electricity and no water. Simpson describes the lengths he had to go to in order to take a bath after three weeks, and how for days he would wear the same things, day and night, only removing his boots to get into his sleeping bag. He describes the night of the first winter snowfall on 27 December:

The city lost what little colour it still had. A sky as grey as a dirty handkerchief hung over the patchy white of fields and parks from which the trees had long been stripped for firewood. The misery grew much worse. Thanks to the United Nations, no one was starving. No one, that is, that you hears about. Anything could be happening behind the broken windows and tattered curtains in the darkness of thousand blocks of socialistic blocks and Austro-Hungarian stuccoed buildings. 

Life for most people in Sarajevo was so dreadful it was hard to understand how they could remain law-abiding and relatively decent to one another. A university professor I knew kept himself and his wife alive by burning his books… he offered some to a neighbour… Yet in this Hobbesian existence people didn’t savage each other for scraps of food, they behaved as if there were still rules which had to be obeyed. They presented themselves at distribution centres where the UN food was parcelled out, and accepted their inadequate ration without complaint; even though the Bosnian government bureaucrats skimmed off large quantities for their own families’ use.

For most people, the worst thing was not so much the privation as the risk of sudden death. The city was running out of space for graves faster than it was running out of everything else. One young man told them to stop filming a line of shivering people queuing at one of the few water-pumps in the old city centre, outside a disused brewery. He believed that the Bosnian Serbs would watch their pictures and know where to aim in order to cause maximum casualties. It was difficult for people to come to terms with the idea that the violence had no pattern to it, that it was utterly random. A peasant woman in her late forties could only carry a couple of small orange-juice containers the two miles back to her home. Her heart was bad, she explained. Her husband was dead, her mother had died of her wounds after being shot by a sniper.

On that morning of the first snow, the BBC crew went to an old people’s home not far from the airport. The building lay on the Serbs’ front line. It was extremely difficult to get there along a narrow lane blocked off with wooden screens which hid them from the Bosnian government snipers. A Serbian tank was parked in the hedgerow, its gun pointing at positions only two hundred yards away. The home had once cared for two hundred and fifty patients, most of them from the Yugoslav haute bourgeoisie. It had had a staff of a hundred doctors, nurses and domestics. There were bullet holes in nearly all the windows, and large portions of the building had been rendered uninhabitable by shell-fire. A UN armoured car stood outside, and a couple of French soldiers were chopping wood next to it. There were still a hundred and twenty old people in the home, although over the previous four nights eight of them had died of cold, and only six staff remained to look after them. One of them was a Serb woman, jolly and hard-working. She and her bird-like Muslim colleague were overwhelmed by their task of caring for the incontinent, bed-ridden patients. They could only heat one room per floor, and everyone who could walk there huddled inside. The rest stayed in bed, slowly dying.

One of these patients, a ninety-four-year-old man, declared proudly that he had been born in Sarajevo, where he had lived all his life, and that he would now die there. Simpson reflected that he would have been sixteen at the time of the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914. The wars that Gavrilo Princip’s action had precipitated had killed at least a hundred thousand lives in one way or another, and had led directly to the ascendancy of Marxism-Leninism and Nazism as dominant ideologies. Even this nasty little siege in the same city was a distant ripple of the shots fired by Princip; an old man who remembered the moment was waiting to die of cold and exposure as a result. Outside, the French soldiers had left in their APC, and an old man in his late seventies was finishing the job of chopping wood they had left. Simpson interviewed him:

Transcript of report on 9.40 news, 27.12.92

JS: Without his efforts, there will be no heating for the old people’s home for the rest of today and tonight.

Old man: I like to do it. I’m the only one left here who can do it now. They need me.

Below:

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The bullet entered his head exactly between the eyes; a copybook killing. There can have been no mistake about it, no thought that he might have been a Serb soldier.

The longer John Simpson spent in Sarajevo, the more he decided that the proper distinction was not between constitutional rights and wrongs, nor between taking pro-Bosnian and pro-Serb positions, western journalists instinctively and invariably taking the former. The real distinction was between the powerful and the powerless. He was shocked to discover, for example, that the reason Sarajevo had neither water nor electricity was that the Bosnian government wouldn’t allow the UN to repair the electricity sub-stations just outside the city. There were various legitimate tactical reasons behind this, not least that the repaired sub-stations would also supply power to a Bosnian Serb weapons factory. But there was more to it than that, Simpson commented. The Bosnian government, lacking the military strength of the Serbs, regarded international opinion as their chief weapon. The more the Western press based in the Holiday Inn reported on the savage horrors of the siege, the more likely it was that the British, French and Americans would intervene on their side. It was not, therefore, in the interests of President Alija Izetbegovic and his government to ease the suffering of their fellow citizens. Those sufferings, on the contrary, might just be the key to victory.

Much of the reporting from Sarajevo was one-sided, so much so that even the UN forces were regarded as an enemy. The UN’s announcements about the obstructiveness of the Bosnian government was hardly reported in the Western press, and neither was the discovery by UN troops of a group of Serb prisoners who had been held by Bosnian government forces in a large sewage pipe for several weeks, fed once a day by food thrown into them in the darkness and the excrement. Worse atrocities were carried out by Serbs against Muslims, but they were all faithfully reported. On the other hand, when Simpson tried to report the crimes committed by the other side, he was labelled as being pro-Serb:

In fact I was very far from being pro-Serb. It was perfectly clear to me that it was the Bosnian Serbs, with the support of their puppet-master Slobadon Milosovic… who were guilty of the war crimes we saw enacted in front of us. The Bosnian Serbs were undoubtedly the aggressors, and the Bosnian government and its people were equally unquestionably the victims: unprepared for war, peaceable, non-sectarian.

Although the government became increasingly Muslim, and sometimes fiercely so, it still had the support of Croats and Serbs who lived in the city. There were no witch-hunts. Simpson knew of the case of an elderly Serb woman who was taken in by a Muslim family because she had nowhere else to live. She would sometimes get a phone-call from her son after a shelling episode, checking that she was all right. He was manning one of the guns on the mountainside which was firing the shells. The old woman’s Muslim hosts never blamed her for the shelling.

John Simpson reported on the former Yugoslavia for the next three years, but didn’t enjoy it. As he put it,

… I didn’t like the place at all. There was too much extremism, too much hatred, too much cruelty. I liked many individuals, but found each of the population groups – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – equally unattractive. The Serbs, overall, were the least lovable, but I found the international media’s demonization of them outrageous. It was an enormous relief to read the words of my friend and colleague, Nick Gowing of BBC World:

“Some of the strongly anti-Serb reporting in Bosnia is the secret shame of journalism. There is a cancer now which is affecting journalism: it is the unspoken issue of partiality and bias in foreign reporting.”

I am not alone, I thought, when I read that.

There were no good guys. The abandonment of the Muslims of Srbrenica to the murderous General Mladic by the Dutch contingent of the UN was one of the most shameful incidents of my lifetime. 

Simpson was also critical of the other UN contingents, including the Ukrainians, the Egyptians, the French and the Americans. Each had their own agenda and though the British were by far the best soldiers, they played as minimal a part as they could, he thought. The UN allowed the Serbians to maintain their checkpoint on the road to the airport, even though, according to the agreement between them, the Serbs had no right to be there. It was this checkpoint which had caused the city to run out of drinking water in the summer of 1992, because the Serbs wouldn’t allow the UN to bring through oil for the pumping station. This had created a sense of fear among the populace, which was worse than the cold and hunger. This was a sense of fear about not having enough to drink, as their mouths cracked with dryness, and everybody smelled bad because they wanted to conserve what little water they could get for drinking rather than washing. Yet the UN allowed the checkpoint to continue, because if the Serbs were antagonised it would be harder than ever to bring food and medicines into the city. This demonstrated to all, including the Serbs, the weakness of the UN deployment in Sarajevo. The UN also policed the siege in other ways for the Serbs, stopping people from leaving the city, forcibly turning back those they caught trying to escape and preventing private individuals from bringing in food supplies. If only the UN had had the guns to fire a couple of tank rounds here on the day the Serbs had set up the point, how much easier things would have been for the people of Sarajevo, Simpson reflected, as they picked up speed in their UN vehicle towards the airport, looking forward to a UN flight to Croatia or Italy, to real food and even hot water.

On 7 January 1993, Orthodox Christmas Day, 8th Operational Unit of the ARBiH, based in the besieged city of Srebrenica under the command of Naser Orić, attacked the village of Kravica near Bratunac. Altogether, forty-six Serbs died in the attack: thirty-five soldiers and eleven civilians. The attack on a holiday was intentional, as the Serbs were unprepared. The Bosniak forces used the Srebrenica safe zone (where no military was allowed) to carry out attacks on Serb villages including Kravica, and then flee back into the safe zone before the VRS could catch them. In total, 119 Serb civilians and 424 Serb soldiers died in Bratunac during the war. Republika Srpska claimed that the ARBiH forces torched Serb homes and massacred civilians. However, this could not be independently verified during the ICTY trials, which concluded that many homes were already previously destroyed and that the siege of Srebrenica had caused extreme hunger, forcing Bosniaks to attack nearby Serb villages to acquire food and weapons to survive.

What are they doing to my lovely Sarajevo?

The following morning, 8 January, the BBC crew headed off to see the man who was primarily responsible for causing so much misery. The Bosnian Serbs’ headquarters was a small skiing village on the outskirts of Sarajevo, where the winter Olympics had been held a few years earlier. Pale had been one of the main centres in this, and various identikit hotels had been built there in a style that was half Titoesque and half Alpine. Simpson was greeted by a question from a dark, fierce-featured young woman: What are they doing to my lovely Sarajevo? She was the daughter of Radovan Karadzic, but Simpson replied unabashedly: When you say “they”, who exactly do you mean?  She replied that she meant the Muslims, of course, whom she then claimed were always shelling their own people. Her father entered the room: a big man with hair like a badger and fingers badly gnawed from nervousness. His military commander, Ratko Mladic, seemed by contrast to be a monster of ferocity and anger; a strong, stocky little man with a thick neck. Simpson had once seen him grab a Sky News correspondent round the throat, forcing him up on tiptoe.

Simpson assumed that Karadzic managed to live with himself by blocking off the reality of what he was doing. Like his daughter, he regarded everything as the fault of the other side. If the Muslims hadn’t done this or that, his forces wouldn’t have been obliged to respond:

Transcript of interview with Dr Radovan Karadzic, 8.1.93.

JS: Conditions to Sarajevo are increasingly bad now. Why do you treat innocent civilians as the legitimate targets of war?

RK: But we don’t, you understand. Our Serbian communities inside and outside the city are under constant attack by the Muslims, and we have to  defend them. That is what we are doing.

JS: But how is firing mortars and sniping and cutting  off their food and fuel and water supplies defending the Serbs?

RK: We have to respond to their attacks. Our people are dying and being injured every day, and the international community does nothing to help them. We have to help ourselves. 

JS: And what about the Serbs who live in Sarajevo and support the government  there?

RK: They are not acting as true Serbs.

JS: So they become legitimate targets too?

RK: If the Muslims attack us, we must defend ourselves.

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The argument went on in this circular fashion for some time. Outside, Simpson bumped into Karadzic’s deputy, Nikola Koljevic, who had been a Shakespearean scholar at Sarajevo University. Quotations from the bard peppered his conversation, though Simpson felt that they were perhaps somewhat misquoted:

Interview with Nikola Koljevic, 8.1.93:

NK: We are surrounded by enemies, and it is necessary for us to keep our own counsel. As your great national poet William Shakespeare says in his tragedy of Macbeth, ‘love, obedience and honour  and groups of friends, we cannot expect to have.’   

Simpson found it impossible to understand how someone who had spent his life studying the works of the most humane writer who ever lived could support so inhumane a cause. People said it was because his son had been killed, apparently by Muslims; until that time he had been a gentle enough academic, but his character had been changed by the incident. Yet even as he mouthed the verbal defences of the Bosnian Serbs about their being the innocent victims of Muslim aggression, something else seemed to be working away inside him. Eventually, when the siege of Sarajevo was in its final stages, he shot himself.

One morning in mid-January, as they were driving through Sarajevo, Simpson started talking to Vera Kordic, their fixer and translator, about ways of showing the misery of ordinary people in the siege. Why don’t we just ask any of these? she said, pointing at the lines of harassed women queuing for water. But the journalist felt that they needed to be inside someone’s house, to see how they lived from day-to-day. They walked along a street and eventually found a small doorway with a dark little window on either side of it: a miserable, humble place. They knocked at the door, and an old woman clutching her worn dressing-gown eventually came to the door and agreed to let them in. She lived in a single room, cold, but with the fug of living and cooking filling the place. A candle burnt by her bedside. She spent most of her day in bed, keeping herself warm and using up fewer calories. The food she was given by the UN was just enough to keep her going. She had a small stove and a covered bucket as a lavatory. There was no water: she had to queue up for that, if her neighbour couldn’t spare any. A few keepsakes decorated her place, including a little tapestry of a young girl hung on the wall. She was sallow and not very clean, with greasy grey hair. Most people in Sarajevo lived without washing: water was too valuable to waste, and soap non-existent. In the background, shells landed from time to time, and there was the regular crack of a sniper’s rifle. The old woman flinched in fear every time there was an explosion, which shook the whole place and caused a little dust to drift down from the ceiling. She was ashamed of the way she lived, and that they should see it, but Vera persuaded her that this was the only way people outside Sarajevo could understand what it was like to live there. By the time they started to interview her about her life, her story poured out of her:

Transcript of interview with woman in Sarajevo, 14.1.93:

I was a nurse in a hospital, a trained nurse. I wasn’t always poor like you see me now. I had people under me. But I am alone in the world, you see. My neighbours, they were Muslims, were very good to me even though I am Serbian. ‘We must help each other’ they said, and they helped me. But now they don’t. Maybe they are dead. I don’t know. So many people have died here.

(sound of shell explosion, not far away).

I am so frightened when I hear these noises. I don’t know what to do. I am old, you see, and completely alone. No one cares about me. I have no family, no husband, no children. I am alone in the world. And I am very frightened. 

Simpson’s crew gave her money, medicine and food. She wept again, and gave them a few little keepsakes from her life before the siege. Every time they went back to Sarajevo after that they would take things to her, and see how she was. It may have made her feel better, but the real effect was on them. To do anything for anyone amid this horror made them feel a little better, and a little less guilty that they could get out of Sarajevo at any time they wanted, leaving the victims of the siege to the mercy of the snipers, shells and shortages.

War Crimes and Punishment of the Perpetrators:                                                   

Above: Ratko Mladic, former Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republika Srpska.

The reporting of eye-witness journalists from Sarajevo and elsewhere provide historians with valuable primary sources about the nature of the Bosnian War.  It may take some time before historians to be able to form balanced views, since even at a distance of twenty-five years, the same distance as between the outbreak of the first and second world wars, the level of propaganda surrounding the events is still creating ripple effects, especially in deciding on responsibility for the atrocities which took place on all sides of the ethnic triangle. The ICTY in the Hague has finally ended with the dramatic self-poisoning of one of the accused in the courtroom itself.

On the Serbian side, in addition to the well-publicised case of the former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, in 2006, Radovan Karadzic was held on trial and was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2016 for crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide. Ratko Mladić was also tried by the ICTY, charged with crimes in connection with the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre. Mladić was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by The Hague in November 2017.

Alija Izetbegović during his visit to the United States in 1997.

After the death of Alija Izetbegović, The Hague revealed that he was under investigation for war crimes; however, the prosecutor did not find sufficient evidence in Izetbegović’s lifetime to issue an indictment. Other Bosniaks who were convicted of or are under trial for war crimes include Rasim Delić, chief of staff of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who was sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment on 15 September 2008 for his failure to prevent the Bosnian mujahideen members of the Bosnian army from committing crimes against captured civilians and enemy combatants (murder, rape, torture). Enver Hadžihasanović, a general of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was sentenced to 3.5 years for authority over acts of murder and wanton destruction in Central Bosnia. Hazim Delić was the Bosniak Deputy Commander of the Čelebići prison camp, which detained Serb civilians. He was sentenced to 18 years by the ICTY Appeals Chamber on 8 April 2003 for murder and torture of the prisoners and for raping two Serbian women. Bosnian commander Sefer Halilović was charged with one count of violation of the laws and customs of war on the basis of superior criminal responsibility of the incidents during Operation Neretva ’93 and found not guilty. In 2006, Naser Orić, commander of the Bosnian government troops near Srebrenica on 8 January 1993, was found on the charges of not preventing the murder of Serbs, but was subsequently acquitted of all charges on appeal.

Dario Kordić, the political leader of Croats in Central Bosnia, was convicted of the crimes against humanity in Central Bosnia i.e. ethnic cleansing and sentenced to 25 years in prison. On 29 May 2013, in a first instance verdict, the ICTY sentenced Prlić to 25 years in prison. The tribunal also convicted five other wartime leaders of the joint trial: defence minister of Herzeg-Bosnia Bruno Stojić (20 years), military officers Slobodan Praljak (20 years) and Milivoj Petković (20 years), military police commander Valentin Ćorić (20 years), and head of prisoner exchanges and detention facilities Berislav Pušić (10 years). The Chamber ruled, by a majority, with the presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti dissenting, that they took part in a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) against the non-Croat population of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that the JCE included the Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, Defence Minister Gojko Šušak, and General Janko Bobetko. However, on 19 July 2016, the Appeals Chamber in the case announced that the Trial Chamber made no explicit findings concerning [Tudjman’s, Šušak’s and Bobetko’s] participation in the JCE and did not find them guilty of any crimes.  It was left to the lesser military staff to take responsibility for the Croat war crimes. A final chapter in these cases was reached as I was writing this, on 29 November 2017, when Slobodan Praljak killed himself by taking poison in Court, having had his appeal against his twenty-year sentence rejected. His last words were, I am no war criminal.

Not surprisingly then, the Bosnian Serbs, and to some extent the Bosnian Croats have accused both the UN authorities on the ground, and the ICTY of practising selective justice by actively prosecuting Serbs (and Croats) while ignoring or downplaying Bosniak war crimes. When is a war crime ethnic cleansing? When is it genocide? When is it not a war crime? The Bosnian War posed all three questions and subsequently, at least seemingly, answered them.

Main Sources:

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Rudolf Joó (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosnian_War

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War, 1917 – Autumn into Winter   Leave a comment

This year’s Armistice Day (Saturday 11 November) also marks the end of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), which ended on the 10th November, following the fall of the village of Passchendaele to Canadian troops on 6 November. It was claimed the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but if this were true, it was only at a cost of 275,000 British casualties in return for just five miles of territory.

While British troops were dying in the Flanders bogs, the usual autumnal sacrifice of an ally was all but consummated. Twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought on the Italian Front between June 1915 and November 1917. The Italians had little success after joining the war on the Allied side and suffered heavy losses in defeats by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Machine-gunners were heard to shout to Italian troops to stop and go back, promising to stop shooting. Italian commander Luigi Cadorna punished his underperforming units by shooting every tenth man, in a throwback to the Roman system of decimation. 

In 1917, the Battles on the Isonzo continued between June and November. On 24 October 1917 on the middle Isonzo, an army of nine Austrian divisions and six German burst in the misty morning through the Italian front, and in a fortnight’s fighting forced it back from river line to river line with a loss of 600,000 men. The German and Austro-Hungarian allies then advanced to positions just fifteen miles from Venice following their overwhelming victory at Caporetto in October and November, after which 260,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. The Italians eventually found standing ground on the River Piave, where they stopped their seventy-mile retreat, covering Venice, though only just. Britain and France sent reinforcements, and their generals helped to reconstitute the broken Italian forces.

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Back on the Western Front on 20th November, British forces, at last, achieved a breakthrough by deploying 476 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai. For a moment, they almost brought back the warfare of manoeuvre. Although first used at Flers-Courcelette, Cambrai was where tanks first showed their true potential. Additionally, the battle incorporated new tactics from the air as well as on the ground. Ground-attack aircraft and coordinated artillery fire ensured the advancing troops were able to move forward in a way which had hitherto been impossible or, at least, uncommon, along the front. The surprise was achieved across a broad section of it, and troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, in places gaining five miles of territory. Church bells were rung in celebration, somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.

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Yet Passchendaele had so drained and depleted British reserves that they were unable to develop their initial victory into an outright one at Cambrai or to prevent a determined German counter-attack ten days later. The reach of British forces had exceeded their grasp. The German counter-attacks reversed the successes. Casualties amounted to 45,000 on each side, but the battle at least, and at last, gave hope to the Allies that new tactics could succeed where the war of attrition had failed. Cambrai remains one of the key actions of the War, for it offered them a means of release from the bondage of sieges. For the first time the British, in particular, were able to learn the true value of a weapon of which they were the exponents.

At Cambrai, the British forces were pioneers in new tactics which their enemy did not grasp the full meaning of. But the Germans had also been innovative in their tactics. All former offensives had, sooner or later, come to a halt for the same reason – wearied troops were met by fresh reserves. The attackers continued hammering at an unbreakable front because they had ‘set the stage’ for action in that one area, and could not easily shift their batteries and communications. In a word, all offensives lacked mobility. Germany’s first business, therefore, was to make the battle mobile and introduce the element of surprise.

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Above: An ammunition column at the Battle of Cambrai, 21 November 1917.

Yet their plan was not a breakthrough in the older sense of puncturing the line in one spot, but a general crumbling of the line. It was based on the highly specialised training of certain units, and the absence of any preliminary massing of near the point of attack. There was no longer to be any prolonged bombardment to alarm the enemy. The advance was made by selected troops in small clusters, carrying light trench-mortars and many machine-guns, with the field batteries close behind them in support. The actual mode of attack, which the French called infiltration, was like a hand with steel finger-tips being pushed through a yielding substance, like loose earth. The élite troops at the fingertips made gaps through which those behind them passed, till each section of the defending line found itself outflanked and encircled. Rather than an isolated stroke, the offensive was like a creeping sickness which could demoralise a hundred of miles of front.

In fact, the Germans had first used these tactics at the capture of Riga in September, but the true test had come in October at Caporetto. The Allied Staffs had been slow to grasp the significance of the new method for the Western Front. Caporetto was explained by a breakdown in Italian nerve, hence their ill-preparedness for the counter-attack at Cambrai. There the attack on the British left, carried out using the old tactics, signally failed, while the assault on their right, deploying the new ones, was an obvious success. Yet the Allied Staffs blamed their defeat on defective local intelligence. As a consequence, four months later, their armies read the true lessons of Cambrai in letters of fire.

After Passchendaele and Caporetto some inquisition into military methods was inevitable. The first changes were at British Headquarters. The Prime Minister was in favour of a change in the chief command, but Haig could not easily be forced from his place. He made a bold bid for more unity in command, securing some lesser resignations in order to improve the efficiency of his staff. After Caporetto it was decided that a War Council should sit at Versailles, consisting of the Prime Minister and one other statesman from each of the Allies. The soldiers naturally objected to being mere advisers without executive power, so in January 1918 a revised machinery was framed – a military committee with Foch as president, empowered to create a general reserve by contributions from all the Allied armies. The committee soon failed, however, since it is one of the first principles of war that the same authority which controls general operations must also control reserves, and a committee cannot, therefore, command an army. Added to this, Haig refused to allocate British divisions to the general reserve since he believed that he had no divisions to give since they were all already deployed at the front.

If at the beginning of 1918, Haig and Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had proposed Foch as their overall Commander, they would have carried the day, but in November 1917 Lloyd George was more interested in a great offensive in Palestine and determined to make the Versailles machinery work. He had complained, perhaps unfairly, that he did not get sufficient help from his official military advisers. Nevertheless, as John Buchan pointed out in 1935,

In a democracy relations between soldiers and statesmen must always be delicate, but they were notably less strained in Britain than in France or Italy.

At the close of 1917, British public opinion could no longer see a clear outline of the war. Russia had fallen out of that line, and new and unknown quantities had entered the conundrum. It had been a depressing year which, beginning with the promise of a decision, had closed for the Allies in a deep uncertainty. They had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem, indisputable successes, but ones which affected only Turkey, and even there weakening her extremities rather than striking at her heart.

Discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were darkened and rations were reduced, and there was the unvarying tale of losses to rend the heart. One such tale was that of Mrs Amy Beechey, who had eight sons, all of whom served in the armed forces. Five were killed: Barnard at Loos in September 1915; Frank on the Somme in November 1916; Harold at Arras in April 1917; Charles in Tanzania in October 1917 and Leonard, who died in December 1917 after being wounded at Cambrai. When the King and Queen met Mrs Beechey, she told the Queen:

I did not give them willingly.

Of her three other sons, Chris suffered severe injuries after being hit by a sniper at Gallipoli, Samuel served in France at the very end of the war, and Eric became a dentist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In addition to these bereavements, women were also being killed in the munitions factories at home. In 1916-17 ninety-six died from poisoning caused by working in TNT. Women munitions workers became known as ‘canaries’ due to the toxicity affecting the liver and causing jaundice, turning their skins yellow.  The economic cost of war was also taking its toll, with seventy percent of Britain’s Gross National Product being spent on it in 1917.

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Above: Women making shells

Peace, Bread and Land were what the Bolsheviks promised the Russian people in the October Revolution (which took place in November in the western, Gregorian calendar). Protests had led to the end of the tsar’s rule in March, after which the Provisional Government had kept Russia in the war. The minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, advocated a fresh attack but the lacklustre Kerensky Offensive in June, although initially successful, saw the Russian Army disintegrate as the Germans overwhelmed their opponents, reaching Riga in September.  The First Women’s Battalion of Death was set up to shame male Russian soldiers into fighting, though they were also antagonistic towards those seeking to prolong the war.  In total, several hundred Russian women took part in the war.

Kornilov, the one fighting General left, wasted his in futile quarrels; a weary people turned to whatever offered leadership; and in October the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, marched swiftly to power. On 7 November (in the west) its triumph was complete, the triumph of a handful of determined men. When Lenin and Trotsky established the Bolsheviks as the dominant group in December, he was then in a position to take Russia out of the war. An armistice soon followed, on 16 December, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the war. At Brest Litovsk before the close of the year, the new Russian rulers accepted from Germany a degrading peace. The victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of Russia meant Germany would no longer be fighting on two fronts, and so troops were released to take part in the Spring Offensive – Germany’s last chance to win the war.

In Britain, the Russian Revolution, followed by the Stockholm Conference, let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant Labour disputes. John Buchan observed that the British people were…

… war-weary, puzzled, suspicious, and poisoned to some extent by false propaganda. All zest and daylight had gone out of the struggle. The cause for which the British people had entered it was now half-forgotten, for men’s minds had grown numb. Civilians at home, as well as soldiers in the field, felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

… dangerous to the enemy, for it meant that grim shutting of the teeth which with Britain is a formidable thing. But it was also dangerous also to ourselves, for it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.

But Buchan believed that Britain had an effective antidote to this mood in the stoical form of George V:

That this was not its consequence was in large part due to the King, who by his visits to every industrial centre kept before dazed and weary minds the greatness of the national purpose and the unity of the people. Wherever he went he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. 

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He visited the shipbuilders on the Clyde and the Tyne, as well as most of the major munitions works. To the disquiet of the War Cabinet, he also went to Lancashire during a strike, where he was warmly welcomed. Lloyd George paid the following tribute to his role:

The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of their Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.

The Autumn and early Winter of 1917 were indeed the darkest days of the war for Britain, but exactly how dark was only realised by the Government and the Admiralty. Lloyd George himself also rose to the crisis. The loss of British shipping to the U-boats in the early part of the year had left the country with only six weeks of corn supplies. It was impossible to lay a mine-field close to the German bases or to attack them because the Battle of Jutland had left the Royal Navy without full command of the North Sea. Much was done by rationing, by increasing home production and through the expansion of shipbuilding, but the real remedy, which, before the summer had gone had relieved the situation, was a new plan of defence. The convoy system was pressed upon an unwilling Admiralty at a time before Britain had even the promise of a multitude of American destroyers. With the help of some of the younger naval officers, it was finally accepted and put into force. It had an immediate effect, as the losses to convoyed ships amounted to only one percent, compared to the one in four being lost in April. By September, the monthly tonnage lost was under two hundred thousand, compared with the 875,000 lost in April, at the peak of the losses. When peace came, eighty-eight thousand merchant vessels had been convoyed, with a loss of only 436. At the same time, the advent of better depth charges led to the destruction of more than half of the U-boats by the Royal Navy before the end of the War.

Despite this improving picture at sea, by the end of 1917, the initiative in the war on the land had passed once again to the Central Powers. Russia’s collapse enabled the Germans to redeploy large forces from the Eastern to the Western Front which meant that they could muster more men on the latter than the Allies, who had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the Americans could send their armies. Germany had one last chance to beat the Allies before that happened. The U-boat campaign had failed and the German people were weak with privations and their hope was failing, having suffered so many military disappointments. A decisive Spring Offensive was all that stood between them and ignominious defeat in the year to come.

 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

 

ARMISTICE DAY: Christ in No Man’s Land   1 comment

ARMISTICE DAY Christ in No Man‘s Land 

Now that the last of the veterans of the First World War have died, we are left with black-and-white movies, sepia photos, and a wide variety of art-work. Then we have the literature, especially the poetry, and this remains perhaps the most poignant testimony both to the nature and the impact of the conflict on the western front, if not elsewhere. And yet, it wasn’t until the era of the Cold War and Vietnam that the work of the soldier-poets of the trenches was fully recognised. Fifty years after a premature death in Flanders which prevented him from becoming the greatest poet in the English language since John Keats, a third generation, myself among them, discovered the power of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry as a ‘weapon’ against the warmongers of the late twentieth century. I still use my anthology of  ‘1914-18 in Poetry’ from which I learnt, by heart, many of his poems. They are anthems which still reverberate in my head, have shaped my adult values and formed the essential documents in my teaching about the Great War over the past thirty years.

The Poetry and the Pity

Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893 and from 1911 to 1913 he was a lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. His strongly Christian parents had always hoped he would enter the Anglican priesthood, and his Biblical upbringing had an obvious influence on his poetry in both its phraseology and theology of the justification of war.  In October 1915 he returned to England from his role as a tutor in France, in order to enlist as an officer in the Manchester Regiment.  Very early in 1917 he was on the front line of the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers. His letters to his mother reveal how shocked he was to discover the horror and muddle of war at the front in wintertime. In May he was invalided home with neurasthenia and sent to Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland. There, on 17 August 1917 he met Siegfried Sassoon, a much-published poet, who encouraged Owen to continue writing his war poetry. Although both poets came close to accept the principle of pacifism, both insisted on returning to the front to remain as leaders and spokesmen for the ordinary men in the trenches.

Just before the Shropshire lad left England to rejoin his company at the front, on 31 August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish. He thought of it as a kind of counter-propaganda, as his scribbled preface to it reveals:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true poets must be truthful.

Doomed Youth

Owen’s best and most typical poetry is in harmony with this Preface. He stresses the tragic waste of war, and his characteristic attitude is one of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonizing and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, whether British, German or French, could have achieved if only they had lived. Pity, in Owen’s use of the word, was not self-pity. The sacrifice of the Cross represents the crossing-out of the capital ‘I’. Owen pitied others, not himself; his revisions of his poems gradually rid them of all mention of himself; his poems, like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘, present universal pictures of typical scenes of the Western Front, like the horror of soldiers suffering a gas attack.  He is concerned with the plight of individual soldiers when they are typical of the plight of doomed soldiers as a whole. Unlike Sassoon’s ‘young man with a meagre wife and two small children in a Midland town’, Owen’s men are unknown, unidentified, like the dead young man in ‘Futility’. This poem arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts are held in balance. Two types of tension give his poems their cutting edge. He seems unsure about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to war. He carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning; the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Just as the rural poverty he experienced in helping the Oxfordshire vicar before the war made him doubt conventional Christianity, so his terrible experiences in France made him doubt any form of Christianity. Even ‘Exposure’, written during his first tour of duty in Flanders, admits that ‘love of God seems to be dying’. In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘, his subconscious debate rises less respectfully to the surface, when he asks ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?’ The bells represent the strong religious associations, while the phrase ‘die as cattle’ summons up the contrasting atmosphere of an abattoir.   ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo‘, written in November 1917, still professes a belief in God:

I, too, saw God through mud –

The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.

Other poems also profess a belief in an afterlife in which the the dead soldier is ‘high pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making’ and a shared conviction with ‘some’ who ‘say God caught them even before they fell’.  However, his poem ‘Greater Love’ expresses doubt as to whether it is possible for a good god to exist while such torturing agonies continue. It describes the dead as:

Rolling and rolling there

Where God seems not to care.

A similarly uncertain debate about pacifism is hinted at by his best poetry but rarely expressed directly. ‘Exposure’ briefly states the case against pacifism:

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn:

Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

Dulce et Decorum Est has often been misquoted by the ‘white poppy brigade’ as evidence of his pacifism, but the ‘old lie’ that he refers to is not that soldiers should be prepared to die for their country, but that in doing so they were doing something ‘sweet’ or ‘decorous’. War, as he observed it in the face of a gassed comrade, was anything but…

Christ in no-man’s land

However, in his letters, Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill…

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and in French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Other poets, both civilians and soldiers, were moved to similar expressions of pity or protest based on Christian principles. Sassoon’s simple prayer of protest, ‘O Jesus make it stop’  echoed millions of cries from the trenches, while Kipling, his attitude to the ‘Great War’ changed by his son Jack’s death at the Front, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane.  Like Jesus, the soldier in his poem prays that the cup of suffering might pass, but it doesn’t, and the soldier drinks it sacrificially in a gas attack ‘beyond Gethsemane’.

Ultimately, Wilfred Owen does not blame God for the suffering of the soldiers he seeks to represent in his poetry. In July 1918 he wrote to his mother from the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, that he wished ‘the Boche’ would ‘make a clean sweep of ….all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading John Bull on Scarborough sands’. Owen condemns ‘the old’ in ‘the Parable of the Old Men and the Young’ in which he rewrites the story of Abraham and Isaac, envisaging the old man killing his son rather than obeying God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Another special target for  Owen’s satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. In ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’ Owen attacks the militarist chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

On October 4th, 1918, after most of his company had been killed, Owen and his corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners. He was awarded the Military Cross for this feat. However, just one week before the Armistice, on 4 November 1918, he was killed when trying to construct a make-shift bridge to lead his company over a canal in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. His mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day at home in Oswestry, with the church bells ringing out in celebration of the cease-fire.

Above:

‘Goodbye to the Mobilised’ , by the official French war photographer Jacques Moreau. Between 8.5 and 9 million servicemen and women from all warring nations were killed in action during the first world war

True and Just?

The recent poet Laureate, Andrew Motion,  believes Owen’s maxim about the ‘pity of war’ and the ‘truthfulness of true poets’ has held firm throughout the years, even in such wars, such as the Second World War, which are generally considered ‘just’. Poems about the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or the Bosnian War of 1993, also contain these essential ingredients, as those in the anthology for which Motion writes his afterword, show. This is especially important when the language of war is changed in order to disguise its realities. In the age of modern media transmission, euphemisms such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’ need to be challenged by the poet’s scribble, just as much as in the trenches of 1914-18, if not more so. Images can be used to mislead; poets must not do so, not if they wish to remain true to their art. They have a higher moral, human calling, if not a divine one. As Motion points out, poetry ‘shows us, whatever our faith, we compromise, betray or wreck ourselves when we take up arms against one another’.

Poppies for commemoration

That’s probably why Owen’s poems are not among the most memorable of the first world war. The ones which are used for the purpose of remembering nevertheless contain ageless truths. That is why they form essential parts of our Acts of Remembrance, our collective commemorations. John McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ also reminds us that the ‘Great War’ was an imperial conflict, involving what were then known as ‘the dominions’, including Canada, where McRae was born. He went to Europe in 1914 as a gunner, but was transferred to medical service and served at the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres.  His poem first appeared in Punch in December 1915. McRae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. When the flowers were the only plants which grew in profusion in Flanders in the spring of 1919, they became the symbol of remembrance for the British Legion, collecting funds for the injured ex-servicemen and war widows:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly,

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We  shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Left: Armistice Day in Toronto. Oil on canvas by Joseph Ernest Sampson

All her paths are peace…

Another poem we associate with Armistice Day ceremonies, especially the Royal Festival of Remembrance on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, held at the Royal Albert Hall, is Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’. However, like McRae’s poem, it was actually written in the early part of the war and published in The Times on September 21st 1914.  It is based on the words and rhythm of the Authorised Version of the Bible in II Samuel, i, 23, 25:

….in death they were  not divided…How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!

Born in 1869, Binyon was typical of the older generation of civilian poets who wrote about the war. He wrote the poem while working at the British Museum, which he did for forty years, becoming Professor of Poetry at Harvard on retirement. In 1916 he went to the Front as a Red Cross orderly. The poem’s fourth verse is used today all over the world during services of remembrance, and is inscribed on countless war memorials and monuments:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them. 

One poem which is better known as a hymn, and not especially associated with the First World War, is ‘I vow to thee my country’, often sung to the tune ‘Thaxted’ by Gustav Holst, part of ‘Jupiter’ in his ‘Planets Suite’.  The words, written by Cecil Spring-Rice (1859-1918), have been criticised as overly patriotic, especially the phrase in the first verse which pledges ‘the love which asks no question’ to the earthly country. This suggests a blind, uncritical, ‘my country, right or wrong, kind of patriotism. When he wrote it in Stockholm, between 1908-12, he was thinking of the notion of sacrifice, as he pointed out in a speech in Ottowa, on completing his revision of the poem in 1918:

The Cross is a sign of patience under suffering, but not patience under wrong. The cross is the banner under which we fight – the Cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew, the Cross of St Patrick; different in form, in colour, in history, yes, but the same spirit, the spirit of sacrifice.’

His rewritten poem now became hymn, now set to Holst’s tune, published in 1925. The second verse about the heavenly kingdom was kept much as it was, but the first was altered significantly. The original poem had been belligerently patriotic, glorifying war. Leaving his role as British ambassador to Washington in January 1918, having encouraged Woodrow Wilson, the US President, to enter the war, Spring-Rice sent the new verses to an American friend with an accompanying note that read; ‘the greatest object of all – at the most terrific cost and most tremendous sacrifice – will, I hope, at last be permanently established, Peace.’ He died suddenly in Ottowa a month later.

Although England does not, yet, have a national anthem of its own, many people would like this hymn to be adopted in that role, both because of the tune and the second verse, which reminds us that, as Christians, and people of faith, we are subjects of two kingdoms, and that there are only ‘paths of peace’ in the heavenly one:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffereing;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.

Sources:

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: Transatlantic Press.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War: Faber & Faber

E L Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry: University of London Press

 

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