Archive for the ‘Edith Cavell’ Category

These Weeks in World War One: 25 September – 14 October 1915: The Battle of Loos and the Execution of Norfolk Nurse, Edith Cavell   1 comment

It will cost us dearly and we shall not get far

General Rawlinson, commander-in-chief, IV Corps, British Army.

This British offensive was to be in support of the French, who were keen to have a quick and successful offensive before winter, and to help the beleaguered Russians, bearing the brunt of the German attacks in the east.

British General, Douglas Haig was well aware of the difficulties facing his men: the battlefield was full of slag heaps and mine works, affording the Germans excellent defensive positions. Despite their reluctance French commander General Joffre was adamant that the British attack. Forced to act before his New Army was ready, Haig still optimistically thought a breakthrough possible. The Allies had a five to one advantage in troop numbers.

The attack of 75,000 troops made some progress; however, it slowed due to lack of artillery support, confusion over navigation and the heavy fire of the German defenders. Six thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle. On the second day some German machine-gunners stopped firing to allow their opponents to retreat to their lines. By the end of the offensive in October British casualties were over sixty thousand, three times as many as the German losses.

On 25 September, poison gas, referred to as ‘the accessory’ in order to maintain a level of secrecy, was used by the British for the first time. One of those watching its use was General Rawlinson:

I witnessed the sight from the top of a fosse some three miles distant from the front line and the view before me was one I shall never forget. Gradually a huge cloud of white and yellow gas rose from our trenches to a height of between two hundred and three hundred feet, and floated quietly away towards the German trenches. Amidst the cloud could be seen shrapnel bursting on the enemy’s front line trenches.  

However, the plan backfired when the wind changed direction and the gas blew back into the British trenches, causing havoc among the troops. By the end of the war, the British had used gas cylinders 150 times, compared with eleven attacks by the Germans. Despite the terror it induced, poison gas caused a relatively low number of British Army deaths during the war. Loos was part of the Artois-Champagne offensive, which became a dogged war of attrition in which Allied commanders were always hopeful of achieving a breakthrough. British and French losses totaled 310,000; the Germans lost 140,000. One of the British officers was John Kipling, the son of the poet Rudyard Kipling, killed in action on 27 September. His father wrote the following short poem about his death:

A SON

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would

I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests

are few.

The story of father and son was recently dramatised by the BBC in ‘My Boy Jack’, a powerful  film starring David Suchet and Daniel Ratcliffe.

Meanwhile, a ‘mock’ trench section was dug in Blackpool, to help troops train for trench life and warfare. During the ‘illuminations’ and throughout the war, for a penny a time, visitors to the ‘Loos Trenches’ were shown around by recovering soldiers from a nearby hospital.

In a Munitions Tribunal held in Glasgow in September, twelve apprentices aged between fifteen and eighteen were admonished for demanding higher wages. Although they were working 103 hours a week, the sheriff told them, no boy could be allowed to put his private wage-earning capacity in front of the national need.

Born in December 1915, French singer Édith ‘Piaf’ Gassion was named after British nurse Edith Cavell, who had been executed two months earlier for helping Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. Over twenty places in France, Belgium, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal and Mauritius bear her name, including a pub in Norwich, her home city, where she was laid to rest outside the cathedral…

DSC09213DSC09211

Advertisements

The War of the Poppies – Peace at any Price?   1 comment

007

In the 1970’s I was an ‘absolute pacifist‘, based mainly on my Christian faith and interpretation of Jesus’ words in the gospel. Having studied Wilfred Owen’s poetry for A Level, I refused to buy a red poppy when the British Legion volunteers came round. I told them that while I respected the memory of  the soldiers and sailors who died in a futile war (my Great Uncle was one of them), I would not wear a red poppy with General Hague’s name on it. At that time, the Poppy Fund was named the Hague Fund, after ‘the butcher of the Somme’ (a title which I have since discovered was somewhat unfair, and not the way in which the millions of ex-servicemen who turned out for his funeral saw him at the time).  Instead I wore a badge with a white poppy on it (the Peace Pledge Union didn’t sell paper poppies then). It said ‘Peace in our time, for our time’. At that point, I hadn’t studied the history of the thirties, ‘the devil’s decade’ and appeasement. Having done so in detail over the last forty years, it is no longer the red poppy I have a problem with, but the white.

From 1936-38, despite the obvious threat of continental fascism demonstrated by the Civil War in Spain, the Peace Pledge Union conducted a campaign in support of the National Government’s policy of non-intervention in Spain which was then turned into one of appeasement of first Mussolini’s chemical war in Ethiopia  and then Hitler’s seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia. As a member of the largely pro-fascist and pacifist Welsh Nationalist Party commented at the time, this last act, approved by Chamberlain, was just another fascist way of murdering a small, defenceless nation without going to war about it. The Left in Wales, and throughout Britain, supported the democratic, Republican side against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, but the brave volunteers of the International Brigades from working-class areas of Britain like the mining valleys of south Wales could do little against Franco and Mussolini’s troops, backed up by German bombers, like those who bombed Guernica and the refugees trying to escape the conflict. Pacifists like The Quakers helped to receive the Basque refugees brought from Bilbao to Southampton later in the war, but by then the cause  was obviously lost. In the meantime, The Peace Pledge Union fought and won by-elections, Oxford Union debates and signed up millions on its pledge cards. As one of its leading and longest-serving members, Lord Soper, later reflected, it was easy to get people to sign the pledge, but achieving peace in Europe was a far more difficult task.

So when Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, waving his piece of paper with the German Führer’s signature on it, and talking of ‘peace in our time’, he was cheered all the way to Downing Street.  The British public had been fooled into thinking that a permanent peace accord had been struck with Germany. The Peace Pledge Union was the major architect of this, and they were happy to take acclaim. Only a handful of Labour MPs, including Harold Nicolson and Clement Attlee supported Churchill in the House of Commons debate on the issue. They were condemned as ‘war-mongers’ in the House and the press, in November 1938.

So, if we base our remembrance purely on the historical record, it is the white poppy which bears the most shame. However, acts of remembrance are not, thankfully, the acts of historians alone. They are acts of commitment to the memory of all our families who died suffered, whether as civilians in Coventry in 1940, as sailors at Scapa Flow and in the Atlantic and Arctic convoys, or as soldiers in Afghanistan. We are not making historical judgements, which would leave us all shame-faced, neither are we in the business of apportioning blame. Like Donald Soper, we acknowledge all our mistakes of yesteryear, and then re-commit ourselves to what J F Kennedy described as the hourly, daily, weekly, task of constructing a peaceful future.  Sometimes that can only be done by fighting for freedom, as in Spain in 1936 or, more recently, and where I am now, in Hungary, in 1956.

That’s why, when I taught at Sidcot School in the nineties and noughties, I wore both a white and a red poppy together, despite the historical problems associated with both.  These days, I am happy to wear the red poppy on its own for the weeks before Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, as a commemoration of those who gave their lives in the wars of the twentieth century, for whatever motivation, since it is not my place to judge them, or question their judgement or bravery. I try to honour their ‘sacrifice’ through my own commitment to make warfare something only referred to in the past tenses, something I hope that my children and grandchildren, yet unborn, will never have to deal with in their personal present or futures. As nurse Edith Cavell wrote on the eve of her death by firing squad in 1915, ‘patriotism is not enough’, but it does, at least, take us beyond our own narrow self-interest.

%d bloggers like this: