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Annihilation & Liberation in Warsaw & Paris: August – October 1944 (I).   Leave a comment

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above: a street in Warsaw. The Germans destroyed the city in the summer and autumn of 1944.

Introduction – An Appalling Martyrdom:

The approach of the Red Army to Warsaw at the end of July had encouraged the anti-Communist ‘Armia Krajowa’, the Polish Home Army, to attempt an uprising at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 August 1944, under their Generals Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni Chrusciel. As a consequence of this decision, for more than the full two months of August and September 1944, Warsaw suffered an appalling martyrdom as the SS moved in to destroy the Polish insurgents with every kind of inhumane warfare. The result was a desperate and tragic struggle by the Warsaw Poles, just as the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of April 1943 had been for the Polish Jews. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS in just sixty-three days, which was nonetheless a remarkable length of time for resistance when it is considered that only fourteen per cent of the Home Army were even armed when it began, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles. Warsaw became a city reduced to ruins, where even the ruins were blasted by German guns and aircraft: the dead lay entombed in the ruins and the wounded lay untended on roads or suffered their last agonies in gloomy cellars. Those fighting from the sewers were finished off by gas grenades flung on them by German troops.

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The Poles, understandably, had wanted to wrest control of their capital and the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed to have no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis. So, while the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically at the Soviets, something that Stalin understood only too well. Appeals for Soviet aid fell on deaf ears, giving the impression at first of glacial indifference and latterly of unbending hostility. The Soviet policy seemed to soften somewhat in mid-September, but by that time the underground army had been throttled. Meanwhile, of lesser note but no less tragic, the rising in Slovakia petered out, though on this occasion Soviet troops fought as best they could to bring direct military aid to the insurgents: the gamble did not come off, however, as Koniev failed to break through to rebel-held territory and Soviet units were left to fight gruelling battles in the Carpathians until late November 1944.

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Laurence Rees’ recent book Behind Closed Doors (2008), drawing on material only available since the opening of the Kremlin archives, provides a detailed account of the Moscow meeting between Prime Minister Mikolajczyk and other representatives of the Polish government in exile in London on the one side and Stalin and Molotov on the other. Given the entrenched positions of each of the parties and the massive disparity in real power, the meeting held on 3rd August was destined to be a failure. What was most remarkable, however, was the manner in which Mikolajczyk misjudged the situation. He knew that, as he talked with Stalin in the Kremlin, the fate of millions in Warsaw rested on the result. But despite the urgency of the situation there, the Uprising was the fourth point on his agenda, following a series of points referring back to the Soviet invasion of 1941. Even then, it was dealt with within the context of the exiled Poles’ desire to carry out elections in Poland based on universal suffrage. However, at the end of this all this verbiage, Mikolajczyk finally came directly to the most pressing point: I now have to ask you to order help to be given to our units fighting in Warsaw.  Stalin replied that he would ‘give the necessary orders’, by which he meant that he alone would decide what was required, and he then remarked that he had noticed the absence in Mikolajczyk’s remarks of any reference to the Lublin Poles, the Committee of National Liberation, with whom the Soviets had already concluded an agreement. Mikolajczyk gave a lengthy and emotional response to this, including the plea that:

The four main Polish political parties which are represented in this government (the London Poles) and have for five years carried on the struggle against Germany should have a say in the matter.

Stalin dismissed this view, saying that he had agreed to meet the London Poles, at Churchill’s request, in order to discuss a ‘union’ with the Lublin Poles. Mikolajczyk then made the extraordinary request that he be allowed ‘to go to Warsaw’. Stalin had to remind him that ‘the Germans are there’. The two men then reiterated their respective positions. Stalin wanted the London Poles to deal with the Lublin Poles, and Mikolajczyk restated that, though he would co-operate with the Lublin Poles, they represented a very small section of Polish opinion. While the two ‘sides’ may have been talking to each other, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Stalin spoke increasingly more directly, openly revealing his scorn for the Polish Home Army:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are often short of rifles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government had ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this – their forces are not up to that task. As a matter of fact these people do not fight against the Germans, but only hide in woods, being unable to do anything else.

He added, ominously, that ‘the Poles quarrel among themselves’ and that this was something that, in the future, the Soviets would not allow to continue. Of course, there was no real comparison to be made between the representatives of the Polish government in exile and the group that the Soviets had set up in Lublin. But Stalin became so intransigent on the question of the recognition of the Lublin Poles that the minute-taker felt compelled to write: There is a general feeling that the discussion has become futile… The meeting ended just before midnight. Mikolajczyk was partly to blame for his own humiliation at Stalin’s hands, simply because instead of focusing the agenda on the one practical measure that needed at that moment, support for the Warsaw Uprising, he tried to pretend that he was dealing with an equal and to discuss matters which the Soviet leadership did not want to discuss. In sharp contrast to Stalin’s reticence to help the Poles, Churchill reacted quickly to the plight of Warsaw’s inhabitants. Their fight in the streets and parks of the city was precisely the sort of romantic endeavour that appealed to him. On 4th August, the day after Stalin’s meeting with the Polish delegation in Moscow, Churchill sent a cable to the Soviet leader which read:

At the urgent request of the Polish underground army, we are dropping, subject to the weather, about sixty tons of equipment and ammunition into the south-western corner of the city where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems very near. They are being attacked by one and a half German divisions.  This may be of help to your operations. 

Heroes and Villains:

Tadeusz Roman was one of the Polish RAF pilots who tried to help the insurgents in Warsaw. Twenty-five years old, he had served time in a Soviet prison after being caught trying to flee from eastern Poland. After the armistice of 1941, he had made his way west and joined RAF Bomber Command. Now based at Brindisi in southern Italy as part of the Polish Flight, it was not just a matter of honour to help the insurrection. His brother was in the underground army, and Tadeusz thought, mistakenly as it happened, that he was in Warsaw, but, in any case, all the Polish pilots volunteered to take part in the long flight, one of the most dangerous of the war, taking between ten and eleven hours. Starting on 4th August, flights left both Bari and Brindisi, with the airmen of the Polish Flight initially dominating the operation. Between then and the end of September more than two hundred flights were made, dropping a total of more than a hundred tons of supplies. Around eighty Polish airmen lost their lives in the operation, together with more than a hundred other Allied flyers, many of them South African. The dangers confronting the bombers were not just from the air defences around Warsaw but from the lengthy and tortuous route over German-occupied territory on the way to the Polish capital and back. Tadeusz’s own luck ran out on 28 August, just after he and his comrades had dropped their supplies over Warsaw. Flying low, at two thousand feet, anti-aircraft fire smashed into one of their engines. Over Krakow, they were hit again, but they managed to coax the plane back to Italy, where they crash-landed on the airport’s perimeter. The other three planes that accompanied him on that night’s mission never returned.

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Meanwhile, Mikolajczyk had left Moscow and returned to London. At his last meeting with Stalin, in the Kremlin on the evening of 9 August, he told the Soviet leader that his talks with the Lublin Poles had convinced him that they would eventually reach an agreement. But when he asked Stalin again for ‘immediate assistance’ for Warsaw, he was met with obfuscation: It would be different if our armies were approaching Warsaw, Stalin told him, but unfortunately, this is not the case. He went on to explain that a vigorous counter-attack by the Germans had forced the Red Army to delay their move on the Polish capital. He was sorry for your men who started the battle in Warsaw prematurely. The discussion then moved on to examine the practicalities of an airdrop, about which Stalin was sceptical, but he nevertheless again promised to help the Home Army in Warsaw. However, towards the end of the meeting, when the Polish PM asked if Stalin would tell us something to comfort the Polish hearts at this difficult time, Stalin replied that Mikolajczyk that he was attaching too much importance to words: One should distrust words. Deeds are more important than words. Just four days later the TASS news agency announced that, since the London Poles had not notified the Soviets in advance about the uprising, all responsibility for what was happening in the city lay with them. On the night of 15 August, the American Ambassador had a meeting at the Kremlin with Soviet Foreign Ministry officials, after which he sent a cable back to the USA, reporting:

The Soviet Government’s refusal (to help the uprising) is not based on operational difficulties, nor on a denial of the conflict, but on ruthless political calculations.

Clearly, as far as ‘deeds’ were concerned, Stalin failed the Poles in Warsaw. But it is still possible that when he had met Mikolajczyk on 9 August, he had not definitely made up his mind. He had, as yet, given no reply to the Western Allies about his position on the uprising. One possible interpretation is that between the meeting and the TASS statement on the 13th, he changed his mind. On 9th he was inclined to help, but by 13th he had decided that he wouldn’t. Although he had already demonstrated that his determination to disband the Home Army, in these days he knew he faced battles ahead with the Western Allies over the composition of any future Polish administration. He had no reason to expect at this point that the Allies would eventually go along with his wishes and recognize a modified version of his puppet government, and may have calculated in early August that, if he was to be successful in getting the London Poles to agree to be subsumed by the Lublin Poles, he would need to offer some kind of assistance to the Warsaw Uprising. Laurence Rees has concluded that Stalin was always inclined to act as he did and refuse to help the Poles in Warsaw, a refusal which fitted a pattern of behaviour in which the Soviet leader had demonstrated time and again his distrust of the Poles and his desire to see the Home Army ‘neutralised’.

In any event, by 13 August, Stalin had made up his mind and, during the rest of August, the crucial period of the rising, the Soviets gave no assistance, not even with dropping air supplies. Although it is arguable whether the Red Army would have reached Warsaw in August, they faced a counter-attack from the Germans on the 2nd on the front line east of the city, they could have made the air bridge more successful if they had wanted to. In fact, a statement from the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to the US’ Moscow Ambassador on 18 August made their policy quite clear:

The Soviet government cannot, of course, object to British or American aircraft dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, since this is an American and British affair. But they decidedly object to British or American aircraft, after dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, landing on Soviet Territory, since the Soviet Government do not wish to associate themselves either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw. 

Finally, on 22nd, Stalin himself reiterated this message in the clearest, most strident and insulting terms possible. He described the Home Army as a ‘bunch of criminals’, and stated that the Soviets would refuse to help the Western Allies with the airlift. Churchill tried to enlist Roosevelt’s support in sending a combative reply, only to be told by the American President on 26 August that he did not consider that it would prove advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to UJ (‘Uncle Joe’ or Stalin). Hugh Lunghi, a member of the British military mission to Moscow, went with the chief of staff of the mission to the Soviet Ministry of Defence to try to get the Soviets to help with the air supplies:

I must have gone there with him almost daily for the first two weeks, and afterwards it became sort of hopeless. We realised they were not going to allow either us or the Americans to land on Soviet territory. And this seemed to us to be the most terrible betrayal, not only of the Poles, but of the Allies. And again, another example of Stalin cutting off his nose to spite his own face, because it meant the Germans would put down this uprising more easily and then the remaining Germans would be available to oppose the Soviet Army. So it seemed quite crazy to us, but also terrible. We were fuming. We were absolutely furious in the military mission.

In reality, however, Stalin had calculated that if he stood back and did nothing, the Home Army would almost certainly be annihilated. And that was what was then happening inside Warsaw. During August, German SS soldiers, supported by various collaborators – including Cossacks from the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps – conducted a brutal house to house war in the Polish capital. The most notorious SS unit in Warsaw was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. Although he himself had gained a PhD in political science in the 1920s, he presided over a gang of ill-disciplined and bloodthirsty soldiers, most of whom were convicted criminals released from captivity. They were already notorious for their mistreatment of civilians in the occupied Soviet Union. Matthias Schenk, an eighteen-year-old Belgian conscripted into the German Army, served as a demolition engineer in Warsaw alongside Dirlewanger’s Sturmbrigade. In 2008, he was still haunted by what he saw:

Once we went towards a house (which served as a school) with 350 children. We went upstairs and the children came down – children of nine to thirteen years old. They held up their hands … “Nicht Partisan!” … and they stood on the steps. And the SS started to shoot. And then the commander said: “No ammunition – use the butt of the gun!” And the blood spilled down the stairs.

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This was by no means an isolated crime, for the Axis units in the city committed a whole series of atrocities. Many of those witnessed by Matthias Schenk seem purely sadistic, like the point-blank shooting of a little girl and the blowing-up of a thirteen-year-old disabled boy by placing hand grenades in his pocket. Every day in Warsaw, women and children were slaughtered by the occupiers out of their warped sense of ‘fun’. When a hospital held by the Home Army was stormed by the Dirlewanger brigade, Schenk saw, in the aftermath, Polish nurses being sexually assaulted by the SS:

They tore the clothes off these women and jumped on top of them, held them down by means of force … then they were raped … Then Dirlewanger drove them through the (German) crowd, which cajoled and applauded them to the gallows.

These appalling actions were part of a systematic Nazi plan to crush the uprising with brutality. Under the overall command of SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had previously supervised the shooting of Jews and partisans in the occupied Soviet Union, the Germans targeted civilians as well as members of the Home Army. By 8 August, in one district of the city alone, the Germans had killed at least forty thousand civilians. The overall atmosphere of the German action against the Poles was captured by the SS commander-in-chief Heinrich Himmler, who later stated that he had told Hitler at the time of the rising that:

From the historical point of view the action of the Poles is a blessing … Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen to seventeen million strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years … will have ceased to exist. By the same token… the Poles themselves will cease to be a problem, for our children and for all who follow us. 

Himmler’s use of language is significant. It is reminiscent of the ‘justification’ he gave to senior Nazis for the extermination of Jewish children. They had to be killed along with their parents, he said, because otherwise, they would only cause problems for future German generations. He had previously told SS officers that there was no point in killing Jewish men and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons. On 2 September, German troops and their auxiliaries stormed a makeshift hospital treating wounded Home Army fighters. At first, the soldiers took valuables from the wounded, such as gold crosses and watches, but those that followed, many of whom were drunk, raped the women. Twenty-year-old Danuta Galkowa, hiding on a stretcher in the basement, under a blanket, heard the horror being enacted all around her:

It was for them entertainment. They were excited by the fact that the people were yelling. … I was in despair, I was afraid only of rape, because I wouldn’t be able to live through that. 

The wounded men of the Home Army who were present in the cellar could do nothing to protect the women. They had serious stomach wounds, broken legs and arms, and could not move. The horror lasted from eight in the morning until dark, when the troops finally left, setting fire to the hospital as they went. Danuta tried to escape, dragging the wounded Home Army officer who had protected her on the stretcher. She pulled him to the entrance, where the Nazis were shooting those trying to escape. A German auxiliary turned his gun on Danuta but it jammed, and in the smoke, darkness and chaos she managed to get away, over the bodies of those who had been murdered in the courtyard, together with the wounded fighter. Eventually, this man who had saved her life became her husband.

Conflict Among Allies:

The summer and early autumn of 1944 were, therefore, a time of conflict between the Allies, not only over what seemed to be the eternal question of Poland but also over the post-war shape of Europe, and, most particularly, Soviet intentions towards the eastern European countries that they were shortly to occupy. Towards the middle of August 1944, the Soviet general offensive began to slacken, Soviet armies outrunning their supplies since behind them lay an advance of some 350 miles. Soviet troops were on the East Prussian frontier and had bridgeheads on the Vistula and the Narew, while the Soviet command planned to wipe Army Group North off the map. The Finns
had already abandoned the German-Finnish compact and late in August were suing for peace, harsh though the terms proved to be.
In the event, the Romanians beat the Finns in the race to make peace. The Soviet hammer having battered three German Army Groups (North Centre and North Ukraine), it was now the turn of Army Group South Ukraine to fall under it. Even before a shot was fired, however, this Army Group faced disaster, hemmed in as it was between the
Red Army eager to fall on it and the Romanians, who were even more eager to betray it.

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On 20 August, Malinovskii’s 2nd Ukrainian Front launched its attack, encircling five German corps in the Jassy-Kishinev operation, while Tolbukhin’s forces trapped the Romanian 3rd Army. But defeat
in the field was outmatched and outpaced by political events when on August 23rd a coup in Bucharest knocked Romania out of the war with King Michael’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Romania’s declaration of war on Germany followed in a trice and Romanian troops were ordered not to open fire on the Red Army. The Romanian defection had cataclysmic consequences for Germany with far more
than the fate of an Army Group involved: the fortunes of war in the entire south-eastern theatre had changed virtually overnight. With a German army hopelessly trapped and what was left of two Romanian armies laying down their arms, the whole of southern Bessarabia, the Danube delta and the Carpathian passes lay open to the Red Army. Henceforth neither the Danube nor the Carpathians could bar the Soviet advance and ahead of the Soviet armies lay the route to the Hungarian plains, the gateway to Czechoslovakia and Austria, as well as a highway to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

While these battles and the battle for Warsaw raged on, Winston Churchill met with General Wladyslaw Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the free Polish Army, at Polish military headquarters in northern Italy. In the context of the controversy over the future of Poland, this meeting, on 26 August, was one of the most revealing of the war. Churchill began by congratulating Anders on the performance of the Polish II Corps during the campaign in Italy. He also enquired about the ‘mood’ of the soldiers, given what they are going through at the moment. Anders replied that, while the spirit of his men was ‘excellent’, their great concern is for the future of Poland, and at the moment, the current situation in Warsaw. Churchill said that he and President Roosevelt had asked Stalin to help those fighting in Warsaw, but their request had met with a negative response. Churchill assured him that while they were not ready for joint action over Warsaw, the Allies were doing everything they could to provide aid via the air route. After some argument over the future of Poland’s eastern borders with the Soviet Union, Churchill promised that…

… since Great Britain entered this war to defend your independence, then I can assure you that we will never abandon you.

These words were similar to those he had used at the previous meeting of the two men in Cairo, immediately after the Tehran Conference. Anders himself had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanska prison during the earlier partition of Poland in 1939, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false. Once again, Anders voiced his serious concerns about Soviet intentions based on current as well as past experience, including the massacre at Katyn:

As they enter Poland, the Soviets arrest and deport our women and children deep into Russia as they did in 1939; they disarm the soldiers of our Home Army, they shoot dead our officers and arrest our civil administration, destroying those who fought the Germans continuously since 1939 and fight them still. We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks. All of us prefer to perish fighting than to live on our knees.

According to the minutes recorded by camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill was ‘very moved’ by Anders’ words and added to his earlier declaration:

I know that the Germans and Russians are destroying all of your best elements, especially intellectual spheres. … But you must trust – we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.

Anders, not surprisingly, was somewhat suspicious of Churchill’s words. He was right to be, not because Churchill was being disingenuous, but because Anders knew he was no longer in a position to make such a promise, considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million was already marching into his country. He reminded the British PM that the Soviet Union would be immensely strong after the war; he was sceptical of Churchill’s view that Britain and the United States would be able to restrain the USSR after the war through their superior supplies of planes, tanks and guns. Churchill was not promising that the Western Allies would be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union if Stalin refused to guarantee Poland’s independence, but his reply implied the possibility of military action, something that he had explicitly ruled out earlier in the year.

Collapse, Courage and Conflict:

By the beginning of September, the entire German defensive system was on the point of collapse. At that point, Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. Bulgaria, Axis ally of Germany but at heart pro-Russian and Slavophile, received Soviet armies without a shot being fired and duly declared war on Germany on 8 September. Hitler still fed on hopes that the entry of Soviet troops into Bulgaria might well speed an Anglo-Soviet collision, as the Red Army made for the Dardanelles – whereupon German troops in Army Group E might act as a ‘kind of police’ (with British approval) to hold the line against Bolshevism. There was certainly Anglo-Soviet rivalry in the Balkans, involving both Yugoslavia and Greece, but nothing to precipitate outright conflict.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were truly remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. Then, on 1 September 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at State Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. This lay only two hundred and fifty metres from German positions, and General Bór-Komorowski, the Home Army commander, knew that a few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would prevent anyone from getting out alive. He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders had nothing more to lose. So, leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a surprise German attack, the entire force, along with five hundred civilians, including the wounded and a hundred German prisoners, went down the manhole. As Bór-Komorowski wrote:

Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared … Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about one and a half miles in length. … There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung around their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls … The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.

When the Stukas, artillery, tanks and finally infantry attacked the positions the next morning, initially believing the Poles’ silence to be merely a ruse to conserve ammunition, the Germans found their quarry gone. The Poles had escaped, at least for the present.

By this time, and in contrast with Warsaw’s impending fate, the Allied forces had succeeded in liberating Paris, though not without cost in terms of both men and machinery. The Americans had poured forward through gaps in the German defences which had been created by the carpet bombing of Brittany at the end of July. Collins’ VII Corps took Avranches and allowed US forces to attack westwards into the Breton hinterland and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us. 

Better communications and better inter-personal relations might have led to an even greater victory at ‘the Falaise Gap’, the mouth of an area eighteen miles wide by ten miles deep known as the Falaise-Argentan pocket, than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton between 13 and 19 August. It was the news of a large Allied invasion of the south of France on 15 August, Operation Anvil, with 86,000 troops going ashore on the first day alone. That had persuaded Field Marshal von Kluge to withdraw from the Falaise pocket. The next day, Kluge ordered a general retreat out of the pocket, warning Jodl at the Army Headquarters that it would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around fifty thousand casualties, while the Allies lost twenty-nine thousand at the Falaise. Eisenhower visited the pocket forty-eight hours after the battle and later described the scene it as…

… unquestionably one of the greatest “killing grounds” of any of the war areas … It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

With Allied fighter-bombers flying three thousand sorties a day, the twenty thousand German soldiers who did escape, the shattered remnants of the hitherto formidable Panzer Armies including Group Eberbach, did so with their 88mm guns intact. After the war, Bradley and Montgomery blamed each other for the over-caution at Falaise, but Kluge’s defeat there led to his replacement by Field Marshal Model on 17 August and enabled the Allies to make for the Seine and to liberate Paris, which had risen on 23 August. Out of the thirty-nine divisions which took part in the Normandy landings, just one was French, 2e Division Blandée (Armoured) under General Leclerc. It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and entered Paris first on 25th, as part of the US Fifth Army, although this did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle. He had set foot in France for the first time since 1940 on 14 June, more than a week after D-Day, and only then for a one-day visit to Bayeux, after which he had left for Algiers and did not return to French soil until 20 August. In the meantime, Patton’s Third Army had broken out of Avranches at the end of July and had driven through Brittany.  While the French Resistance, the résistants and maquisards, under a separate command from the Free French forces were hampering German armoured retaliation, de Gaulle played little part in any of this from his base in North Africa.

In Paris, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz took the humane and historic decision not to set fire to the city. Hitler had demanded of him that Paris must be destroyed from the top to the bottom, that he should not leave a single church or monument standing. The German High Command earmarked seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for destruction. But Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these barbaric instructions and continued to ignore Hitler’s enquiries as to whether Paris was burning. The Germans did not, therefore, fight in the French capital the battle of extirpation that they were simultaneously fighting in Warsaw, bringing about the utter destruction of the Polish capital and two hundred thousand of its people. Instead, Choltitz surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once the Allied forces arrived. He told the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the terms that he had no wish to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris. In all, the French lost only seventy-six soldiers in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants were killed in the uprising, six hundred of whom were non-combatants. De Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow the French troops to be the first to into the capital, and the Supreme Commander duly gave the order to Leclerc to advance on the city on 22 August.

In any case, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective rather than a purely political one. Eisenhower could spare the French 2e Division from the far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, fought by British, American and Canadian forces against crack German units. Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as a pen and ink job on the map. The first of Leclerc’s Sherman tanks rolled up the rue de Rivoli at 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 25 August. In the surrender document signed that afternoon by Choltitz and Leclerc, there was no mention of either Great Britain or the United States; the Germans surrendered the city to the French alone. De Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hotel de Ville in which he proclaimed that Paris had been liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, … eternal France. The Allied contribution was summed up in a single phrase. Putting the ‘Liberation’ in context, however, the historian of the Occupation, Ian Ousby, later wrote:

Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.

On the morning of 26 August, de Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear if you please.’ The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone. Since he did not wish to steal de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower himself did not enter the capital until the following day, five days after he had given the order for the 2e Division to take it.

The Challenge of Leadership:

For his part, although Stalin had decided by the middle of August that the Soviet forces would not support the Home Army in Warsaw, his policy towards the uprising was still not entirely transparent. On 18 September the Soviet authorities overturned their earlier decision and allowed one flight of American bombers en route to Warsaw to refuel on Soviet territory. Also, in the two weeks from 14-28 September, the Soviets themselves dropped supplies on Warsaw. However, since these drops did not involve the use of parachutes, much of the fifty tons of aid provided was destroyed on landing. They were conducted mainly for propaganda purposes so that Stalin could counter the growing outcry of world opinion about Soviet inaction in the face of the destruction of Warsaw, enabling him to demonstrate his public support to the Home Army without offering any effective assistance. Halina Szopinska, a twenty-four-year-old fighter with the Home Army in Warsaw, later testified as to how the airdrops had been a sham:

They had these small planes and would throw dry bread without a parachute and when it fell down it would just break into powder. … They would drop guns without a parachute – ammunition as well. There was no way we could repair it. So they pretended they were helping. They were doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t really help us.

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Posted August 22, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Axis Powers, Balkan Crises, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Black Country, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Canada, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Egypt, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Flanders, France, Genocide, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, liberal democracy, Marxism, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, North Africa, Paris, Poland, Refugees, Russia, Second World War, Serbia, Socialist, tyranny, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Warsaw Uprising, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Commemorating the Normandy Landings   1 comment

Documenting D-Day:

This Thursday, 6th June, many of the world’s leaders will be gathering on the beaches in Normandy to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy. Those veterans who survived the landings and the rest of the war are now well into their nineties, but many will make the crossing of the English Channel once more to commemorate their fallen comrades and recall the events of June 1944. But what exactly was ‘Operation Overlord’, what happened along the coast of Normandy seventy-five years ago, and what was the significance of those events in the war itself and over the following period? To gain a true understanding, we should not simply rely on Hollywood films or even documentaries. We also need to consult the documents and other primary, eye-witness testimonies from the time, with the help of serious historians. Otherwise, there is a danger that the sacrifice of those who took part, whether they died or survived, will be trivialised and turned into a military comic-book.

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One of the joint commanders of the Operation, Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, wrote an account as a Supplement to the London Gazette in September 1946:

I arrived in England on 2nd January, 1944, after handing over command of the Eighth Army, and immediately started a detailed study of the plans for the assault of the Continent – Operation OVERLORD. …

The intention was to assault, simultaneously, beaches on the Normandy coast. … The Normandy beaches were selected because they offered a better shelter for shipping and were less heavily defended than other possible beach areas along the Channel coast. …

The absence of major ports was overcome by the gigantic engineering feat of constructing two artificial ports in the United Kingdom; these were towed across the Channel in sections and erected, one in the United States sector and one in the British sector. …

My plan of assault, as approved by the Supreme Commander, provided for simultaneous landings by eight equivalent brigades – of which three were British and two were Canadian brigades, and three were American combat teams. … The total initial lift in the assault and follow-up naval forces was of the order of 130,000 personnel and 20,000 vehicles, all of which were to be landed on the first three tides. …

The Assault:

At 02.00 hours 6 June (1944) a ‘coup de main’ party of 6 Airborne Division was dropped near Benouville, to seize the bridges over the Canal de Caen and the River Orne. Surprise was complete, both bridges were captured intact and a close bridgehead was established. …

Meanwhile, the Allied sea armada drew in towards the coast of France, preceded by its flotillas of minesweepers. Not until the leading ships had reached their lowering positions, some seven to eleven miles offshore, and the naval bombardment squadrons had opened fire on the shore defences, was there any appreciable enemy activity. …

The Airborne and Seaborne Assault:

The Ninety men from D Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who, under the command of Major John Howard, had debouched from the gliders and captured Pegasus Bridge without difficulty earlier that morning, held it until they were relieved by Lord Lovat’s Commandos at 13.00 hours. Lovat’s had marched from the beach up to the canal towpath to the sound of bagpipes played by piper Bill Millin (pictured disembarking below), blowing away for all he was worth. The Americans were less accurate in finding their landing zones, some units landing as much as thirty-five miles off target. But this added to the practice of dropping dummy parachutists, so confusing German intelligence that it estimated a hundred thousand Allied troops had landed by air, more than four times the actual number. The majority of the paratroopers landed in the correct drop-zones, however, and were to play an invaluable part in attacking the beaches from the rear and holding back the inevitable German counter-attack.

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The French Resistance had been ordered to ready itself for the invasion by the BBC broadcast on 1 June of the first line of the poem Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine, which went Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automme (‘The long sobs of the autumn violins’). The Abwehr had tortured a ‘Maquis’ leader and learnt that when the second line – Blessent mon coeur d’une langeur monotone (‘wound my heart with monotonous languour’) – was broadcast, it meant that the invasion was imminent. So when it was duly broadcast on 5 June at 23.15, the commander of the German Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais put his troops on alert, but no one warned the Seventh Army in Normandy. At Army Group B’s chateau headquarters at La Roche-Guyon, it was assumed that it must be more disinformation, as they could not believe that the Allies would have announced the invasion over the BBC. Certainly, the Germans were not expecting the offensive when it came. Shortly before 05.00, the Seventh Army’s chief of staff warned Army Group B that the attack was indeed taking place, Rommel was unavailable as he was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday. He only made it back to La Roche-Guyon at six o’clock that evening. His chief of staff, General Hans Speidel, ordered the Twelfth SS Hitler Youth Panzer Division to counter-attack at Caen at first light, but some of the 4,500 bombers that the Allies fielded that day severely blunted this attack. As Rommel later pointed out:

Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield – artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. – is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country in order to escape the constant pounding of the air. Up to 640 (naval) guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.

The German Reactions to the Assault:

Interrogated after the war, Speidel quoted Rommel as having said, very perceptively:

Elements which are not in contact with the enemy at the moment of invasion will never get into action, because of the enormous air superiority of the enemy … If we do not succeed in carrying out our combat mission of warding off the Allies or hurling them from the mainland in the first forty-eight hours, the invasion has succeeded and the war is lost for lack of strategic reserves and lack of Luftwaffe in the west.

Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings – he had been up with Goebbels until three o’clock the previous night, exchanging reminiscences, taking pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together, as Goebbels recorded. Even by the lunchtime conference, the High Command was unsure that this was a true attack rather than a diversion. By the time the two Panzer divisions were sent against the beaches a hundred miles away, much valuable time had been lost. Rommel felt that the Allies had to be stopped from getting ashore, telling his Staff that the first twenty-four hours will be decisive. In all, there were fifty-nine German divisions in the west at the time of D-day, of which eight were in Holland and Belgium. More than half the overall totals were mere coastal-defence or training divisions, and of the twenty-seven field divisions only ten were armoured, with three of these in the south and one near Antwerp. Six divisions, four of them coastal defence were stationed along the two hundred miles of Normandy coast west of the Seine where the Allies attacked. The commanders later admitted that all of these divisions were better described as coastal protection forces rather than as true defence.

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The Beaches – Utah & Omaha:

It was 05.50 that a massive naval bombardment opened up on the German beach fortifications and the villages along the Normandy coast. The troop crossings had taken several hours in some cases and, as it had been feared that the Germans would use gas on the beaches, the anti-gas chemical with which uniforms were sprinkled smelt so disgusting that, once added to the landing crafts’ tossing about on the waves, it induced vomiting in the many troops who had not already been seasick. At H-hour, 06.30, the main American landings took place on Utah beach, followed by those on Omaha beach, with the British and Canadians arriving on their three beaches an hour later, as Montgomery himself later recorded:

On Utah beach, VII United States Corps assaulted on a front of one regimental combat team. … On Omaha beach, H Hour for the assault had been fixed for 06.45 hours. V United States Corps assaulted on a broad front. … By nightfall V United States Corps had secured a beach head about a mile in depth.

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At Utah, 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed or wounded, partly because the current had swept the US Fourth Division’s landing craft some two thousand yards south of the original area designated for the attack, on to a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline, and twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Duplex Drive (DD)  Sherman tanks got ashore. The one regiment facing them from the German 709th Division surrendered in large numbers once the 101st Airborne had secured at least four exits from the beaches.

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On Omaha beach, however, where two-thirds of the American effort that day was to land, it was a very different state of affairs. The veteran US 1st Division (known as the Big Red One from its shoulder flash) and the 29th Division, which had never seen combat before, were to suffer tenfold the losses as did the 4th Division at Utah. Despite all the meticulous preparation, the ground had been ill-chosen for the attack. However, once the decision had been taken to expand the area to be secured by Overlord from which further operations could be conducted to take in Utah beach to the west, Omaha was the only feasible landing area between Utah and the British and Canadian beaches. The cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were, in some places, more than a hundred and fifty feet above the sea wall at the end of the dunes and the inward curvature of the bay at that stretch helped the German fields of fire to overlap.  Underwater sand bars and ridges snagged the landing craft, and the well-placed fortifications, which can still be seen today, were not silenced by the naval shelling; the anti-personnel mines, barbed wire and huge steel anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ proved murderous obstacles; accurate German artillery fire and crack infantry troops caused havoc. Rather than the four battalions of defenders that had been planned for, there were eight, but by the time this was discovered it was too late to alter the plan of attack. These battalions provided, according to the military historian Max Hastings, by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front.

‘An American magazine spiked my review as it did not share the widespread adulation’ … Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.After a truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. The opening scenes of the movie, Saving Private Ryan (pictured right) give the best cinematographic representation of those first monstrous minutes of the Omaha landings, but even that cannot begin to show the extent of the chaos and carnage on the beaches. It would have been even worse had Rommel been right about the Allies arriving at high tide, as every gun had been fixed for this eventuality. As it was they chose low tide in order to make the obstacles more visible. The six thousand yards of Omaha beach along which the Americans landed was soon a scene of utter destruction and confusion. The American soldiers, who aged on average twenty and a half, far younger than the British, at twenty-four, and the Canadians, at twenty-nine, had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with sixty-eight pounds of equipment, including a gas-mask, grenades, TNT blocks, two bandoliers of ammunition, rations, water-bottles and related kit. Many simply drowned when the water proved deeper than they had expected.

Although the ‘British’ beaches were in part cleared of German killing apparatus by a series of specialized tank-based gadgets, Generals Bradley and Gerow preferred a massive frontal assault. Because of heavy seas and being transferred to their landing vessels eleven and a half miles out, ten landing craft and twenty-six artillery pieces sank on their way to the beaches. The British transferred at six and a half miles out and suffered fewer sinkings as a result of less turbulent water. The loss of twenty-seven of the twenty-nine DD ‘floating tanks’, launched six thousand yards from the Omaha shore, denied the Americans the necessary firepower to get off the beach early. The RAF support planes observed a shambles … on the beach … burning tanks, jeeps, abandoned vehicles, a terrific crossfire. The official account of what happened to Able Company of 116th Infantry, 29th Division, after its landing craft hit Omaha beach at 06.36 gives a sense of the horror of those next few minutes:

Ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine gun fire from both ends of the beach. … The first men out … are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning , doomed by the water-logging of of their overloaded packs. … Already the sea runs red. … A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upwards, so that their nostrils are out of the water, they creep towards the land  at the same rate as the tide. This is how most of the survivors make it. … Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless.

It was not until 13.30, after seven hours being pinned down on the beaches, that Gerow could signal to Omar Bradley, who was on board a ship trying to make out what was going on through binoculars, that troops were finally advancing up heights behind beaches. Although there were two thousand Americans killed on Omaha beach, by nightfall a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore, including two Ranger battalions that had silenced the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc to the west after scaling cliffs with rope ladders. At one point the 5th Rangers had to don gas masks in order to charge through the dense smoke coming from the undergrowth of a hillside that suddenly caught fire. In Saving Private Ryan, after its truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. Eight US rangers under the command of a captain, having survived the initial D-day bloodbath, are detailed to seek out and save a single man, Private Ryan. Although continually voted the best war movie ever, in a recent article for The Guardian, the historian Antony Beevor has repeated his balanced criticism of Spielberg’s claims for the movie:  

Steven Spielberg’s storyline rightly dramatises the clash between patriotic and therefore collective loyalty, and the struggle of the individual for survival. Those mutually contradictory values are, in many ways, the essence of war. Spielberg said at the time that he sees the second world war as the “defining moment” in history. One also suspects that he wanted this film to be seen as the defining movie of the war. If so, it is a uniquely American definition of history, with no reference to the British let alone the Soviet role.

Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches:

The conditions faced by British and Canadian forces prior to reaching the beaches were no less harsh than those which the US soldiers had to contend with, but they met with far less resistance in their sectors and, as Montgomery later recorded, were able to establish control far more quickly, though still sustaining significant casualties:

… Second British Army assaulted on the right in the Gold sector. … H Hour for 3 British Division was fixed for 07.25 hours and the assault waves reached the beaches well on time. The leading brigade was soon a mile inland … by nightfall the Division was well-established. … 

John Watney’s eye-witness account in The Enemy Within (1946), describes in more detail the ‘order from chaos’ which was made on the ‘British’ beaches, due to the closer range of the fleet to the shore and the steady progress made by the soldiers under the cover provided by the Royal Navy’s assault:

On the beaches themselves all was feverish activity. Invasion craft of every kind and description lay at all angles in the sand; most had gone in head foremost and now lay a little off keel, half way up the beach or just in the water; others had been swung sideways and lay like rowing boats flung up by the breakers; others were still afloat, moored in the shallow waters that rippled over the grey sands, while dark splotches, which turned at close sight into tanks, carriers, guns and trucks, poured out of all these ships and crawled away in long queues across the sands, to disappear against the green of the fields. …

All around us lay the immense fleet that had brought us to this Normandy bay. There were ships of every kind, from the clear outlines of cruisers to the tubby fussiness of tugs. … Away to our left a cruiser was firing in spaced, steady salvos; to our right a second cruiser accompanied her, while behind me, out at sea, through the mist could be seen the orange flashes from what appeared to be a battleship. …

The tide left us dry at last and on the glassy stretches of the sands the ships lay in line, their bows open, spilling their cargoes on to the grey sands, in the grey light. The air was full of the roar of vehicles, the decks shook as the tanks clanked over them and nosed on to the ramps; then, rushing down the steep slopes, grasped the water-logged sand in their tracks and, with a jerking roar, heaved themselves inland. Clouds of steam accompanied these exertions, and, as I watched the tanks crawl out of the bellies of the line of the waiting ships, I was reminded of some fearsome tale of interplanetary warfare. …

Into this colourless nightmare arena of sands and tanks there came at last a touch of humanity; the first marching troops were landing now; like pony gladiators, weighed down with kit, they scrambled down the ramps and on to the wet sands; then, hunching up their packs and tightening their blankets (rolled Spanish-ways across their shoulders), they straggled off in the resisting sand, towards the land that now looked strong and real; their voices floated back, high and thin, against the din, like the muttering of a radio set tuned low in a room full of chattering people. 

There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and more time for the naval bombardment to soften up the German defences; however, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The British suffered over three thousand casualties, but by the end of the day, the Canadians who suffered over a thousand themselves, got the furthest inland, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within three miles of the outskirts of Caen. Montgomery concluded:

As a result of our D-Day operations a foothold had been gained on the Continent of Europe.

Surprise had been achieved, the troops had fought magnificently, and our losses had been much lower than had ever seemed possible.

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Successes, Errors & Sacrifices:

At 16.00 hour Hitler, who had dithered about the best way to react to what he still suspected was a diversionary attack, finally agreed to his Chief of Staff’s request to send two Panzer Divisions into the battle in addition to the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions already committed. But as the German historian Gerhard Weinberg has pointed out,

The reinforcements dribbled into the invasion front were never enough, and the Allied air forces as well as the sabotage effort of the French resistance and Allied special teams slowed down whatever was sent. The German armoured divisions, therefore, arrived one at a time and quite slowly, were never able to punch through, and ended up being mired in positional warfare because they continued to be needed at the front in the absence of infantry divisions.

Allied aerial supremacy over the battlefield made it impossible for the German tanks to be better deployed than in piecemeal fashion in daylight. Yet five armoured divisions of the reserve in France, and no fewer than nineteen divisions of the Fifteenth Army a hundred and twenty miles to the south, simply stayed in place waiting for the ‘real’ attack in the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, Runstedt and Rommel became more and more convinced that Normandy was indeed the true Schwerpunkt, whereas the Führer continued to doubt it. The German troops were critically under-reinforced in Normandy, partly because of the success of the Allies’ elaborate though never conspicuously uniform deception plans. A determined German ground counter-offensive had once again been staved off by Allied air power. The 7th Army had thrown into battle every available unit in the Coastal defence forces, and bringing units from Brittany would take time. That was a commodity of which they had very little since they had failed in their initial objective of flinging the invasion forces back into the English Channel immediately. Both the capacity and willingness of the Wehrmacht to push the Allies back into the sea were still there, but they were overwhelmed by the ability of the RAF and the USAAF to attack the unprotected armour from above, where it was weakest. The bombing campaigns against the Luftwaffe factories and the attritional war against the German fighters once they had been built had paid off spectacularly. Such were the forces alighting from the Arromanches Mulberry Harbour, even though the second harbour off Omaha was rendered inoperable by a storm on 19 June, that by 1 July they exceeded a million men, 150,000 vehicles and 500,000 tons of supplies.

In total, D-Day itself saw around nine thousand Allied casualties, of whom more than half were killed, a high proportion for combat in the Second World War. The Allied dead comprised 2,500 Americans, and 2,000 British and Canadians. In addition, fifteen ANZAC soldiers and fifty-seven Norwegians, Free French and Belgian soldiers were killed, making 4,572 Allied troops in total. Although expected to lose eighty per cent of their numbers, the actual figure was fifteen per cent. The American cemetery at Collesville-sur-Mer above Omaha beach bears testimony to the sacrifice of the US servicemen. The news of D-day gave sudden, soaring hope to Occupied Europe. Ann Frank, the German-Jewish author who was about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday in hiding in the hidden attic of her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam, wrote poignantly in her now well-known Diary, of her excitement at the news and of her renewed hopes for her future:

The invasion has begun! Great commotion in the Secret Annexe! Would the long-awaited liberation that has been talked of so much but still seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy-tale, ever come true? Could we be granted victory this year, 1944? We don’t know yet, but hope is revived within us; it gives us fresh courage, and makes us strong again.

A Fallen Poet:

One of those who did not survive the Normandy campaign was Keith Castellain Douglas (24 January 1920 – 9 June 1944, pictured below right), an English poet noted for his war poetry during the Second World War and his wry memoir of the Western Desert campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem. Like so many others who fell in Normandy, Douglas had lived a short life but fought a long war. He was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, the son of Capt. Keith Sholto Douglas, MC (retired) and Marie Josephine Castellain. Marie Douglas faced persistent ill-health, the collapse of her marriage and extreme financial distress, so much so that only the generosity of the Edgeborough Prep School headmaster Mr James permitted Douglas to attend school in 1930–1931, his last year there. Douglas sat in 1931 for the entrance examination to Christ’s Hospital, where education was free and there was monetary assistance to cover all other costs. He was accepted, and joined Christ’s Hospital, near Horsham, in September 1931, studying there till 1938. It was at this school that his considerable poetic talent and artistic ability were recognised.

After a bruising brush with authority in 1935, Douglas settled down to a less troubled and more productive period at school, during which he excelled both at studies and games, and at the end of which he won an open exhibition to Merton College, Oxford in 1938 to read History and English. The First World War-veteran and well-known poet Edmund Blunden was his tutor at Merton and regarded his poetic talent highly. Blunden sent his poems to T. S. Eliot, the doyen of English poetry, who found Douglas’s verses ‘impressive’.

Keith Douglas.jpg

Within days of the declaration of war he reported to an army recruiting centre with the intention of joining a cavalry regiment, but like many others keen to serve he had to wait, and it was not until July 1940 that he started his training. After attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he was commissioned on 1 February 1941 into the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry at Ripon. He was posted to the Middle East in July 1941 and transferred to the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry. Posted initially at Cairo and Palestine, he found himself stuck at headquarters twenty miles behind El Alamein as a camouflage officer as the Second Battle of El Alamein began.

At dawn on 24 October 1942, the Regiment advanced, and suffered numerous casualties from enemy anti-tank guns. Chafing at inactivity, Douglas took off against orders on 27 October, drove to the Regimental HQ in a truck, and reported to the C.O., Colonel E. O. Kellett, lying that he had been instructed to go to the front. Luckily this escapade did not land him in serious trouble and he got off with an apology. Desperately needing officer replacements, the Colonel posted him to A Squadron and gave him the opportunity to take part as a fighting tanker in the Eighth Army’s victorious sweep through North Africa vividly recounted in his memoir Alamein to Zem Zem, illustrated with his own drawings.

Captain Douglas returned from North Africa to England in December 1943 and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. He survived the Allied landings but was killed by enemy mortar fire on 9 June, while his regiment was advancing from Bayeux. The regimental chaplain Captain Leslie Skinner buried him by a hedge, close to where he had died on forward slopes point 102. Shortly after the war, his remains were reburied at Tilly-Sur-Seulles War Cemetery (14 km south of Bayeux).

Douglas described his poetic style as “extrospective”; that is, he focused on external impressions rather than inner emotions. The result is poetry which, according to his detractors, can be callous in the midst of war’s atrocities. For others, Douglas’s work is powerful and unsettling because its exact descriptions eschew egotism and shift the burden of emotion from the poet to the reader. His best poetry is generally considered to rank alongside the 20th century’s finest soldier-poetry.

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Douglas’ poems were published in The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas by Faber & Faber (1978). Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, has written that while Douglas’ north-African poems may take a seemingly insouciant attitude towards battles, they leave us in no doubt about war’s misery and waste. In Vergissmeinnicht, he juxtaposes the roles of lover and killer in the rotting corpse of a German soldier:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone

returning over the nightmare ground

we found the place again, and found

the soldier sprawling in the sun.

 

The frowning barrel of his gun

overshadowing. As we came on

that day, he hit my tank with one

like the entry of a demon.

 

Look. Here in the same gun-pit spoil

the dishonoured picture of his girl

who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht

in a copybook gothic script.

 

We see him almost with content,

abased, and seeming to have paid

and mocked at by his own equipment

that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

 

But she would weep to see today

how on his skin the swart flies move;

the dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.

 

For here the lover and the killer are mingled

who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt. 

Sources:

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Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

The Guardian History of the Second World War (2009).

Andrew Motion (ed.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. Faber & Faber.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hitchinson Educational.

Who was Hereward? Outlaw Legends and the Myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’.   4 comments

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Above: An illustration by Henry Courtney Selous for Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel, depicting his attack upon Normans on discovering the loss of his family and lands.

The comic-strip, super-hero and ‘super-villain’ version of the events of the Norman Conquest is an important part of British mythology, but it does not match much of the written record, let alone the architectural and archaeological evidence spanning the early middle ages, from the reign of William I to that of Edward I. The legendary story begins with the Norman’s tireless, heroic and ultimately cataclysmic cavalry charges on the Saxon shield wall at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, followed by their terrorising, or harrying of the north with fire and sword. The Saxons and Danes had captured York, pulling down the castle and seizing all the treasure in it. According to a contemporary chronicle, they killed hundreds of Normans and took many of them to their ships. William’s vengeance was swift and merciless, as recorded in his own words:

I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravaging lion. I ordered that all their homes, tools, goods and corn be burnt. Large herds of cattle and pack-animals were butchered wherever found. I took revenge on many of the English by making them die cruelly of hunger.

The narrative continues with the Norman’s ruthless mopping up the resistance by Hereward the Wake in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, and It ends with the conquest of Wales two hundred years later. But history is usually written by the victors, and it is all too easily to underestimate the precarious hold which William and his few thousand men held over the combined Danish and Saxon insurgents during the first five years of their rule. It was their accompanying land-grab and their tight system of feudal dues, later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, which enabled them to impose control, though this too was resisted by the thanes, among them Hereward in East Anglia.

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A King’s Thegn was one of the nobles who served King Edward the Confessor, carrying out his orders and seeing to it that others obeyed the King. Had it not been for the Conquest, Hereward would have become a King’s Thegn after his father Asketil’s death. One of his uncles was Abbot Brand of Peterborough, and all five uncles were all sons of a rich merchant, Toki of Lincoln. In 1063, Abbot Osketil of Crowland had begun the building of a new Abbey Church, for which he needed to raise plenty of money. One way of doing so was to rent out the Abbey lands to local lords who would pay an annual sum to the monastery, and one of those who agreed to do so was a young man of eighteen named Hereward Askeltison. As the son of a wealthy local Thegn in the service of King Edward, the Abbot thought that he would be a reliable tenant. Hereward agreed to rent a farm at Rippingale near Bourne in Lincolnshire for an annual rent to be agreed with the Abbot at the beginning of each year. At the end of the first year, Hereward and the Abbot quarrelled over the rent. The Abbot also complained to his father, who mentioned the matter to the King. Hereward had already upset many of the local people of South Lincolnshire, causing disturbances and earning himself a reputation as a trouble-maker.

Hereward the Exile:

King Edward gave the young man five days in which to leave the Kingdom or face worse penalties. Thus Hereward was already a disgraced ‘outlaw’ before the Conquest, forced into exile by his own father and king. It was said that he escaped to Northumbria, as far away from Winchester, then still Edward’s capital, as he could get. Whichever route he took, at some point he boarded a ship to Flanders and was shipwrecked on the coast of Guines, between Boulogne and Calais. In order to earn a living, he began a career as a mercenary soldier. After winning a duel with a Breton knight, he married a noble lady from St. Omer, Turfrida. At this time, an early form of Tournament was becoming popular in France and Flanders, in which groups of men, sometimes on foot and increasingly on horseback, fought each other in front of large crowds. Hereward fought at Poitiers and Bruges, winning a reputation as a tough and skilled competitor. This was how he met and fell in love with Turfrida.

Hearing that Lietberg, Bishop and Count of Cambrai needed soldiers, Hereward joined his army and became one of the twelve knights who formed his bodyguard. He took part in small wars in the area between lords such as Baldwin II of Hainault, a grandson of the Count of Flanders, and Arnulf the Viscount of Picquigny. Hereward was noticed by Baldwin II’s uncle, Robert the Frisian. Robert was planning a campaign on behalf of his father, Count Baldwin V, who had decided to capture the area then called Scaldemariland, comprising the islands at the mouth of the River Scheldt. He took forty ships with an army under his personal command, with Hereward as commander of the mercenary soldiers. Hereward also had to train the younger, newly knighted men. Fierce fighting followed the attack and at the first the islanders resisted so stubbornly that Robert had to fall back and call for reinforcements.

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The islanders boasted later that they had captured their enemy’s battle standard or ‘Colours’, which was considered a great achievement. The Count’s son then launched a stronger attack against the islands because the whole area had risen up against him. He was attacked from all sides, from the islands and from the sea. The invaders on the island of Walcheren, attacking its defences, and Hereward, in what became his trademark in war, suggested setting fire to the enemy wagons. He led a force of three hundred men ahead of the main army and they killed many hundreds of men. He then took a great the high ground with a force of a thousand knights and six hundred foot-soldiers, following this by attacking the enemy in the rear, killing the rearguard. That was too much for the islanders who sued for peace, being forced to pay double what the Count had originally demanded in tribute. Hereward and his men were allowed to keep all the plunder they had seized during the fighting. He used part of his share to buy two fine horses, calling his favourite one ‘Swallow’.

Return to England:

Just as his success was being celebrated, Count Baldwin V died and was succeeded by his elder son, also called Baldwin, much to the displeasure of the younger brother, Robert the Frisian. That brought an end to Robert’s Scaldermariland campaign, and of Hereward’s role as a mercenary commander, but his successes had made him quite rich by that time. This was when he heard that England had been conquered by the Normans and, leaving his wife in the care of his two cousins, Siward the Red and Siward the Blond, he decided to return to England to find out what had become of his family. Once there, he found out that both his father, Asketil, and his grandfather Toki had been killed in the fighting, in addition to his younger brother, Toli, so he decided to join those Saxons known by the Normans as ‘Wildmen of the Woods’ who were resisting the invasion. Although the English had at first been prepared to accept William’s rule, they had become increasingly rebellious due to the behaviour of the ‘robber’ barons and their knights. There had been widespread looting and the lands of the thanes who had been killed in the three battles of 1066 had been simply handed over to the Norman barons without any compensation to their Saxon holders. Those left in charge of the kingdom when William returned to Normandy after his coronation as King did nothing to control their men.

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The rebels had taken refuge in woods, marshes and river valleys and Hereward, who had been born in South Lincolnshire, now returned to the area he knew best, the Fens. He first visited his uncle, Brand the Monk, who had succeeded Leofric as Abbot of Peterborough. The Abbot had returned ‘sick at heart’ from the Battle of Hastings and died of his wounds. Brand had angered King William by paying homage to the boy Prince of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling (the Saxon heir latterly recognised by Edward the Confessor), who was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot following Harold’s death and before William reached London and was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. William made him pay a fine of forty marks for this, a huge sum of money in those days, perhaps equivalent to a thousand pounds in today’s money. Hereward had held some of his lands as protector of Peterborough and now renewed his promise to protect the Abbey. But he also found that all his lands, together with those of his father and grandfather, stretching across more than seven shires, had been expropriated. His own lands had been given to a Breton knight called Ogier and several great Norman lords had shared out his family lands, including Bishop Remigius of Dorchester, who had moved his ‘seat’ to Lincoln, where he was building a new Cathedral on land that had once belonged to Hereward’s grandfather, Toki. Others who had helped themselves to his family’s land included Ivo Taillebois, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, William de Warenne, later Earl of Surrey and a Flanders knight, brother-in-law of de Warenne, Frederick Oosterzele-Scheldewineke, whom Hereward waylaid and killed in Flanders, signalling a start to his rebellion.

The Norman land-grab – Domesday evidence:

The rebellion in East Anglia and Northumbria took place against the backcloth of the Norman land-grab as evidenced in the Domesday Survey of 1086. In Suffolk, Coppinger’s 1905 book chronicling the manorial records helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, including those that belonged to Hereward’s kinsmen before the Conquest. We find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall in the west of the county had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that his William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Edith, the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, the father of Edith. Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded Malet’s faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was, in fact, the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert later became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

William de Goulafriere, who had also accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy, also held three acres in Aspall, valued at fifteen shillings. The nearby large village of Debenham consisted of three Saxon manors, the first held by Edric, a Saxon freeman under commendation to William Malet, with sixteen bordars, twelve ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to the freemen, four acres of meadow, wood enough to support sixty hogs, a rouncy (a cart-horse), four beasts, forty hogs, thirty sheep and forty goats. At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by William de Goulafriere, as sub-tenant to Robert Malet. There were one and a half ploughteams belonging to the freemen, woodland for forty hogs, of which there were twenty, together with six ‘beasts’ (oxen), forty-five sheep and twenty-eight goats. The value of the whole estate had declined from sixty shillings to fifty shillings at the time of Domesday, which shows that the Conquest could well have had a negative effect on the wealthier Saxon manors, possibly due to the amount of woodland which was cut down for building castles. William de Goulafriere also held over the freemen on Malet’s other holding of thirty-six acres, the value of which had declined from ten shillings to six by Domesday. This suggested that he managed the Saxon freemen for Malet, perhaps as an intermediary who understood them better and who respected him as a farmer. He also held Malet’s sixth estate of ten acres, which had half a ploughteam and was valued at two shillings. Winston, an outlying manor of Debenham appears, like the other, larger neighbouring Malet estates, to have had a very independent status as a manor, because it was held in the time of the Confessor by the Abbot of Ely, in demesne.

Like Stigand, Abbot Thurstan was a Saxon, appointed by Harold but, unlike Stigand, he was also honest and hard-working, so William did not replace him, even when he (famously) gave Hereward the Wake sanctuary from William’s soldiers in 1071, helping him to establish his hideout in the Fens. From this base, Hereward began harassing the Normans, killing and robbing them, so that King William himself was forced to offer him a truce after the outlaw thane had almost captured and killed another of his tenants-in-chief, William de Warenne. Hereward then decided to return to Flanders for Turfrida, to bring her back to England with him and also to recruit some of the mercenaries who had fought with him in Scaldemariland. While there he received messages from Abbot Thurstan telling him that his uncle, Brand, was dead and that the sons of Swein Esthrison, King of Denmark, had arrived in the Fens with a raiding army and might be persuaded to support a rising against the Normans. He was also told that King William had appointed a ‘strict French Abbot’ as Abbot of Peterborough, Thurold of Malmesbury, who was on his way to the abbey with an army of Normans from Stamford in Lincolnshire. William was said to have chosen him for his warlike disposition with the clear intention of setting him on Hereward.

Hereward’s ‘Attack’ on Peterborough:

Hereward quickly mustered his men and returned to England, arranging a meeting with the Danes at which he talked them into helping him to upset the Conqueror’s plan by seizing all the treasures of Peterborough to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Normans. Assembling his combined forces of English, Danish and former mercenaries, Hereward advanced to take control of Peterborough, crossing the Fens in large, flat-bottomed boats, using the Wellstream near Outwell, and seeking to gain entry by way of the Bolhythe Gate south of the Abbey. At first, they were resisted by the townsfolk and the monks, who had heard that Hereward and his band of outlaws, including Danes, intended to rob the monastery of its treasures, rather than saving them from the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at Peterborough, records how…

… in the morning all the outlaws came with many boats and attacked the monastery. The monks fought to keep them out.

They therefore failed to gain entry, but when his men set fire to the gate and the buildings outside the walls, he and his men, including the Danes, were able to break in. Once inside, they set about collecting everything movable of value they could lay their hands on. They tried to remove the Great Crucifix, laden with gold and precious stones, hanging at the entrance to the High Altar, but they could only take the crown from the head of Christ’s figure. Elsewhere they were more successful, taking eleven decorated boxes containing the relics of saints, encrusted with gold, silver and precious stones, twelve jewelled crosses and many other objects of gold and silver, books with jewelled covers, and the huge altar hanging, also embroidered in precious metals and jewels. They stripped the abbey of most of its precious possessions, including an ancient ‘relic’, the arm of St Oswald. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the outlaws then burnt down the monastery:

Then the rebels set fire to it, and burnt down all the monks’ houses except one, and the whole town… they took so much gold and so many treasures – money, clothes and books – that no one could add them up. They said they did it out of support for the monastery.

They left the area around the monastery, devastated by fire, on hearing that Abbot Thurold and his men were on their way from Stamford. Several senior monks went with them, and none were harmed. Despite the fire, no serious damage was done, and Thurold was able to resume church services within a week of his arrival. However, the Danes held on to the greater portion of the ‘booty’ and refused to assist in further resistance to the Normans. King Swein ordered them to return to Denmark, leaving Hereward and his men to face King William’s wrath. On the journey home, however, they ran into a storm which wrecked most of their ships with the loss of both men and treasure. Hereward and his men returned to their refuge at Ely and held out for several months against all the efforts of the Norman barons, aided by Abbot Thurold, to dislodge them. Hereward’s forces continued to harry the Normans at every opportunity, eve, on one occasion, surrounding Thurold and a company of men, only releasing them on payment of hundreds of pounds ransom, equivalent to thousands in today’s money.

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Ely – Iconic Isle & Impregnable English Stronghold:

At Ely, Hereward became a magnet for rebel Englishmen and Danes, since he himself was of Danish descent. Following his initial disappointment with the Danes who helped him to ‘sack’ Peterborough, he made all those who joined him swear on the tomb of Etheldreda (see the picture below from the Cathedral nave) that they would stick together against the Normans. The Abbey, sixteen miles north of Cambridge, had been founded as a monastery in 673 by St Etheldreda. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, part of it was still standing in King Edward’s reign, though the present building was begun in 1083, after the events described here. Many of Hereward’s supporters who gathered there were his relatives from Lincolnshire, but he was also joined by another Dane, called Thorkell of Harringworth, who had lost his lands in Northamptonshire. Others included the rich landowner Siward of Maldon in Essex, Rahere ‘the Heron’ from Wroxham on the Bure in the Norfolk Broads, Brother Siward of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and Reginald, Hereward’s standard-bearer. They carried out a series of raids against the Normans, pillaging far and wide and sometimes suffering heavy losses themselves. They reassured many people that all was not yet lost. For a time, William did nothing, leaving the task of dealing with Hereward to the local barons such as William de Warenne from Castle Acre, William Malet from Eye in Suffolk and Richard fitzGilbert from Clare. But following the rising in the North in 1069 in support of Edgar Aetheling, the last Saxon heir to the thrones of Wessex and England, the Conqueror changed his mind.

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Many of the commoners followed their thanes, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Two of the last surviving Saxon Earls from King Edward’s time, the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, soon lost all faith in the new Norman king. They feared that as part of his revenge for the rising, which caused William to burn and destroy large tracts of Yorkshire and Durham, they too would be imprisoned. They escaped from their ‘house arrest’ at the King’s court and hid out for six months in the woods and fields, evading recapture. Hoping to find a ship to flee to Flanders, they arrived at Ely, accompanied by other Saxon nobles and their household troops. These included Bishop Athelwine of Durham and two of Edwin and Morcar’s relatives, Godric of Corby and Tostig of Daventry. They all met up in the Fens near Wisbech and persuaded Hereward to allow them to spend the winter at Ely. They had returned south after the rising when Prince Eadgar and Maerleswein, the English sheriff of Lincolnshire and their supporters, had sought refuge with King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, who had married Eadgar’s sister, Margaret of Wessex, following the family’s flight from the Norman court and their shipwreck at the mouth of the Forth.

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So the remnant of the rebellion against William was now gathered in one place and William could not resist the opportunity to destroy it once and for all. But it was not going to be easy to deal with them since Ely was an island surrounded by the Fens and almost impregnable. The rivers and the deep, almost bottomless meres combined with the marshes surrounding the Isle made it a tremendous obstacle to any army, especially one like the Norman army, whose strength was in its heavy cavalry. Any attempt at the waterborne assault could be easily repelled. The available ways onto the Isle from Earith, Soham or Downham were well known, difficult and easily defended. The rebel defenders had built ramparts of peat surmounted by strong fences from which javelins and other missiles could be launched. King William also realised that a large fighting force within these defences, well stocked with food and water, could hold out almost indefinitely and, commanded by Hereward, a soldier of proven ability, a headlong ground attack was unlikely to succeed without heavy losses.

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William’s Attempts to Lay Siege to the Isle:

Hence, the King decided to mobilise both ground and naval forces on a large scale. The chronicles of the time record how he set his ships to blockade the Isle from the ‘seaward’ or northern side and set a siege on the landward side. The various accounts of the attack are confused, but what took place is clear enough. King William gathered his élite troops and commanders together at the castle in Cambridge and planned an assault which meant crossing the fen at its narrowest point by strengthening the existing causeway. This was a very old track called the Mare’s Way, running from Willingham to an Iron Age earthwork called Belsar’s Hill. There he quickly set up camp, building a palisade along the rampart of the old fort. He then forced all the local people to provide him with materials with which he continued to reinforce the causeway, building a bridge which would enable his army to cross the Old West River onto the Isle.

William also set up an advance post at ‘Devil’s Dyke’, near Reach, and some of his men attempted to cross the West River below where it was joined by the River Cam. In the meantime, Hereward carried out scouting forays, building up stocks of food and weapons, killing or wounding any parties of Normans found away from their base. He fortified the weak spots on the dykes with walls of peat and easily repulsed the Normans, counter-attacking at Reach. He led a small raiding party of seven men against the outpost and killed all the guards there, except for one Richard, son of Osbert, who was the last man standing, while none of the seven attackers was killed. Richard later reported on the action to the King’s War Council, and of how Hereward had gone on to burn down the nearby village of Burwell before retreating as reinforcements were brought up. William moved his troops to a point on the West River not far from the modern hamlet of Aldreth, some way to the east, where the fen was narrower than elsewhere. There he set about building a floating structure loosely described as a bridge supported by sheepskins filled with air, which may have been sabotaged by its local peasant builders. There was a suggestion that the bags were partly filled with sand so that they would gradually sink.

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As soon as it appeared to be ready, and before the defenders could react, a large number of knights and men-at-arms rushed onto the bridge, eager to be the first on the Isle with its promise of rich plunder. The whole construction was so unstable that it collapsed, throwing all the men on it into the river and the surrounding swamp so that they all, save one, drowned. Some hundreds, at least, perished, and William retreated in despair to the former royal manor of Brampton, near Huntingdon, while Hereward, entertaining the sole survivor of the disaster, Deda the knight. He was well looked after and invited to dine in the refectory of Ely monastery, along with Abbot Thurstan, his monks and the various noblemen supporting Hereward. They feasted at great wooden trestle tables in the hall with their arms and armour stacked against the walls, ready for use in action. Their shields hung on the walls behind their seats, marking their places. Deda was therefore allowed to believe that the defenders were well supplied with food from the abbey lands, including its famous eels, as well as fresh water from its wells, and wine from its vineyards. He was then set free so that he could report all this to King William. Deda did exactly that at a meeting of the King’s council, in which he told William all about the Isle of Ely:

Around it are great meres and fens, like a strong wall. In this isle there are many tame cattle, and huge numbers of wild animals; stags, roes, foats and hares… But what am I to say of the kinds of fishes and fowls, both those that fly and those that swim? … I have seen a hundred – no, even three hundred – taken at once – sometimes by bird-lime, sometimes in nets or snares.

Deda’s information almost persuaded William to give up his attack on Ely. But Ivo Taillebois, in a dramatic speech, persuaded the king that he would never live down such an ignominious retreat. This argument won the day, and work began on a new portable bridge guarded by two tall wooden siege towers. These were mounted on huge platforms on wheels and could be used to fire missiles at the opposite bank of the river to drive back the defenders. Hereward, however, had had Deda followed, enabling him to locate the king’s camp at Brampton. Hereward hid his horse Swallow nearby, disguised himself as a seller of pots and oil lamps and infiltrated the camp. He listened carefully to all that was said about the king’s plans, including one to employ a witch to curse the Islanders using a giant eel from the swamp to cast her spells. But then he was identified as the ‘notorious’ outlaw by one of the King’s men and was forced to make a dramatic escape into the marshes where he found his horse and rode back to Ely via Sutton and Witchford, leaving one Norman dead and several others wounded back at the camp.

Meanwhile, the king’s orders were being quickly carried out. He commandeered all the available boats from Cottingham and the surrounding areas so that more men and materials and men could be brought in over the flooded landscape. Great tree trunks were laid down and covered with sticks and stones to form a platform over the marsh on which the siege towers could be erected, and catapults for hurling stones were placed on the towers. But Hereward’s men had disguised themselves as labourers and mingled with the Saxon workmen. When they threw off their disguises to reveal their armour and weapons, their enemies were thrown into confusion and they were able to set fire reeds and willows of the fen as well as to the piles of wood around the siege towers, calling upon God, in English, to come to their aid. The whole structure and towers caught fire and the Normans fled in terror from the roaring flames and choking smoke. The fire spread across the fens for half a kilometre into the swamp of reeds, whipped up by the wind, with the peat below the water level also burning. The soldiers fled headlong into this in order to escape the raging flames, the noise of the crackling willows and the billowing smoke driving them mad with fear. The peat fires would have been almost impossible to extinguish, travelling underground and even underwater and erupting in explosions of steam clouds. Men trying to cross the swamp fell waist deep into burning peat. Hereward and his men, familiar with the perils of the marsh, pursued the fleeing Normans, killing many trapped by the flames, then retreating once more to the Isle.

King William Raises the Stakes:

King William, enraged by his defeat and horror-stricken with his losses, sought his immediate revenge by seizing all the lands of the abbey of Ely, distributed over a wide area, that he could lay his hands on and distributing them among his barons. News of this was carefully leaked to Abbot Thurstan and his monks, who began to have second thoughts about continuing to resist in case they lost everything. William also let it be known that Earl Morcar and other thanes would be treated leniently if they surrendered, but mercilessly if they continued their resistance. Earl Edwin decided to leave his brother and make his way to Scotland to join the Wessex resistance there. On the way, he was betrayed by three of his own men to a squadron of Norman knights. Caught in the open between a river and the sea, he was slaughtered. His betrayers took his head to King William, expecting a reward, but were themselves executed.

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Abbot Thurstan then contacted the King and offered to reveal how he could gain safe passage onto the Isle from another direction. William accepted his offer and made his way across Avering Mere by boat to a spot near the village of Little Thetford, a short distance from the town of Ely, where the river was placid and easily crossed. William took the Abbot’s advice, but it wasn’t an easy journey. His army had to take a winding march through the marshes to the mere, along a path revealed to the King by the monks. The men lost sight of each other in the eerie silence of the marsh and sometimes found themselves walking over the bodies of men and horses that had perished in the fire in the swamp. They also had to cross the many tributaries and streams running through the fens, wading through deep waters almost up to the level of their helmets and all the time harassed by attacks from the Fenlanders. King William commandeered all available flat-bottomed fenland boats, ancestors of the modern punt, to transport horses and catapults as well as materials to build yet another bridge. He had given up the idea of crossing near Aldreth because of the fires still raging in the marshes there.

The Final Norman Attack along Akeman Street:

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Eventually, William reached the area which Thurstan had described to him, near Little Thetford, bringing up the boats carrying the catapults and setting them up on the river bank. From there he began to bombard the defenders. At first, this caused the unstable ground to shake, threatening the attackers with drowning. But the Conqueror’s ‘engineers’ constructed a pontoon bridge over a number of the flat-bottomed boats lashed together and covered in willow branches, reeds and rushes. His bombardment had succeeded in softening up the Resistance and he was able to lead his men across the rapidly improvised pontoon bridge onto the Isle, driving back the remaining defenders with his horsemen. He then swept forward in a ‘pincer’ movement, one wing advancing directly towards Ely along the old Roman road, Akeman Street, while the other swept round through Witchford, where he accepted the surrender of Morcar and the nobles. However, they had left this too late and Morcar, Siward Barn and Bishop Aethelwine were imprisoned. The bishop died shortly afterwards, Morcar remained a prisoner for life and Siward Barn was only released after William’s death. He went int exile in Constantinople where he was said to have joined the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. The other leaders of the Resistance were severely dealt with; some were blinded, others lost hands or feet. The ordinary rank and file were released unharmed.

Hereward had been absent from Ely during the final Norman attack, leading another raiding party with his closest allies. On returning from this, he found that Morcar and the other nobles had surrendered and the King was already at Witchford. In his rage and despair, he threatened to burn down the town but was persuaded by Alwin, son of Sheriff Ordgar, that it was too late to recover the Isle and the Abbey. He and his allies then escaped through the Fens to take refuge in the Bruneswald, the great forest along the Fen edge in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. There, for some months, he carried on his guerrilla campaign against the Norman King. Nothing very definite is known about his ultimate fate. There are two conflicting narratives, one of which was that he was captured by William’s forces of the seven shires in the Bruneswald, only for him to escape in the company of his gaoler, Robert of Harpole, who then persuaded the King to pardon him in exchange for him entering his king’s service. In that narrative, Hereward agreed and was given back some of his lands. He then lived out his life in retirement and was buried at Crowland next to his first wife, Turfrida, who had become a nun there. However, this narrative rests on two false clues. According to the Domesday Book, there was another thane named Hereward, the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, who held lands in Warwickshire in the service of the Bishop of Worcester and the Count of Mortain. Later chroniclers confused this Hereward with the Fenland outlaw. In addition, a later English rebel, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1075 for taking part in a revolt against King William, was also buried at Crowland. So some details of this narrative may be based on cases of mistaken identity.

The alternative narrative, written up in the twelfth century by the poet Geoffrey Gaimar also claims that Hereward was reconciled with William and went with him to the war in Maine where he made another fortune out of booty captured in the war. On his way home, he was ambushed by two dozen Norman knights seeking revenge against him, and died fighting single-handedly against overwhelming odds, killing about half of his assailants. Here, the poet is probably giving his hero a hero’s death within the literary conventions of the time. Peter Rex has argued that the most likely ‘denouement’ is that, after seeing out the winter of 1071 in the Bruneswald, Hereward decided that it was too dangerous for him to remain in England, so that he and his close allies and men slipped away by sea to the Continent. Once there, he probably became a mercenary once more, and either died in battle or lived to return to England in the reign of William Rufus, perhaps living quietly in Norfolk into old age and being buried in Crowland. The evidence for this comes from two East Anglian families, at Terrington near Kings Lynn and Great Barton near Bury St Edmunds, who both claim descent from him.

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The Primary Sources – The Abbey, the Man & the Myth:

The authentic primary evidence we have for the real Hereward comes mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. His exile and his lands are also documented in the Domesday Book of 1086. His raid on Peterborough is related by Hugh Candidus in his History of Peterborough Abbey, written in the mid-twelfth century and in the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, copied there in circa 1120. His other adventures are narrated in the Gesta Herewardi; the Book of the Exploits of Hereward, written partly by Leofric the deacon, who claimed to be Hereward’s chaplain, and partly by the monk Richard of Ely, who wrote Book Two of the Liber Eliensis. Both this latter text and the Gesta are based on earlier texts written before 1109 when the Abbacy became a Bishopric, drawing on the first-hand accounts of both the monks of Ely and the Norman soldiers. The epithet ‘the Wake’ which some linguists have claimed to be a synonym of ‘the Alert’ or ‘the Watchful’  was the result of a dubious claim of descent by a lesser Norman noble family named ‘Wake’, who were concerned to enhance their reputation after being given lands in Lincolnshire under King Henry I, whose own legitimacy as king was enhanced by his marriage into the Wessex Royal family.  But neither the Wakes nor the fitzGilberts, the family into which they married, had any connection with Hereward’s family.  In fact, Richard fitzGibbon was one of the Norman knights who fought Hereward’s men at the siege of Ely.

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Ely Cathedral today, with the Abbey’s Great Hall at the end of the North Transept (left).

Although the Abbey was fined heavily for its role in the resistance, and its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester. The Abbey’s land in Winston in Suffolk, referred to above, consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, as well as six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, the manor of Winston was still held by Abbot Simeon, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds, ten shillings, and was the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the Abbot’s land. On the elderly abbot’s reinstatement to Ely, William de Goulafriere (who had held the confiscated lands in the meantime) helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with de Goulafriere, was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

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From a ‘See Britain by train’ poster in the National Railway Museum captioned  ‘Where Hereward the Wake made his last stand, Ely Cathedral, rises in majesty.’

Hereward Asketilson, as he should properly be known, became an iconic figure for all those Anglo-Saxons and Danes who resisted the tyranny of the Conqueror, his barons and their ‘Norman Yoke’. As an ‘outlaw’, he no doubt inspired the later legends of outlaws throughout the English countryside in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gradually, a powerful myth of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ took hold, to be revived at various points of conflict in national and regional history. The initial conquest of England did not end at the Battle of Hastings, but took more than five years to accomplish. The Plantagenet’s attempts to extend the conquest into the other countries and territories of the British Isles over the course of the following two centuries also met with considerable resistance, and were only partially successful. However, in England, by the end of the twelfth century, there was a mixing and melding of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures in which ‘Englishness’ predominated, and not just in the continued use of Saxon tongues. The author of one of the earliest school textbooks, written in Latin in about 1180, made the observation that:

… now that the English and Normans have lived so long together, and have become so mixed together (I speak of freemen only) that we can hardly these days tell apart an Englishman and Norman. 

The monk William of Malmesbury also commented on the extent to which the powerful Norman élite was assimilated by the general Saxon population:

The English at that time (before 1066) wore short clothes reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cut very short, their beards shaven off, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skins covered with punctuated designs (tattoos); they tended to eat until they were stuffed full and drink until they were sick. These last habits they gave to their conquerors; the rest they shared with them.

Secondary Sources:

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Published by the Ely Society, 2012.

The cover picture was supplied by Grantanbrycg, the Cambridge branch of

Regia Angolorum, http://www.regia.org

 

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

 

Posted June 3, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Calais, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Compromise, Conquest, Dark Ages, East Anglia, Education, English Language, Ethnicity, Europe, Family, Flanders, Footpaths, France, guerilla warfare, History, Integration, Linguistics, Medieval, Memorial, Mercia, Midlands, Monarchy, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Norfolk, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Reconciliation, Saxons, Scotland, Suffolk, terror, tyranny, West Midlands

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A Century Ago: Britain & the World in 1919 – ‘The Year of Victory’: Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One – January-June: A Tale of Five Cities.

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

The New Year’s Eve of 1918 that hiccupped a welcome to the first year of peace began a long procession of almost hysterically happy crowds which took possession of London on every possible excuse. Life was not yet back to normal (it never got back to whatever ‘normal’ was): food was only beginning to be de-restricted – meat, sugar and butter coupons were no abolished until August; five million men were taking time to demobilize and were not finding jobs easily, and money was short. Any spare money was needed by the country, as the photograph of Trafalgar Square at the top of this article shows. The Victory, or “Peace and Joy” loan brought in forty million pounds in three days, and the smallest amount that could be invested was five pounds. The total collected was seven hundred million. By November 1919 there would be just 900,000 still in ‘khaki’ uniforms. The wounded, like those photographed above, later in the year, were given blue uniforms. More than two million were wounded, and in January one man died as a result of a bullet wound received in 1918.

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At the beginning of 1919, “Hang the Kaiser!” was the cry in Britain. The newspapers discussed who would be his judges when he was brought from Holland to the Tower of London, and what they would do with him. Those who suggested that his life should be spared were considered unpatriotic, unless they also argued that, like Napoleon, he should be sent to St. Helena for the rest of his life. Despite an application for his surrender, he remained in the Netherlands. A Daily Express reporter who had first seen him at close quarters before the war said that over the previous four years, his hair had turned completely white.

At 11 a.m. on 3 January, Harold Nicolson (pictured below), a thirty-two-year-old diplomat at the Foreign Office, left Charing Cross station for Paris. He arrived at the Gare du Nord twelve hours later and drove without delay to the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber, where the British delegation to the Peace Conference was due to be housed.

Alwyn Parker, a Middle East specialist who had been made responsible for the well-being of the British delegates, had instituted a security-conscious, home-cooking environment consistent with sound British standards. Staffed by British domestic servants and reinforced by nameless security agents, the catering standards were, apparently, tasteless in the extreme.

 

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Overworked and underpaid, Nicolson served as a technical adviser on the committees that were drawing up the new maps of central Europe and the Balkans. Sketching in fresh boundaries for Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey consumed his working hours. Although he found the work ‘passionately interesting’, it was not all plain sailing. His letters reveal how at times he was conscience-stricken by the burdens imposed on him:

How fallible one feels here! A map – a pencil – tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people. … Nobody who has not had experience of Committee work in actual practice can conceive of the difficulty of inducing a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Englishman to agree on anything.

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Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

These committees were not concerned with constructing the framework of the newborn League of Nations, President Wilson’s obsessive brainchild. Still, they stood at the heart of the conference’s deliberations, dealing with the fate of national minorities, reconciling the all-too-often conflicting and exaggerated claims of the great and the small powers. It was approvingly noted that the French Premier, M. Clemenceau, always audible, was equally rude to both. And as the plenary sessions of the conference, the politicians had neither the time nor the knowledge to challenge the recommendations of the ‘experts’, they became, in effect, the arbiters of these disputes, the final court of appeal. It was a responsibility that Harold Nicolson could have done without. Interminable committee meetings, drafting endless position papers, irregular hours, hurried meals, late nights and competing with closed-minded politicians, all put Harold under an intolerable strain. Exhausted, he had reached the point when he found himself reading sentences twice over. He sought advice from Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, whom he usually found languid in his habits, usually draped over a chair, ‘always affable and benign’, at his apartment in the rue Nitot. Balfour told him to…

… return at once to the Majestic – arrived there, you will go to bed. For luncheon you will drink a bottle of Nuits St George and eat all you can possibly swallow. You will then sleep until four. You will then read some books which I shall lend you. For dinner you will have champagne and foie grás – a light dinner. You repeat this treatment until Sunday at three, when you drive alone to Versailles and back. In the evening of Sunday you dine – again alone, that is essential – at Larue and go to a play. By Monday you will be cured.

He did as he was told and on Monday he noted in his diary that he felt again a young and vigorous man. Refreshed, he returned to his duties which, of course, included faithfully serving Balfour’s needs. Harold worked in close tandem with Allen Leeper, an Australian graduate of Balliol College, Oxford with a working knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and Ladino. In keeping with the Zeitgeist, he was in favour of creating compact nation-states, to unite the Poles, Yugoslavs, Romanians, the Arabs and the Greeks, a process which would pave the way for the demise of the old, discredited system ruled by the Great Powers and lead to a new era regulated by the League of Nations and Wilsonianism. To Nicolson, at the time, these ideas were admirable, but later, writing in 1935, he thought they might appear utopian, but added even then that to many of us it still remains the most valid of all our visions.

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Thirty nations met at Paris to discuss the post-war world. Bolshevik Russia and the defeated Central Powers were excluded. On the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Each of the other four which were signed subsequently was also named after an area or landmark of Paris. The Conference opened officially on 18 January 1919 at the Quai d’Orsay. Raymond Poincaré, the French President, greeted the delegates, but his Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau soon took command in his typical high-handed, machine-gunning fashion:

Y a-t-il d’objections? Non? … Adopté!”

Edvard Beneš.

Harold Nicolson continued to be absorbed by the minutiae of the territorial commission’s deliberations, niggling questions that at a distance seem esoteric to an extreme, but which at the time took on grave importance. He explained to Balfour why the Italians should not be awarded Fiume, a judgement that was upheld by Wilson and Lloyd George. He was also considered something of a Czech expert and was impressed by Benes, the Czech Foreign Minister (pictured right), whom he described as altogether an intelligent, young, plausible little man with broad views. Benes based his case not so much on securing national rights as on sustaining the stability of central Europe. Nicolson agreed with this view and confidently told the Supreme Council that the historical border of Bohemia and Moravia needed to be respected, in spite of the fact that many Germans would be included. Teschen, Silesia, Oderburg were to be included in the new Czechoslovakia, along with Hungarian Ruthenia.

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All the Allies were invited to the Peace Conference which met at Paris in January 1919, but the important decisions were made by the ‘Big Four’, pictured below. The German government had accepted the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which US President Woodrow Wilson had set out in the ‘Fourteen Points’ of his War Aims (see the map above) which he, and they, thought would form the basis of the peace settlement.

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The ‘Four Big Men’ were (left to right), the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George; the Italian Prime Minister, Signor Orlando; France’s Premier, M.Clemenceau; and Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA. They were the big figures at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson’s ideas were, therefore, the hope of victors and vanquished alike, and he was sincerely anxious to carry out his promises. But he lost influence because he had few practical plans to offer upon which his ideas of a just settlement could be built. By the time John Buchan published his account of these events in 1935, many histories of the Peace Conference had already been written in detail in many volumes. Its work had been bitterly criticised, and on it had been blamed most of the later misfortunes of Europe. But, as he observed, …

… it is probable that our successors will take a friendlier view, and will recognise more fully the difficulties under which it achieved. Its position was very different from that of the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Then the victors held most of Europe and had armies ready and willing to carry out their commands: now they were so weary that the further use of force was almost unthinkable. Then a little group of grandees, akin in temper, met in dignified seclusion. Now a multitude of plenipotentiaries sat almost in public, surrounded by hordes of secretaries and journalists, and under the arc-lamp of suspicious popular opinion. 

The difference in the complexity and scale of the two conferences is shown by the resulting treaties. The hundred and twenty articles of the Treaty of Vienna were signed by seventeen delegates; the Treaty of Versailles contained 441 articles and seventy signatures. The business was so vast that the mechanism was constantly changing. At first, the main work was in the hands of a Council of Ten, representing the five great Powers; then it fell to the US President and the European Prime Ministers; at the end, the ‘dictators’ were Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Had the three ‘architects of destiny’ been fully in agreement, or had they been men with broader personalities and more open minds, both the peace process and its products might have been better. To be fair to them, however, all three had to take different circumstances into consideration besides the merits of each case.

Wilson, who had been detached from the actual conflict, might have been expected to bring a cool and dispassionate mind to the deliberations, as well as a unique authority. But he found himself, quite literally, on unfamiliar territory, and his political mistakes in his own country had made it doubtful that Americans would ratify his conclusions. In diplomatic skill, he was not the equal of the other statesmen. Because he believed that the establishment of the League of Nations was the only hope of permanent world peace, he soon had to compromise on matters where the views of the practical statesmen conflicted with the ideals of his fourteen points in order to secure their acceptance of the Covenant. Moreover, he had the support of only a small minority of his fellow Americans; those who upheld the traditional policy of non-intervention in European affairs were hostile to him. This hostility back home also weakened his prestige at the Conference. Eventually, the Senate of the USA refused to ratify his work in establishing the League of Nations so that the country did not join the organisation, and at the election following the treaties, he failed to be re-elected. It soon appeared to John Buchan, that Wilson’s was …

… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and not the creed of a great people. His self-confidence led him to cast himself in too high a part, and he failed to play it … The framers of the Treaty of Vienna a century before were fortunate in that they were simpler men, whose assurance was better based, and who were happily detached from popular passions: “There are times when the finest intelligence in the world is less serviceable than the sound common sense of a ‘grand seigneur’.” (F.S. Oliver, The Endless Adventure: III, 109.)

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Georges Clemenceau (left), French Premier & Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA.

As Chairman of the Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau was a realist and had no faith in Wilson’s ideals. He was also an intense nationalist, whose policy was to give absolute priority to the security of France, and he translated every problem into the terms of an immediate and narrowly conceived national interest. He worked for the interests of France and France alone. He knew exactly what he wanted, which was to crush Germany while he had the chance. He regarded Franco-German hostility as natural and inevitable and wanted revenge not just for the Great War but also for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 in which Paris was occupied and Alsace-Lorraine was surrendered. Had Germany won, he believed, France would not have been spared destruction. Now that Germany had been utterly defeated, he had the opportunity he had desired, to destroy its power to threaten the security of France. He dominated the conference and his uncompromising attitude earned him the epithet, ‘Tiger’.

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David Lloyd George (above) was subtler and more far-sighted, taking broader views, but his power was weakened in his colleagues’ eyes by the election he had just fought and won on intransigent terms. Nevertheless, he recognised the need for a peace settlement that would help restore German prosperity as an important trading partner. He, therefore, favoured more moderate terms, but gave only limited support to Wilson’s ideals because Britain was bound by treaties concluded during the war for the satisfaction of her Allies at the expense of the defeated powers, and he was bound by his election pledge by which he had promised to ‘Make Germany Pay’, demanding penalties from the enemy. At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered with the reality as ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to seek their old jobs. If anything, As Simon Schama has put it, …

… this had to be the moment, perhaps the last, when the conditions that had produced the general massacre were removed. Away with the preposterous empires and monarchs and the tribal fantasies of churches and territories. Instead there would be created a League of Free Nations … This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history – otherwise the sacrifice the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. 

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Above: The Menin Road (detail), by Paul Nash, 1919

Fit for Heroes? – Boom-time Britain & the ‘Bolshevists’:

Britain was experiencing a post-war boom in trade, evidenced by the fact that the number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented figure of almost eight million. As the unions flexed their muscles, thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since 1912. Trade unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the demobbed servicemen. In Scotland, their demonstrations, which included (for the first time) serious demands for Home Rule, were viewed as ‘riots’ by the authorities. The demands were fuelled in part by the astonishingly disproportionate numbers of Scots casualties in the War: over a quarter of the 557,000 Scottish servicemen had been killed, compared with a rate of one in eight among the rest of the British army. Ironically, it was the long tradition of being the backbone of the imperial army, from the American Revolution to the Indian Mutiny, that had resulted in them being put in front line positions during the Great War, often in the ‘vanguard’ of some suicidal lurch ‘over the top’.

Despite this contribution, in Glasgow, an eighth of the population was still living in single-room accommodation and the Clydeside economy was especially vulnerable to retrenchment in the shipyards. As men were demobilized, unemployment rose and the unions responded with demands for a shorter working week, to spread the work and wages available as broadly as possible. The campaign for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. They also demanded the retention of wage and rent controls. When they were met with stark refusal, a forty-hour general strike was called, culminating on 31 January in a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, which took place on George Square in the city centre of Glasgow. Upwards of ninety thousand took part. A red flag and calls were made, for the first time, for the setting up of a separate Scottish workers’ republic. The police read the ‘Riot Act’ and their lines charged the demonstrators and, mindful of having been caught by surprise in Dublin by the Easter Rising of 1916, the government claimed that the demonstration was a ‘Bolshevist’ uprising, sending twelve thousand troops and six tanks (pictured above) to occupy what became known as ‘Red Clydeside’.

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Many of these ‘Red Clydesiders’ soon found themselves ‘victimized’, out of work and on the road to England and its ‘new’ engineering and manufacturing centres. By 1919, for example, Coventry’s population had continued to grow from 130,000 in 1918 to 136,000, partly due to the delayed expansion of the British motor industry, inhibited during the War as manufacturing industry turned its attention to meeting wartime demand. As soon as hostilities were over the production of motor vehicles was again embraced with enthusiasm as both old and new contenders entered the market amongst the heavy competition. In 1919 and 1920 at least forty new car producing firms emerged. Many of these firms later failed and their names disappeared or were taken over by companies like Singer in Coventry, but in 1920 the President of the City’s Chamber of Commerce reflected on its recent growth:

Few towns and cities can point to a growth as quick and extensive as that which has been the lot of Coventry in the last two decades … The way Coventry has moved forward is more characteristic of a new American city fed by immigrants, than of one of the oldest cities in Great Britain.

Growth and immigration were beginning to have an effect on local politics. In 1919, as the city enjoyed its boom, so the fortunes of the Labour movement also prospered, with Labour capturing a third of the seats on the City Council. The short but strong national economic boom funded some, at least, of  Lloyd George’s promise to make ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’. Christopher Addison, the minister of reconstruction, oversaw the building of 200,000 homes, effectively marking the beginning of council house construction in Britain. Again, in 1920, the Coventry Chamber of Commerce was keen to advertise the fact that the Corporation had already, since the war, built a thousand houses for its workers at rates varying from six to ten shillings per week which were regarded as ‘comparatively low’.

Lloyd George’s only obvious rival was Winston Churchill. Having banged away in the 1918 election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, Churchill then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, opposing the continuation of the naval blockade. But his calls to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth seemed to spring from a deep well of sentimental class solidarity with the Russian aristocracy and the Tsars which marked him out, in the view of many, as an aristocratic reactionary himself. Churchill was reckless as well as tireless in calling for a commitment of men and money to try to reverse the communist revolution in Russia by supporting the pro-Tsarist White Army, which was certainly no force for democracy. But if he was deliberately goading British socialists by harping on about the Bolsheviks as dictatorial conspirators, it turned out that his diagnosis of what had actually in Russia in October 1917 was exactly right. There was ample reason to feel gloomy about the fate of liberty in the new Soviet Russia. By 1919, anyone could see that what had been destroyed was not just the Constituent Assembly but any semblance of multi-party democracy in Russia. After the war, British, as well as American troops, occupied parts of Russia. There was disagreement within the Cabinet as well as in the country as to what the British attitude toward Russia ought to be. Lloyd George felt that the perpetuation of the civil war by foreign intervention would give the revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, the perfect pretext to institutionalize his police state and find reinforcements for the Red Army, and he wrote to Churchill pointing this out to him in February 1919:

 Am very alarmed at your… planning war against the Bolsheviks. The Cabinet have never authorised such a proposal. They have never contemplated anything beyond supplying armies in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own, and that only in the event of every effort of peaceable solution failing. A military enquiry as to the best method of giving material assistance to these Russian armies is all to the good, but do not forget that it is an essential part of the inquiry to ascertain the cost; and I also want you to bear in mind that the War Office reported to the Cabinet that according to their information intervention was driving the anti-Bolshevik parties in Russia into the ranks of the Bolshevists. 

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

With the evaporation of the authority of the US President in Paris, and the limited tenure of the French wartime prime minister, his fellow peacemakers, it was Lloyd George who grew in stature as the future arbiter of the European settlement and world statesman. While France sought military security, Britain sought naval and commercial superiority through the destruction of the German Empire. The British Empire, as Curzon had boasted the previous year, had never been so omnipotent. But despite Curzon’s complacency, all was not well in the far-flung imperial posts. First of all, however, and closer to home, trouble was brewing again in Ireland. Following the 1918 general election, in which the old Nationalist party disappeared and Sinn Féin won most of the Irish seats. The members of Sinn Féin who had been elected to the Westminster parliament decided to set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin, which first met in January 1919. It declared the Irish Republic in defiance of the British Crown for a second time. Eamon de Valera, who had escaped from an English jail, became its President and the King’s writ ceased to run in Ireland. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became increasingly violent.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made on imperial matters during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government simply because it had promised it to them. If it kept its promise, it was because the promise had raised expectations that could not be denied, making the plaintiffs stronger and even more resolute claimants. But if it had not had this effect, and if Britain could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was subsequently modified, was determined much more by the conditions of that time; the interests, strengths and weaknesses of different parties then, than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the past. The conditions of 1919 determined that, initially, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. In the first place, the fact that there were outright winners and losers meant that there were, suddenly, a large number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, with only Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Japan in a position to ‘snaffle them up’. Japan was satisfied with controlling the north Pacific, America didn’t want colonies and Italy, whose contribution to the Allied victory was seen as negligible, was not thought to deserve any. That left the German colonies in Africa and the Turkish territories in the Middle East as ‘gift horses’ for the British and the French if they wanted them, which they did.

Any British government of that era, of any colour, would probably have wanted its share, but the fact that the coalition government in 1919 was basically the same as the one that had fought the war and was full of imperialists made it even more probable. Balfour, Curzon and Milner (as Colonial Secretary) were not the kinds of men to look gift horses in the mouth and exercise colonial self-restraint, and neither were the Dominions which had fought, represented by Smuts in the Cabinet. Lloyd George himself was not much bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists’ accepting extra colonies. If he had any qualms, Leopold Amery quieted them by writing to him at the end of the war, that whereas they had fought it over Europe, they would also…

… find ourselves compelled to complete the liberation of the Arabs, to make secure the independence of Persia, and if we can of Armenia, to protect tropical Africa from German economic and military exploitation. All these objects are justifiable in themselves and don’t become less so because they increase the general sphere of British influence. … And if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

In 1919, the British empire seemed secure enough from external threats, but it was more vulnerable than ever to attacks from within. It might be able to deal with one at a time, but what if it were challenged by nationalists on three or four fronts simultaneously? The first of these opened up in North Africa in March, when Egyptian nationalists, inflamed by Britain’s refusal to allow them to put their case for independence to the Paris peace conference and by the arrest and exile of their leaders, began a series of demonstrations, riots, acts of sabotage, and assassinations of British army officers.

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M. K. Gandhi

Meanwhile, in India, there was a series of boycotts, walk-outs and massacres led by the lawyer and hero of the campaign against the ‘pass laws’ in South Africa, M. K. Gandhi, who had recently arrived ‘home’. Nearly a million Indian troops had been in service, both in the ‘barracks in the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front, and, earlier in the war, in the disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Before the war, there had been violence and terrorism, but mainstream colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress; moderate in its aims, not embracing absolute national independence, and in its aims, which were constitutional. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s movement, however, worked unconstitutionally, outside the system. His distinctive contribution to the nationalist struggle was ‘non-cooperation’. This spelt danger for the empire: danger which even in peace-time it might not be able to contain. In April there was a rash of rebellions in Punjab serious enough to convince General Dyer that the Indian Mutiny was about to be repeated: which persuaded him to open fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians in a public square outside the Sikh ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar, and to continue to firing into their backs until his ammunition ran out, killing at least 380 and wounding 1,200. Also in April, the first serious Arab-Jewish clash occurred in Palestine. In May, Britain was at war with Afghanistan, and about to go to war again, it seemed, with Turkey.

Towards the Treaties – The Big Three & The Council of Ten:

As the Paris conference moved forward, Harold Nicolson became increasingly depressed by the self-centred, ill-informed, arrogant behaviour of the world’s leaders who had gathered in Paris.

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Ion Bratianu, the Romanian Prime Minister was a bearded woman, a forceful humbug, a Bucharest intellectual, a most unpleasing man who aspired to the status of a Great Power; the Baron Sidney Sonnino, the Italian Foreign Minister, emerged as the evil genius of the piece, obstructing everything with a breathtaking obstinacy and malevolence, while Signor Vittorio Orlando (pictured right), the Italian Prime Minister, was never able to rise to the level of his own intelligence. When the Italians decided to leave Paris in protest at their allies’ refusal to meet them half-way on their demands, Nicolson waved them off with a hearty “good riddance”, but they returned a fortnight later.

During the rest of the conference, Orlando remained interested only in securing an expansion of Italy’s territory and in discussions which concerned the satisfaction of these ambitions. Nicholson soon concluded that the conference was proceeding in a rather irresponsible and intermittent way. For this sorry state of affairs, ‘the Big Three’ were culpable, as far as he was concerned, especially Wilson. Hampered by his spiritual arrogance and the hard but narrow texture of his mind, he appeared conceited, obstinate, nonconformist … obsessed, in fact no better than a presbyterian dominie (schoolmaster/ pedagogue). Nicolson was not alone in this opinion: Wilson’s traits were soon picked up on by the Parisian press. Bitter at these public assaults on his character, Wilson contemplated moving the conference to Geneva, where he hoped to benefit from the more Calvinistic, sober and sympathetic Swiss. Paris was an unfortunate choice for a peace conference, as passions among the people were inflamed by close contact with the War and its miseries. Statesmen could not free themselves from the tense atmosphere that prevailed.

Wilson, Nicolson believed, was also responsible for what he and others regarded as a totally impracticable agenda and timetable. The three main subjects were territorial adjustments, reparations, and the provision of machinery to ensure peace. Under the first, the map of Europe was to be redrawn, and some parts of the map of the world. The Conference did not, of course, with a clean slate; the Austrian Empire had collapsed and fallen into pieces, and Poland and Czechoslovakia had already come into being. A number of treaties, not just that of Versailles, would be needed to lay down the new boundaries – St Germain, Trianon, Neuilly and Sévres. Mandates dealing with territories taken from enemy states were to be settled later by Allied Ministers sitting in the Supreme Council. But instead of giving top priority to the main purpose of the conference, the peace settlement with Germany, Wilson kept his colleagues busy playing word games in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations, his pet cause, and by fiddling with the maps of central and eastern Europe and Asia Minor.  In this way, the German treaty was effectively put on hold until the end of March, nine weeks after the conference had opened.

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David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in 1919, at the height of his power, the man who won the war. As the head of the Conservative-Liberal-Labour wartime coalition, his government was returned at the General Election in December 1918, with an overwhelming majority of more than three hundred in the House of Commons. The majority in the total of votes was strangely less marked – five million for the government and 4.6 million against.

Neither did Lloyd George escape Nicolson’s criticism. Dressed in a bedint grey suit, the British PM hadn’t the faintest idea of what he is talking about, Nicolson complained. He tried to prime Balfour to protest against his Premier’s ‘madcap schemes’, but Balfour proved ‘infinitely tiresome’ and fobbed him off: Yes, that’s all very well, but what you say is pure aesthetics! But before long, Nicolson came to appreciate Lloyd George’s uphill struggle at the conference against those who were more extreme: Quick as a kingfisher, in Harold’s view, as he saw Lloyd George fending off excessive Italian or French demands, not always with complete success. He fought like a Welsh terrier, he told his father, as Lloyd George strove to modify the ‘punitive’ terms of the German treaty. Invited to attend meetings of ‘the Big Three’ in his capacity as an expert, Nicolson witnessed their capricious handling of affairs, which he recorded in his letters to his wife Vita:

Darling, it is appalling, those three ignorant and irresponsible men cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake, and with no one there except Hadji … Isn’t it terrible – the happiness of millions being decided in that way?

When he politely protested, Nicolson was condescendingly put down by Clemenceau: “Mais, voyez-vous, jeune homme … il faut aboutir.” But there were opportunities to advise and influence, or educate the three men, usually over a huge map on the carpet of a nearby study. Already dispirited at the way the conference was, or rather was not, proceeding, by mid-February Nicolson was beginning to despair, as he wrote to his father:

The Council of Ten are atrophied by the mass of material which pours in upon them … We are losing the peace rapidly and all the hard work is being wasted. The ten haven’t really finished off anything, except the League of Nations, and what does that mean to starving people at Kishinev, Hermannstadt and Prague? It is despairing.

In a similar vein to Oliver’s statement above, Nicolson added that What we want is a dictator for Europe and we haven’t got one: And never will have! As the conference ‘progressed’, both Europe and the Middle East continued in a state of confusion. The old empires had fallen; new nations had already set up governments. Starvation and disease aggravated the horrors resulting from war. The statesmen were forced to act quickly. They had to consider not only what they believed ought to be done, but also what their electorate demanded. On April Fool’s Day, Harold Nicolson and Leeper left Paris on a special mission headed by General Jan Smuts, the South African member of Britain’s War Cabinet. They were bound for Budapest where Nicolson had spent part of his childhood during his father’s diplomatic posting there and where, on 21 March, a communist revolution led by Béla Kun had taken place; their assignment was to investigate its ramifications. For the world’s leaders gathered in Paris, the spectre of Bolshevism was truly haunting Europe: it threatened widespread starvation, social chaos economic ruin, anarchy and a violent, shocking end to the old order. Harold wrote to his wife, Vita, about how the Germans made use of this threat:

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go Bolshevist the moment they feel it is hopeless to get good terms.

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This was one of the main themes of Lloyd George’s cogently argued but largely ignored Fontainebleau memorandum. Small wonder, then, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism in Hungary registered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. I have written more about Smuts’ mission to Budapest elsewhere on this site. During Nicolson’s absence from Paris, the prospects for a settlement based on Wilson’s new world order had receded. The French put forward extreme ideas that would extend French sovereignty or influence into the Rhineland. Lloyd George and Wilson hotly opposed these demands, seeing in them the seeds of another war. Eventually, a compromise was worked out that called for an allied occupation of the Rhineland with staged withdrawals, backed by an Anglo-American guarantee of the French frontiers. But Nicolson and many others harboured a ‘ghastly suspicion’ that the United States would not honour the signature of its delegates: it became the ghost at all our feasts, he wrote. From mid-May to mid-June the German treaty hung on a razor’s edge. Word reached Paris that the German government was prepared to sign it but that public opinion would not allow it without allied concessions. Nicolson agreed with the German public:

The more I read (the treaty), the sicker it makes me … If I were the Germans I shouldn’t sign for a moment. … The great crime is the reparations clauses, which were drawn up solely to please the House of Commons.

The peace treaties which resulted reflected the spirit of the conference, in which were represented opposing forces demanding, on the one hand, the rewards of victory, and on the other, the magnanimous settlement of conflicting claims designed to secure permanent peace. The result was a decisive triumph for the victors, but the influence of the need for a permanent peace was not entirely lost. On the one hand, there was no open discussion, and the main points of the settlement were secretly decided and imposed by the ‘Big Three’. The defeated Powers were disarmed, but the victors maintained their military strength.  On the other hand, it may be claimed that the map of Europe was redrawn to correspond with national divisions, to some extent at least and that the ‘Covenant of the League of Nations’ seemed to be a definite step towards the preservation of international peace. It formed the first part of each treaty, followed by territorial changes and disarmament clauses, such as the following from section one of the Treaty of Versailles:

By a date which must not be later than 31 March 1920, the German Army must not comprise more than seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry. 

By this article, the German Army was limited to a hundred thousand men and committed to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of frontiers. The long list of other restrictions included the prohibition of German use of submarines, tanks and poison gas. The disarmament of Germany was to be strictly enforced, but it was combined with a solemn pledge by the other nations themselves to disarm, which promised trouble in the future. In spite of Wilson’s principles, penal clauses were added to the treaties. The penal proposals, which had played so great a part in the ‘khaki’ election in Britain, were reduced more or less to the matter of reparations. Reparations were to be exacted from Germany alone; she had to undertake to pay the cost of the War, as her Allies were bankrupt. John Buchan commented on the futility of this exercise:

No victor has ever succeeded in reimbursing himself for his losses, and a strange blindness seemed on this point to have overtaken the public mind. 

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While rich in capital wealth, this could not be ‘extracted’ for its creditors, and its exportable surplus had never been great and was now likely to be very small. It could only pay large sums by borrowing from one or other of the Allies. At Paris, there was no agreement on the total sum of reparations to be paid, but there was much talk about what items should be included in the reparations bill. Smuts, whom Harold Nicolson considered a splendid, wide-horizoned man, now showed that his character, though ‘simple’, was also exceptionally ‘intricate’. Concerned that the bulk of the reparations would go to France, he concocted a creative formula to include separation allowances for soldiers’ families, as well as pensions for widows and orphans. His prescription effectively doubled the potential bill, however, and would not have been to Nicolson’s liking. Yet a special committee of solemn ‘pundits’ in Britain had fixed its capacity to pay at the preposterous figure 24,000 million pounds sterling. The Conference reduced this sum to less than half, and in 1921 a special allied commission whittled it down to 6,600 million, then to two thousand, and in 1932 further payments were dropped. But more unfortunate still was the clause which extorted from Germany a confession of her sole responsibility for the War. This was article 231 of the Treaty, the notorious ‘war guilt’ clause, that compelled Germany and her allies to accept full responsibility for…

… causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.  

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

… the business of any conference to anticipate the judgment of history, and to force a proud nation to confess that her sacrifice had been a crime was a breach of the human decencies. 

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

Could anyone salvage something from this mess? Surprisingly, perhaps, Nicolson looked to Lloyd George for this. Hitherto, he had been quite critical of Lloyd George’s policies, especially in Asia Minor, which eventually to lead to his downfall. As he sought to scale down the reparations bill, which he saw as ‘immoral and senseless’; to revise the territorial settlement in Silesia to Germany’s advantage; and to grant Germany membership of the League of Nations, Nicolson’s admiration grew, particularly as he fought alone. The French were, quite naturally, furious at him for what they considered to be a betrayal of their interests. By contrast, Wilson’s passivity infuriated Harold, who couldn’t understand why the US President would not take the opportunity to improve the draft treaty. He wrote again to his father, voicing the view of the younger generation of British diplomats:

There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms. The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters.

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After much hesitation, and under the threat of renewed force, the German government accepted the treaty. Despite his disappointment with its terms, Harold Nicolson breathed a huge sigh of relief that there would be no return to hostilities. Exactly a week before the treaty was due to be signed, however, there was a dramatic turn of events when Admiral von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German fleet blockaded at Scapa Flow off Orkney, eight months after its surrender. This is shown in the pictures above and below. Of the seventy-four warships interned, forty-eight sank within an hour when the German sailors opened the sea-cocks on the Admiral’s order. He said that he was obeying the Kaiser’s orders, given to him before the war, that no German battleship should be allowed to fall into enemy hands, and denied that he was in breach of the Armistice terms, since he had had no notice of its extension beyond 21 June, the day of expiry. The German sailors risked their lives in carrying out von Reuter’s orders. At noon on the 21st, the German ensign was run up, the battleships began to settle, and their crews crowded into boats or swam for it. Some of the British guardships, uncertain of what was happening, opened fire, and there were over a hundred casualties.

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The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Galerie des Glaces (‘Hall of Mirrors’) at the palace of Versailles, where half a century before the German Empire had been founded on the degradation of France. Harold Nicolson witnessed the occasion and recorded it in careful detail. The ‘Galerie’ was crowded, with seats for over a thousand. Clemenceau, small and yellow, orchestrated the proceedings. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” he called out. Dr Hermann Müller and Dr Johannes Bell, heads held high, eyes studying the ceiling, one looking like “the second fiddle” in a string ensemble, the other resembling “a privat-dozent“, were led to the table to sign the treaty. No-one spoke or moved. Having committed Germany to the treaty, they were escorted from the hall “like prisoners from the dock”. Over the “breathless silence”, Clemenceau rasped: “Messieurs, la séance est levée.”  Outside, salvoes were fired, while a squadron of aeroplanes flew overhead. Crowds cheered and yelled, “Vive Clemenceau … Vive l’Angleterre.” After the ceremony Clemenceau, with tears in his eyes, was heard to say: “Oui, c’est une belle journée.” Exhausted at the end of an extraordinary day, Nicolson lamented that it has all been horrible … To bed, sick of life.

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General Smuts signed the Versailles Treaty only on the grounds that something of the kind, however imperfect, was needed before the real work of peace-making could begin. But, according to John Buchan, the Treaty proved to be a grave hindrance in that task. For John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, the ‘peace’ was a ‘Carthaginian’ imposition. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, first published in 1919, he wrote a damning indictment of both the process and product of the Treaty:

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin. … Paris was a nightmare. … A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene. … Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterisation, were really faces at all and not the tragi-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show. …

010For John Buchan, the hopeful element in what had been signed lay in its prefix – the Covenant of a new League of Nations, the one remnant left of Wilson’s dreams; the hope was that the reaction against the horrors of war might result in an abiding determination for peace. Machinery was provided to give a system to fulfil this desire. Membership of the League was open to any self-governing state which accepted its principles; it required its members to refrain from war until the quarrel had been submitted to its judgement and to take corporate action against any breaker of the peace. It was not a super-state with a military force as its sanction, but a league of states whose effectiveness in a crisis would depend upon how far its members would be prepared to act collectively. There was no abandonment of sovereign rights, except to a very minor extent. It began as a league of the victorious and neutral Powers, but the defeated Powers were given the right of delayed entry.

 

Above (Right): a facsimile of some of the signatures on the Treaty.

Concluding Versailles – A Toothless Treaty? The Covenant & Council of the League of Nations:

From the start, the League was handicapped by the facts that it was widely regarded as the caretaker of the Peace treaties and therefore suspect to those who found them difficult to come to terms with, and by the fact that the USA refused to join, thereby weakening any chance of collective action. But it was the best that could be done at that juncture by way of international cooperation, and even its flawed and modest beginnings were soon seen as an advance in peacemaking and peacekeeping in the world. It was often said in the 1920s and ’30s that a fundamental weakness of the League of Nations that it ‘lacked teeth’, that it was not prepared to threaten potential and actual aggressors with military force. However, the original clauses in the Covenant contradict this contention. They state that in the case of aggression or threat of aggression, the Council of the League should advise upon how this threat should be met: military action was not excluded. Moreover, if any member of the League did resort to war, the Council would recommend to the governments concerned what effective military, naval and air force the members of the League should contribute. Members of the League were expected to permit the passage through their territories of the armed forces of other members of the League. These articles, therefore, totally envisage the possibility of military action by the League in order to deter aggression. Although the requirement of unanimity on the part of the Council could effectively negate these provisions in certain circumstances, the ‘teeth’ were there, if only the principal Powers were willing to put them to work. In his course notes for the Open University, prepared in 1973, Arthur Marwick pointed to the scope of the problems facing the peacemakers in 1919:

A war on such an unprecedented scale obviously left problems of an unprecedented nature. Insulated as we have been in these islands, we can easily forget the immense problems involved in the collapse of old political frontiers, from the mixing of races in particular areas, from the reallocation of territorial boundaries, and from the transfer of populations…

The Treaty of Versailles altogether consists of 440 articles and it takes up 230 pages of Volume LIII of the ‘Parliamentary Papers’ for 1919. From the document itself, we can see the very real complexities and difficulties which faced the peacemakers. From the detail in some parts of the Treaty, we can see what peacemaking is really like, as distinct from the brief text-book accounts which merely summarise the broad principles; we can see what is involved in putting those principles into practice. The Treaty of Versailles expressed certain intentions about settling the map of Europe. But, as with all historical documents, we do learn things from it about the fundamental assumptions of the men who drafted it. And throughout the entire Treaty, there is a good deal of ‘unwitting testimony’ about the political events, social conditions and cultural attitudes in Europe in 1918-19. A rapid glance at the map below will show that a serious attempt was made in 1919 to arrange the frontiers of the states so that the main boundaries coincided with the national divisions of the European peoples. As a result of the treaties, only a small minority, about three per cent, was still under the subjection of other nationalities. In many cases, the peoples themselves had taken the initiative and proclaimed their independence and the peacemakers simply had to accept what had already been accomplished. Their task was ‘simply’ to fix the new boundaries of these ethnic groups. But in doing so, they were responsible for some gross injustices, as the map also shows.

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(to be continued).

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: For the Fallen – An Appendix of Poetry.   Leave a comment

This is a collection of poems (and pictures) which were published in 2014 (27 July) in The Daily Mirror. 

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Note: Wilfred Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham, Northumberland. Originally a social worker in the East End of London, he became a private on the Western Front. His poems are usually narrative in form even when short. During the war, he was one of the first poets to introduce savage realism into his writing. He had been a friend of Rupert Brooke.

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Note: Brooke’s best-known poem, one of his War Sonnets, was first recited from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1915. It was then published the next day and quickly became renowned as one of the finest war poems. Later the same month Brooke died from an infected mosquito bite he got a month earlier serving with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Although serving in the Navy, Brooke had fought on land in the initial campaigns in Belgium. In the picture by teenage German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt, a crucifix survives the shelling while troops lie scattered.

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Note: Probably Owen’s most famous poem, though possibly not his best, Dulce et Decorum Est was written in August 1917, though it may not have been fully edited until October 1917. When he wrote it, he was recovering from shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. The quotation, from the Roman poet Horace, which Owen wishes to brand as a lie, means, It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. In the poem, he dwells on the horrible details of deaths and terrible physical effects of wounds. Owen sets out to shock civilians with unrelenting details of a man’s death from gas, which was ‘obscene as cancer’:

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Note: In the following poem, Sassoon mimics civilians who try to console wounded soldiers with silly arguments. By ‘the pit’ he is referring to the depth of despair:

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Note: McCrae’s famous poem first appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. In it, McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital at Boulogne but died of pneumonia in January 1918 before he could take up his appointment.

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Note: In the picture above, thousands gather for Armistice Day at London’s temporary cenotaph in Whitehall in 1919.

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Note: After she was appointed poet laureate in 2009, Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem to mark the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the Great War.

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Note: Since Kipling had written imperialist poetry before 1914 he might have been expected to write crudely jingoistic poetry to support the war effort; instead he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after the loss of his son, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, killed in action at the Battle of Loos. As an act of remembrance of him, Kipling helped pay for many years for the endowment which made it possible for the Last Post to be sounded every night at the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres. He died in 1936.

This selection of poems is extracted from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. http://www.penguin.co.uk

 

Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

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

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

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

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey:

The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

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The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

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