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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Armistices of November 1918 and their Aftermath in Central Europe.   Leave a comment

Centrifugal Forces & Rival Nationalisms:

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Historical Perspectives & ‘Historic Hungary’:

The armed hostilities of the First World War formally came to an end with the armistice signed between the Entente and Germany at Compiegne on 11 November 1918. However, fighting did not cease everywhere, certainly not along the borders with Hungary, where the seceding nationalities of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire were lending weight to their territorial claims through the force of arms, creating the status quo sanctioned by the victors who assembled in Paris to reconstruct the order of Europe and the wider world on 12 January 1919. It was largely the impossibility of tackling this situation that swept away the ‘pacifist democracy’ which took over in Hungary at the end of the war and thwarted the first the country had obtained for a transition to democracy. A variety of reasons have been given by historians (and politicians) for the dissolution of historic Hungary. Whereas some continue to believe firmly that it was a viable unit dismembered by a combination of rival nationalisms within the region of central Europe with the complicity of western great powers, others believe that it was the product of centrifugal forces in Europe as a whole, while acknowledging that the precise way in which the process took place was fundamentally influenced by the contingencies of the war and the peace that  concluded it. Far from being seen as predictable or inevitable at the time, the outcome shocked even those sharpest contemporary critics of the darker aspects of the pre-1914 social and political establishment in Hungary and its policy towards the national minorities.

Lines of demarcation in historic Hungary – Neutral zones (November 1918 – March 1919)

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It was all the more shocking for them because they came largely from the more progressive camp who were well-disposed towards the western liberal democracies, but whose future in Hungary’s political scene was destroyed by the circumstances of peacemaking. The tragedy of the aftermath of the First World War, its armistices and the Paris Peace Treaties, especially – in the case of Hungary – that of Trianon in 1920, was that it contributed towards the survival of reactionary nationalist forces which had steered the country into the abyss of war and all its negative consequences in the first place. President Wilson had ‘decreed’ that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. ‘Self-determination’ was to be the guiding principle; plebiscites would make clear ‘the people’s will’. In Hungary’s case, this was to mean that the new boundaries would be drawn to exclude all but the majority Magyar-peopled areas of the Carpathian basin. Also, the new Hungary soon found itself in the position of having a surplus of wheat which it could market only in a world already overstocked with grain. The collapse in world wheat-prices increased the difficulty in providing funds to buy the timber and other raw materials the country required. Moreover, Budapest had grown to its size as the largest city in central Europe as the capital of a large country which had now been reduced by half and would soon be reduced by two-thirds. Over a third of the Magyar peoples were now living outside the country.

An Assassination on Hallowe’en & The ‘Aster Revolution’ in Hungary:

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On 4 November 1918, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice with Italy in Padua. Four days earlier, on All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October unidentified soldiers broke into the home of the former Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tisza (pictured above in a painting by Gyula Benczúr), and shot him dead. Other assailants were also on their way, it was reported, to assassinate the hated count. For four whole years between 1913 and May 1917, when he was dismissed by Charles IV, he had headed the war cabinet. He was a born party leader who possessed such an effective political personality that he had been able to defend the old order with fundamental force. In 1914, he had opposed the declaration of war, not out of principle but because of his belief that the Monarchy was unprepared. By that time, he had already survived one assassination attempt by an MP carrying a revolver. He was the first victim of a revolutionary wave which followed on naturally from the loss of the war, as it did in Germany. However, it was not just the politicians and the political order and system which was affected by this wave. It led to the extensive loss of life and property throughout Hungarian society. The ragged, bitter soldiers streaming home from the collapsed fronts encountered people sunk in misery at home; nearly every family was mourning someone lost in the war or waiting for a prisoner of war to return. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had won over many of the prisoners, many thousands of whom still remained there, voluntarily fighting alongside the Red Army in the civil war that followed. Strikes and mutinies had been on the agenda throughout 1918 and were now also fuelled by these new converts to Bolshevism.

Even amongst all this domestic turmoil, the military situation looked deceptively good until a few months before the end of the war. Austro-Hungarian armies were still deep in enemy lands, with the war aims apparently accomplished. It was only after the last great German offensive on the Western Front had collapsed in August 1918, and the Entente counter-offensive started there as well as in the Balkans, that the Monarchy’s positions on all fronts became untenable. Commenting on the impending surrender of Bulgaria, Foreign Minister István Burián’s evaluation of the situation before the Common Council of Ministers on 28 September was brief and unequivocal: That is the end of it. On 2 October, the Monarchy solicited the Entente for an armistice and peace negotiations, based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, only to be disappointed to learn from the reply that, having recognised the Czecho-Slovak  and South Slav claims, Wilson was in no position to negotiate on the basis of granting the ethnic minorities autonomy within an empire whose integrity could no longer be maintained. For a century, that empire had been saved from collapse only by the will of its rulers, the Hapsburgs. It had been dominated by its German and Magyar masters, who had failed to come to terms with the Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians living in its peripheries.

By mid-October, all the nationalities had their national councils, which proclaimed their independence, a move which now enjoyed the official sanction of the Entente; on 11 October, the Poles seceded from the Empire. The Hapsburg dynasty had held together a huge territory in Central Europe, centring on the Middle Basin of the Danube, so that certain economic advantages accrued to its millions of inhabitants. There was free trade within that vast territory; a unified railway and river transport system and an outlet to the Adriatic Sea assisted imperial trade and commerce. There was a complementary exchange of the products of the plain and the mountains – grain for timber and materials. This ramshackle empire could not withstand the strain of four years of war. The monarchy was collapsing into chaos by this time as Charles IV made a desperate attempt on 16 October to preserve it by announcing the federalisation of Austria, which was to no avail. At the front, the Italians took bloody revenge on the disintegrating army of a state which was breaking apart, launching an offensive in the Valley of Piave on 23 October which left an indelible mark of horror on a generation of men. Between the 28th and the 31st the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats and the Ruthenes also seceded from the Empire.

Within Hungary, the effects of the revolutionary ‘milieu’ were mitigated, to a large extent, by Hungary’s bourgeois revolutionary leader, Count Mihály Károlyi, who as a radical left-wing aristocrat, was soon to distribute his estate among the landless. October 1918 had certainly been a month of dramatic scenes in the Hungarian parliament. In the country, deposed Prime Minister István Tisza was widely held to bear supreme responsibility for all the suffering of the previous four years. He declared:  I agree with … Count Károlyi. We have lost this war. He referred to a speech made on 16 October, the same day that Charles IV had announced the federalisation of Austria, by the leader of the opposition, who had also warned that Hungary might lose the peace as well unless suitable policies were adopted. These ought to have included, in the first place, the appointment of an administration acceptable to the Entente powers as well as to a people whose mood was increasingly revolutionary in order to save the territorial integrity of the country and to prevent it falling into anarchy.

On 23 October, the third cabinet of Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle stepped down and on that night Károlyi organised his Hungarian National Council from members of his own Independence Party, the Bourgeois Radical Party, the Social Democratic Party and various circles of intellectuals from the capital. Its twelve-point proclamation called for the immediate conclusion of a separate peace treaty, the independence of Hungary, far-reaching democratic reforms and reconciliation with the nationalities, without harm to the territorial integrity of the state. The National Council functioned as a counter-government in the following week since, contrary to expectations and common sense, Charles IV hesitated in calling on Károlyi to form a government. He preferred Count János Hadik, a follower of the younger Count Andrássy who was popular among MPs hostile to Károlyi. But Hadik had no party, and could only count on the demoralised military to maintain order.

On 28 October, a mass of protesters marched from Pest to Buda Castle, the Monarchy’s palace in the capital, to demand Károlyi’s appointment from Archduke Joseph, the monarch’s representative. Three of them were shot dead by the police. Strikes and further protests followed in the next two days, with occasional clashes between the newly organised Soldiers’ Council and leftist Socialists on the one hand and government units on the other, while Károlyi and the National Council advised moderation and awaited the outcome, even though on 30 October troops were ordered to gain control of their headquarters at the Hotel Astoria in the centre of Pest. The soldiers refused, most of them deserting, carried away by the enthusiasm of the civilians who swarmed onto the streets, cheering the National Council. They captured police buildings, railway stations and telephone exchanges. The traditional flower for All Souls’ Day, 2nd November (more important in Hungary than All Saints’ Day as a time to place fresh flowers on the graves of departed relatives) replaced the insignia torn off from uniforms and appeared in the button-holes of civilian suits, hence the name Aster Revolution, which succeeded on Hallowe’en with the appointment of Károlyi as Premier. Later that afternoon, just before the new government took its oath, István Tisza was murdered by a group of unknown soldiers in his own home, no doubt a symbolic act.

Hungary’s ‘Bourgeois Revolutionary’ Government of November 1918:

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The new government’s programme was virtually the same as the twelve points published a week earlier, and Károlyi’s cabinet was also recruited from the same forces as the National Council, with members of his own party obtaining most of the seats. The crumbling of the whole edifice of the old Monarchy changed Hungary beyond recognition. Paradoxically, however, the dissolution of the historic Kingdom, one of the greatest shocks the country suffered and survived, also created the opportunity for a new beginning. But whereas the collapse of the dualist system cleared important obstacles from the way to democratic transition, the lack of new forms of government was symptomatic of the belatedness of this development, seriously limiting its scope for action. Between them, the parties of the National Council represented a small minority of the aristocracy and lesser nobility, some of the bourgeoisie, diverse circles of the intelligentsia, skilled workers and the trade unions. Missing were the influential haute bourgeoisie, indeed most of the middle classes. The involvement of their highest strata in the war-related business identified them closely with the old régime, and events in Russia turned them off revolution completely, whatever the label. In addition, the truly generous terms offered to the leaders of the Slav and Romanian national parties might have been snapped up in 1914, but the external situation made them almost impossible to achieve in 1918. The attempt to draw them into the Hungarian National Council failed.

Nevertheless, the internal situation in Hungary still held out the promise of overhauling the ossified social and political institutions which bore some responsibility for the disaster of dissolution. It was hoped that a proper, consistently pursued policy towards the minorities, combined with the good relations Károlyi had developed with the Entente powers might Hungary from the consequences of the secret agreements those powers had concluded with the Slavs and Romanians during the war. The first indications in these respects were rather disappointing: the western allies seemed more ready to satisfy their partners in the region, even at the expense of departing from Wilson’s principles, than to reward the political changes in Hungary, and not even full autonomy could keep the Slovaks and the Romanians within ‘historic Hungary’. Croat claims were considered justified by practically everyone in Hungary, and the Serbs did not even consider negotiating over their demands. Wider international developments soon determined that the potential for internal democratic transformation would not materialise. On 3rd-4th November, an Armistice was signed in Padova (Padua) at Villa Giusti between Italy and what was left of Austria-Hungary and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments.

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The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Following the armistice with Italy, the empire took only a week to unravel. Charles IV was forced to abdicate, and the former territories fell apart into seven divisions, with both Austria and Hungary being reduced to the status of minor states. Worse was to follow for Hungary, as the terms of the armistice signed at Padova were not accepted by the commander of the French forces in the Balkans, General d’Esperey, and his forces crossed the Sava into Hungarian territory. Károlyi, hoping that the occupation would only be a temporary measure, was forced to sign, on 13 November in Belgrade, an armistice requiring the withdrawal of the Hungarian army beyond the Drava-Maros line, its severe reduction and the right to free passage for Entente troops across Hungary. What was held by many people to be the failure of the Károlyi government in not averting the greatest national humiliation Hungary had faced since the Ottoman invasion nearly four centuries earlier could do otherwise but prejudice its chances to cope with its domestic difficulties. It undermined the confidence which had previously built up in the ability of the new government to maintain order at home, the tasks it had to cope with were immense.

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Above & below: The election of Mihály Károlyi as President of the Republic on 16 November 1918 and the Proclamation of the Republic. He was ‘leader of the nation’ during the transitional period after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was inaugurated as President in January 1919.

In the initial hope that the new government would be able to secure Hungary’s old borders as well as law, order and property, the old élite accepted, following the abdication of Charles IV, the dissolution of parliament, the investing of the National Council with provisional legislative authority, and the proclamation of the republic on 16 November. They were also, for a short while, impressed by the relatively little violence which had attended the revolution, especially in the urban centres. But Károlyi had received his very limited power from the Habsburgs, and though elected as President of the Republic on 16 November (though he was not inaugurated until January 1919), his gradual shift to the left in order to enable a democratic, constitutional evolution to take place alienated the ‘old guard’. He embarked upon the social and political reforms announced in his programme, which were badly needed in view of the explosive atmosphere in the country. But he soon proved himself too weak for the post of trusteeship in bankruptcy that he had to fill as head of the nation.

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The simultaneous negotiations of the Minister for Minorities, Oszkár Jászi, with the Romanian leaders at Arad, were also of no avail. On 20 November, the Romanians seceded and by the end of the month, their army had advanced to the demarcation line, and even beyond that, as far as Kolozsvár after the Romanians of Transylvania proclaimed their union with the Kingdom of Romania at a meeting in Gyulafehérvár on 1 December. Then the provisional assembly in Vienna also declared that Austria was an independent state. Although the Slovak leader was inclined to accept autonomy as a provisional solution until the peace treaty was signed, the Czechs would not, and fighting broke out along the Slovak border. The Hungarians received a memorandum from the Entente requiring them to withdraw beyond a line which later became the border between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Ruthenians were the only nationality who, as the unification of all Ukrainian land seemed unlikely at the time, accepted the autonomy offered to them. By the time the Paris peace conference convened on 12 January 1919, Hungary had already lost more than half of the territory and population it had comprised before the war broke out.

Jászi’s idea of the Danubian United States, which he had detailed extensively in a book, was to remain the stuff of dreams. The Károlyi government has been harshly judged and blamed ever since for not resisting, in particular, the ‘land-grabbing’ Romanians, but the armed forces at its disposal would hardly have been a match for the hostile forces ranged against them, backed by the French. More importantly, its legitimacy was based on its supposedly good relations with the Entente powers, so it felt it could ill afford to discard ‘Wilsonianism’, even when they did. The contemporary maps below illustrate the areas, ‘races’, population and economic resources of the partitioned empire. A comparative study of the four sketch-maps reveals the different characteristics of these divisions.

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As winter of 1918-19 set in, the economic blockade by the western Allies was still in force, trading ties with Austria were seriously disrupted, and territories of crucial economic importance in the north, east and south of Hungary were under occupation, leading to shortages of raw materials, fuel which caused chaos in production. Additionally, the most fundamental means of subsistence were unavailable to millions in a country inundated by demobilised soldiers, the continuing stream of returning prisoners of war, and refugees from beyond the demarcation lines. Urban dwellers suspected landowners and smallholding peasants of hoarding grain and holding back deliveries of other agricultural produce; many were leaving their land uncultivated because of impending land reform, which the rural proletariat urged on the government ever more impatiently. There was probably no political force in Hungary at this turbulent time that would have been able to satisfy all of these competing interests and expectations; Károlyi and the democratic politicians around him, whose undoubtedly considerable talents were suited to relatively peaceful and stable conditions but not to national emergencies, were certainly unable to provide such a forceful administration. Even had he not been assassinated, it is unlikely that István Tisza could have done better.

There were already, waiting in the wings on both the left and the right, those who were willing to provide a more authoritarian administration. On the radical Right, there were groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös and the Association of Awakening Hungarians who impatiently urged the armed defence of the country from November 1918 on. They had their strongest base among the many thousands of demobilised officers and dismissed public servants, many of the latter being refugees from the occupied territories of historic Hungary. In their view, the dissolution of the country was largely the responsibility of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend by authoritarian government and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the Christian provincial middle classes at the expense of the, ‘predominantly Jewish’, metropolitan bourgeoisie.

But for the time being the streets belonged more to the political Left. Appeals to workers and soldiers from moderate Social Democratic ministers to patience and order seemed to alienate the disaffected masses. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 by Béla Kun, a former journalist and trade union activist recently returned from captivity in Russia. Like many other former prisoners of war, Kun became convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets on the Russian model to that of parliamentary democracy, and communist propaganda also promised international stability arising from the fraternity of Soviet republics whose triumph throughout Europe the Communists saw as inevitable. Within a few weeks of the party’s formation, this attractive utopia and its accompanying populist demagogy earned it a membership of around forty thousand, and several times as many supporters whom they could mobilise, mainly among the urban proletariat and the young intelligentsia susceptible to revolutionary romanticism.

Blunders or Back-Stabbing? – The Collapse of Germany:

Reflecting with the benefit of hindsight, and with greater meaning, in his War Memoirs of 1933, Lloyd George admitted that there had been little cause for the victory celebrations in western Europe:

… It is true that the World War ended, as I still believe, in a victory for Right. But it was won not on the merits of the case, but on a balance of resources and blunders. The reserves of manpower, of material and of money at the command of the victorious Powers were overwhelmingly greater than those possessed by the vanquished. They were thus better able to maintain a prolonged struggle. Both sides blundered badly, but the mistakes committed by the Central Powers were more fatal, inasmuch as they did not possess the necessary resources to recover from their errors of judgement. … The Allied mistake prolonged the War. The German mistake lost them the War.

For their part, in the years following the end of the war many Germans, especially those on the right, came to blame socialists and Jews for ‘stabbing in the back’ the military and, by extension, the Fatherland, and so losing the war. The power and resolve of the Allied offensives and the blunders and exhaustion of the German Army were discounted. The events of the autumn of 1918 were to become shrouded in myth and lies. Many Germans convinced themselves that they had been tricked into signing the armistice by the Allies and that they could have fought on and would certainly have done so had they known of the harshness of the treaty that was to be offered them in 1919. A widespread belief developed in the army that Germany had indeed been stabbed in the back by revolutionaries and strikers. Jews were said to have played a major part in this, a view held by the Kaiser himself, and of course, subsequently propagated by Hitler and the Nazis. It was convenient for many, not least those in the military who had lost their nerve in 1918, to blame the defeat on a nebulous conspiracy of ‘reds’, foreigners and politicians, those who were later popularly described as the November Criminals.

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The truth was that by the end of September 1918, Germany’s military leaders realised that they faced defeat and sought a way to end the war.  They paved the way for the democratisation of the country by handing over power to civilian ministers. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max von Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in negotiations. On 3 October he requested the US President to take in hand the restoration of peace but in the exchange of notes that followed it was clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Ludendorff then changed his mind and wished to fight on, but growing popular unrest showed that the German people were in no mood for this, and neither was the new Government. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 people on one day (15 October) in Berlin, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised them victory and brought defeat. Ludendorff was dismissed and steps were taken to transfer real power to the Reichstag, since Wilson had, in any case, refused to enter into negotiations with “monarchical autocrats”.

By the end of October, a civil war was threatening because the Kaiser was refusing to abdicate, despite the relentless pressure being put upon him. He left Berlin on the 29th for the army headquarters at Spa,  where Hindenburg told him that the army would not support him against the people. On the same day mutiny broke out in the navy, the sailors refusing the order to put to sea. By 4 November the mutiny was general, with Kiel falling into the hands of the mutineers. On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian Armistice with Italy exposed Bavaria to attack. A few days later the mutineers had occupied the main cities of north-west Germany, and insurrection had also broken out in Munich. On 7 November, the German civilian delegates passed through the Allied lines to receive the Armistice terms drawn up by the Allied commanders. On 9 November, revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was appointed Chancellor and a republic was declared from the steps of the Reichstag. The armistice terms imposed by the Allies on 11 November were severe and left Germany prostrate. It surrendered its guns and fleet and withdrew its armies from conquered territories. The German Government accepted the terms because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which President Wilson had set out in his Fourteen Points should form the basis of the peace settlement which was to follow. By the end of November 1918, Germany had been transformed into a democratic republic, led by the largest political movement in Germany, the Social Democratic Party.

Certainly, the First World War had created the conditions that shaped the later development and ambitions of Hitler’s ‘Reich’. The conflict generated a great deal of physical hardship on the home front with severe shortages of food and steadily deteriorating social conditions. By the end of the war, four years of privation had created a widespread hostility which erupted at the end of the war in a wave of revolutionary violence. Organised labour did better than other groups because of shortages of men for the arms factories, but this exacerbated tensions between and within classes. Many associated the new republic with national humiliation and the downfall of the monarchy. Neither the traditional social forces who lost out in 1918 nor the forces of the populist-nationalist right liked the new government, which they identified with the triumph of communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The political transition in 1918-19 created a sharp polarisation in German society which existed down to 1933, but it was not responsible for the military blunders which had led to Germany’s defeat, nor was it responsible for the opening of negotiations leading to an armistice. The military leadership under Ludendorff had already effectively surrendered, allowing the Allies to dictate terms.

The First World War also ended Germany’s long period of economic and trade growth and her pretensions to great power status. German defeat in 1918 left the economy with a war debt far beyond anything the government could afford to repay. This was before the victorious allies seized German economic resources and presented Germany with a bill for 132 billion gold marks as the final schedule of reparation payment, which it would take until 2010 for them to finally clear. Most importantly, the ‘Coupon Election’ was to weaken the authority of Britain in the upcoming Paris Peace Conference in such a way as to undermine Lloyd George’s instinct to treat Germany as an important trading partner which needed to be able to rebuild its economy. The British delegation alone among the European victors could exercise a moderating and healing influence, both from the authority which the War had given her and from her detachment from old European jealousies. But the Prime Minister would go to these councils bound by the extravagant election pledges he had made in 1918 in which he had promised to demand penalties from ‘the enemy’; whatever words of conciliation he might speak would be obscured by ugly echoes of the election campaign – his mandate was to ‘Make Germany Pay’.

This should have been the moment, then, at the end of 1918, when the conditions which had produced the bloody battles, blunders, and massacres of 1914-18 had to be finally removed, and for good. Europe could not simply be left to blunder out of the mud and blood as it had blundered in, in H. G. Wells’ phrase. Preposterous empires and monarchs, as well as tribal churches and territories,  had to be done away with. Instead, there would be created a League of Free Nations along the lines proposed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points which were to form the basis for the Paris peace negotiations which began the following January. This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by the disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history. Otherwise, the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. But the idealists who advocated this new form of peacebuilding were to be bitterly disappointed by the vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed the blame and cost of the war on Germany, and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered central Europe in the name of the ideal of ‘self-determination’, while in reality rewarding land-grabbing nationalists and punishing the Hungarians for joining a war they did not start.

Sources:

István Lázár (1992), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson, J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

 

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1992-1997.   Leave a comment

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

I can recall the real sense of optimism which resulted from the end of the Cold War, formally ending with President Gorbachev’s announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Although never an all-out global war, it had resulted in the deaths of up to forty million people throughout the world, involving more than a hundred and fifty smaller ‘proxy’ conflicts. Moreover, we had lived under a continual sense of doom, that it was only a matter of time until our brief, young lives would be snuffed out by a nuclear apocalypse. Now, politicians and journalists in the West talked of a coming ‘peace dividend’ and the end of the surveillance, spy and secret state in both east and west. The only continuing threat to British security came from the Provisional IRA. They hit Downing Street with a triple mortar attack in February 1991, coming close to killing the new Prime Minister, John Major, and his team of ministers and officials directing the Gulf War.

Margaret ThatcherBy the time Margaret Thatcher left office in tears on 28 November 1990, ‘Thatcherism’ was also a spent force, though its influence lingered on until at least the end of the century, and not just among Conservatives. Only a minority even among the ‘party faithful’ had been true believers and the Tory MPs would have voted her out had her cabinet ministers not beaten them to it. As Andrew Marr has written, History is harshest to a leader just as they fall. She had been such a strident presence for so long that many who had first welcomed her as a ‘gust’ of fresh air now felt the need for gentler breezes. Those who wanted a quieter, less confrontational leader found one in John Major.

Yet most people, in the end, had done well under her premiership, not just the ‘yuppies’ but also her lower-middle-class critics who developed their own entrepreneurial sub-cultures rather than depending on traditional sponsorship from arts councils and local authorities. By the early nineties, Britons were on average much wealthier than they had been in the late seventies and enjoyed a wider range of holidays, better food, and a greater variety of television channels and other forms of home entertainment. Nor was everything the Thatcher governments did out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of state utilities, on the other hand, presupposed a hunger for stakeholdership that was much less deeply rooted in British habits, and the subsequently mixed fortunes of those stocks did nothing to help change those habits. Most misguided of all was the decision to implement the ‘poll tax’ as a regressive tax. In the end, Thatcher’s 1987-90 government became just the latest in a succession of post-war British governments that had seen their assumptions rebound on them disastrously. This ‘trend’ was to continue under John Major. The upper middle-class ‘Victorian Values’ of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham were replaced by the ‘family values’ of the lower middle-class garden gnome salesman from Brixton, only for him to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

The single most important event of the early nineties in Britain, possibly globally too, had nothing to do with politics and diplomacy or warfare and terrorism, at least not in the nineties. Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web, or the Internet. His idea was for a worldwide ‘hypertext’, the computer-aided reading of electronic documents to allow people to work together remotely., sharing their knowledge in a ‘web’ of documents. His creation of it would give the internet’s hardware its global voice. He was an Oxford graduate who had made his first computer with a soldering iron, before moving to CERN, the European Physics laboratory, in Switzerland in 1980, the world’s largest scientific research centre. Here he wrote his first programme in 1989 and a year later he proposed his hypertext revolution which arrived in CERN in December 1990. The ‘internet’ was born the following summer. He chose not to patent his creation so that it would be free to everyone.

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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John Major called an election for April 1992. Under a pugnacious Chris Patten, now Party chairman, the Tories targeted Labour’s enthusiasm for high taxes. During the campaign itself, Major found himself returning to his roots in Brixton and mounting a ‘soap-box’, from which he addressed raucous crowds through a megaphone. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, was given the task of covering Major’s own campaign, and on 15 March he travelled to Sawley, in the PM’s constituency of Huntingdon, where Major was due to Meet the People. I have written elsewhere about the details of this, and his soap-box campaign, as reported by Simpson. Although Simpson described it as ‘a wooden construction of some kind’, Andrew Marr claims it was ‘a plastic container’. Either way, it has gone down in political history, together with the megaphone, as the prop that won him the election. The stark visual contrast achieved with the carefully stage-managed Labour campaign struck a chord with the media and he kept up an act that his father would have been proud of, playing the underdog to Neil Kinnock’s government in waiting. Right at the end, at an eve of poll rally in Sheffield, Kinnock’s self-control finally gave way and he began punching the air and crying “y’awl’ right!” as if he were an American presidential candidate. It was totally ‘cringe-worthy’ TV viewing, alienating if not repulsing swathes of the very middle England voters he needed to attract.

On 9 April 1992 Major’s Conservatives won fourteen million votes, more than any party in British political history. It was a great personal victory for the ‘new’ Prime Minister, but one which was also based on people’s fears of higher taxes under a Labour government. It was also one of the biggest victories in percentage terms since 1945, though the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of just twenty-one seats in parliament. Neil Kinnock was even more devastated than he had been in 1987 when he had not been expected to defeat Thatcher. The only organ of the entire British press which had called the election correctly was the Spectator. Its editor, Dominic Lawson, headlined the article which John Simpson wrote for him The Curious Confidence of Mr Major so that the magazine seemed to suggest that the Conservatives might pull off a surprise win. Simpson himself admitted to not having the slightest idea who would win, though it seemed more likely to him that Labour would. Yet he felt that John Major’s own apparent certainty was worth mentioning. When the results started to become clear on that Friday morning, 10 April, the Spectator stood out favourably from the shelves of newsagents, surrounded by even the late, or early editions of newspapers and magazines which had all been predicting a Labour victory.

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The only politician possibly more disappointed than Neil Kinnock, who immediately left front-line politics, was Chris Patten, who had been the real magician behind Major’s remarkable victory. He lost his seat to the Liberals in marginal Bath and went off to become the final governor of Hong Kong ahead of the long-agreed handover of Britain’s last colony in 1997. Kinnock, a former long-term opponent of Britain’s membership of the EEC/ EC went off to Brussels to become a European Commissioner. Despite his triumph in the popular vote, never has such a famous victory produced so rotten an outcome for the victors. The smallness of Major’s majority meant that his authority could easily be eaten away in the Commons. As a consequence, he would not go down as a great leader in parliamentary posterity, though he remained popular in the country as a whole for some time, if not with the Thatcherites and Eurosceptic “bastards” in his own party.  Even Margaret Thatcher could not have carried through her revolutionary reforms after the 1979 and 1983 elections with the kind of parliamentary arithmetic which was dealt her successor. In Rugby terms, although the opposition’s three-quarters had been foiled by this artful dodger of a full-back, he had been dealt a ‘hospital pass’ by his own side. For the moment, he had control of the slippery ball, but he was soon to be forced back into series of crushing rucks and mauls among his own twenty-stone forwards.

 John Smith – Labour’s lost leader and his legacy:

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After Neil Kinnock gave up the Labour leadership following his second electoral defeat in 1992, he was replaced by John Smith (pictured above), a placid, secure, self-confident Scottish lawyer. As Shadow Chancellor, he had been an effective cross-examiner of Nigel Lawson, John Major and Norman Lamont and had he not died of a heart attack in 1994, three years ahead of the next election, most political pundits agreed that, following the tarnishing of the Major administration in the mid-nineties, he would have become Prime Minister at that election. Had he done so, Britain would have had a traditional social democratic government, much like those of continental Europe. He came from a family of herring fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland, the son of a headmaster. Labour-supporting from early youth, bright and self-assured, he got his real political education at Glasgow University, part of a generation of brilliant student debaters from all parties who would go on to dominate Scottish and UK politics including, in due succession, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. Back in the early sixties, Glasgow University Labour Club was a hotbed not of radicals, but of Gaitskell-supporting moderates. This was a position that Smith never wavered from, as he rose as one of the brightest stars of the Scottish party, and then through government under Wilson and Callaghan as a junior minister dealing with the oil industry and devolution before entering cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, its youngest member at just forty. In opposition, John Smith managed to steer clear of the worst in-fighting, eventually becoming Kinnock’s shadow chancellor. In Thatcher’s England, however, he was spotted as a tax-raising corporatist of the old school. One xenophobic letter he received brusquely informed him:

You’ll not get my BT shares yet, you bald, owl-looking Scottish bastard. Go back to Scotland and let that other twit Kinnock go back to Wales.

Smith came from an old-fashioned Christian egalitarian background which put him naturally out of sympathy with the hedonistic culture of southern England.  Just before he became Labour leader he told a newspaper he believed above all in education, because…

 … it opens the doors of the imagination, breaks down class barriers and frees people. In our family … money was looked down on and education was revered. I am still slightly contemptuous of money.

Smith was never personally close to Kinnock but was scrupulously loyal to him as his leader, he nevertheless succeeded him by a huge margin in 1992. By then he had already survived a serious cardiac arrest and had taken up hill-walking. Though Smith swiftly advanced the careers of his bright young lieutenants, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they soon became disappointed by his view that the Labour party needed simply to be improved, not radically transformed. In particular, he was reluctant to take on the party hierarchy and unions over issues of internal democracy, such as the introduction of a one-member, one-vote system for future leadership elections. He was sure that Labour could regain power with a revival of its traditional spirit. At one point, Tony Blair was so dispirited by Smith’s leadership style that he considered leaving politics altogether and going back to practising law. Smith died of a second heart attack on 12 May 1994. After the initial shock and grief subsided, Labour moved rapidly away from his policy of ‘gradualism’ towards ‘Blairite’ transformation. One part of his legacy still remains, however, shaping modern Britain today. As the minister who had struggled to achieve devolution for Scotland in 1978-9, he remained a passionate supporter of the ‘unfinished business’ of re-establishing the Holyrood Parliament and setting up a Welsh Assembly. With his friend Donal Dewar he had committed Labour so utterly to the idea in Opposition, despite Kinnock’s original strong anti-nationalist stance, that Blair, no great fan of devolution himself, found that he had to implement Smith’s unwelcome bequest to him.

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

The crisis that soon engulfed the Major government back in the early autumn of 1992 was a complicated economic one. From August 1992 to July 1996 I was mainly resident in Hungary, and so, although an economic historian, never really understood the immediate series of events that led to it or the effects that followed. This was still in pre-internet days, so I had little access to English language sources, except via my short-wave radio and intermittent newspapers bought during brief visits to Budapest. I had also spent most of 1990 and half of 1991 in Hungary, so there were also longer-term gaps in my understanding of these matters. I have written about them in earlier articles in this series, dealing with the end of the Thatcher years. Hungary itself was still using an unconvertible currency throughout the nineties, which only became seriously devalued in 1994-96, and when my income from my UK employers also fell in value, as a family we decided to move back to Britain to seek full-time sterling salaries. The first thing that happened was that they lost their fiscal policy in a single day when the pound fell out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). In his memoirs, John Major described the effect of this event in stark terms:

Black Wednesday – 16 September 1992, the day the pound toppled out of the ERM – was a political and economic calamity. It unleashed havoc in the Conservative Party and it changed the political landscape of Britain.

For Major and his government, the point was that as the German central bank had a deserved reputation for anti-inflationary rigour, having to follow or ‘shadow’ the mark meant that Britain had purchased a respected off-the-shelf policy. Sticking to the mighty mark was a useful signal to the rest of the world that this government, following all the inflationary booms of the seventies and eighties, was serious about controlling inflation. On the continent, however, the point of the ERM was entirely different, intended to lead to a strong new single currency that the countries of central Europe would want to join as members of an enlarged EC/EU. So a policy which Margaret Thatcher had earlier agreed to, in order to bring down British inflation, was now a policy she and her followers abhorred since it drew Britain ever closer towards a European superstate in the ‘Delors Plan’. This was a confused and conflicted state of affairs for most of the Tories, never mind British subjects at home and abroad.

The catalyst for sterling’s fall was the fall in the value of the dollar, pulling the pound down with it. Worse still, the money flowed into the Deutschmarks, which duly rose; so the British government raised interest rates to an eye-watering ten per cent, in order to lift the pound. When this failed to work, the next obvious step would have been for the German central bank to cut their interest rates, lowering the value of the mark and keeping the ERM formation intact. This would have helped the Italian lira and other weak currencies as well as the pound. But since Germany had just reunited after the ‘fall of the wall’, the whole cost of bringing the poorer East Germans into line with their richer compatriots in the West led to a real fear of renewed inflation as well as to memories of the Berlin Crisis of 1948-49 and the hyperinflation of the Weimar period. So the Germans, regardless of the pain being experienced by Britain, Italy and the rest, wanted to keep their high-value mark and their high interest rates. Major put considerable and concerted pressure on Chancellor Kohl, warning of the danger of the Maastricht treaty failing completely since the Danes had just rejected it in a referendum and the French were also having a plebiscite. None of this had any effect on Kohl who, like a previous German Chancellor, would not move.

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In public, the British government stuck to the line that the pound would stay in the ERM at all costs. It was not simply a European ‘joint-venture’ mechanism but had been part of the anti-inflation policy of both the Lawson and Major chancellorships. Then, the now PM had told the unemployed workers and the repossessed homeowners in Britain that if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working, so his credibility had been tied to the success of the ERM ever since. It had also been, as Foreign Secretary and now as Prime Minister, his foreign policy of placing Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’. It was his big idea for both economic and diplomatic survival in an increasingly ‘globalised’ environment. Norman Lamont, who as Chancellor was as committed as Major, told ‘the markets’ that Britain would neither leave the mechanism nor deviate from it by devaluing the pound. ERM membership was at the centre of our policy and there should not be one scintilla of doubt that it would continue. Major went even further, telling a Scottish audience that with inflation down to 3.7 per cent and falling, it would be madness to leave the ERM. He added that:

“The soft option, the devaluer’s option, the inflationary option, would be a betrayal of our future.”

However, then the crisis deepened with the lira crashing out of the ERM formation. International money traders, such as the Hungarian-born György Soros, began to turn their attention to the weak pound and carried on selling. They were betting that Major and Lamont would not keep interest rates so high that the pound could remain up there with the mark – an easy, one-way bet. In the real world, British interest rates were already painfully high. On the morning of ‘Black Wednesday’, at 11 a.m., the Bank of England raised them by another two points. This was to be agonising for home-owners and businesses alike, but Lamont said he would take whatever measures were necessary to keep the pound in the mechanism. Panic mounted and the selling continued: a shaken Lamont rushed round to tell Major that the interest rate hike had not worked, but Major and his key ministers decided to stay in the ERM. The Bank of England announced that interest would go up by a further three points, to fifteen per cent. Had it been sustained, this would have caused multiple bankruptcies across the country, but the third rise made no difference either. Eventually, at 4 p.m., Major phoned the Queen to tell her that he was recalling Parliament. At 7.30 p.m., Lamont left the Treasury to announce to the press and media in Whitehall that he was suspending sterling’s membership of the ERM and was reversing the day’s rise in interest rates.

Major considered resigning. It was the most humiliating moment in British politics since the IMF crisis of 1976, sixteen years earlier. But if he had done so Lamont would have had to go as well, leaving the country without its two most senior ministers in the midst of a terrible crisis. Major decided to stay on, though he was forever diminished by what had happened. Lamont also stayed at his post and was delighted as the economy began to respond to lower interest rates, and a slow recovery began. While others suffered further unemployment, repossession and bankruptcy, he was forever spotting the ‘green shoots’ of recovery. In the following months, Lamont created a new unified budget system and took tough decisions to repair the public finances. But as the country wearied of recession, he became an increasingly easy ‘butt’ of media derision. To Lamont’s complete surprise, Major sacked him as Chancellor a little over six months after Black Wednesday. Lamont retaliated in a Commons statement in which he said: We give the impression of being in office, but not in power. Major appointed Kenneth Clarke, one of the great characters of modern Conservatism, to replace him.

In the Commons, the struggle to ratify the Maastricht Treaty hailed as a great success for Major before the election, became a long and bloody one. Major’s small majority was more than wiped out by the number of ‘Maastricht rebels’, egged on by Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Black Wednesday had emboldened those who saw the ERM and every aspect of European federalism as disastrous for Britain. Major himself wrote in his memoirs that it turned …

… a quarter of a century of unease into a flat rejection of any wider involvement in Europe … emotional rivers burst their banks.

Most of the newspapers which had welcomed Maastricht were now just as vehemently against it. The most powerful Conservative voices in the media were hostile both to the treaty and to Major. His often leaded use of English and lack of ‘panache’ led many of England’s snobbish ‘High Tories’ to brand him shockingly ill-educated and third-rate as a national leader. A constantly shifting group of between forty to sixty Tory MPs regularly worked with the Labour opposition to defeat key parts of the Maastricht bill, so that Major’s day-to-day survival was always in doubt. Whenever, however, he called a vote of confidence and threatened his rebellious MPs with an election, he won. Whenever John Smith’s Labour Party and the Tory rebels could find some common cause, however thin, he was in danger of losing. In the end, Major got his legislation and Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty, but it came at an appalling personal and political cost. Talking in the general direction of an eavesdropping microphone, he spoke of three anti-European ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet, an obvious reference to Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley and John Redwood. The country watched a divided party tearing itself apart and was not impressed.

By the autumn of 1993, Norman Lamont was speaking openly about the possibility that Britain might have to leave the European Union altogether, and there were moves to force a national referendum. The next row was over the voting system to be used when the EU expanded. Forced to choose between a deal which weakened Britain’s hand and stopping the enlargement from happening at all by vetoing it, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd went for a compromise. All hell broke loose, as Tory MPs began talking of a leadership challenge to Major. This subsided, but battle broke out again over the European budget and fisheries policy. Eight MPs had their formal membership of the Tory Party withdrawn. By this point, John Smith’s sudden death had brought Tony Blair to the fore as leader of the Opposition. When Major readmitted the Tory rebels, Blair jibed: I lead my party, you follow yours. Unlike Lamont’s remark in the Commons, Blair’s comment struck a chord with the country.

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

While the central story of British politics in the seven years between the fall of Thatcher and the arrival to power of Blair was taken up by Europe, on the ‘home front’ the government tried to maintain the momentum of the Thatcher revolution. After many years of dithering, British Rail was divided up and privatised, as was the remaining coal industry. After the 1992 election, it was decided that over half the remaining coal mining jobs must go, in a closure programme of thirty-one pits to prepare the industry for privatization. This angered many Tory MPs who felt that the strike-breaking effect of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the previous decade deserved a better reward, and it aroused public protest as far afield as Cheltenham. Nevertheless, with power companies moving towards gas and oil, and the industrial muscle of the miners long-since broken, the closures and sales went ahead within the next two years, 1992-4. The economic effect on local communities was devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off shows vividly, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe and its famous Brass Band of the 1992 closure programme. Effectively, the only coalfields left working after this were those of North Warwickshire and South Derbyshire.

Interfering in the railway system became and remained a favourite ‘boys with toys’ hobby but a dangerous obsession of governments of different colours. Margaret Thatcher, not being a boy, knew that the railways were much too much part of the working life of millions to be lightly broken up or sold off. When Nicholas Ridley, as Transport Secretary, had suggested this, Thatcher is said to have replied:

“Railway privatisation will be the Waterloo of this government. Please never mention the railways to me again.”

It was taken up again enthusiastically by John Major. British Rail had become a national joke, loss-making, accident-prone, with elderly tracks and rolling stock, and serving curled-up sandwiches. But the challenge of selling off a system on which millions of people depended was obvious. Making it profitable would result in significant and unpopular fare rises and cuts in services. Moreover, different train companies could hardly compete with each other directly, racing up and down the same rails. There was, therefore, a binary choice between cutting up ‘BR’ geographically, selling off both trains and track for each region, so that the system would look much the way it was in the thirties, or the railway could be split ‘vertically’ so that the State would continue to own the track, while the stations and the trains would be owned by private companies. This latter solution was the one chosen by the government and a vast, complicated new system of subsidies, contracts, bids, pricing, cross-ticketing and regulation was created, but rather than keeping the track under public control, it too was to be sold off to a single private monopoly to be called Railtrack. Getting across the country would become a complicated proposition and transaction, involving two or three separate rail companies. A Franchise Director was to be given powers over the profits, timetables and ticket-pricing of the new companies, and a Rail Regulator would oversee the track. Both would report directly to the Secretary of State so that any public dissatisfaction, commercial problem or safety issue would ultimately be the responsibility of the government. This was a strange and pointless form of privatization which ended up costing the taxpayer far more than British Rail. The journalist Simon Jenkins concluded:

The Treasury’s treatment of the railway in the 1990s was probably the worst instance of Whitehall industrial management since the Second World War.

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One success story in the rail network was the completion of the Channel Tunnel link to France in 1994 (the Folkestone terminal is pictured above), providing a good example of the inter-relationship between transport links and general economic development. The Kent town of Ashford had a relationship with the railways going back to 1842, and the closure of the town’s railway works between 1981 and 1993 did not, however, undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the ‘Chunnel’ gave the town an international catchment area of eighty-five million within a single day’s journey. The opening of the Ashford International railway station, the main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were opened in and around the town itself, four greenfield sites were opened on the outskirts, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. As the map above shows, Ashford is now closer to Paris and Brussels in travelling time than it is to Manchester and Liverpool. By the end of the century, the town, with its position at the hub of a huge motorway network as well as its international rail link, was ready to become part of a truly international economy.

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Many of the improvements in transport infrastructure on both islands of Britain and Ireland were the result of EU funding, especially in Northern Ireland, and it was also having an impact on transport planning in Britain, with projects in the Highlands and Islands. In 1993 the EU decided to create a European-wide transport network. Of the fourteen priority associated with this aim, three are based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Northern Ireland and the ferry route to Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast rail route in Britain.

As a Brixton man, Major had experienced unemployment and was well prepared to take on the arrogant and inefficient quality of much so-called public service. But under the iron grip of the Treasury, there was little prospect for a revival of local democracy to take charge of local services again. This left a highly bureaucratic centralism as the only option left, one which gained momentum in the Thatcher years. Under Major, the centralised Funding Agency for Schools was formed and schools in England and Wales were ranked by crude league tables, depending on how well their pupils did in exams. The university system was vastly expanded by simply allowing colleges and polytechnics to rename themselves as universities. The hospital system was further centralised and given a host of new targets. The police, faced with a review of their pay and demands by the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke for their forces to be amalgamated, were given their own performance league tables. The Tories had spent seventy-four per cent more, in real terms, on law and order since 1979, yet crime was at an all-time high. Clarke’s contempt for many of the forces as ‘vested interests’ was not calculated to win them round to reform. Across England and Wales elected councillors were turfed off police boards and replaced by businessmen. In 1993 Clarke, the old Tory dog who had clearly learned new tricks during his time at the Department of Health where he was said to have castrated the regional health authority chairmen, defended his new police league tables in the ‘newspeak’ of governments yet to come:

The new accountability that we seek from our public services will not be achieved simply because men of good will and reasonableness wish that it be so. The new accountability is the new radicalism.

Across Britain, from the auditing of local government to the running of courts and the working hours of nurses, an army of civil servants, accountants, auditors and inspectors marched into workplaces. From time to time, ministers would weakly blame Brussels for the imposition of the cult of central control and measurement. But this was mostly a home-grown ‘superstate’. Major called this centralising policy the ‘Citizen’s Charter’, ignoring the fact that Britons are ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. He himself did not like the ‘headline’ very much because of its unconscious echoes of Revolutionary France. Every part of the government dealing with public service was ordered to come up with proposals for improvement at ‘grass-roots level’, to be pursued from the centre by questionnaires, league tables and a system of awards, called ‘Charter Marks’ for organizations that achieved the required standards. He spoke of ’empowering’, ‘helping the customer’ and ‘devolving’ and thought that regulation from the centre would not last long, rather like a Marxist-Leninist anticipating the ‘withering away’ of the state. In his case, though, this would come about as the effects of growing competition are felt. In practice, of course, the regulators grew more powerful, not less so. Despite the rhetoric, public servants were not being given real freedom to manage. Elected office-holders were being sacked. Major’s ‘withering away’ of the state was no more successful than Lenin’s.

Britain and Ireland – first steps on the road to peace:

009Above: US President Bill Clinton addressing a peace rally in Belfast during his visit in 1995. Clinton played a significant role as a ‘peace broker’ in negotiations leading up to ‘the Good Friday Agreement’.

In December 1993, John Major stood outside the steel-armoured door of Number Ten Downing Street with the ‘Taoiseach’ of the Irish Republic, Albert Reynolds. He declared a new principle which offended many traditional Conservatives and Unionists. If both parts of Ireland voted to be reunited, Britain would not stand in the way. She had, said Major, no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. He also stated that if the Provisional IRA, which had lately bombed the very building Major was standing in front of and murdered two young boys in Cheshire, renounced violence, Sinn Fein could be recognised as a legitimate political party. In the run-up to this Downing Street Declaration, which some saw as a betrayal of the Tory Party’s long-held dedication to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government had been conducting ‘back channel’ negotiations with the terrorist organisation. In August 1994 the IRA finally declared a complete cessation of military operations which, though it stopped a long way short of renouncing the use of violence altogether, was widely welcomed and was followed a month later by a Loyalist ceasefire. A complicated choreography of three-strand talks, framework documents and discussions about the decommissioning of weapons followed, while on the streets, extortion, knee-capping and occasional ‘executions’ continued. But whereas the number of those killed in sectarian violence and bombings in 1993 had been eighty-four, the toll fell to sixty-one the following year, and in 1995 it was in single figures, at just nine deaths.

Long negotiations between London and Dublin led to cross-border arrangements. These negotiations had also involved the United States, where an influential pro-Irish lobby had helped to sustain the IRA campaign into the nineties through finance provided through ‘Noraid’. In the mid-nineties, President Clinton acted as a peace-broker, visiting Belfast in 1995 and helping to maintain the fragile cease-fire in the North. The contradictory demands of Irish Republicanism and Ulster Unionism meant that Major failed to get a final agreement, which was left to Tony Blair, with the ongoing help of the American ex-senator George Mitchell. The fact that in 1991 both countries had signed the Maastricht Treaty for closer political and economic unity in Europe, set a broader context for a bilateral agreement. However, while Irish political leaders eagerly embraced the idea of European integration, their British counterparts, as we have seen, remained deeply divided over it.

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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The closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993 is an illuminating example of the impact of de-industrialisation. Swan Hunter was the last working shipyard in the region but had failed to secure a warship contract. An old, established firm, it was suffering some of the same long-term decline that decimated shipbuilding employment nationally to 26,000 by the end of a century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers with no compensation whatever for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. But the effects of de-industrialisation could spread much further than local communities. The closure of the shipyard, as shown in the map above, but the failure of the firm also had a ‘knock-on’ effect as suppliers as far afield as London and Glasgow lost valuable orders and, as a result, jobs.

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By 1994, employment in manufacturing in Britain had fallen to four million from the nine million it had reached at its peak in 1966. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the older industries of the Northwest worst, but the losses were proportionately as high in the Southeast, reflecting the decline in newer manufacturing industry. Across most of Britain and Ireland, there was also a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs continuing into and throughout the 1990s. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the nineties. Financial services showed strong growth, particularly in such places as London’s Docklands, with its new ‘light railway’, and Edinburgh. By the late nineties, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns and cities like Leeds, which grew rapidly throughout the decade, aided by its ability to offer a range of cultural facilities that helped to attract an array of UK company headquarters. Manchester, similarly, enjoyed a renaissance, particularly in the spheres of music, the media and sport.

In July 1995, tormented by yet more rumours of right-wing conspiracies against him, Major riposted with a theatrical gesture of his own, resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and inviting all-comers to take him on. He told journalists gathered in the Number Ten garden that it was “put up or shut up time”. If he lost he would resign as Prime Minister. If he won, he would expect the party to rally around him. This was a gamble, since other potential leaders were available, not least Michael Heseltine, who had become Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Portillo, then the pin-up boy of the Thatcherites, whose supporters prepared a campaign headquarters for him, only for him to then decide against standing. In the event, the challenger was John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales and a highly intelligent anti-EU right-winger. Major won his fight, though 109 Tory MPs refused to back him.

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

Major was also having to deal with the inter-ethnic wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, following the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia as independent states in the early nineties. The worst violence occurred during the Serbian assault on Bosnia (I have written about the bloody 1992-94 Siege of Sarajevo, its capital, in an article elsewhere on this site based on John Simpson’s reporting). The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used for the first time as woeful columns of refugees fled in different directions. A nightmare which Europeans thought was over in 1945 was returning, only a couple of days’ drive away from London and half a day’s drive from where I was living on the southern borders of Hungary with Serbia and Croatia.

Six years after the siege, during a school visit to the Hague, I sat in the courtroom of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and listened, in horror, to the testimonies of those who had been imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps during the Bosnian War. I couldn’t believe that what I was hearing had happened in the final decade of the twentieth century in Europe. Those on trial at that time were the prison camp guards who had carried out the atrocities, claiming what had become known as the Nuremberg Defence. Later on, those giving the orders, both Mladko Radic and Radovan Karadzic (pictured below with John Simpson in 1993), the military and political leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, went on trial in the same courtroom, were convicted of war crimes and duly locked away, together with the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Major had asked how many troops it would take to keep the warring three sides apart and was told the number was four hundred thousand, three times the total size of the British Army at that time. He sent 1,800 men to protect the humanitarian convoys that were rumbling south from the UN bases in Hungary.

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Although many British people sent food parcels, warm clothes, medicine and blankets, loaded onto trucks and driven across the Croatian border and into Bosnia, many in the government were reluctant for Britain to become further involved. But the evening news bulletins showed pictures of starving refugees, the uncovered mass graves of civilians shot dead by death squads, and children with appalling injuries. There was a frenzied campaign for Western intervention, but President Clinton was determined not to risk the lives of American soldiers on the ground. Instead, he considered less costly alternatives, such as air strikes. This would have put others who were on the ground, including the British and other nationalities involved in the UN operation, directly into the line of retaliatory fire of the Serbian troops. When the NATO air-strikes began, the Serbs took the UN troops hostage, including British soldiers, who were then used as human shields. When the Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica and carried out a mass slaughter of its Muslim citizens, there were renewed calls for ‘boots on the ground’, but they never came.

Following three years of fighting, sanctions on Serbia and the success of the Croat Army in fighting back, a peace agreement was finally made in Dayton, Ohio. The UN convoys and troops left Hungary. Major became the first British Prime Minister of the post-War World to grapple with the question of what the proper role of the West should be to ‘regional’ conflicts such as the Balkan wars. They showed quite clearly both the dangers and the limitations of intervention. When a civil conflict is relayed in all its horror to tens of millions of voters every night by television, the pressure to ‘do something’ is intense.  But mostly this requires not air strikes but a full-scale ground force, which will then be drawn into the war itself. Then it must be followed by years of neo-colonial aid and rebuilding. Major and his colleagues were accused of moral cowardice and cynicism in allowing the revival of fascist behaviour in one corner of Europe. Yet, especially given the benefit of hindsight of what happened subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Western leaders were right to be wary of full-scale intervention.

Back to basics?

For many British voters, the Major years were associated with the sad, petty and lurid personal scandals that attended so many of his ministers, after he made an unwise speech calling for the return as old-style morality. In fact, back to basics referred to almost everything except personal sexual morality; he spoke of public service, industry, sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and the law and the defeat of crime. It gave the press, however, a fail-safe headline charge of hypocrisy whenever ministers were caught out. A series of infidelities were exposed; children born out-of-wedlock, a death from a sex stunt which went wrong, rumours about Major’s own affairs (which later turned out to be truer than realised at the time). More seriously, there was also an inquiry as to whether Parliament had been misled over the sale of arms to Iraq, but these were all knitted together into a single pattern of misbehaviour, referred to as ‘sleaze’.

In 1996, a three-year inquiry into whether the government had allowed a trial to go ahead against directors of an arms company, Matrix Churchill, knowing that they were, in fact, acting inside privately accepted guidelines, resulted in two ministers being publicly criticised. It showed that the government had allowed a more relaxed régime of military-related exports to Saddam Hussein even after the horrific gassing of five thousand Kurds at Falluja, also revealing a culture of secrecy and double standards in the process. Neil Hamilton MP was accused of accepting cash from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, for asking questions in the Commons. One of the most dramatic episodes in the 1997 election was the overwhelming defeat he suffered in his Tatton constituency by the former BBC war reporter, Martin Bell, who had been badly injured in Sarajevo who became Britain’s first independent MP for nearly fifty years. Jonathan Aitken, a Treasury minister was accused of accepting improper hospitality from an Arab business contact. He resigned to fight the Guardian over the claims, with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play. He was found guilty of perjury, spending eighteen months in prison.

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By the end of Major’s government, it seemed that the Tories might have learned the lesson that disagreements over the EU were capable of splitting their party. However, there was a general mood of contempt for politicians and the press, in particular, had lost any sense of deference. The reforms of the health service, police and schools had produced few significant improvements. The post-Cold War world was turning out to be nastier and less predictable than the early nineties days of the ‘peace dividend’ had promised. The Labour Opposition would, in due course, consider how the country might be better governed and reformed, as well as what would be the right British approach to peace-keeping and intervention now that the United States was the last superpower left standing. But in the early months of 1997,  Tony Blair and his fresh young ‘New Labour’ team, including Alistair Campbell (pictured above), were oiling their effective election-winning machine and moving in to roll over a tired-looking John Major and his tarnished old Tories.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan-Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2018), A History of Britain, 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Pan-Macmillan.

Peter Caterall, Roger Middleton, John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – The Final Hundred Days, 1918, from Amiens to the Armistice.   1 comment

The Battle of Amiens, 8-12 August:

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British troops watch as German prisoners are escorted away.

The Allied attacks of July 1918 had shown the effectiveness of ‘all arms’ battle tactics: troops and tanks advancing behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery fire as ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. Local counter-attacks were so successful that they quickly developed into a general offensive. Every day the Germans had to withdraw somewhere along the line; every day the Allies completed the preparations for another local push. The tactical situation seems to have loosened up slightly; the attacks were expensive but not prohibitively so and, as the Allies ground steadily forward, week in, week out, the morale of the German army finally began to fray.

At Amiens in August, these new tactics were put into operation to even greater effect. It was the most brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed of any British-led action on the Western Front. If this never quite matched the pace Ludendorff had set in March, it was better sustained and so, in the long run, more effective. The success of the advance was due to the profound secrecy in which the forces of the attack had been assembled. The offensive began with British, Australian, Canadian and French troops attacking to the east of the city. On the first day, the Australians met their objectives by early afternoon, taking eight thousand prisoners. But it was the Canadian troops who advanced the furthest, eight miles, taking five thousand prisoners. The Canadian Corps, supplied with ten million rounds of small-arms ammunition, were regarded by the Germans as ‘storm-troops’ and their attack from the north was cunningly concealed by the absence of a preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a swarm of 456 tanks were deployed alongside the troops, under the cover of the early morning ground mist. Haig himself attacked in the Somme area. As the troops left their trenches to advance, the artillery barrage began firing two hundred yards in front of their starting line. The guns then began to ‘lift’, increasing in range at timed intervals in their ‘creeping barrage’. The barrage included forty adjustments of a hundred yards every three minutes in this phase of the attack.

The advance slowed by the 12th, as the Allies over-reached their heavy artillery support and ran up against German troops determined to defend their 1917 trench positions, aided by the tangled wastes of the old Somme battlefield. On paper, the material gains by Allies did not appear extensive, for both in ground won and prisoners taken, Germany had frequently exceeded such gains, though it had failed to consolidate its offensives. By contrast, the Allied advance had not only given an indication of how the war could be won, but it had also achieved its essential purpose of striking a deadly blow at the spirit of an already weakening enemy. Ludendorff later confessed that…

August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. … It put the decline of our fighting force beyond all doubt.

After 8th August, the Kaiser concluded that…

We are at the end of our resources; the war must be ended.

At a conference held at Spa, the German generals informed him and the Imperial Chancellor that there was no chance of victory and that peace negotiations should be opened as soon as possible. The most that could be hoped for was an orderly retirement to the prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line, a strategic defensive action which would win reasonable terms from the Allies. Ludendorff himself offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He had lost hope of any gains, and his one remaining aim was to avoid an abject surrender. This was a far from the optimistic mood required to enter upon the most difficult operations which were still ahead.

The Hundred Days Offensive:

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When the initial momentum of the assault at Amiens died away, Haig was no longer willing to batter against stiffening opposition. Instead, he set the Third Army in motion farther north. This proved a more economical method of attack and from this point onwards a series of short, closely related offensives kept the Germans retiring until they reached the Hindenburg Line, from which they had started their offensive in the Spring. Foch was determined to hustle Ludendorff out of all his positions before he could entrench himself along the Hindenburg Line, driving the whole vast German army back to the narrow gut which led to Germany. But, at this time, he anticipated a gradual advance which would see the war continuing into 1919. As soon as serious resistance developed, Foch would, therefore, call a halt to the advance in that sector, only to renew it in another one. Tanks permitted him to mount a new offensive rapidly and frequently, so that his strategy became one of conducting a perpetual arpeggio along the whole of the Front, wearing down the enemy’s line and his reserves. Of this great plan,  to which Haig had undoubtedly contributed, the latter was also to be its chief executant. But, being closer to the field of battle, Haig was steadily coming to believe that, this year, it really would be all over before Christmas.

The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was a series of Allied engagements, that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at Amiens and finished on 11th November. In all, there were a further twenty-two battles. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties. The advance to victory, like the Somme retreat, cannot be painted in broad lines since it was composed of a multitude of interlinked actions. The first stage, completed by the first week in September, was the forcing of the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line, an achievement made certain by the breaking by the Canadians on 2nd September of the famous Drocourt-Quéant switch. Meanwhile, in the south, the Americans under Pershing had found immediate success at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, flattening out the Saint-Mihiel salient, cutting it off, and advancing northwards towards Sedan. The next stage was the breaching of the Hindenburg defences, and while Pershing attacked towards Meziéres, the Belgians and the British attacked in the north towards Ghent, movements which took place towards the end of August. Between these movements, the Hindenburg Line was breached at many points, and the Germans were compelled to make extensive evacuations.

The Allied advance was slower than had been expected, however, and the German army was able to retain its cohesion. Nevertheless, it was sadly pressed, and its fighting spirit was broken. The German soldiers had been led to believe that the Allies were as exhausted and as short of supplies as they themselves were. During their spring offensives, however, they had captured stores of allied clothing, food and metals which had opened their eyes to the deception being practised on them. Their casualties had been enormous, and the Allied reserves seemed unlimited. Their letters from home told of their families’ distress, making further resistance seem both hopeless and pointless.

Yet the news of this turn of the tide at Amiens and in its aftermath did not immediately change the popular mood on the home front in Britain. Everybody was over-tired and underfed, and an influenza epidemic was claiming hundreds of victims each week. My grandfather’s battalion, training at Catterick barracks to go to France, was almost wiped out. He was one of few survivors since he was an underage recruit, his mother presenting his birth certificate at the camp gates.   All over the country, there were strikes among munition-workers, followed by trouble with transport services and in the coal mines. Even the London police joined in. These difficulties were overcome very simply by increasing wages. Those in authority, perhaps more aware than most that the last stage of the ghastly shooting-match was finally coming to an end, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning themselves as to whether a rot might set in.

At this juncture, it was the turn of the British War Cabinet to have doubts, and, as it would have put the brake on Allenby in Palestine, so it would also have held back Haig. But, as John Buchan wrote in 1935, the British commander had reached the point which great soldiers come to sooner or later when he could trust his instinct. On 9th September he told Lord Milner that the war would not drag on till next July, as was the view at home, but was on the eve of a decision. Buchan continued:

He had the supreme moral courage to take upon himself the full responsibility for a step which, if it failed, would blast his repute and lead to dreadful losses, but which, if it succeeded, would in his belief mean the end of the War, and prevent civilisation from crumbling through sheer fatigue.

Haig was justified in his fortitude. With the order, “Tout le monde à la Bataille,” Foch began the final converging battles of the war. One of the most major battles was that of Meuse-Argonne, which began on 26th September and was the American Expeditionary Force’s largest offensive, featuring over one and a quarter million troops by the time it ended on 11th November. This attack proved to be more difficult than the one at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, as they faced strong German defences in the dense Argonne forest. The weather did not help; it rained on forty of the battle’s forty-seven. On the 26th September, two British and two American divisions faced fifty-seven weak German divisions behind the strongest entrenchment in history. It took the British troops just one day to cross the battlefield at Passchendaele. Brigadier General J. Harington of the 46th (North Midland) Division commented on his troops’ breaching of the Hindenburg Line on 29th September by telling them, You boys have made history. They had been given the difficult task of crossing the heavily defended St Quentin Canal, a feat which they had accomplished using rafts and pulled lines, with troops wearing cork lifebelts taken from cross-Channel steamships. Prisoners were captured at the Bellenglise Tunnel, which had been dug under the canal by the Germans after Allied soldiers fired a German ‘howitzer’ into it.

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By the 29th, the combined British and American troops had crossed the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal, and within a week they were through the whole defence system and in open country. Despite their adherence to outdated tactics that brought about heavy casualties, the Americans prevailed and continued their assault right up to the end of the war. By 8th October the last remnants of the Hindenburg zone had disappeared in a cataclysm. Foch’s conception had not been fully realised, however; Pershing had been set too hard a task and was not far enough forward when the Hindenburg system gave, pinning the enemy into the trap which had been set. Nevertheless, by 10th October Germany had been beaten by the US Army in a battle which Foch described as a classic example of the military art.

The Collapse of Germany’s Allies:

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The day of doom was only postponed, and Ludendorff no longer had any refuge from the storm. Long before his broken divisions could reach the Meuse Germany would be on its knees.  The signs of Germany’s military decline were quickly read by her partners. It was now losing all its allies. They had been the guardians of Germany’s flanks and rear, and if they fell the country would be defenceless. On 15th September, the much-ridiculed Allied armies comprising British, French, Greek, Italian and Serbian troops, attacked the German-led but mainly Bulgar forces in Macedonia, moving forward into Salonica, and within a fortnight Bulgaria’s front had collapsed and its government sought an armistice. This was concluded on 29th September at Thessalonica. British forces were moving across the country towards the Turkish frontier. French columns had reached the Danube and the Serbs had made a good start on the liberation of their homeland.

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The Turks held out for a further month, during which the British conquered Syria, then they too surrendered. On 19th September, General Allenby in Palestine had opened up an action which provided a perfect instance of how, by surprise and mobility, a decisive victory may be won almost without fighting. Algerians, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Arab tribesmen, Africans and Jewish battalions came together to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman rule. Breaking the Turkish defence in the plain of Sharon, Allenby sent his fifteen thousand cavalry in a wide sweep to cut the enemy’s line of communications and block his retreat, while Prince Faisal and T. E. Lawrence (a young British officer who had attained an amazing ascendancy over the Arab tribes) created a diversion east of the Jordan. This played an important role in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo. In two days, the Turkish armies to the west of Jordan had been destroyed, its right-wing being shattered, while its army on the east bank was being shepherded north by the merciless Arabs to its destruction. By 1st October Damascus was in British hands, and Aleppo surrendered on 26th October. The elimination of Bulgaria exposed both the Danube and Constantinople to attack and the French and British forces diverged on these two objectives. A Franco-British force sailed in triumph past Gallipoli and took possession of Constantinople. With her armies in the east shattered, Turkey made peace on 30th September by the Armistice of Mudros.

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The Allied armies in the Balkans still had a fair way to travel before they could bring Austria-Hungary under attack, but it was a journey they never had to make.: the Habsburg Empire was falling to pieces of its own accord. October saw Czech nationalists take over in Prague and proclaim it the capital of an independent Czechoslovak state, while the Poles of Galicia announced their intention of taking the province into the new Polish state – a programme disputed by the Ruthenians of Eastern Galicia, who looked towards the Ukrainian Republic for support and integration. At the same time representatives of the various south-Slav peoples of the empire – Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, repudiated Austro-Hungarian rule and expressed, with surprising unanimity, their desire to fuse with Serbia and Montenegro to form a single Yugoslav state. All that was left was for revolutions in Vienna and Budapest to declare in favour of separate Austrian and Hungarian republics and the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of Caporetto, Italy had made her last advance and the Austrian forces, which had suffered desperately for four years and were now at the end of their endurance, melted away. So did the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 3rd-4th November an Armistice was signed at Villa Giusti with Austria-Hungary, and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments. The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Thus, even as it resisted Allied pressure on the Western Front, Germany saw all its chief allies fall away, collapse and disintegrate.

The Internal Collapse of Germany:

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These blows broke the nerve of the German High Command. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max of Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in the negotiations. Ludendorff stuck to his idea of a strategic defence to compel better terms, till his physical health failed and with it his nerve; but the civilian statesmen believed that the army was beyond hope and that there must be no delay in making peace. From the meeting at Spa on 29th September till the early days of November there was a frenzied effort by the German statesmen to win something by negotiation which their armies were incapable of enforcing. While Foch continued to play his deadly arpeggio in the West, Germany strove by diplomacy to arrest the inevitable. They knew what the soldiers had not realised, that the splendid fortitude of the German people was breaking, disturbed by Allied propaganda and weakened with suffering. The condition of their country was too desperate to wait for an honourable truce at the front since the home front was dissolving more quickly than the battlefront. The virus of revolution, which Germany had fostered in Russia, was also stealing into her own veins. Popular feeling was on the side of Scheidemann’s view, …

“Better a terrible end than terror without end.”

On 3rd October, the new German Chancellor made a request to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, to take in hand the restoration of peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points, published in January as a way of justifying the USA’s involvement in the war and ensuring future peace. In particular, they were interested in securing a general disarmament, open diplomacy (no secret treaties) and the right of Germany to self-determination. Wilson replied that the armistice now sought by Germany was a matter for the Allied leaders in the field. In the exchange of notes which followed, it became clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Wilson’s points were, however, used as the basis for the negotiation of the peace treaty at Versailles the following year. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, remained sceptical about them:

“God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gave us fourteen.”

Faced with the certainty of being faced with a demand for an unconditional surrender from the Allies, Ludendorff now wished to fight on, but neither the new government nor the people supported him. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 in Berlin on one day, 15th October, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised victory but brought defeat.  Ludendorff resigned on the 26th, and the High Command was superseded by the proselytes of democracy. Everywhere in Germany kings and courts were tumbling down, and various brands of socialists were assuming power. Steps were taken to transfer the real power to the Reichstag. President Wilson had refused to enter negotiations with military and “monarchical autocrats” and therefore required “not negotiation but surrender.” But the height of the storm is not the moment to recast a constitution, and for the old Germany, the only way was not reform but downfall.

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With political unrest in Germany, it was thought the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. Civil War was threatened since the Kaiser, despite relentless pressure, was unwilling to abdicate. On 29th October, he left Berlin for Spa, the army headquarters, where Hindenburg had to tell him that the army would not support him against the people. Some army officers proposed that he go to the front and die an honourable death in battle. It was now early November. On the 3rd, the sailors of the German fleet mutinied rather than sail out into a death-or-glory mission against the British. By 4th November, the mutiny was general, and Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers.

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The same day, the army fell into confusion in Flanders, and the Austrian armistice exposed the Bavarian front to hostile attack. The temper of many army divisions was reported to be equally uncertain as the navy. An armistice had now become a matter of life or death, and on 6th November the German delegates left Berlin to sue for one. President Wilson had indicated that an armistice was on offer to the civilian leaders of Germany, but not to the military or the monarchy. Any hopes that this armistice would take the form of a truce between equals were quickly dispelled by an examination of its terms. Haig and Milner were in favour of moderation in its demands, but Foch was implacable, arguing that it must be such as to leave the enemy no power of resistance, and be a pledge both for reparations and security.

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A few days later the mutineers had occupied the principal cities of North-west, and an insurrection had broken out in Munich. On 9th November revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. A Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the Reichstag and, at last bowing to the inevitable, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his life in the Netherlands. Already, on 7th November, the German delegates had passed through the Allied lines to receive the terms drawn up by the Allied Commanders. They had no choice but to accept Foch’s terms for what was an unconditional surrender, but it also became clear that the Armistice could not have been refused by the Allies, both on grounds of common humanity and in view of the exhaustion of their own troops, yet it was negotiated before the hands of fighting Germans were formally held up in the field, leading to the accusation that the politicians who signed it had stabbed the German army in the back. In Buchan’s view, …

… It provided the victors with all that they desired and all the conquered could give. Its terms meant precisely what they said, so much and no more. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not a part of them; the Armistice had no connection with any later peace treaties. It may be argued with justice that the negotiations by the various Governments between October 5th and November 5th involved a declaration of principle by the Allies which they were morally bound to observe in the ultimate settlement. But such a declaration bore no relation to the Armistice. That was an affair between soldiers, a thing sought by Germany under the pressure of dire necessity to avoid the utter destruction of her armed manhood. It would have come about though Mr. Wilson had never indited a single note.  

There was only one mitigating circumstance. President Wilson had declared that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. Self-determination was to be the guiding principle in this process; plebiscites would take place and make clear the people’s will. On this basis, Germany would not do too badly. This was why the Germans had chosen to negotiate with Woodrow Wilson and not his European allies. True, the President had indicated that there would be exceptions to this general rule: Alsace-Lorraine would have to go back to France and the new Polish state, whose existence all parties had agreed upon, must be given access to the sea. But, if Wilson stuck to his Fourteen Points, Germany should emerge from the war clipped rather than shorn.

The Armistice and its Terms:

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With no other option available to them, the German representatives met their Allied counterparts in railway carriage 2419D in a forest near Compiegne on 8th November. In 1940, Hitler symbolically used the same railway carriage to accept the French surrender. The location was chosen to ensure secrecy and no one in the German delegation was a senior military figure. The German Army High Command were keen to remain distant from the proceedings to preserve their reputations. There was little in the way of negotiation, and the Allies presented the Germans with the terms and if they did not sign, the war would continue. The Germans had three days to decide. Early in the morning of 11th November, at 5.20 a.m. to be precise, they concluded that they had no alternative but to agree to the stringent Allied terms and they signed the Armistice document. It detailed what Germany was required to do to secure the peace. Thirty-four sections laid out reparations and territory that had to be given up. Material to be surrendered included:

1,700 aircraft

2,500 field guns

2,500 heavy guns

3,000 Minenwerfer (German trench mortars, nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ by British soldiers)

5,000 locomotives

5,000 motor lorries

25,000 machine guns

150,000 wagons

All submarines

The most important section of the document as far as most of the troops were concerned was the very first:

Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the Armistice (Naval hostilities were also to cease).

It was agreed that at 11 o’ clock on that morning the Great War would come to an end. At two minutes to eleven, a machine-gun opened up at about two hundred metres from the leading British Commonwealth troops at Grandrieu. John Buchan described that last morning’s action:

In the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11th, the minutes passed slowly along the front. An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet. Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought. At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the rear. Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.

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In fact, some US Army artillery guns continued to fire until 4 p.m., believing the sound of nearby engineering work to be enemy gunfire. But it was soon confirmed that this was indeed the last day of a First World War that had lasted 1,568 days. In the field since 15th July, Germany had lost to the British armies 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; to the French 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns; to the Americans 44,000 and 1,421 guns; to the Belgians 14,500 prisoners and 474 guns. In the field, because she could not do otherwise, she made a full and absolute surrender. The number of Commonwealth personnel who died on 11th November was 863, and almost eleven thousand were killed, wounded or recorded as missing on 11th November. The following are the records of the last of the combatants’ countrymen to die in battle in the Great War:

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The last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front were Sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Second Corporal Albert Davey, who had been killed at Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November. Private Henry Gunther’s death, recorded above, is described in the US Army’s 79th Divisional history:

Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.

Private Gunther’s death was the last of 53,402 losses sustained by the US Army during its sixth-month participation in the war. In the same period, there were 360,000 casualties out of the 1.2 million men in the British Army.  Sixty years later, in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans were killed. While the loss of so many young men in Vietnam had a significant impact on American society and culture in the late twentieth century, the losses of World War One had, arguably, an even more profound effect on the USA from 1918 to 1943, when the country finally got over these costs of getting involved in European conflicts and agreed to send its soldiers back to the continent. Another important social effect, though a secondary one, was that resulting from the participation of two hundred thousand African-American troops who served in France. Having been integrated into the fighting forces in western Europe, many of them returned to continuing poverty and segregation in their home states and counties.

Poetry & Pity:

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In Shrewsbury, as the bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice on the 11th November, the parents of Wilfred Owen received a telegram informing them of their son’s death. Although like his friend and fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had come very close to becoming a pacifist during his convalescence at Craiglockart War Hospital in Scotland, where he had met Sassoon in August 1917, he had insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He had felt that he had to return to France in order remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men in the front line, through sharing their experiences and their suffering. on 4th October, after most of his company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners; for this feat, he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the Armistice, on 4th November 1918, he was trying to construct a make-shift bridge so as to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, when he himself was killed. Just before he left England for the last time on 31st August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a preface for it, which began:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Owen’s best and most typical poetry, written earlier in the war, is in harmony with this Preface. As Andrew Motion has written more recently (2003), Owen believed that it was still possible to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. He stressed the tragic waste of war, and so his characteristic attitude is of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonising and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, British and German, could have achieved if only they had lived. Two types of tension give a cutting edge to Owen’s best poetry. He cannot quite make up his mind about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to the problem of war. So he carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning: the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Two of his later poems reject Christianity more openly: Futility arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

A less well-known poem, The End, expresses the most serious doubts that Owen ever put into poetry. He asks what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts quiver in the balance. But in his letters Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

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

Arguments such as this are made explicitly in his letters but are only hinted at below the surface of his poems. Sassoon was more negative in tone, better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at raising pity for dead soldiers. But in some of his poems he managed to do both:

He’s young, he hated war! How should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through!

Such tragedies impelled Sassoon to his desperate protest, O Jesus, make it stop! Owen and Sassoon impelled other poets, both civilians (like Edith Wharton, below) and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, so often unfairly dismissed for his earlier jingoism, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, 1914-18, and Edward Thomas’ As The Team’s Head-Brass tells of a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move a fallen tree because his mate has been killed in France. This simple example typifies all that the men might have accomplished whose lives were wasted in war. If Owen had lived, it is generally agreed among literary critics that he would have gone on to be at least as great as his inspiration, John Keats. Perhaps more importantly, his maxim has held firm through the years, even in wars which have generally been considered to be ‘just’. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients, especially when the realities of war are blurred by euphemism, propaganda and ‘fake news’.

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Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

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

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

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

Irene Richards, J.B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map  History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part Three.   Leave a comment

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The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.

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However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.

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The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.

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In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.

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Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.

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These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.

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Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.

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Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.

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The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.

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The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.

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Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?

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A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).

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You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

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In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 

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There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.

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A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

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On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.

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In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.

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For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.

Sources:

Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill, et.al., (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 

 

 

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A Hundred Years Ago – The Great War: Spring into Summer, 1918.   Leave a comment

‘Aces High’ downed – Red Baron & Prancing Horse:

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The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April, celebrated by shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen three weeks later. He was the ‘ace of aces’, the fighter pilot who brought down the most enemy aircraft. He had begun the war as a cavalry officer before transferring to the German air force. He led a fighter wing known as the ‘Flying Circus’ because of their brightly painted aircraft.  Von Richthofen’s own personal machines were painted bright red, giving rise to his nickname, the Red Baron. Between September 1916 and April 1918 he brought down eighty allied aircraft before he was finally brought down. One RAF fighter pilot, Mick Mannock, refused to toast von Richthofen on his demise, saying “I hope the bastard roasted on the way down.” Later, in the summer, British novelist D H Lawrence was married to Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Manfred.

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In June, Italy’s highest-scoring fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, was killed. His aircraft featured a prancing horse symbol painted on the side. Years later Francesco’s mother suggested to a young racing driver called Enzo Ferrari that he adopt the symbol for his racing cars.

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

The renowned Australian Corps came under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson early in 1918. He was pleased with the men and wrote in his diary about their unusual pastimes in the trenches:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

Third Battle of the Aisne, 27th May – 9th June:

Aiming to tie the Allies down to allow a main attack in the north, the Germans launched their third large-scale attack at Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne with a new storm breaking on the Aisne heights, a ferocious artillery barrage that shattered French units massed on the front line. It was estimated that two million shells were fired in the four-and-a-half-hour-long preliminary bombardment. By the evening, the French gains in the three great actions had vanished like smoke, and the Germans had crossed the river, advancing fourteen miles on the first day, an unprecedented success on the Western Front. Operation Blücher-Yorck was a great success for the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. On the second day, he was beyond the Vesle, and on the third, his vanguard was looking down from the heights of the Tardenois on the waters of the Marne. It was the swiftest advance made in the West since the beginning of trench warfare.

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Pleased with his success, Ludendorff then changed his plans and took forces reserved for a northern attack to support a drive westwards to Paris. The message painted on Germans trucks read, On to Paris! But the advance ran out of supplies and momentum as American troops, fighting their first engagement of the war at Cantigny, together with French forces, stood in the way. Captain Lloyd Williams of the US Marines in Belleau Wood summed up the Americans’ mood; Retreat? Hell, we only just got here! Williams was killed in the ensuing battle that followed on 6th June. The Marines began a counter-attack to take the wood. On the first day, they lost 1,087 men, more than had been lost in the whole of the Marines’ history to that date. Nevertheless, after three weeks of brutal fighting, they eventually took the wood. Meanwhile, on 9th June, Ludendorff had tried to cut off the Allied salient between the two great dents he had made but failed again. His position was hopeless; he was the victim of his own early successes.

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Above: New British troops arrive at a port in France.

Battle of Matz, 9th – 13th June; Advent of the Americans:

Operation Gneisenau, a further German attack, was intended to straighten their forward line. Despite inadequate planning, they pushed the French back, gaining six miles of territory and inflicting heavier casualties than they suffered. However, the offensive floundered and French counter-attacks forced the Germans to halt proceedings after only a few days. In the course of this Spring Offensive, as it became known, they had lost 963,000 men. By this time their surviving soldiers had become so disheartened and disillusioned by their failure to break through the Allied defences that they began shouting abuse at their own reinforcements, calling them, War prolongers! At the same time, ten thousand Americans were arriving each day in France. By the summer of 1918 half a million ‘doughboys’ were on the front line. The British Army was also reinforced, having suffered a 36% casualty rate during the Spring Offensive, with 540,000 new recruits being sent to the Front between March and August. But the Germans facing them still had 207 divisions in all, compared with 203 Allied divisions. Britain also employed manual workers from several nationalities to work in France:

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

On 19 July, Honduras became the last country to join the war, declaring war on Germany.

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

Back in ‘Blighty’, after an explosion at the Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory in Nottingham killed 134 employees, it was suggested that the Victoria Cross be awarded to staff for their subsequent bravery in going about their own work. Sadly this was not done, as the medal could only be given to individuals in uniform. The number of women in non-domestic employment in April 1918 had risen to 4,808,000, 1.5 million more than four years earlier.

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At the Front, two British women who had earned themselves the nickname from Belgian troops, the two Madonnas of Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, were injured in a gas attack in 1918. They had travelled to Ypres in 1914, setting up an independent first aid station. They were awarded seventeen medals for bravery.

The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July – 5 August:

The May and June attacks by the Germans had driven the French back from the Aisne to the Marne. There are two explanations for the surprising extent of the German advance, shown on the map below. First, instead of attacking in ‘waves’ of men, they advanced in small groups pressing forward where the opposition was weak and keeping their reserves close at hand to exploit any gap created. Secondly, the British Fifth Army was unusually weak: the line recently taken over from the French had not been put into a proper state of defence; Haig had massed his reserves in the north, where he expected an attack; and after Passchendaele, Lloyd George had retained many reserves in England to prevent unprofitable squandering of life. However, by early July, the German successes had failed to bring outright victory.

The advances had so exceeded Ludendorff’s expectations that he was unprepared to exploit them. The British troops offered magnificent resistance in response to Haig’s famous order, With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. Finally, the arrival of Allied reserves, in fresh condition from Palestine and Italy, turned the tide.

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Ludendorff still hoped to create a diversion that would allow a decisive attack in Flanders. His last offensive began on 15th July, east and west of Rheims. Divisions drove forwards, crossing the River Marne in several places, but then they were held. The advance achieved nothing and instead the Germans had fallen into the Allied trap. Hitherto Foch had stood patiently on the defensive, hoarding his assets. He had tried almost too highly the fortitude of the British soldier. Now he had got his reserve, and Haig, to augment it, had dangerously thinned his own front in the north, to the consternation of the War Cabinet. The moment had come to use it. On 18th July Foch counter-attacked on the right flank of the new German salient and drove it in. This attack was led by masses of light tanks which forced the Germans to retire. It was not a great counterstroke, but it forced Ludendorff to pause and consider. He halted and then began to withdraw from the Marne pocket.

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Foch now had freedom of movement, for with him, at last, was the full American army. By July, there were already a million Americans in France. The German command had long been aware of how great this menace was, but the German press had told the people that it was only a force in buckram. Even up to July this newspaper belittlement continued. But at Chateau-Thierry in June an American contingent had fought with furious gallantry, and on 15th July in the same area, one American division and elements from another had rolled back the German assault. These were the troops who, according to the German press, would not land in Europe unless they could swim like fishes or fly like birds. They had proved their worth in pushing the Germans back to their March starting positions.

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

But the true counter-attack was not to come until August, at Amiens. In July, the Allied attacks showed the effectiveness of ‘all-arms’ battle tactics, with troops and tanks advancing behind an artillery ‘creeping barrage’ while ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. At Amiens, these were to be put into operation to great effect. The plan for the Peace Offensive, which aimed at compelling a German surrender, was wholly British. Haig had now come to the height of his powers and was a different man from the cautious, orthodox soldier of the earlier days of the war. He had not always been happy with his French colleagues; in some ways, he had been too similar to Pétain, and in every other way too dissimilar to Foch, to be quite at ease with either of them. But now his mind and Foch’s seemed to be on the same ‘wavelength’. The Chief of Allied forces was now elevated enough to take advice, and from Haig, he drew not only his chief weapon – the tank – but also many of his tactics, as well as certain key points in his strategy. The British Army had suffered far more than the French in terms of casualties, but they were still ready to take the chief role, one which they retained until the last day of the war. This was a measure of the reverence in which Foch held his ally. The British ‘Tommy’ was, by now, well-disciplined, as the following notice, pasted into their pay-books, suggests:

Keep your mouths shut! The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk – when you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to stangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

This secrecy was essential to success at Amiens since many previous battles had shown the Germans fully aware of Allied plans. The tables were now turned, with British intelligence also far more effective than it had been previously. Detailed preparations could be made on the basis of information obtained which identified 95% of German artillery positions. Ernest James RollingsIn particular, Lt Ernest Rollings MC of the 17th Armoured Car Battalion (pictured left) went ‘behind enemy lines’ to recover detailed plans of the Hindenberg Line. On his return, he commented that it was by far the best fighting day I have ever had. In 1931, a newspaper report described the Welshman as ‘The Man Who Ended the War’. Perhaps the journalist who wrote of it thought that he deserved a ‘niche in the pantheon’ alongside that other iconic Welshman, and PM, David Lloyd George (below), the Man who won the War.

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Above: David Lloyd George at the height of his power.

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

For now, however, the temper of Britain through the spring and summer was heavy and apathetic, but it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living to the outer edges of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution which had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt if the War would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour might presage the dawn. But as the months of ‘darkness’ dragged on, and the word from the battle-fields was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular mood sank again into a dull listlessness. To make matters worse, in June there was an outbreak of ‘Spanish ‘flu’. Thirty people died in Lancashire, but no one had any idea how many millions more it was about to kill.

For Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poets, the satire they wrote was partly the product of the feeling that they belonged to a different race from the civilians they found themselves among while convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital near Edinburgh. Sassoon published his satirical poems in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it. While Owen was on invalid leave in England, if he met civilians who talked too glibly about the war, he would thrust in front of their eyes photographs of horribly mutilated soldiers. But he, together with Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, reserved his satirical condemnation for the rich, old men who were making a profit out of the war and did not share the soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet concealed their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving and jingoism. In his poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, Owen envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

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

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This indignant mood that led these soldier-poets to satirise civilians is revealed in a letter which Owen wrote to his mother from Scarborough in July 1918:

This morning at 8.20 we heard a boat torpedoed in the bay, about a mile out. I wish the Boche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the pleasure boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading ‘John Bull’ on Scarborough Sands.

The Return of the War Horse & the Fall of the Virgin:

The morale of the soldiers at the Front throughout the spring and early summer matched the cynical protests of people and poets on the home front, for the war to be brought to an end. It was perhaps best summed up in the following song:   

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Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued throughout the summer. Fifteen thousand cavalry horses prepared for action. Cavalrymen had operated as unmounted infantry for most of the war since there were few opportunities for horse-mounted soldiers to fight effectively on the typical Western Front battlefield. As the fighting became more open again, cavalry began to be utilised once more.

Earlier in the war, in the town of Albert, near to the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a church was hit. It didn’t fall completely and remained, leaning over. It was reckoned that when it finally fell the war would end. At the beginning of August, the statue toppled. Trench warfare on both sides was certainly coming to an end, thanks to the tanks. But as the Germans left their trenches in the summer of 1918, they left notices for the British to warn them that the war was far from won and lost:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.

Fritz 

Sources:

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

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

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

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.

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Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 

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The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.

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All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.

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Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.

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Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.

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At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.

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Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)

 

 

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One – ‘The Holy Youth’ of Niklashausen, the Bundschuh and the growth of German Nationalism to 1517:

Below: Europe in 1466: The Age of the New Monarchies

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During the second half of the fifteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom.  Setbacks experienced by the advancing Ottomans, such as their failure to overcome Albania, defended resolutely by George Castriota (Skandenberg) from 1443 to 1468, meant that it was more difficult for them to tolerate the independence of Byzantine territory to their rear. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation in the West. His army laid siege to Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian commander (and regent), János Hunyádi (below). By 1460, the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the Morea had fallen with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remnant of Byzantium was finally extinguished. In 1457, the Bohemians elected the Hussite George Podebrady as their king. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468.

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The prestige of the Holy Roman Emperor sank particularly low, The dignity and authority of the imperial office continued to dwindle as Germany continued to disintegrate into a jumble of principalities. Frederick III had, at first, largely because of his name, been the focus of the wildest millennial expectations; but in the course of a reign which lasted from 1452 to 1493, he proved a singularly ineffective monarch. His deposition was prevented only by the lack of any suitable rival and latterly his very existence was almost forgotten by his subjects. The vacuum at the centre of the state produced a chronic and widespread anxiety, which found its expression in the folklore of the future Frederick but which could also vent itself in sudden waves of eschatological enthusiasm. Amongst its commonest manifestations were mass pilgrimages, reminiscent of the popular crusades and the flagellant processions of earlier times, and no less liable to escape from ecclesiastical control.

The situation was particularly explosive in the territories of the Prince-Bishop of Würzberg. During the early part of the fifteenth century, the bishops had been wildly extravagant and were unable to pay their debts except by levying even heavier taxes. By 1474 the taxes had become so burdensome that one of the Bishop’s officials, comparing the local peasantry to a team of horses drawing a heavy wagon, remarked that if a single egg were added to that wagon, the horses would no longer be able to pull it. To a laity which had learnt from generations of heterodox preachers that the clergy ought to live in total poverty, this heavy burden of taxation was bound to appear particularly monstrous. In the city and diocese of Würzberg, it was no longer acceptable for the bishop, whatever his personal qualities, to be regarded by the laity and especially by the poor as an exploiter.

In 1476, the small of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley, not far from Würzberg, was the backdrop for a movement which could almost be seen as a new People’s Crusade. Much that had occurred during the earlier crusades in France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley was now repeated in southern Germany, but this time messianic Kingdom was no Heavenly Jerusalem but the State of Nature, as it had been pictured by John Ball in England and the Táborites in Bohemia. The Messiah was a young man called Hans Böhm, a name which suggests that he was either of Bohemian descent or else that in the popular mind he was associated with Hussite teachings. He was a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place. Hence the nickname, by which he is still known, of the Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen. He had heard the tale of an Italian Franciscan, Giovanni di Capistrano, from a generation earlier, who had through Germany preaching repentance, urging his audience to put away their fine clothes and to burn all dice and playing cards. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of Lent, the shepherd burnt his drum before the parish church of Niklashausen and began to preach to the people.

Exactly like the shepherd lad who is said to have launched the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, Böhm declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him surrounded by a heavenly radiance and had given him a message of prodigious importance. In the parish church of Niklashausen there stood a statue of the Virgin to which miraculous powers were attributed, long attracting pilgrims. Now, he claimed, this spot had become the salvation of the world. God had intended to punish mankind, but the Virgin had interceded and God had agreed to withhold punishment if people came to Niklashausen in their multitudes, otherwise, the punishment would, after all, descend upon the world. From the village alone, the Virgin would bestow her blessings upon all lands, since divine grace was to be found in the Tauber valley alone. Whoever made the pilgrimage would be absolved of all their sins and whoever died there would not suffer purgatory, but go straight to heaven.

This former shepherd was a simple man, but now he was suddenly able to command astonishing eloquence. On Sundays and feast days crowds streamed to hear him. At first, he merely preached repentance: women were to throw away their gold and jewellery, men were to wear less colourful costumes. Before long, however, the shepherd was claiming miraculous powers for himself. That God had not sent a frost to kill off all corn and vines was due to his prayers alone, he proclaimed. He also swore that he could lead any soul out of hell with his own hand.

Although Böhm had begun to preach with the consent of the parish priest, it was to be expected that he would eventually turn against the clergy. He voiced the traditional accusations of ‘Avarice’ and ‘Luxury’. It would be easier, he asserted, to make a Christian out of a Jew than out of a priest. God had been outraged by the behaviour of the clergy; now he would tolerate it no longer. The day of reckoning was at hand when the clergy would be happy to cover up their tonsures to escape from their pursuers, for to kill a cleric would then be seen as a most meritorious act. God had withdrawn his strength from them, and there would soon be no priests or monks left on earth. If they burnt him as a heretic, he threatened, a fearful punishment awaited them. He also called upon the people to stop paying taxes and tithes. Priests should be made to give up their many benefices and live from meal to meal on what their parishioners chose to give them. The celebrated Abbot of Sponheim commented:

What would the laymen like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master’s yoke.

The Primate of Germany, the Archbishop of Mainz, also saw in the propheta of Niklashausen a force which might inflict irreparable damage on the Church. In the end, Böhm also revealed himself as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian Millennium based on Natural Law.  In the coming Kingdom, the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in ‘olden times’. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else, from the poorest peasant to local lords and princes to the Emperor:

Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread… The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!

The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban poor; we know that townsfolk came to Niklashausen from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand in demanding that all basic resources and activities should be free for all men, Böhm’s teaching was appealing to the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had, in fact, been theirs in ‘olden time’, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs that they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, a miraculous being sent by God, which drew tens of thousands to the Tauber Valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, a saviour who could bestow on them the fulness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.

News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighbourhood and was carried further afield by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of the common folk of all ages and both sexes, including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and on to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth’. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these people believed of Nikashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. The hordes advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition. One became particularly popular:

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

As the pilgrims arrived at Niklashausen they placed offerings before the statue of the Virgin, but an even more intense devotion was given to the propheta himself. They dropped to their knees before him, crying, O Man of God, sent from Heaven, take pity on us! It was reported that by laying-on of hands, he had cured people who had been blind or dumb from birth, that he had raised the dead and that he had made a spring gush from a rock. Chroniclers talk of as many as seventy thousand gathered together on a single day, and though this figure is absurd, the assemblies must have been very sizeable. A vast camp grew up around the little village; tents were set up in which tradesmen, artisans and cooks catered for the travellers’ needs. From time to time, Böhm would mount a tub, or appear at an upper window, to preach his revolutionary doctrine to the crowds (see the woodcut below).

The pilgrimages began towards the end of March 1474 and by June the authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, had decided that Böhm’s propaganda was a serious menace to the social order which must be dealt with. The Town Council of Nuremberg forbade their citizens from going on pilgrimage to Niklashausen and Würzberg soon followed suit. Perturbed at the number of strangers who were pouring through the town, the Council closed as many of its gates as possible, bade its citizens to arm themselves and did what it could to put a stop to wild talk. In the end, the Prince-Bishop set about breaking the power of the propheta. He summoned a Diet at which it was decided that Böhm should be arrested.

According to his enemies, Böhm now tried to organise a revolt, telling his audience in a sermon on 7 July to come armed, without women or children, on the next Sunday. On the night before, a squad of horsemen sent by the Bishop descended on Niklashausen, seizing Böhm and carrying him off to Würzburg. The next day thousands of the assembled pilgrims marched, with only a few weapons but many giant candles taken from the shrine, to the castle at Würzburg where Böhm was imprisoned, arriving at dawn beneath the castle walls. The Bishop and the Town Council sent an emissary to reason with the pilgrims, but he was driven off with stones. A second emissary was more successful in persuading those pilgrims who were subjects of the Bishop to return to their homes. The rest stood firm, insisting on the release of the Holy Youth. A few cannon-shots were fired over their heads, but when no-one was hurt, the pilgrims were convinced that the Virgin was protecting them. As a result, they then tried to storm the town. This time the shots were directed at them and were followed by a cavalry-charge in which some forty of them were killed, the rest fleeing in panic.

Support for Böhm was so strong that even after this overwhelming victory the Bishop and Town Council could not feel secure. The burghers of Würzburg were warned to expect a second and more formidable attack. It was also feared that there were many within the city who might join forces with the pilgrims. The Bishop sent out a request to the neighbouring lords to hold themselves ready to come to his assistance if needed. Before any fresh disturbances could occur, however, Böhm had been tried by an ecclesiastical court and found guilty of heresy and sorcery. Two of his peasant disciples were beheaded and the Holy Youth himself was burnt at the stake, the common people hoping in vain for a miracle from Heaven which would save him. His ashes were thrown into the river so they could not become relics.

Everything possible was done to eradicate all trace of Böhm and his works. The offerings left at the church of Niklashausen were confiscated and shared between the Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Würzburg and the count in whose territory the church stood. In all the affected areas of Germany, bishops, princes and town councils joined in forbidding any further pilgrimages to the village shrine. Nevertheless, pilgrims continued to arrive even after they were threatened with excommunication and the church had been closed and placed under an interdict. In the end, at the beginning of 1477, the church was demolished by order of the Archbishop.

Undoubtedly, the Holy Youth of Niklashausen had been exploited by men far shrewder than he was. Certain local lords made use of the popular excitement to weaken their overlord, the Bishop of Würzburg, with whom they had been in conflict for some years. These men headed the nocturnal march on the city; one of them had later, by way of penance, to hand over much of his land to the cathedral chapter. Like many previous propheta, Böhm was a simple shepherd-boy; we are told that from earliest youth he had appeared as half-witted, that until he began to preach he had never been able to form a coherent sentence, and that he was even unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to throw vast areas of Germany into commotion due to the backing he received. The parish priest of Niklashausen was quick to realise that a few miracles could attract huge offerings to his hitherto obscure shrine; he later admitted inventing miracles and attributing them to Böhm. The major part, however, was played by a hermit who had for some time been living in a nearby cave and who had acquired a great reputation for holiness. He seems to exercised a total domination over Böhm, both intimidating him and inspiring him. When Böhm addressed the crowds from a window the hermit stood behind him and prompted him, as he is shown to be doing in the woodcut from Schedel’s Chronicle below:

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Even if this part of the popular narrative is fanciful propaganda, it probably indicates the true relationship between the two men. The hermit fled when the Holy Youth was arrested, but was caught soon afterwards. The ecclesiastical records name him as Beghard, a native of Bohemia and a Hussite. Although the evidence cannot be called conclusive, it seems reasonably certain that it was the hermit who turned a religious pilgrimage into a revolutionary movement. In the quiet and picturesque Tauber Valley, he must have seen the future centre of a millennial kingdom in which the primal egalitarian order was to be restored.

Egalitarian millenarianism had now effectively penetrated Germany. The forgotten manuscript, the Reformation of Sigismund, after existing for some forty years, appeared for the first time as a printed book within a couple of years of Böhm’s burning and was reprinted in 1480, 1484, 1490 and 1494. The original manuscript was written just after the collapse of Táborite power in Bohemia and was an example of the attraction of the movement’s ideals. Despite its relatively moderate programme, which I have written about in earlier posts on this site, it too summoned the poor to take up the sword and enforce their rights under the leadership of the priest-king Frederick. In a far more violent form, the same theme reappears in the Book of a Hundred Chapters which was produced by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely upon it in order to write his treatise, in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

What that strange prophet foretells at enormous length is, after all, precisely what had been so simply articulated by John Ball, the Lollards and the Táborites. After one bloody struggle against the hosts of Antichrist perfect justice would be re-established on earth and all men would be equals and brothers, perhaps even holding all things in common. These fantasies were not confined to books; also in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine there appeared conspiratorial movements which were dedicated to translating them into reality. These were the movements which were known collectively as the Bundschuh, a term meaning a peasant’s clog and having the same significance as the term sansculotte during the French Revolution.

In one respect this ‘revolutionary’ was truly original – nobody before him had combined devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome, through the imposition of a Canon Law which had introduced the idea of private property and thereby undermined the value of fraternity, opening the way to envy and hate.

Behind this curious interpretation of early Church history, lay a whole different and distorted philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were German-speaking Germans; other languages, including Hebrew, came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe, and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was so vast, covering the whole of Europe, that Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. It had been the most perfect of empires, a true earthly paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the ‘Decalogue’ invented by Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind. The Revolutionary appended a copy of these to his work.

The time was at hand, he claimed, when the power of evil epitomised by the Latin peoples and their Church was to be broken forever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse Germany from the Latin corruption and bring back the ‘Golden Age’ based on the Statutes of Trier but would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s Dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the ‘Revolutionary’ to yet another reinterpretation. The four successive Empires – Assyria, Babylon, Syria and Greece – now turned into France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overwhelming pride of these nations the Emperor would conquer them all and establish the German Empire as the fifth and greatest Empire, which shall not pass away. Next, returning from his western campaigns, the Emperor would utterly defeat the Turks. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he would carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land would be conquered for Christendom and the society of Mohammedans would be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood. After all this the Emperor will reign supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

According to ‘the Revolutionary’, the teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to the Jews, not the Germans, for whom the proper religion was still that which had prevailed in ‘the Golden Age’ of Trier and which Emperor Frederick would reinstate. When that happened the spiritual centre of the world would not be Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanquished pope. But it would be the Emperor – ‘the Revolutionary’ himself, triumphant and glorified, who would stand at the centre of the future religion as the ‘supreme priest’, recognised as ‘an earthly God’.  The future Empire was thus to be no less than a quasi-religious community or theocracy, united in adoration and dread of a messiah who would be the embodiment of the German spirit. This was what ‘the Revolutionary’ had in mind when he cried, jubilantly, that the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and will do so again, and with more power than ever.

In this fantasy, the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result was uncannily similar to the quasi-religious folk fantasies which were the core of the National-Socialist ‘ideology’ of interwar Germany five centuries later. We only have to turn back to the tracts produced by Rosenberg and Darré, among others, to be struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once revealed and was the source of all good down the centuries until it was undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior non-German people and the Church of Rome. This ‘true German’ culture would now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble but ‘truly German’ stock, under a God-sent saviour who is it once an emperor and a messiah. The whole history of the Third Reich is foreshadowed, the offensives in the West and the East, the Terror wielded as an instrument of policy and for its own sake, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-German peoples and the biggest massacres in human history. All that is missing is the final consummation of the world-empire, the welt-Reich, which, in Adolf Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years, like the earthly kingdom of the returning Messiah in the earlier Judao-Christian prophecies.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time, nor has it ever been, in contrast to the Reformation of Sigismund, and there is nothing to suggest that the anonymous ‘Revolutionary’ played any significant part in the social movements of his day. The importance of the text lies in its recognisable influences in the apocalyptic literature of the Middle Ages. In particular, there can be little doubt that the prophecy of a future Frederick, a ‘Sleeping Emperor’ who would be the messiah of the poor, continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one emperor after another, from Sigismund to Charles V, the people contrived to see a reincarnation of Frederick II. When these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them, the collective imagination of the people continued to dwell on a mythological parallel emperor ‘of lowly descent’, who would rise up from among the poor, to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead. The ‘Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’, writing in 1510 had predicted the apocalyptic year for 1515. When a Bundschuh rising broke out in the same area in 1513 its declared aim was to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre.

The leader of the Bundschuh was a peasant called Joss Fritz and many of the rank-and-file were also peasants. This was not the first rising he had organised. Like the outbreak at Niklashausen, the rising which occurred in the diocese of Speyer in 1502 was provoked in a general sense by the failure of the latest attempt to restore the disintegrating structure of the Empire, and by the excessive taxes levied by an insolvent Prince-Bishop, but its object was nothing less than a social revolution of the most thorough-going kind.  Not only the peasantry but also the urban poor, disbanded mercenaries, beggars and the like are known to have played a large part in the movement, giving it its peculiar character. For there were many other peasant risings in southern Germany at that time, and they all aimed merely at limited reforms of the feudal system. Only the Bundschuh aimed at achieving the Millennium. All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people, all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.

The flag of the movement showed Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog, above it the slogan: Nothing but God’s Justice! It was planned to capture the town of Bruschal, where the Bishop’s palace was located; from there the movement was to spread throughout Germany, bringing freedom to the peasants and town-dwellers who supported it, but death to everyone else. Although this plot was betrayed and the movement crushed, Joss Fritz survived to organise similar risings in 1513 and 1517, in which there were similar mixes of fantasies: on the one hand exterminating all the rich and powerful and establishing an egalitarian order and on the other, a determination to get rid of blasphemers, of being led by the Emperor and of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the image of the Bundschuh came to possess such prodigious significance that it was a popular belief that the original capture of Jerusalem had been achieved by peasants fighting under that banner.

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Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, national boundaries were hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more important than that of the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent. This development is most marked in the development of England, Scotland, France and Spain. The growth of national consciousness was not, however, dependent on the authority of a unitary state. The strong consciousness of Germanness and German nationhood evolved in a very different political context from that of the western European states.

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Above: Central-Eastern Europe in the Later Middle Ages (circa 1493).

Meanwhile, in a different part of Germany – Thuringia, a territory fertile in millenarian myths and movements –  a radical reformer, Thomas Müntzer, was embarking on a stormy career which was to end by turning him too into a prophet of the egalitarian Millennium.

(to be continued…)

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