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Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Holocaust in Hungary; November-December 1944 – Raiders & Rescuers.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Hungarista’ Horror:

Still inspired by the obsession of ultimate German victory, the reign of terror inflicted by the Arrow-Cross Party caused immense suffering to the people of ‘Hungaria United Ancient Lands’, as the new masters chose to call the country, practically confined to the capital and Transdanubia. Adolf Eichmann returned, and the Jewish population were now exposed to being systematically exterminated; despite acts of international and Hungarian solidarity, nearly half of the 200,000 Jews of the capital fell victim to horrible mass murder and few of the fifty thousand driven westwards in labour battalions survived. Among the Hungarian civilian population, in early November, armed Arrow Cross men, supporting the ‘Hungarista’ Szalási government, had begun murdering Jews from Budapest who had been sent to forced labour details in and surrounding the capital, on the roads into the city. In addition, large numbers of women and girls were assembled and systematically robbed, beaten and kicked in public.

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A Child Alone:

‘Daisy’ Birnbaum was just ten years old at the beginning of November 1944 when she wound up – alone – in a feather depot in Budapest. Her mother had had to report to the Óbuda brick factory, so she ‘placed’ Daisy with her uncle Dezső, because her father was away in the forced labour camp. Very soon, however, her uncle and his wife, Aunt Ida, sent her with an unfamiliar woman to the cellar of a pillow and duvet factory owned by one of their female friends. This woman was obviously Christian and she left a small basketful of food with Daisy and told her not to turn on the light since the cellar could be seen into from the street. The tiny windows did indeed look out into the street, showing the pavement under the feet of the people passing by. Her uncle and aunt were supposed to come by the evening, but they did not show up. As she later wrote:

Instead, there were innumerable rats, frolicking among the sacks and in the bales of feather. I was terribly scared and knew that I could not spend another night there. I decided to take my chances … and try to get back to my uncle’s apartment … to learn what had happened.

… My only worry was a possible air raid, because without Christian documents I would not have been permitted to enter the raid shelter, whereas no-one was supposed to be outside during a raid. There was no alarm, but – even worse – I suddenly spied a group of Arrow Cross thugs conducting a roundup, rather far away, but still on the next corner.

There was no way out. I had to continue. As if a miracle, an officer in uniform stepped out from a house. Without giving it a second thought, I walked up to him and asked if I could walk with him, because I was scared of a possible air raid. … I… mumbled something about having to pick up that basket, to give him a reason for my being in the street. He took my hand and told me that he was on a furlough from the front where he would return in a week and that he too had a wife and children in Debrecen, to which he could no longer travel, and therefore he too had been staying with relatives in Pest. By then we reached the group of Arrow Crossers. My new friend simply waved and we were immediately let through. At the next corner he said, “Well, good luck to you” and leaving me, turned into the side street.

I will never know whether he believed that I was really close to my destination, or saw through my ploy and decided to save me. I was ten years old … and, … in that fateful second, albeit rashly, I made one of the smartest decisions of my entire life.

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Daisy, as named on her letter of protection

Meanwhile, Daisy’s mother and other Jewish forced labourers at the brickworks were enduring appalling conditions. In his confidential two-page report to Geneva dated 11 November, the Red Cross delegate Friedrich Born described the Óbuda-Újlak brickworks, from his on-the-spot experiences, as a concentration camp. He said that the conditions beggared description, finding a crowd of five or six thousand starving Jewish prisoners in the open works yard, soaked to the skin and frozen to the marrow, in a totally apathetic and desperate condition. Some who had committed suicide lay on the ground. He asked where the group of people including twelve to fourteen-year-old boys were was being taken, and received a shocking reply from the Arrow-Cross guard: They’re going to be boiled down for soap!

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Vice-consul Lutz, attempting to release Swiss protégés, witnessed similar heart-rending scenes. He was profoundly shaken by the way in which many pleaded to be saved, and he saw the final flickerings of the will to live being snuffed out. Those who pushed forward were beaten with dog-whips until they lay with bleeding faces on the ground. Lutz and his wife, horrified at what they saw, could not help at all and were themselves threatened with weapons. In mid-November, Daisy’s mother returned to Pest and the two of them ended up in what had been a placement centre for housemaids, but whose function had changed to being a ‘refugee’ centre for women and children fleeing from the Germans, the Arrow-Cross and the Russians. Daisy and her mother had false Christian papers with false names that they had memorised, but none of the other new ‘tenants’ asked about the details of these ‘refugees from Nyírbátor’, a village or small town in north-eastern Hungary. A couple of days later, an elderly lady arrived and was assigned a bed and nightstand in the same room. She introduced herself, telling them that she had recently arrived from Nyírbátor, fleeing from the Russians. She also asked if there was a chapel in the building because she wanted to say her prayers. Daisy’s mother,

… with a knowing smile on her face, advised the woman that there was indeed a chapel in the basement, and that we too were from Nyírbátor. The poor woman turned pale, staggered slightly, and had to hold on to the iron rail of her bed. But she pulled herself together and said that my mother looked familiar, that they must have seen each other at home, perhaps in church. Even I found this statement silly, since even I knew that Nyírbátor was a village where, most probably, everybody knew one another. … Soon we were given dinner in the common dining hall, and after the meal, the lady went down to pray in the chapel. She returned shortly before the lights went out. … a soft but audible voice from her bed began to chant, “Shma Yisrael, Adonai elochenu…”

A few days after their arrival, a kindly woman began a conversation with Daisy, asking her questions about Nyírbátor and her family. Her mother had told her always to say that they used to live behind the Reformed Church, that her father was at the front and that they had left in order to escape the Russians. However, when it came to further details, she should always tell the truth about her life, to avoid contradicting herself. So, when the woman asked what she missed most from her old home, she mentioned her dolls’ house:

I supposed she thought it would make me feel good to talk about it and urged me to describe it. Slowly, I began telling her that the house had four rooms, a bedroom, a dining room, a living room and a nursery, describing the furniture … In the end, she exclaimed, “Then, this was like a genuine house.” I responded, “Indeed, I even placed the yellow star over the entrance.” I immediately realised what I had done and wished the earth would open and swallow me up. I was ashamed, and afraid of the danger I had brought upon us. But the woman did not say a word, as if she had not heard the last sentence. … It turned that she too was Jewish…

A week later, they became homeless again; we urgently abandoned the house, because someone denounced the manager, claiming that she was hiding Jews in the building, It took a long time, much after the war, until her mother was able to convince Daisy that the manager of the house was not denounced because of her description of the dolls’ house, complete with its yellow star.       

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As a novel form of murder, the party servicemen carried out group executions on the Danube embankment in the night. Incidents of the slaughter of Jews had occurred in October, but from the end of November, they became daily occurrences. People were murdered in the party houses, in the streets and squares of the city, occasionally in hospitals and flats, as well as on the banks of the Danube. It is almost inconceivable that while all this was happening, trams ran, cinema and places of entertainment opened and sporting events were reported in the papers, while in public parks, half-naked corpses could be seen and people were hanged with abusive placards around their necks. This latest form of group killing went on as long as the circumstances of the Soviet siege of Budapest permitted the banks of the river to be approached. At a cautious estimate, between 3,600 and 4,000 people were shot into the Danube.

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Daisy Birnbaum had a narrow escape from this fate, as recorded in an earlier article in this series. As her book recounts, she was accidentally thrown into a column of about thirty people marching toward the lower embankment of the Danube under the guns of two young Arrow Cross hoodlums. With the exception of her parents, she never mentioned this episode to anyone, but in 1996, when the Historical Atlas of the Holocaust first appeared (published by the Holocaust Memorial Museum of Washington), she found an annotated map showing the two spots on the Danube where the Jews were shot into the Danube (see map above). One was close to the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), where the exhibit of shoes can be seen today, and the other was in Szent István Park, in the vicinity of the houses under international protection.

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The ‘Opposition’:

On 13 November, Edmund Veesenmayer, the ‘agent’ of the Reich in Budapest, reported to Berlin that around 27,000 Jews of both sexes, capable of walking and fit for work, had left on foot. He reckoned to be able to hand over further forty thousand for German purposes and would send them off in daily batches of two to four thousand. After that, it was estimated, 120,000 Jews would be left in Budapest, and their eventual fate would depend on the availability of transport. On 17 November, Danielsson and Angelo Rotta held talks with Szálasi. In a sharp tone, the Papal Nuncio enumerated staggering facts in defence of the Jews who were being forced onto such marches. The Prime Minister and Head of State denied the atrocities but was finally forced to promise to investigate them.

The Cardinal Primate of Hungary, Archbishop Jusztinián Serédi of Esztergom, a member of the upper house of parliament, repeatedly protested to Szálasi about the terror and the constant acts of cruelty. On 20 November, Szálasi – faced with a loud outcry – stopped the deportation of women on foot. If after that a lorry had been sent on an embassy errand and its load had not been confiscated by the Arrow-Cross, it may have helped the Jews of Budapest somewhat as they trudged towards the frontier. On 1 December, however, when Archbishop Serédi raised an objection to the taking of hostages and to the atrocities perpetrated on Jewish citizens, his intervention was brushed aside.

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Meanwhile, the Swedish Embassy had continued to play an important part in gathering together the forced labourers in possession of foreign protective passports or exemptions from the government. Colonel József Herbeck, whose name is preserved in Raoul Wallenberg’s extant notebook, generously arranged the matter. Wallenberg travelled by embassy car round the camps that were digging trenches outside the capital to ‘extricate’ the Jewish forced labourers, the number of whom grew rapidly. These ‘companies’ were under the protection of the Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese and Vatican embassies. Company 701 was attached to the Budapest army corps. Diplomatic notes were also used in the life-saving missions. In a ‘note verbale’ of 26 November to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the Swiss Embassy considered it important that…

… persons holding genuine emigration documents should not be taken to the Buda brickworks, and unauthorised persons should not be admitted to those houses which are under Swiss protection. 

The note made it clear, in diplomatic language, that directions on this subject to the Arrow-Cross Party would be most helpful. By then, however, the Germans needed every able-bodied man and Eichmann’s staff cared nothing for their protected status, simply grabbing them off the streets, with the aid once more of the Hungarian gendarmerie. The Óbuda-Újlak brick-works on Bécsi út served as a mustering point for the November deportation march to Hegyeshalom and the fortifications ordered by the Germans in western Hungary and on the frontier. The Arrow-Cross used several buildings on Teleki tér for the same purpose. From there, the forced labourers were quickly and frequently transported from nearby Józsefváros station. At the station, Veres took photographs from Wallenberg’s car. Meanwhile, Wallenberg himself would extract people one by one from the crowd. Wallenberg’s mobility by car in Budapest, and his appearance on the highway and at Hegyeshalom, also gave courage and endurance to Foreign Service officials charged with rescuing Jews.

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Wallenberg on the Road to Hegyeshalom:

On the road between Budapest and Hegyeshalom, he came to the aid of those forced on the deportation march and extricated holders of the Swedish protective document. In his book, Lévai tells of how, on the way, the Swedish secretary carried sacks and tinned food, unloading medicine for the sick and dying. At Mosonmagyaróvár he set up a first-aid post and a field kitchen. At Hegyeshalom he confronted the Arrow-Cross men, who terrorised even the gendarmesThe appearance on the road of foreign diplomats and their activity in helping Jews and rescuing them were reported to SS Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Sicherheitspolizei and SD in Berlin. He was also informed that escorting units of the Hungarian army had respected letters of protection issued by the Swiss. In his compilation of documentary evidence regarding several actions, Árje Bresslauer has written:

Without the help and, most of all, the personal courage of Raoul Wallenberg we would not have been able to save the lives of so many of our fellow men. The same goes for our own work.

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One woman who constantly took an active part in the humanitarian work of the Swedish Embassy recalls: Swift decision, lightning action, coupled with keen perception and incredible stamina – such was Wallenberg. Likewise, some of the reports in Lévai’s book of Wallenberg’s activities are rather romanticised and exaggerated. The extant documents of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry contain a more believable account of the movements of Wallenberg and Per Anger on the road to Hegyeshalom on the 23rd-24th November. These are based on a memorandum that they themselves wrote for Baron Kemény, the Foreign Minister. It’s clear from their lines that they observed keenly the shocking sight of the deportation march, including the clothing, physical and spiritual conditions of the Jewish men, military labourers and displaced citizens of Budapest, mostly women, as they were led towards the frontier of the Reich. They refer to Gönyü, Mosonmagyaróvár and Hegyeshalom. It was at these sojourns that they were able to gather information on the circumstances of the eight-day November march. They stated that neither in Budapest nor at the hand-over at Hegyeshalom is 100% respect shown to foreign documents. In the context of an objective but no less shocking description of exhausted people reduced almost to a line of animals, they wrote that:

When the Commission tried to distribute among them some of its own provisions for the journey the crowd simply laid siege to them, people fought just to get the little packet of sandwiches. (It) was repeatedly denied permission to send lorries to feed the people, which only two days previously had been officially permissable.

The motorised life-saving on the Hegyeshalom road was in the historic trial of Adolf Eichmann, which took place in Jerusalem in April 1961. When the mass-murderer was called to account the charge stated that this relief operation in the autumn of 1944 had seriously irritated Eichmann, who had planned and organised the march. I’ll kill Wallenberg, this dog of the Jews, he had burst out, and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had declared that the Swedish Embassy’s intervention in Jewish affairs is in all respects unlawful. On Wallenberg’s commission, Captain Gábor Alapy travelled a Steyr car with diplomatic markings and performed valuable and very risky life-saving work. In his reminiscences, he recalled how in Hegyeshalom they had managed, with Wallenberg’s help, to extricate another group and sent them back to Budapest. Wallenberg’s colleague Dr Iván Székely used an embassy car with Swedish markings in his rescue activity. In this, he went to workplaces and camps in the provinces and brought back to Budapest Jewish men who qualified as Swedish-protected in some way.  He went into several Arrow-Cross houses, and courageously appeared at the Józsefváros station, at Gestapo HQ on Svábhegy and elsewhere on behalf of protégés.

Rescuing the Jews of Budapest:

The rescue of Jews, or persons considered Jews, from deportation, known as ‘lending’ in the Szálasi period, was a hard and complex task. We can read in the registers of survivors made in 1945 that ‘sending them back’ unescorted was occasionally an exercise in futility. For example, Ferenc Weiss, who had been arrested in hiding, suffered imprisonment in the Csillag fortress at Komárom with a group of two hundred Jews. It members had been rescued from the deportation to Hegyeshalom by means of letters of protection, the arrested by the Arrow-Cross on the way back to Budapest. After they had been robbed they were deported as a ‘transport’ of the Sicherheitspolizei. Weiss and his companions reached Dachau camp by train on 28 November.

At dawn on 28 and 29 November, Hungarian Military Police with fixed bayonets appeared at the Jewish forced labourers’ barracks in Budapest and replaced the companies’ commanders. This was a tried and tested procedure, and without hindrance, the MPs escorted the companies of forced labourers, mostly two hundred strong, to be handed over to the SS at Ferencváros station. Among them now were those under Swedish ‘protection’. According to Jenő Lévai, Wallenberg somehow found out about this unexpected action, followed them in his little car and struggled all day to save them. His agents spent the time reading lists of names and identifying holders of Swedish documents torn up by the Arrow-Cross. He himself looked up the names in the embassy Schutz-Pass registers that were taken to the station. Those destined for deportation who were rescued that day were estimated at 411, while the number of ‘genuine Swedes’ came to 283, the remainder being ‘protégés’ of other embassies. This was reported to Theodor Dannecker, the very experienced officer of the Eichmann-Kommando, who had directed the mass transportation. He threatened Wallenberg with having his car smashed into. Wallenberg continued to drive out early in the morning to the Óbuda brick-works, in addition to appearing constantly on the Pest side and at Teleki tér on rescue missions.

By early December, Wallenberg had been in Budapest for six months and had a range of acquaintances and useful connections. His notebook was full of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of embassies and international aid organisations, and sometimes the contact details of those in charge of them, including Veesenmayer, the Reich’s representative, as well as Hungarian government leaders and high-ranking officials, leaders in public administration and the military, but not the names of leaders of the Hungarian churches. These last, with some notable exceptions, were incapable of responsibly assessing the inhuman, even murderous atmosphere in which they lived, which rejected the basic message of Christianity. Despite this, the spreading terror menaced the churches and their leaders in Budapest and the provinces just as it had the Jews.

Among Wallenberg’s new acquaintances were well-known journalists and newspaper leaders. His military contacts were mainly with those concerned with the Jewish forced labourers, some of which were in some way his ‘partners’ in matters to do with life-saving. Of those listed in his notebook, Lt. Col. Ferenczy frequently played a key role. Talks and negotiations with him and his immediate subordinates required a good deal of patience on the part of Wallenberg and his colleagues. He also noted down a number of the members of the Szálasi government. In addition, he listed numerous Jewish leaders and institutions. He included the telephone numbers of hospitals since he considered the assistance of these among his tasks, especially during the reign of the Arrow-Cross. In his memorandum of 1 December, he set out the unvarnished reality of the Arrow-Cross hegemony:

He sees his task rendered more difficult … he has to state with sincere regret that members of staff of the Royal Swedish Embassy and its protégés alike are constantly subjected a variety of atrocities. 

Even in the case of protected Jews, the threat was immediate, and for that reason, new protective passports were being distributed to those who had not yet received them and to persons of Jewish origin to whom Swedish interests are linked. He reported, without reference to previous talks or limits, the embassy has issued altogether 7,500 protective passports in this way.

The Battle for Zugló:

In the Zugló district of Budapest, a number of startling cases of persecution and rescued occurred. In the winter of 1944, several dozen Jews were hidden in the corner building of the Sisters of Social Service, with its tower, everywhere from the cellar to the attic. Raoul Wallenberg saved the convent, led by Margit Schlachta, and those hidden there. He arrived by car during an Arrow-Cross raid in response to a telephone request, accompanied by a man in army uniform. The convent was surrounded by the Arrow-Cross who had established their district headquarters on the opposite side of Thököly út. An eye-witness reported that Wallenberg glanced across at the convent and then hurried into the Arrow-Cross house:

We don’t know what was said in there, because then Wallenberg came out, got in his car and was immediately driven away. But all the Arrow-Cross men left the convent straight away…     

But other holders of Swedish letters of protection in the district were arrested by the Arrow-Cross, taken to the Danube Embankment and shot. The local Arrow-Cross chief László Szelepcsényi ordered the party servicemen to deny ‘the action’ should there be an enquiry from the embassy. In fact, when the embassy official protested on another occasion, Szelepcsényi ordered sanctioned the massacre of a group of Swedish-protected persons with a gesture of dismissal, maintaining his original position that all who held protective documents had succeeded in obtaining such protection either with their wealth or by conspiring with the enemy. The murderous intent of the Arrow-Cross in Zugló was proved by the fact that shortly afterwards, on the night of 28 November, they hung the bodies of ten Jews who had been shot after interrogation under torture in the party house cellar, head downwards on the convent fence. This appalling sight evoked horror in passers-by. Seventeen Jews were taken from a ‘protected house’ to the party house. The armed party servicemen did not regard the Jews being driven to their deaths as human beings and when tried twelve years later, they admitted to between a thousand and twelve hundred murders.

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In Zugló, a mass life-saving action took place under the leadership of Captain László Ocskay, who had been re-activated from the retired list. The veteran First World War officer, aged fifty-one and closely connected to Wallenberg (with whom he had a meeting on 8 December) sheltered his protégés in an area which constituted a battle-ground between the bloodthirsty Arrow-Cross and the opposition facing them. At the request of his Jewish friends, Ocskay undertook the command of a Jewish labour company, whose ‘cover’ activity was the collection of clothing. This was a front for the Veterans’ Commission (HB), an active association of Jews who had fought in the First World War and when Hungary entered the second had begun collecting clothing for those in the labour corps, who served in their own civilian clothes. After the German occupation, its work extended to the Jews carrying out military work designated by the Hungarian and German authorities. Through the use of Captain Ocskay’s connections members of this unit had avoided deportation and were moved from Dohány utca in central Pest to Zugló, to the building of the Pest Israelite Faith Community Boys and Girls School, which had surrendered its premises to the International Red Cross in November in return for a guarantee of protection.

During the new wave of persecution, the manufacture of small items of military equipment, including clothing, the making and mending of boots, the collecting of worn equipment and its renovation offered many people a more or less secure refuge. They hoped that in the workshops in the Jewish school they would escape the fate intended for them, despatch to the death-camps. The workers were mainly those of the wives and female relatives of the forced labourers. Captain Ocskay authorised their employment, and by these means legalised the residence in the Zugló area of many famous Hungarian artists, musicians, dramatists, writers, translators and journalists. Many from the world of sport also found shelter. Members of the world-famous Hungarian water-polo team were forced into hiding, as was the three-times Olympic fencing champion Endre Kabos. In the immediate neighbourhood of Ocskay’s house in central Budapest, a ‘foreign worker’ company was established in early November. A Red Cross depot also moved into Benczúr utca, where a flag and a wooden plaque indicated the presence and ownership of the International Red Cross. In these ways, a base was established for the ‘protected’ Jewish forced labourers who had been extricated from deportation and to legalise the presence and movement of those in hiding or working in the collection and repair of clothing.

The development of tricks and tactics of survival were essential because the Arrow-Cross men spurned all legality and the admonitions of their superiors and engaged in widespread man and woman hunts. They picked people up at will and murdered them, putting several of their victims on public display in the squares and streets in order to intimidate.  At the end of November and in early December the Zugló detachment of the Arrow-Cross made an attempt to settle accounts with the Red Cross refuge in the Jewish School. They stormed the building and swarmed over it, though those living there were able to telephone Ocskay. He appeared after half an hour with a German Army motor-cycle escort which succeeded in driving off the ‘trouble-makers’. After that, a German guard ensured that ‘war-production’ was undisturbed. During these difficult, tragic weeks, fifteen hundred people lived in the school in fear of daily air-raids and Arrow-Cross massacres. Ocskay’s tactics were ultimately successful. Under the Arrow-Cross régime deportations by cattle-truck continued until Budapest was surrounded by the Soviets, but Ocskay’s protégés and members of the Labour Company 101/359, hidden in the ‘war factory’, escaped.

The Establishment of the Ghettoes:

But during Advent, the ‘Hungarista’ authorities continued to be unrestrainable and arrogant. On 10 December, on Szálasi’s orders, designated streets of central Pest, mostly occupied by Jews, became in their entirety Europe’s last Jewish ghetto. The quarter was marked off by wooden barricades and comprised 0.3 square km of the 207 square km of the capital. It was divided into zones, and the four gates were guarded by uniformed police and armed Arrow-Cross men. The Jews forced into the ghetto, officially 52,688, including 5,730 children, at the beginning of 1945, led a miserable existence, struggling to survive and crammed together in 243 apartment houses, including the cellars and wood-stores. Two of the leaders of the ghetto, Miksa Domonkos and Zoltán Rónai, displayed a Swedish Embassy work permit, according to which they had been on the permanent staff there since 30 November and a repatriation section of the Swedish Red Cross. With Wallenberg’s license, they saved numerous lives. On 2 December, Rónai acted successfully on behalf of the Olympic champion Alfréd Hajós, his family and close relations. Hajós later testified how Rónai had appeared in the central ghetto, as a man of authority. He had the Hajós family assembled by roll-call in the courtyard of the apartment house and marched them off with loud words of command:

He fooled the police and the Arrow-Cross guards by turning up unexpectedly and behaving like a policeman. That’s how he pulled off our escape.

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The protection of the international, or ‘foreign’ ghetto, which had already come into being in mid-November, meant a new task for the Hungarian gendarme detachment under Captain Parádi, who had assisted Wallenberg from early November in his confrontations with the Arrow-Cross. Jews holding protective documents or passports or protection from the neutral nations had had to move there, but they had little peace, as they quickly became the targets of Arrow-Cross thefts and murders. Police or gendarme activity resulted in the saving of many lives every evening, but there were also unsuccessful actions. At the end of November, Parádi was unable to get into Józsefváros station to perform a rescue because, on this occasion, the Germans would not let him in. He aided the protection of Jewish orphanages and refuges and also provided protection for Raoul Wallenberg on his ever more hazardous car journeys. Another outstanding personality in the Hungarian resistance was Staff-Captain Zoltán Mikó, who was later shot by the Soviet terror authorities. He placed at Wallenberg’s disposal gendarmes who provided food and medicines. Before Christmas, he deposited certain papers in bank vaults, including documents on the underground resistance organisations in Poland.

The Rescuers:

In the winter of 1944, Per Anger was also involved in various risky affairs. In racing against time to save life hesitation and delay were out of the question. One night the attaché, responding to a call from Wallenberg’s secretary, undertook to see to the rescue of seven people who had been snatched in Buda:

At the time I had a Steyr car, and she and I went in that. I went into the robbers’ den and began talking to the chief. He was the sort of man that it didn’t do to shout at. Instead I behaved very courteously …

The terrifying conversation was not without its psychological elements and was successful. In the end, the Arrow-Cross man handed over the Swedish protégés – absolutely shattered, injured, bleeding and terrified – against an embassy acknowledgement of receipt. Anger continued his report:

I stood them in line. ‘Quick march,’ I gave the order, and out we went past the lads at the door with their sub-machine guns. I don’t know how, but we squeezed all seven into the car and drove off. I remember having to drive in first gear to Wallenberg’s house otherwise the car wouldn’t have stood the weight.

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In stories of Wallenberg’s appearances on the spot and rescue operations, the name of Vilmos Langfelder (above) often crops up in recollections from mid-December on. The situation of the time and the courageous nature of the rescue operations were graphically summarised by Nina Langlet:

We discovered that the Arrow-Cross were out to get us.Wallenberg, my husband and I therefore became persecuted, and could have reckoned on being snatched on the pretext of questioning and shot in the back of the head. We tried not to think about it and did our best to go on working.

Wallenberg’s intimate associate Hugó Wohl related the events of a rescue on the night of 13 December when at two in the morning, they were informed by telephone that there was trouble at the Swedish Red Cross:

I immediately informed Wallenberg at his home in Buda. Half an hour later he appeared in his car, escorted by his driver Vilmos Langfelder, that loyal, decent engineer, who was for weeks his conscientious tool in the hard work of rescuing people day and night.

Wohl went with Wallenberg and on his orders, he and the driver stayed in the car. When he came back he told them what he had done and told Langfelder to take the car a little further and ‘hide with it’ so that they could tell whether the Arrow-Cross would keep their word. He recalled:

The engine started up quietly, and we waited on the corner of Revicky utca. Suddenly we saw a group of men come out, get into a big police car that was standing waiting outside the house, and drive off. On Wallenberg’s orders we began to follow them, hanging as far back as possible, to see if they were taking the protected persons to the international ghetto in Pozsonyi út.

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György Libik refers to the combination of caution and courage shown by the Swedish Secretary when assisting the occupants of a protected house which was being stormed by the Arrow-Cross. Langfelder was out on another mission so that Per Anger took Wallenberg over Andrássy út into Benczúr utca in his DKW at the time of the nocturnal rescue. Wallenberg did not allow Libik near the building, sending him a hundred metres further on:

He asked me to wait outside; there would be nothing I could do to help, but if anything were to happen  I would at least be able to take back word; we shall get nowhere in this by force, only get myself and them in trouble; I was to take it easy, he would sort it out. 

Decades later, the Hungarian resistance activist continued to admire Wallenberg’s intervention, finding it embarrassing that a foreigner, a Swede, could be a more humane person and a better Hungarian than we. The Calvinist minister József Éliás, who made an important contribution to the rescue of the Jews of Budapest, also spoke of Wallenberg’s cautious nature. On one occasion he arrived unannounced to meet the pastor since he did not want to use the telephone in case it was tapped.

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The Swiss and the Swedes under attack:

Vice-consul Carl Lutz wrote in a situation report dated 8 December that he had had to stop his car on a busy bridge. It was immediately surrounded by an unruly, hostile, whistling crowd. He had to endure his country and its embassy being abused. Curses were hurled, including Jew-loving Swiss rubbish, get out of Budapest! The Swiss diplomat Harald Feller also suffered the depravity and blood-lust of the Arrow-Cross. His movements were watched and he was threatened, and on 29 December was stopped on Rákoczi út. The diplomat produced his authority from Lt. General Vitéz Iván Hindy, permitting him to travel without restriction. This official document made no impression as Feller, Baroness Katalin Perényi and an embassy employee were marched off to Arrow-Cross house on Andrássy út amid furious shouts, heated cries of “Jews” and curses. Feller was stripped “to check whether he was a Jew” and beaten up. They were told that they would soon be done for and were locked in an ice-cold larder for five hours and finally taken out into the courtyard and again threatened with being shot. Humiliated and tormented, they were eventually released.

While violence raged unchecked, Gábor Vajna, Minister for the Interior, called on Himmler. The minutes for 10 December show that on most points the head of the SS in the Reich urged one of the leaders of grave atrocities and organised massacres to even harsher measures. Vajna gave a detailed account of the solution of the Jewish question in Hungary. He drew up a list of the Jews still to be found in Hungary:

Approximately 120,000 Jews in the (central) ghetto.

18,000 in the ‘foreign’ ghetto.

There were still protected Jews, against whom – even before they went to Germany – measures had been instituted.

Jews in hiding in the provinces, number unknown.

Jews granted exemption, approximately 1,000.

Half- and quarter- Jews, numbers unknown.

Seventy-eight Jewish labour companies, each 200 strong, were on their way to the Reich.

Vajna pointed out to the head of the SS in the Reich that recently the Germans, especially Veesenmayer, had not been accepting old and young Jews for labour. In contrast, the Szálasi government was working towards the total removal of Jews from the country. According to the record, Himmler agreed that, on his intervention, that a new chapter would open. In February 1946, Vajna lied to a Hungarian court that he had discussed, in Berlin, the transportation of Jews with Swiss and Swedish letters of protection to Sweden and Switzerland. The Hungarian Jews “could be grateful” to him for not letting the Germans take them out of the country.

At the end of December, a howling Arrow-Cross mob drove the Swedish diplomat Yngve Ekmark, together with the female employees Bauer and Nilsson, into the Radetzky Barracks in Buda. For hours they stood facing the wall, to make them give away the whereabouts of ambassador Danielsson’s home. As they did not know, the two women were dragged over to the central Pest ghetto from where Friedrich Born, the International Red Cross representative, released them. Neither were personalities in the churches spared this sort of intimidation. Jews were hunted day and night and faith organisations were raided more and more often. On 27 December, Sára Salkaházi, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, was shot into the Danube together with her three denounced protégés and the religious teacher Vilma Bernovits.

Protecting the Children:

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The survival of children was, of course, a top priority for the rescuers, and deserves more attention from historians. Daisy Birnbaum’s eye-witness accounts provide a useful primary source in this respect. Wallenberg himself kept a watchful eye on the fate of the orphaned, abused Jewish children. His appearance by car and decisive measures that he took to rescue them are gratefully remembered to this day. Eleven-year-old Vera Kardós and her family had been evicted from their Buda home and were crowded with relatives in the starred house at Csáki utca 14. Her father László Kardos and her family had been kidnapped by the Arrow-Cross on 21 October and was never seen again. They had moved the little girl with her mother and uncle, a forced labourer who enjoyed Swedish protection, over the Danube to work at the notorious Óbuda brickworks. They were enabled, however, to return and find refuge in the Swedish protected house at Katona József utca 21. But they were not left in peace there either, for in an Arrow-Cross raid late at night on 30 December all the occupants, 170 in all, were ordered out into the street, made to undress and shot in groups into the Danube. According to the memoir Wallenberg was informed, and after he arrived the killing stopped. Vera and her mother escaped, but her uncle was killed. After that, they huddled together on an iron bed in a Swiss protected house in Hollán utca. Even there, an Arrow-Cross attack and line-up took place, but by that time Vera was in a Red Cross children’s home. Her mother and two other women escaped as the group was marched off, and after that, she had to find a new refuge every evening. Mother and daughter were eventually reunited under Swedish protection when a heating failure caused the children’s home to be evacuated.

Another memoir, that of Naomi Gur, tells us how their large family was split up in December 1944. Her father was taken to a labour camp and one of his friends obtained a Swiss letter of protection, so the five of them were camping on the floor of a crowded flat in a Swiss ‘protected house’. But an identity check by the SS and Arrow-Cross and all of their letters of protection were declared as forgeries. The little girl was left alone in the house as the other four members of the family were taken outside. She rushed weeping into the street and ran along the long column of Jews, calling out and looking for her mother, who was expecting the worst and so told the policeman escorting the column, this little girl’s gone mad: She thinks I’m her mother, but I’m not… Shoo her off! The policeman ‘obliged’ and the girl made her way back to the flat. The next day there was another raid, this time conducted only by the Arrow-Cross who wasted no time on another identity check but drove everybody into the courtyard and from there into the street. The assembled people were led to the Danube bank. Naomi recalled:

There were a lot of people, there was shoving and noise and it was freezing cold. I was standing there all by myself when a tall man appeared wearing a coat with the collar turned up. He was different from the others. He called out for any with Swedish letters of protection to say so. I knew that one of my aunts, Klára, had one, so I went up to him and told him her name.

I meant to say that I was talking about my aunt, but I couldn’t. The man looked at a piece of paper that he was holding , and said “That’s you.” He didn’t ask, just announced, and I answered ‘Yes’. I was a skinny little thing with pigtails, but my aunt was a married woman. The Arrow-Cross man by him asked for my papers. I hadn’t got them any more, but I looked in my bag. Then the Arrow-Cross man’s name must have been called on the loud-hailer, because he went away. First he said to me, ‘Find your papers. I’ll be back’.

As he turned, … Wallenberg almost grabbed me and rushed with me to the car. He pushed in and off we went straight away. 

I later found out that everybody on the riverside that time was either shot into the Danube or deported. … I’m sure that a miracle happened to me. There was a man who risked his life for me. Since then I’ve believed that everybody can do something of value, and that’s what makes life worthwhile.

It’ll always cause me pain that I did nothing to save Wallenberg.

In the final weeks of December, the armed Arrow-Cross mercilessly and pitilessly assaulted even the children’s homes maintained by the Swedish Red Cross. Wallenberg’s colleagues intervened several times in defence of the children and their carers, rescuing them all over the city. At midday on the 23rd, he tried personally to discover the whereabouts of the children that had been taken from the Swedish children’s home at Szent István körút 29 and of the Swedish Red Cross official Ferenc Schiller who had vanished with them. Per Anger, Vilmos Langfelder and the Swedish Secretary himself set off in Wallenberg’s car, with Langfelder driving. They first called in the Castle District in Buda, at the Foreign Ministry and then went on to see Péter Hain at ‘the Majestic’ on Svábhegy. Hain’s deputy, detective superintendent László Koltay met them there. They also went to the Papal Nuncio’s office, then back to the Foreign Ministry and on to the Buda home of Carl Lutz before going via Wallenberg’s home to the Arrow-Cross bases and the National Unit for Accountability HQ. He stepped unhesitatingly into the lions’ den, a risky business nonetheless. What happened was detailed by a colleague:

Afterwards Wallenberg actually confessed to me in the car that Lutz had told him beforehand that … the Arrow-Cross wanted to have action taken against foreign diplomats by the staff at the National Unit for Accountability HQ.

Both the Swedish Embassy and the International Red Cross were firmly opposed to orphaned children in care being moved from suburban children’s homes into the central ghetto. The Spanish Embassy too had a Hungarian organisation for extricating minors, which continued to function. They used their cars for unofficial rescue work, especially that conducted by their chargé d’affaires, Ángel Sanz-Briz (who left Budapest on 29 November) and his Italian assistant Giorgio Perlasca, together with a few courageous Hungarian Jews, the most zealous of whom was the legal advisor, Dr Zoltán Farkas. Perlasca and Farkas discussed what lies should be told to the Arrow-Cross about personal connections with Spain and how the Spanish-protected houses were to be supplied and supervised. In order to deceive the Arrow-Cross, Perlasca, who worked as a food salesman, became Spanish on paper and used the tactic of driving several times each day to see his protégés. In his notes, he wrote that:

To make my visits even more noticeable I go in the big Ford, on which there is, naturally, a Spanish flag. I chat with the officers on duty and give them presents.

In the ‘nick of time’:

Perlasca and his colleagues drove a five-seater American Buick with CD plates. His active assistant in rescue operations, Frenchman Gaston Tourne, regarded that as an essential means not just of transport but also of offsetting personal risk. On 31 December, just after delivering food, the Buick was damaged beyond repair by the blast from a bomb. Perlasca had some luck on his rescue missions and those whom he supported were certain that he would appear in his car in the nick of time and save those that needed help. By the end of 1944, the Arrow-Cross were hunting him too, and he required the protection of the gendarmerie. Four well-armed gendarmes guarded the embassy building and others defended him from possible attacks whether he went on foot or by car.

A certain distance had been developing between Wallenberg and the Swedish embassy organisation by mid-December. Giorgio Perlasca had noted that on 14 December he could scarcely contact the Swedish diplomats. He repeatedly had the same answer to telephone calls, that either there was no-one in the building or that they were terribly busy. He criticised Danielsson severely, as in his view when so many people expected him to free them he could not just run away, but added that doesn’t apply to Wallenberg, who’s been trying to do everything possible and impossible to help the unfortunate. On 24 December, a Sunday, the Arrow-Cross attacked the Jewish boys and girls orphanage, the children’s refuge.  The International Red Cross flag and the sign indicating protection meant nothing to them. They plundered it on the pretext of an identity check. Several, including children, were shot in the rooms, the courtyard and in the street, by way of intimidation. The desperate but inventive Jewish manager ran down the street with a Christmas tree on his shoulder, in order somehow to inform Wallenberg, who had left the embassy for the Déli (Southern) station because he had heard that a deportation train was being dispatched.

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The rescue operations were also affected by the fact that from 24 December the Hungarian capital was completely surrounded by Soviet forces. The fighting in the air and on the streets was becoming increasingly intense adding to the many sufferings that afflicted the civilian population both in physical and spiritual terms. At this period, during the siege, air-raids and shelling presented a constant danger to traffic. It cannot be ruled out that the security forces would if given the order, have performed a ‘professional’ liquidation of Wallenberg and Langfelder while they were driving around the capital. One of the driving assistants, Tivadar Jobbágy, became a victory of military activity, though not while driving. From Gábor Forgacs’s memoirs we can read:

On 24 December 1944 I was in the Swedish embassy office at Üllői út 2-4 from half past three to half past five. Then the red Studebaker, driven by Tivadar Jobbágy, took Vilmos Forgács, Hugó Wohl and their wives to the Hazai Bank premises at Harmincad utca 6. As Jobbágy’s wife was pregnant, Langfelder took the car over. The Jobbágyes were staying there with other people in hiding. Nine days later shrapnel penetrated the drawn blind  and Jobbágy, who was standing nearby, received fatal injuries. 

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Some of the children that had been turned out of the orphanage were shot the next day by the Arrow-Cross on the Danube embankment in Lipótváros or Újpest. By this time, they were having to conserve ammunition, so they stood several children one behind the other in order to use fewer bullets. Several of the children were not hit or jumped into the river before being shot and swam down the river to the bank by the Parliament building where they climbed out and survived. On the same day, Christmas Day, the Arrow-Cross attacked the Finnish and Swedish embassies. The rabble that went with them vented their spleen in unrestrained acts of robbery and destruction. One of the embassy drivers turned out to be a traitor to the rescue work, a snivelling, low-down type, as he was described by Nina Langlet. She claimed that he was in touch with the German secret police as an undercover informant. On 25 December, after the Arrow-Cross attack on the Swedish mission, he smiled with satisfaction at the sight of the plundered offices. Her feeling was that he was playing along with the SS and the Arrow-Cross and had stolen property deposited with the embassy.

Christmas Present:

Wallenberg’s Hungarian colleagues expressed their affection and regard for him with a Christmas present. They had made a hand-painted coloured album for him entitled, in German, The Schutzpass in the History of Art, a Collection of Reproductions. When Wallenberg appeared in his storm-coat and boots he was surprised to receive the forty-five-page compilation with lively drawings of the Schutzpass in historical settings. The gift contained nineteen full-page illustrations in colour and, as an endpiece, there was a Christmas elegy by Dr Péter Sugár about the Swedish letter of protection, written in excellent, erudite German. In the final section it expressed the hopes of Wallenberg’s protégés:

Though dark our heaven, the star gleams there above.

Now let us cheer him, the man who has brought peace 

To us, and has defended us.

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There are many records of the last days of 1944 in the archives of the German Embassy in Budapest. On 28 December, counsellor Gerhart Feine, one of the embassy staff sent from Budapest to Szombathely, telegraphed to Berlin. He gave an account of the advance of the Soviet motorised units and the capture of the Danube bend at Esztergom by the enemy. Also, he provided details of the Soviet encirclement of the capital. The military attaché at the embassy informed Berlin of German counter-attacks, their purpose, according to the reports, being to maintain contact with Budapest “in all circumstances”. He stated that the Japanese chargé d’affaires had been trapped in the siege and was delayed and that the whereabouts of the Turkish embassy secretary was, for the time being, unknown. He was also aware that Szálasi’s Foreign Minister, Gábor Vajna, had left the city ‘in good time’.

017Gerhart Feine had received information that the Swedish ambassador had gone into hiding in Budapest, his whereabouts unknown. He had also learnt that Wallenberg had placed himself under the protection of the Waffen SS, in connection with certain actions of the Hungarian police and the Arrow-Cross. Wallenberg and Langfelder were spending most of their nights at Captain Ocskay’s apartment. The company commander who had saved 1,500 Jews in Abonyi utca had German military credentials. On 30 December, Wallenberg took part in an official inspection with Dr Pál Hegedűs in the Jewish Council office in the big ghetto, together with police officers and representatives of the local government. Pál Szalai, who had offered Wallenberg secret and effective assistance in preventing any more Arrow-Cross atrocities, was also present. He proposed that Wallenberg should have food and raw materials delivered to the occupants of the ghetto as well as to the public kitchens of the city. On leaving the ghetto, the two men went to inspect the food stocks accumulated by the Swedish Embassy in the warehouse of the Stühmer chocolate factory. This stock, together with that of the Red Cross, helped to provide the two ghettoes with enough food to survive the siege.

The Hungarian staff of the Swedish Embassy’s humanitarian mission were, by now, almost all on the Pest side of the city and their offices had moved to Üllői út, one of the main roads into the city centre. But Wallenberg had also rented a number and variety of properties, parts of apartment houses, offices and flats in a number of places. In the ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere created by the Arrow-Cross Terror and the Soviet Siege, the embassy staff were now exposed to even greater danger and, to a greater extent, to the vagueries of a war on two ‘fronts’ within the city. This was further complicated by the contrasting cowardice of the Hungarian political élite and the treachery of the Hungarian military staff as well as the stupid expectation of a miracle in which the Szálasi government persisted to the end and in parallel with Hitler, all of which led to the downfall, pillaging and devastation of Hungary.

Sources:

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

Marianna D. Birnbaum (2015), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina.

 

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

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

Introduction – An Appalling Martyrdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes and Villains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict Among Allies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collapse, Courage and Conflict:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge of Leadership:

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

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

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Above: Halina Szopinska, a member of the Polish underground Home Army (AK), who was captured and tortured by the NKVD in December 1944. She then served ten years in prison.

By the end of August, the NKVD had been told to detain and interrogate all Poles who had taken part in the uprising and who had managed to ‘escape’ into the Soviet part of occupied Poland. These interrogations included brutal beatings and humiliations, such as those endured and testified to by Halina Szopinska. The NKVD regarded them as spies for ‘the English’ as well as for the Germans. Halina was sentenced to ten years in prison and in Lublin Castle, she learnt how former members of the Home Army were executed by firing squad as traitors ‘to the motherland’.

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In the West, on 1 September, Eisenhower took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, much to the latter’s chagrin. Eisenhower’s plan was for a broad advance into Germany, whereas Montgomery wanted a narrow ‘single thrust’ into the heart of the Reich, spearheaded by his 21st Army Group. On the same day that Montgomery put forward his plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic immodesty, calling it the best strategical idea I’ve ever had. Omar Bradley, meanwhile, felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness, though doubted by Brooke and Montgomery, stems partly from his success in achieving that. Montgomery’s scheme would have required the Scheldt estuary to have been used as a direct supply route into the Rhine, but the Germans continued to hold it long after the fall of Antwerp in September, with the largely undamaged Fifteenth Army to the north of it. His plan to strike off across the North German Plain towards Berlin, crossing the Weser and the Elbe, made little military sense considering the level of resistance offered by the Germans until as late as April 1945 in this territory. It would also have reduced the US Third Army to the minor role of protecting the flank of the British forces.

Instead, the Supreme Commander stuck with his ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces. Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying bomb and rocket campaign against Britain, which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites, the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr Valley, which would also close off Germany’s industrial heartland, and thus deny Hitler the resources to carry on the fight. Eisenhower split the 12th Army Group commanded by Bradley in two and sent most of the First Army north of the Ardennes to support Montgomery, leaving Patton’s Third Army to march on the Saar, covered to the south by the 6th Army Group which had made its way up from the Anvil landings in the south of France. By the end of August, Patton had crossed the Marne and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line. To his intense frustration, his advance was halted by running out of petrol due to the four-hundred mile supply lines to Cherbourg. However, Brussels fell to the 21st Army Group on 3 September and Antwerp the next day, but, as already mentioned, Antwerp was useless to the Allies without the control of the Scheldt estuary.

In September, two months after his sacking, Rundstedt was recalled as Commander-in-Chief West. Watching the Hitler Youth Division retreating over the River Meuse near Yvoir on 4 September, Rundstedt said what many German officers were thinking, but few dared state, that it is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation. On 11 September, the Allies set foot on German soil for the first time, when American troops crossed the frontier near Trier, yet Hitler still had armies numbering several million men, albeit far too widely dispersed. His ‘Western Wall’, the Siegfried Line, seemed formidable, and his reappointment of Rundstedt was good for the Wehrmacht’s morale, with Field Marshal Model remaining in charge of Army Group B, Rommel and Kluge both having committed suicide, after having been implicated in the Bomb Plot. Later in the month, Churchill – convinced that Hitler was a hopeless strategist – ridiculed him in the House of Commons:

We must not forget that we owe a great debt to the blunders – the extraordinary blunders – of the Germans. I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connecthim in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher. But there is one respect in which I must draw a parallel. Both these men were temperamentally unable to give up the tiniest scrap of any territory to which the high water mark of their hectic fortunes had carried them. … he (Hitler) has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstination at every point from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, … has stripped himself of the power to concentrate his main strength for the final struggle.

Yet even while the House of Commons was laughing at Hitler’s strategic blunders, the Führer was planning a concentration of German forces in the Ardennes that would once again astonish the world. Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the Meuse and Rhine and thereby ensure the encirclement of the Ruhr to the north came to grief in mid-September in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Despite the highest order of heroism, mistakes were made in the planning stages which meant that it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but the intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight so that it did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop zones. Operation Market, the airborne assault of Friday, 17 September, was initially successful, but the simultaneous ground attack, Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven and Nijmegen on the 18th and 19th respectively, but could not break through determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem.

(to be continued…)

 

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

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Summer Storms Over Hungary (I): The Nazi Deluge of May-August 1944.   Leave a comment

The Introduction of ‘The Final Solution’ to Hungary:

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By 1944 it was clear that the Hungarians had backed the wrong side in the war, despite the extension of the country’s territories that its support for the Axis Powers had enabled since 1938. After their forces had been crushed on the Eastern Front fighting alongside the Germans, Regent Horthy had tried to manoeuvre a way out of the war. In March, however, when Hitler had learnt of Horthy’s plans, he forced the Regent to accept an occupation of the country and the application of the ‘Final Solution’ to Hungary’s territories through the deportation of the entire Jewish population, as enumerated in 1941, to Auschwitz.

 

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Four gas chambers were fully operation by 1943 and were working at full stretch by the time 437,000 Hungarians were brought there from early May and killed, within a matter of eight weeks, by early July. At the camp, between four and eight hundred people could be packed into huts that had originally been designed for forty-two horses, in which lice and flees were endemic.

SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann led the special force that deported the Jews from Hungary.

He later boasted to one of his cronies that he would ‘jump laughing into his grave’ for his part in the deaths of four million Jews. In a 1961 diary entry after his conviction in Israel for genocide, Eichmann wrote, chillingly:

I saw the eeriness of the death machinery, wheel turning on wheel, like the mechanisms of a watch. And I saw those who maintained the machinery, who kept it going. I saw them, as they re-wound the mechanism; and I watched the second hand, as it rushed through the seconds; rushing like lives towards death. The greatest and most monumental dance of death of all time; this I saw.

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Ghettoisation, Deportation & Collaboration:

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Above: The Dohány Street Synagogue, at the centre of the Jewish ghetto in 1944-45.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street Synagogue (above). The following day, 4 April, Sztójay’s minister László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age.

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept by Eichmann’s SS) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were to be transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. At the end of April,the Jewish leaders of Hungary, together with the Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in addition to the Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, received a detailed report about the deportation to Auschwitz, but kept their silence, thus keeping the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, and enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of the Apostag villagers detailed below. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains.

Allied Inaction:

Although it was logistically possible for the Allies to have bombed Auschwitz by air from Foggia in Northern Italy from early 1944, the decision was taken not to bomb a camp that the Allies had known since 1942 was being used for the systematic extermination of Polish Jews. While it was evident that the unmarked underground gas chambers and crematoria might well have escaped, it is argued that it might have been possible to bomb the railway lines running to and from the camp, and would anyway have been worth the attempt. French railway lines, stations, depots, sidings and marshalling yards were principal targets during the pre-D-Day bombing operations, after all. The possibility of killing large numbers of inmates was a major consideration, of course, but a much more regularly used argument was that the best way to help the Jews was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, for which the RAF and USAAF needed to bomb military and industrial targets instead. On 26 June 1944, the US War Department replied to a request from American Jewish organisations for the bombing of the Kosice (Kassa) – Preskov railway line between Hungary and Auschwitz by saying that it considered the most effective relief to the victims … is the early defeat of the Axis. By then, the opportunity to save the remainder of the Hungarian Jews from outside Budapest had telescoped to little more than a fortnight, since the last deportations were on 9 July and photo-reconnaissance, weather analysis and operational planning would together have taken longer than fifteen days. One historian has concluded that … Even if it had been successfully bombed, Jews would simply have been transported over a different route.

In any case, with the Allied Chiefs still concentrating on the battle for Normandy (Caen only finally fell on 9 July), the bombing of Auschwitz and/ or Kosice was not likely to get much high-level consideration. Nonetheless, the camp inmates desperately wanted the camps to be bombed, even if many of them would have been killed in the process. When the nearby IG Farben factory was attacked, killing forty Jews and fifteen SS, the inmates quietly celebrated.

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The first transports from Hungary to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to 16 June, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further ten trains, then an additional eighteen trains between 5-9th July. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to the official German reports. Another ten trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, on the lower Danube.

The Deportation of Rural Jewish Communities:

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The village of Apostag is in the County of Bács-Kiskun, occupying an area of thirty-two square kilometres, and with a population of just over 2,100. It is located close to the eastern bank of the River Danube, to the south of Budapest. It is both a village and a municipality. There has been a Synagogue in Apostag since 1768, by which time the Jewish population had developed into a sizeable, settled community, worthy of its own place of worship.  The Jews had first settled in this part of Hungary at the beginning of the Turkish occupation, following the Battle of Mohács in 1526.

By the end of the Great War and the beginning of the living memory of those giving oral evidence, there were some 2,300 inhabitants of the village and 104 Jewish families. Some of them owned land and some rented it, so not all the Jewish families were rich, and some remained quite poor. There were between one and three children in the families (smaller than the average ‘Magyar’ family). Twenty-four councillors were elected for the Village Council, one for each group of ten families. These representatives needed to be fairly wealthy landowners to qualify for election and the fact that twelve of these councillors were Jewish also shows how integral a part of the leadership of the village they had become.

One of these councillors, János, had joined the army in 1940 and was a soldier until 1948. He was only given leave once during this time, and this, crucially and perhaps poignantly, happened to be in May 1944. While he was at home, the Jewish families were taken away from the village. There is no evidence that anyone in the village, including ‘regular’ soldiers like János, had any prior knowledge of the Nazi deportation plan. Even if they had heard something, there were only two cars in the village in 1944, so there was no real possibility of escaping abroad in the days and nights before it was so rapidly and ruthlessly enacted. As it happened, János was surprised by the speed with which the Hungarian Gendarmerie and ‘Military Police’ came in and took the Jewish people to Kalocsa. No one knew where they were being taken, or how long they would stay there, or what would happen to them. They were told to gather what they needed and they had to leave this village. Two little girls, aged 9 and 11, were somehow left behind, and they were able to stay on for a while, but one day the soldiers came and took them to Kalocsa as well. He was able to talk with the Hungarian soldiers who said that they weren’t very happy to take the girls away, but they had to do this. In 1991, the surviving villagers recalled:

When the Jews had to leave this village, Anna saw a little girl in someone’s lap, crying, ‘don’t let me go away, I want to stay here’, but she had to go as well. Everybody had to leave this village. When the Jews had to leave the village, they didn’t want to leave their houses and were wailing at the walls. They were kissing the walls with their lips and caressing them with their hands. The children were crying. It was really terrible. Some of the Christian families who lived close to the Jews went to the Jewish houses to say goodbye, and it was a very sad event, such a sad thing that they cannot forget it.

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The Library in the Village House (former synagogue), Apostag, 1991.

All the witnesses agreed in their evidence that the village people who weren’t Jewish couldn’t do anything to save their Jewish neighbours. The villagers also told us how they had watched from the nearby woods, in secret disbelief, as the soldiers took the Jews away in May 1944. They went on carts from the village to Kalocsa, which although further south of Budapest along the Danube, was apparently used as an assembly point for the Hungarian Jews being sent to the concentration camps. The villagers all stated that they did not know this at the time. So, when the Jewish people were taken away from the village, nobody knew anything about where they would go. They went by horse and cart to Kalocsa, some with their non-Jewish servants driving, so unaware were they of the ghastly reality which awaited them. All anyone knew was that they would stay for a while in Kalocsa, but nothing else. Of the roughly six hundred Jews deported from the village, only six ever returned after the war, before emigrating.

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In total, 147 trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian. For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp (see above and below).

The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of only a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc.

Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár (now Cluj Napoca in Romania) on 18 May. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews. By contrast, later that summer, when the fate of the Hungarian Jews became known in the West, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated 11 July 1944, wrote:

There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….

Churchill in France in 1944

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Above: Hungarian Jews from the Carpathian Basin continue to arrive at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.

Even so, in the summer of 1944, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry continued to defend its actions on The Jewish Question against the mounting international outcry against the genocide, led by the United States. According to the Hungarian government, the Hungarian nation was defending its own against the…

… greatest danger… a much greater danger than that presented to the white population of the USA by the negroes or the Japanese. As the Soviet army approached the frontiers of Hungary the defeatist propaganda and disruptive activity of the Jews had had to be stopped. They had therefore been segregated and set to useful work in Hungary and elsewhere. A large number of Jews had been transferred to Germany as a workforce, as had for years also been the case with Christian Hungarians.

The Rounding-up of the Roma:

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Above: Rounding up the Roma & a labour detail in 1944

The ‘Christian’ Hungarians referred to may well have been members of the Roma communities. Alongside the anti-Jewish actions, the Roma were also herded into labour camps in several counties, including Szolnok and Bács-Kiskun, which were established on some of the larger farms. In June, those Roma designated as unreliable were moved to special concentration camps within Hungary. These were established near the bigger provincial towns, and the settled Roma communities in Szolnok, Csongrád, Bács-Kiskun, Pest, Heves and Nógrád counties were moved to camps in Szekszárd, Veménd, Pécsvárad, Baja and Nagykáta. A sizeable number of Roma and Sinti ‘gipsies’, in the tens of thousands, were also sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps.

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The Role of the Regency & the Reserve Corps in ‘saving’ the Jews of Budapest:

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The idea that any member of the Hungarian government, including the Regent (pictured left), was unaware of the scale and nature of the deportations is fanciful, to say the least, as is the idea that Horthy was responsible for stopping the deportations from the countryside and/ or the capital. It is true that Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6, but by then the Regent was virtually powerless. This is demonstrated by the fact that another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. Domokos Szent-Iványi (below right), an officer in the Regency and a leading member of the Hungarian Independence Movement, wrote of Horthy’s motivation:

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The Regent’s idea was not to abdicate since that would end in the destruction of the lives of many thousands of people, first of all, Hungarian Jews. His old thesis was that he was still captain of the ship of State and that his duty was to remain on the bridge until the ship was saved or went down, of course with him, the Commander of the ship…

Macartney, a fellow British diplomat, recorded in his memoirs that:

Even the Jews have reason to be thankful that he decided as he did. He did not save the Jews outside Budapest (and it may well be that a more subtle politician or one less easily influenced, could have done more than Horthy did in this direction). But he saved the Jews of Budapest, and no other man could have done it…

Photo Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Above: The Royal Palace on Castle Hill in Buda, which housed the Regency offices, facing the Parliament House and Government offices across the Danube in Pest; taken from Gellért Hill.

The Jews of Budapest itself, numbering about 230,000, had not yet been touched except that they had been required to move into Jewish Houses, but neither had they yet been saved. The negotiations between the Jewish leaders and the Germans were still going on. Although at one time Eichmann offered to suspend the deportations, or at least the gassings, pending the conclusion of a bargain, his price was far higher than anything which the Hungarian Jews could pay. Most of the negotiations concerned relatively small numbers – in the first place, only 750 emigrants for Palestine. Later, larger numbers were mentioned, partly in connection with a remarkable offer made by the Germans to trade the Jews for war material. The Allies rejected this, and in the end, the Kasztner-Brand negotiations brought the release of only a few thousand Jews. A few Jews bought their way out privately, and these included one group whose fate involved issues of nation-wide importance. These were the inter-linked families of the Weiss, the Kornfelds, the Chorins and the Mauthners, who between them owned not only the Weiss Manfred Works on Csepel, by far the biggest heavy industrial plant in Hungary, which alone employed over forty thousand workers, but also a very large number of other assets.

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Above: Map (with Hungarian legend) showing the extent of the ‘Holocaust of European Jewry’, 1933-45, with deaths shown as a percentage of the total Jewish population, the main centres of the Jewish population in 1933 (red spots and squares) and the main concentration/ extermination camps (black spots).

In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout Eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia into Hungary. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Samuel Stern, the leader of the Jewish Council in Budapest, had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:

I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.

János Horváth (born 1921, in Cece, Hungary), was an economist, becoming an MP 1945-7, who then emigrated to the US where he became founder-President of the Kossúth Foundation in New York. He returned to Hungary in 1997 and became an MP again after 1998 when he recalled how the Budapest Zionists had…

… got hold of the Auschwitz testimonies written by two Slovakian Jews, who had been able to escape from the death camp in early 1944. (They) had it translated and sent to diplomats and Jewish leaders abroad and in Hungary, as well as to Regent Horthy’s daughter-in-law, Ilona. This was the first time… as late as spring 1944, when political leaders in Europe and America read authentic personal testimony about systematic Nazi extermination going on in Auschwitz.

The saving of most of the Budapest Jews was made possible by Horthy’s reserve corps, the élite armoured battalion of Esztergom marching on Budapest on 5 July under the command of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, dispersing and disarming pro-Nazi ‘gendarmerie’ units. This was a direct result of Horthy’s stunned reading of the testimonies…

Five years ago, on the seventieth anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary, Frank Koszorús, Jr,  the Colonel’s son and a lawyer in Washington DC, founder of the Hungarian American Coalition and President of the American Hungarian Federation of Wahington DC, wrote a clear statement of the established ‘facts’ of the Holocaust in Hungary; in the March 2014 edition of The Hungarian Review, he recorded the following view of these associations on the events of 1944:

The American Hungarian Federation, representing a cross-section of the Hungarian American community, strongly supports historical accuracy, completeness and integrity… Considering the extent of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, great care should be taken to avoid actions that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds and needlessly exacerbate controversies. Care should also be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes.

Considering these general principles, the Federation believes:

First, that any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of 19 March 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.

… the Federation further believes that rescue efforts by non-Jewish Hungarians who stood up against evil, such as Col. Ferenc Koszorús who intervened with his loyal troops to prevent the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944, must not be omitted, denied, forgotten or minimised. Such rescue efforts must also be acknowledged, taught and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy and to serve as examples for this and future generations of how one should behave in the face of barbarism that characterised the Nazis and their collaborators…

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Map showing the ghettos, main concentration zones and deportation routes in Hungary.

The figure for the total death toll in the Holocaust quoted above takes account of the estimate that about half of the Jews of Budapest eventually became the victims of the ‘Arrow Cross’ Terror of the winter of 1944-45. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, publicly acknowledged the role of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús:

‘Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action (in July 1944) was the only case in which Axis powers used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by three and a half months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission…’

(Hon. Tom Lantos, ‘Ferenc Koszorús: A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust’, Congressional Record, 26 May 1994.)

Himmler diaries

Above: Himmler and his journal.

In reality, the Sztójay government continued to ignore the Regent and rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. What prevented the resumption was that the Romanians switched sides on 23 August 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and it was on Heinrich Himmler’s orders that the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary was enacted on 25 August. Horthy finally dismissed Prime Minister Sztójay and his government on 29 August. By that time, the deportations from the Hungarian and sub-Carpathian villages had been completed, however.

The Jewish Council, Samuel Stern & Kasztner’s Train:

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In 2012, Zsolt Zágoni edited and published a notebook written in 1944 by Rózsi Stern, a Jewish woman who escaped from Budapest. Written in Hungarian, it was translated into English by Gábor Bánfalvi, and edited by Carolyn Bánfalvi. The notebook is of primary historical significance because it summarises, in forty-four pages of handwriting (published in facsimile), the events beginning from the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 until the author’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen. It describes the general scene in Hungary, the looting of her family home, and the deportation of the Jews from Budapest. Rózsi Stern was the daughter of Samuel Stern. In March 1944, he was the leader of the group which was obliged to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann, the SS man in charge of the final solution in Hungary, about the fate of the Jewish community. Given the controversy surrounding these events, and Stern’s life, it could be seen as a controversial document. However, as Zágoni himself points out in his ‘Foreword’,

… the importance of the notebook is that an everyday person – realizing the extraordinariness of the events – decides to tell her story, her fate, and the dramatic days of her family’s life and the black weeks and months of in Hungary … while she tries to understand the incomprehensible.

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Rózsi’s account goes on to describe what happened to close relatives and neighbours in Budapest, as well as to the Jews in the countryside and provincial towns, where the Jews were first of all forced into ghettos and then deported or sent to forced labour camps as part of the army. Ghettos were then made in Budapest as well, and designated buildings were marked with a yellow star hanging on the front gate. In the best cases, friends and relatives were able to move in together, five or six of people to one room. Rózsi’s family had to move because their house was designated as a yellow star building, and they occupied his apartment on the first floor, though all the other Jewish people staying there were soon moved on to another apartment house. Together with their father, there were nine of them living in the apartment by June 1944. Her husband, Gyuri, decided they should leave for Palestine, but her seventy-year-old father could not be persuaded to leave his responsibilities, and Rózsi could not imagine parting with him and her mother’s grave. She would also have to leave her husband’s family, including her eighty-year-old mother-in-law. In the end, she decided to leave with her husband and daughter, accepting the place reserved for her on Kasztner’s Train. They were supposed to spend eight to ten days in a German camp outside Vienna and then travel through Germany and Spain to reach Palestine. The question was whether the Germans would keep their word and allow them to reach the Spanish border. The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:

One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave. 

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Above: Samu Stern’s memoir written in 1945, before he died on 9 June 1946, with his photo on the cover.

Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, who started this aliyah, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade ‘Samu’ Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, manoeuvring between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, as is that of Kasztner and Brand, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population.

On 30 June, her father, accompanied by the German soldier who had been billeted with them, took them by taxi to the camp with their luggage. After two hours trying to ensure their safety, he left them at the internment camp, the synagogue on Aréna Street, which was already crowded with people, mostly those saved from the brick factories in the countryside. Finally, after an anxious day standing in the pouring rain, they boarded carriages ready to depart:

After a two-hour carriage ride, we arrived at the Rákosrendező train station – on the outskirts of Budapest – totally soaking wet. It was starting to get dark by the time we occupied the wagon that was assigned to us.The suitcases were piled up against one of the walls of the wagon, and the backpacks were hanging on nails all around. In the meantime, people from other camps arrived, so by the time everyone got on there were seventy-two of us in our wagon… The wagon was only supposed to hold six horses or forty people…

We were sitting on our blankets, as tightly packed as we could be. There were twenty-six… children in our wagon, including sixteen orphans with one guardian lady… It was a miserable scene, especially seeing so many mentally worn-down people. Some people tried to stretch out, which was almost impossible, and others tried to make room for their legs while they were sitting.  Little children were crying from fear and because of the unusual environment; the bigger ones were fatigued, sleeping and leaning on one another. The adults, worn out from the stress they had gone through, were arguing or weeping in silence.

Everybody was wondering how long we would be able to take this. And we took it, and even worse… The wagon had no toilet, of course, so our human needs could only be taken care of when the train stopped for awhile and we got permission to get off, which was not too easy either as the wagon was very high, so women and children could only get off and on with help and that could take some time… People jumped off the train like animals and shamelessly took care of their needs… because there wasn’t enough time to get farther away…

On Saturday July 1st at 10 a.m., we departed (from Ferencváros Station). We all rushed to the wagon’s only small window to wave a last goodbye to Budapest and everything and everyone that meant our life until now. Tears silently dripped down our faces and our hearts were broken from the pain. Maybe this was the last time we would ever see the Danube, the bridges, and the whole beautiful city where we were born and raised. The youth began to sing the “we’re going to find a new homeland” Hebrew song. Perhaps they will find it, but the older ones cannot be replanted.

The train moved at a quick pace to the border at Mosonmagyaróvár, arriving there at 6 p.m. During the night a baby girl was born, with the help of the doctors in the carriage. They stayed there for four days, built latrines, washed fully and washed their clothes, and bought provisions from local villagers. Their German guards protected them from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie. On 6 July the train was directed to Komárom and rumours spread that they were being taken to Auschwitz. However, they arrived at the station in the Vienna suburbs in the evening of 7 July and were then moved on to Linz by the next morning, having been told that the camps around Vienna were full. Here they were disembarked and disinfected, fearing that they were to be gassed. When they departed, having been thoroughly humiliated and terrorised by the guards, they had little idea where they were going or how many more nights they would spend on the wagon:

The train sped towards Hannover. We stopped one or two times because there were airstrikes., but this didn’t even affect us anymore. We had submitted to our fate and were totally indifferent.

We arrived on the 9th, a Sunday morning, at an improvised forest station near Hannover. It was a huge prison camp. We washed ourselves in big troughs and after an hour’s break, we sped further towards our destination, Bergen-Belsen.

A whole bunch of German soldiers were waiting for the train, holding enormous bloodhounds on leashes… They yelled their orders harshly. They counted us by putting us in lines of five. This took about an hour and a half in the strong afternoon sun, and we almost collapsed from fatigue. After this, we walked nine kilometres. Sick and old people and our luggage were carried on trucks… We reached an immense camp. There were prisoners here of all types and nationalities: Russian, Polish, French, Dutch, Hungarian and Jewish. Each barrack block was separated with wire fencing. We got block 11. When we arrived, everyone was registered, and then they assigned our accommodation. Men and women were separated… 

About 160 of us were placed in one barrack, as an average. It was a dark wooden building with one small window (without lighting in the evening) and three-level wooden bunk beds above each other. Lydia and I got bottom beds so I wouldn’t have to climb ladders. Between the beds there was just enough room to turn around. It was very sad to move in here, but we were so tired that we were happy to have the possibility to finally stretch out. However, this only happened much later. Once everybody had a bed, we received an order to line up… Lining up took place in the yard, with people grouped by barracks. The first lineup took two hours in the pouring rain, with us wearing thin summer clothes without hats…

The first dinner was next. They brought soup in pots. We stood in a line individually with the mess tins we were given. Unfortunately, no matter how hungry we were, we couldn’t swallow this slop. In the backpack we still had a little bit of food left from home, but we really had to be careful with that because our prospects were not very encouraging… we had to lie down wet, without blankets. It was a divine miracle that we didn’t catch pneumonia…

It is hard to imagine sleeping in these physical and mental conditions. Sometimes a child would start crying, suppressed sobbing and deep sighs, for the old life and loved ones we left behind. You could hear other people snoring, and the different emotional and physical manifestations of 160 people. There was not a single minute of silence. Crowds of bedbugs and fleas rushed to welcome us. However, towards the morning, sleep still overcame me because I was greatly exhausted.

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That is where the notebook ends. On 1 August 1944, Lídia (pictured above) sent a postcard, which still exists, from Bergen-Belsen to her fiancée,  in a labour camp in Northern Transylvania. It told him that she and her parents were ‘doing well’ and had ‘the best prospects’ of continuing on their journey. Apparently, a ‘Collective Pass’ allowing group border crossing, stamped by the Swiss Embassy in Budapest and signed by its Consul, Carl Lutz, was what eventually secured their onward journey and border crossing. After their round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and their horrific sojourn at the death camp, the refugees were then taken in two groups to Switzerland. One of these groups, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. Rózsi Stern (Bamberger) died in 1953, the year after her husband György.

Rezső Kasztner’s personal courage cannot be doubted since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people before he himself emigrated to Palestine, where he was assassinated by Zionist extremists in 1957.

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(to be continued…)

Posted June 23, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Austria, Axis Powers, Britain, British history, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Communism, Conquest, Deportation, Economics, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Factories, Family, France, Genocide, Germany, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Integration, Israel, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Memorial, Narrative, nationalism, Palestine, Papacy, populism, Refugees, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Serbia, Technology, terror, Transference, tyranny, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Women at War, World War Two, Yugoslavia, Zionism

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

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

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

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

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

 

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

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

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

‘I am one of those who went before you

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

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

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

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

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

 

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

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

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

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

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

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

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

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

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

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

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

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roland Leighton

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

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

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

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

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Vera Brittain

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

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

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

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

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

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

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

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

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May 1915 in the trenches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

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

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

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

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

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you forgotten yet? …

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

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

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

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

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

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

Have you forgotten yet? …

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

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

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

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

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

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

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

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

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

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

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

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

Have you forgotten yet? …

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

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

(to be continued…)

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.

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Six).   Leave a comment

Chapter Six: Motherhood, Domesticity & Recreation.

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Between the wars, high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates continued to disfigure most industrial districts in Britain. While deaths in childbirth affected all classes of women, Hans Singer showed in his 1937 reports for the Pilgrim Trust that there was a clear relationship between poverty and maternal mortality rates (I have written about this in the previous series of articles). The high rate of maternal was a national disgrace. It was the result of numerous causes, including a moral attitude to women and conception that contributed to their suffering. In England and Wales, four women in every thousand lost their lives in childbirth every year. As we have seen in an earlier chapter in this series, the rate was seven per thousand in the distressed areas of South Wales, a fact masked by the continuing high birth-rate in the area throughout the inter-war period. In January 1936, the Prime Minister announced that a bill to establish a national midwives’ service would be put before Parliament. Under the Act, all maternity cases would, from July 1937, be conducted by a properly qualified midwife, whether working under a local authority or a voluntary service. With the agreement of the Chancellor, the service, costing half a million pounds, was to be funded by central government. Conservatives responded to the call of their leader and his wife, while Labour MPs welcomed the establishment of a national medical service in tune with their party’s pledge to provide a universal national health service. One of them, Arthur Greenwood, author of the play Love on the Dole, referred to the eugenic advantages of improving the maternity care of mothers:

… what this nation may in future lack in numbers, it ought to be the aim of statesmanship to make up in quality. That has a very distinct bearing upon the problem of maternal well-being.

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As Susan Williams has pointed out, it was the first time that the principles of a state medical service had been put into effect, scotching the myth that the NHS sprang to life fully formed in 1948 as the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (see the caption above). Nevertheless, the relationship between poverty and infant mortality was even clearer. In Coventry, although the rate of infant deaths at the beginning of the interwar period, 92 per thousand, was lower than in many other major West Midland towns and cities, it was still far too high. The vital statistics taken from an average of the seven years ending 1931 showed an overall death-rate of 12.1 for England and Wales as a whole, compared with 11.6 for Birmingham and 6.5 for Bournville, Cadbury’s ‘model village’ area of the second city. Infant mortality rates for England and Wales over the same period were 69, for Birmingham 72 and for Bournville 56. In the earliest of these years, the heights and weights of Bournville children were compared with one of the children of one of the more deprived areas of Birmingham, and the Bournville children were found to be between two to four inches taller and between four and nine pounds heavier.

More than a decade later, a survey carried out on behalf of the Birmingham Social Survey Committee in 1939 was concerned with the relationship between poverty and the size of families on a new housing estate in one of the city’s poorest suburbs, Kingstanding. It found that, at a time when the volume of both employment and earnings were higher than ever before in Birmingham’s history, fourteen percent of the 5,300 families with dependent children on the estate had insufficient income to buy the minimum diet prescribed by the British Medical Association (B.M.A.). This meant that one-third of the children on the estate were living in poverty. The investigators separated these families into groups according to the number of dependent children they had. They found that whilst only five percent of the families with one or two children under fourteen were in poverty, forty percent of the families with three or more dependent children were below the minimum line.

Across the country as a whole, although contraception was not readily available, it was becoming widespread, thanks to the work of the Marie Stopes clinics. Many married couples across Britain were using some method to prevent pregnancy. As a result, families were declining in size, leading to widespread fears of a shrinking population. Eugenicists warned of a decline in the country’s ‘human stock’, as the families with many children tended to be from the poorer working class. One of the motivations behind Marie Stopes’ publicising of the effects of the benefits of contraception was the eugenicist belief in the necessity of limiting the ‘poor quality’ offspring of this class. Despite Stopes’s efforts, there were still large families in solidly working-class towns and poorer districts of London and cities such as Birmingham and Coventry. Margery Spring-Rice, the pioneering social reformer, studied the lives of 1,250 mothers in these districts for her book, Working-Class Wives. Alongside the poverty and hardship, she drew attention to the number of pregnancies the women endured. Nearly five was the average, but a third of those she studied had six or more confinements, which led to large families, despite the high rates of infant mortality. In 1936, for every thousand births, fifty-six babies were dead before the age of one, compared with fewer than five per thousand today. Only half of the poorer families Margery Spring-Rice researched used any form of birth control.

Oral evidence for Coventry reveals how a group of self-organised working-class women determined to combat this ‘social ill’ through their practical involvement with mothers and children in its poorer, but growing suburbs. Six members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild were elected to the City Council between the wars, lobbying powerfully for the expansion of Maternity and Child Welfare clinics. Cooperative guilds-women also became voluntary workers in these clinics as they were established by independent committees in the expanding city. A daughter of one of these women, interviewed in the mid-1980s, had fond memories of her mother’s work in a voluntary clinic. She recalled that, as a twelve-year-old, she had helped her mother tear old sheets into strips to make the ‘belly bindings’ which had formed parts of the contents of maternity bags issued to mothers in need. In 1935, Alderman Mrs Hughes spoke to Lower Stoke Branch of the wonderful way our guilds-women have taken to the Maternity and Child Welfare work, a new clinic having been opened at Radford, staffed with guilds-women. 

Right up until the reorganisation of health services into the NHS in 1948, voluntary workers played a large part in Maternity and Child Welfare work in the city. During this period there was only one clinic administered by the City Council, although after the 1929 Local Government Act it did provide medical and nursing staff for the voluntary clinics. Statistics showing the number of children attending clinics (above) provide evidence of the extent of the voluntary commitment. Proximity was probably the biggest factor in the popularity of the voluntary clinics for they were held in church halls and similar buildings in residential areas, whereas the municipal clinic was held in the city centre. The attitude of the volunteers at the clinics may also have been important. As well as being deterred by personal difficulties such as the inability to afford to pay the fare to a centre or to attend at awkward hours, ‘poor people’ may also have been put off by a harsh or wooden administration or unacceptable personnel. These problems could be overcome by the use of voluntary workers who had both a genuine concern for the mothers and a thorough understanding of their problems.

Ivy Cowdrill was involved both in the establishment and the day-to-day administration of a clinic which was opened in Tile Hill in 1937. Her account of her work shows that when voluntary workers were part of the community in which a clinic was established they had a shared experience which helped them to understand the mother’s problems. She begins with an explanation of the circumstances in which her local clinic was opened:

… they were starting to build up here … and the people used to come along the lane here … it was all fields then … They (the mothers) used to go down with the prams all the way to Gulson Road (the municipal clinic in the city centre) to get the cheap food … I used to feel sorry for them. Well, we all did. And Pearl Hyde talked to us about it and asked if we’d help her. We certainly would! … There were several of us in … the Coop Guild … We talked about it at the Guild but it was when Pearl started to come round that we got to talk about it more.

Pearl Hyde was the Labour Party candidate for the ward. Although she did not win the seat in the 1937 municipal elections in which the Party won control of the Council, she was successful shortly afterwards in a by-election in another ward. Due to her local government commitments and her work with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Pearl Hyde’s practical involvement with the clinic soon ceased but the enthusiasm of her followers remained and many of those originally involved were inspired to carry on until 1941 when ‘the (Ministry of) Health’ took over. Ivy Cowdrill’s testimony conveyed the enthusiasm and energy of the women involved:

We got talking about it and they all said they’d help … we used to go out every day. My daughter used to go with me, knocking on doors, enquiring … to see how many babies and who would come.

With the approval of the Ministry of Health and with professional personnel provided by the city council the clinic was opened in October 1937. Ivy Cowdrill went on to give a detailed description of activities at the clinic and the duties of voluntary workers:

We bought aluminium bowls and we used to put a clean piece of tissue paper in the bowl … to put the babies’ clothes in, by the side of every chair. We used to go early and do that before the clinic opened. And put everything ready and the scales … One would be weighing the toddlers this side and one the other side weighing the tiny babies. And we had a couple of nurses (health visitors) and a doctor. We had a doctor’s room. We used to take it in turns or it wouldn’t be fair or someone would have the dirty jobs all the while, washing the aluminium bowls out, washing the cups and saucers.

From the evidence in the local Medical Officer of Health reports it appears that the majority of voluntary clinics were organised in this way. The volunteers administered the clinics and were ancillary workers whilst the councils provided the health visitors and doctors. A criticism of voluntary clinics in this era was that voluntary workers were inclined to usurp the duties of the health visitors but there is no evidence that Coventry volunteers took over any of the health visitors’ educational or advisory duties. Indeed, they did not receive training in such matters. What many of them did have, however, was the experience of being mothers and that would qualify them as experts on baby matters in the eyes of many of the young mothers who attended the clinics. In this capacity, they passed on common sense advice and words of encouragement as they handled the babies. Not only were many of them experienced mothers, but most of them had experienced a similar lifestyle to the women who attended, and they spoke the same colloquial language.

The usual image of a voluntary worker is of a middle class ‘lady bountiful’, but in the thirties working class helpers were fairly common in baby clinics, in Coventry and elsewhere. They often had part-time jobs in the factories or in local hospitals as, for example, laundry workers. Although they might be more financially secure than many of the young mothers, many of them had endured periods of hardship themselves in younger days. Apart from the weighing of babies, the main tasks of a voluntary worker at a child welfare clinic centred around the sale of baby foods and food supplements. Here too their knowledge of working-class life was useful, as they were immediately aware when some of the mothers needed flexible arrangements regarding payment:

We used to sell Bemax, Marmite, Ovaltine and every food there was until the National Food came out; orange juice, vitamin pills, the lot … It was very big welfare. You can tell by the money we took ’cause the food was … very cheap … And the Ovaltine was only about a shilling … If anyone said, “I’ve no money”, I’d say, “We’ll get it”. I’d lend them the money and they’d bring it back here … And I’ve come home like a packed mule ’cause the soldiers’ wives used to have their money on a Monday and the clinic wasn’t till Thursday, so … they’d no money come Thursday … I used to bring the food home and they used to come here for it here … My husband used to shout “Shop!”

The volunteers were also aware of other needs among their clients. The concept of ‘welfare’ was extended and clinic attendance was made into a social occasion by the provision of tea and biscuits. Special social events, including day trips, were organised, and Cadbury’s donated bars of chocolate for the children for Christmas parties. The Coventry clinic seems to have been the sort of centre which could have developed into the type of women’s club advocated by Margery Spring-Rice of the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee in 1939. Such a centre would enable women to meet their fellows … form social ties … talk and laugh and eat food which they had not cooked themselves. The efforts made in this direction by the Tile Hill volunteers were appreciated by the women of the district throughout the thirties and early forties. Not only were the volunteers deeply committed to the work, but they also gained a great deal of satisfaction from what was, in effect, an extension of the traditional female role of nurturer within the private domain of the family. Ivy Cowdrill’s recollection typified this:

It was great. I loved it. Thursday was my day out … and I just lived for Thursday every week. You know it was so great to be involved in it … It wasn’t only working at the welfare, we was interested in the life of the children altogether. You seem to live for them really. You got so interested in it, it seemed to occupy your mind all the while.

Volunteers like Ivy Cowdrill made their mark by transferring the caring values of the private domain into the public one of the clinic and putting a human face on what was otherwise an impersonal service. The people who flooded into Coventry during the thirties, attracted by jobs in the new factories, were mainly young people. The proportion of the population aged over forty-five in the City was lower than almost anywhere else in Britain. The people had more consistent and better-remunerated work than in most other industrial areas and yet infant mortality remained high and old vested interests resisted the modernisation of medical services. The women of the Coop Guild, with little help from the State, set about tackling this problem and confronted it with zeal and zest until the onset of war and then the foundation of the National Health Service prepared the way for the bureaucratization of health care. Many of the ‘clinic activists’ gave up their positions with reluctance having hoped for a role for their voluntary work within the healthcare schemes devised by the state.

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Oral testimony is also a crucial source of information about attitudes towards family life in the past. In many respects, Coventry interviewees might be speaking for members of working-class families of any industrial town in Britain. Peter Lynam’s article on Domestic Life in Coventry 1920-39 draws material from a wider study of Coventry car workers based on sixty interviews with couples from three generations. Most of the evidence was drawn from talking with the women who, apart from relatively short periods at work either just before marriage or during the second world war, spent most of their time on the domestic front. Many of those interviewed, although resident in Coventry for many decades, had spent their formative years in other towns and regions. Even those proud to have been born in the City were children of at least one parent who had come from outside. Marjorie Clark remarked of her own parents, for example:

Mother was a cook in service in Cheshire, and dad was an engineer, a toolroom man, in Altrincham … Dad came first, got a job in Coventry and got lodgings. Then mother followed and, of course, being in Coventry, as cook-housekeeper. And they got married in Coventry and stayed afterwards … They must have come to Coventry about 1906-1907, married about 1909 …

June Bream came as a very young child to Coventry in the early twenties. Her background displayed the peculiar characteristic shared by the families of tradesmen working in the motor industry at an early stage of its development:

I was born in Liverpool, in Wavertree, West Derby … My grandma had a boarding house in Southport and before I was born my father worked in Scotland … My father was an old coach-builder and in those days they had to travel to where the work was. So they had a big tool box and the man was known by his tool box whether he was a tradesman or not. And then after I was born my father moved down to Coventry, looking … for work. … after he’d been here a couple of years … the family moved down with him.

 

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Housing was always a problem for working people but the flood of migrants into Coventry produced a housing shortage which lasted almost thirty years. Moreover, most of the housing was small and lacking in modern conveniences, prompting frequent attempts to find something better. It was unusual for those born in one house still to be living there a decade later. The family would move from rented accommodation according to the price charged for it and the space provided, taking into account added children or those leaving home on marriage, thus making payment for unused space an extravagance. Irregular employment or unforeseen adversity could prompt a move to more restricted but cheaper living space. Marjorie Clark described her family’s mid-thirties move to a ‘nicer house’:

We lived in a house in Kingston Road without a bathroom, just a two up, two down. Mother and dad wanted a house with a bathroom and we had a chance to move into a slightly larger house. That was the reason we moved into Queensland Avenue.

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‘Two up, two down’ was the most common form of accommodation, even though many families had more than two children. Some older people lived in the old weavers’ or watchmakers’ houses with large windows and an extra floor that was one large room, originally a workshop. The Midland Daily Telegraph had been calling for three-bedroom houses to be built since 1919, as young families would grow and need more space. As it was, families with a number of children slept several to a bed in the back bedroom, with curtains dividing boys from girls, while parents slept in the front bedroom with the baby in the cot when required. Very large families would have older boys and girls sleeping in the downstairs back living room. In many homes, the front room would still be kept for special occasions. The usual furniture consisted of a large crockery cupboard, a dining table and set of chairs. By the mid-thirties, most families would also have a radio, and there might be a piano in the front room.

The home was ‘mother’s domain’. She did the cooking, washing and mending. Sometimes other family members – especially daughters – helped with the cooking and cleaning. Younger children were often assigned domestic tasks like swilling out the yard, polishing the fireplace, dusting mantelpieces, or polishing the ‘lino’ in the hall. A woman’s work was particularly laborious. Without washing machines, an exception in the thirties, washing clothes would take the best part of a day. Preparing meals also took time, and traditional mid-day dinner times for men and young workers in the family often involved them returning home from workplaces to eat cooked ‘dinners’, along with children of school age who were not entitled to free school meals. They would not be long out of the house before their evening meal was having to be planned and prepared. June Bream had to miss most of her last school year when she was thirteen because her mother was confined to bed after losing a baby. She had to look after her mother ill in bed, her father and two brothers and a sister. She went to school in the mornings one week, and the afternoons the next week, fitting her domestic duties in as best she could. When her father came home on a Friday night, wages night, she put her clean ‘piny’ on so that he could throw his wages in it. He told her, you’re the mother of the house … till your mother’s well now.

Although June missed some schooling due to her domestic responsibilities, an experience which was far from unique for girls of her age, the notion of the woman’s place being in the home was strongly reinforced by the education given to girls. June would normally have had lessons in sewing, cooking, and laundry, and in the senior, there was a specialist ‘housewifery’ teacher:

She used to teach you to be a housewife, a mother. They used to have this part (of the school) where it used to be like a house and you used to have old grates in it … and gas stoves where they were all black-leaded, and of course you had to do all that. … you had special times, and it was either cookery or washing and ironing … or housework. … you had to go in every room; you had a kitchen and a living room and a bedroom. And if you were doing cookery … you had to cook the meal in the morning and then the teacher and the rest of the class … used to stop for dinner and you used to have to wait on table. They showed you how to set the table.

Since most women stopped paid employment on marriage, the home became the focus for most women by their mid-twenties. Imelda Wintle remembered her mother’s working hours with appreciation:

She used to describe herself as a “poor old slave” … I mean she was on the go all the time. She used to do her own decorating and things like that, and cutting down clothes … and making do.

When money was tight, housewives would also take in washing, which they would also press and iron. Many Coventry housewives would also have a locally made Singer sewing machine, often received as a wedding gift, with which she would mend clothes as well as making clothes for the children. Most clothes were either made at home or by a local dressmaker or tailor. Many of the dressmakers would be ordinary housewives with a skill in dressmaking.

Sunday (afternoon) dinner was the best meal of the week, with the mother going personally to the butcher’s shop, knowing exactly what she was looking for. The week’s meals then followed a set pattern, with variations according to income. Kath Smith recalled:

Sundays we had roast, always … and of course we had the cold meat on Monday. And we always had … meat and potato pie on Tuesday. I suppose it could have been sausage, or something, on Wednesday or Thursday.  It was always fish on Friday and … a makeshift dinner on Saturday. It may be sometimes on a Saturday we would have fish ‘n’ chips instead of faggots and peas. … fish ‘n’ chips was thre’pence , tu’penny fish and a penny worth of chips … and on Sunday for tea we’d always have salmon and fruit and cream … a tin of salmon was eleven pence ha’penny and a tin of pineapple was five pence ha’penny …

The pattern was determined by other domestic tasks, like Tuesday being washday which meant the stew could be left to cook slowly and then finished off with pastry. Pay-day was usually on a Thursday or Friday, so the mid-week days often required ingenuity to keep the family going on shrinking resources. Feeding the breadwinner was the top priority, next came the children. The housewife often ate very little at these meals. Eva Shilton commented:

I’ve seen her eat bread and mustard, and she’d eat a sandwich of cabbage and things like that. Since, later on in life, I’ve mentioned it to her and she said, “Well, I couldn’t see you lot go without”. And she’d make do, she was a typical mother …heart and soul for her children … She didn’t like cooking but she would always cook for my dad because he liked the things we didn’t … I think with him having so much ill-health, when he was well she would look after him to keep him well.

The death of a parent was a dreadful experience for young children especially. A father’s death also meant the loss of the breadwinner. The family was in deep trouble unless older children were in employment, still single and part of the parental household. It often necessitated a move to cheaper accommodation and the mother’s quest for employment, at least cleaning work or taking in washing, or at best factory work, which was not well-paid where women were concerned because most female workers were young, single and cheap. The loss of a mother had its emotional impact and needed older members of the family to ‘rally round’. Vera Langford’s fiance was confronted with this situation when his mother died, having to return to Coventry from London to look after the younger children in a large family. It took him, his father and his elder brother to bring them up between them.

Industrial injury or recurrent illness suffered by a male breadwinner also led to a wife’s search for paid employment. Although fathers were ultimately responsible for disciplining children who misbehaved, mothers were usually responsible for nurturing ‘respectability’ and protecting the family’s reputation:

Well, we always classed ourselves as being respectable. “And don’t bring trouble home” and that kind of thing. I think if we had’ve done we would never have been able to enter the house again … my mother was like that … she meant it. She just wanted us all to be happy and respectable and live a decent life … and that was what we did; no one ever brought trouble to her …

In an immigrant family, relatives were not likely to be near at hand. In such circumstances, a family wedding was a major event. For native Coventrians, however, the city’s growth provided little reason to move and find work elsewhere, so local extended families gathered easily for wedding celebrations. Marriage was approached in a practical fashion. Vera Langford recalled her wedding at the Registry Office:

We hadn’t got any money for a big ‘do’. What we had got we kept, … we sort of spent on necessities … Just family.

Many couples started married life in inauspicious circumstances. The city’s motor industry provided many with a living, as many as it provided with spells of unemployment. Together with a number of other women, Marjorie Clark was made redundant from Standard Motors just six weeks before her wedding. Nonetheless, preparations for it had been going on for some time, so she was determined to go ahead with the celebrations:

We got engaged on New Year’s Day in 1937 and got married on New Year’s Day, 1938 … We saved enough for the deposit on the house, that was fifty pounds, … a lot of money then! … mother helped me in a lot of ways, even if it was only with a bottom drawer, that sort of thing. And for the year that I was engaged she had no money from me for my keep. I kept all my money … and saved every penny of it for the wedding and everything like that … It was a white wedding at an Anglican church and… it was bitterly cold … It was a very happy wedding … There was no reception, no photographer, no honeymoon because I was out of work and my husband was on short time … So my mother saved the turkey from Christmas, cooked it and we had that for the reception … at home. 

By 1939, Coventry car ownership was surpassed only by that of London. This increased mobility opened up new possibilities for travel. Cycles, motorcycles and sidecars were used particularly by young workers for some distance from the city with boyfriends or girlfriends. On the other hand, most women confined themselves to the home after marriage and some mothers rarely went out when the children were young. Mothers spent recreation time in the evening either sewing, knitting, making clothes, listening to the radio or reading. All this went on in the living room, keeping an eye on the children not yet in bed. Public houses in Coventry had long been the ‘marketplace of the working class’ and when work was erratic the companionship found in them might lead to information about which firms were hiring at their factory gates.  The dominance of engineering topics in pub discourse was the reason given by the head porter of J. B. Priestley’s hotel, during his stay in Coventry in 1933, for avoiding the city’s pubs:

You go into one of these pubs … All right. What do you hear? All about gears and magnetos and such-like. Honest. That’s right. They can’t talk about anything else here. Got motor cars on the brain, they have. I hardly ever go into a pub. I go home and have a read.

Matt Nelson, from a North-east mining community, remembered that it was taboo for a woman to enter a pub ‘up there’, as was also the case with pubs ‘down there’ in south Wales. In Coventry, however, wives might respectably join husbands in pubs or clubs, meeting others from the locality. However, for many from chapel-going working-class families who regarded themselves as ‘respectable’, they shared the views of the workers from the depressed areas, regarding pubs as ‘low dives’, not the sort of places that either they or their daughters should be found in. Priestley made a brief visit to the bar of his hotel, where a barmaid with an enormous bust and a wig was busy exchanging badinage with four friends, two male (drinking ‘Bass’) and two female (drinking Guinness):

“He did, didn’t he, Joe?”

“‘S ri’, ”

“Cor, he didn’t ever,”

“Well, you ask Florrie,”

“I don’t mean what you mean,”

” ‘s ri’ ”

“‘Ere, Joe you tell ‘er.”

Men and women would also go to the cinemas and theatres together and mothers sometimes went to ‘matinée’ film shows with female friends. Social circles were sometimes organised through local churches providing companions for women otherwise tied to the home, but mothers seemed to have little time to themselves: their ‘recreation’, such as it was, was often home-based and spent with the family, making clothes, baking cakes, and so on.

Although a number of the city’s firms had established recreation clubs by the late thirties which attracted large numbers of employees, very few women seemed to take up these opportunities. The Secretary of the Alfred Herbert Recreation Club, E. Thomas, observed in 1939 that a relatively small number of women were involved in club activities. The nature of women’s recreation at this period is not clear. Certainly, they constituted at least half of dancers, a large part, even a majority of cinema-goers and, at least in inner-city areas, a sizeable proportion of pub-goers. However, in addition to the domestic roles of married women, the practice of leaving work on marriage, either through a ‘marriage bar’ operated by the company they worked for, or through a choice made under familial and cultural pressure, excluded them from works’ clubs unless they were in the company of a husband who worked for the company. Married women were occasionally referred to in works magazines in recreational contexts, but it is not clear whether they were widows or were challenging the convention of ceasing to work after marriage. The involvement of unmarried women in works’ activities also presented something of an issue for employers like Courtaulds and London Laundry for whom recruitment and moral discipline among female employees was central to business efficiency.

When women workers did participate in works’ recreational activities, they were rarely given any control over their use of leisure facilities. The Alfred Herbert Recreation Club had no female members on its management committee until 1940 and the Magnet Club committee welcomed women only as representatives of all women’s sections such as women’s hockey. In part, this reflected the lack of women as foremen and skilled workers in these firms because it was from the ranks of these that the committee personnel were usually drawn. It is particularly noticeable that women were never chosen to represent activities that were evenly mixed, such as cycling and swimming. Firms’ magazines were always patronising towards women, and cartoons, jokes and pen-portraits cast them in subservient roles. Women’s pages were purely domestic in focus and rarely successful. For the most part, they did not celebrate the achievements of individual women workers, nor their collective activities. Therefore, they lacked the appeal that team news had for male workers.

Firms and clubs showed intermittent bursts of enthusiasm for encouraging women’s participation. In particular, many firms tried to capitalise on the keep-fit craze from the mid-thirties on , often under the auspices of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, mentioned in chapter one, since it had the attraction of providing women employees  with discipline and exercise at the same time, at little cost and in large numbers. Instructresses pointed out how it helped girls to enjoy life and work much better than before and that it was consistent with the belief that the success of the mass depends entirely on the individual. There is, however, no evidence that the League’s eugenic beliefs in the achievement of racial health and beauty by natural means were ever treated with any degree of seriousness in Coventry. Indeed, such initiatives met with varying success. The London Laundry branch of the Everywoman’s Health Movement folded after just over a year in 1939 through lack of support. It had never achieved a membership of more than twenty-five. The GEC Ladies’ Physical Culture Club, affiliated to the League of Health and Beauty, had over two hundred members in 1937 in two classes, but despite displays in Coventry, Birmingham and London, it experienced declining enthusiasm and finished after the outbreak of war.

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Not all women’s recreational activities were doomed to failure, however, and there are several examples of autonomous women’s sections and activities providing sociability for employees over long periods. Women’s sports, even women’s soccer, common during the First World War, continued until the ending of munitions work and the dispersal of the hostel labour force in 1918-19. By 1930, the Magnet Club ran two women’s cricket teams and several departmental teams, although these came in for a certain amount of ridicule in The Loudspeaker. In 1932, there was the first of series of women’s cycling camps. The fashion for departmental outings had meant that trips such as that of the coil-winders and the assembly section at GEC were virtually all-women affairs, and women began holding their own annual dinners as early as 1928. It is not apparent, however, how such occasions related to women’s prospects of advancement at work or their status within the company, unlike the complex rituals of competitive displays at full staff dances.

The relationship between works social clubs and the recreation of the city as a whole was at its closest, and most beneficial to both parties, in the regular dances which were held on factory premises. Dances were already being put on by some of the city’s chief companies in 1921. There were only two commercial ballrooms, the Gaumont and the Rialto, in Coventry, so the factories provided the main alternative to church hall dances, and their dancehalls and ballrooms were far grander. They also had the specially sprung floors which were favoured by dancing enthusiasts. The dance craze was most popular among skilled manual workers and clerical staff, people who had served time and could afford to pay 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. for admission. For them, the refined, formalised ritual of the dance halls provided an appropriate setting for courtship and social aspiration.The halls banned drink, although men would go to the pubs first, and the doors were closed at 9.30 in order to exclude those who had drunk too much. Young women, who therefore arrived first, at about 8 p.m., would not tolerate men whose breath revealed that they had spent too much of the intervening time in the pub. Men were also expected to carry a second handkerchief for their right hand so that they didn’t soil their partner’s dresses, or inadvertently touch any exposed skin.

Dancing was enjoyed most by the young women, who spent time at home and work trying out the latest steps with sisters and friends, often to the radio or gramophone. The complexity of the dances of the thirties – foxtrots, waltzes, quicksteps and tangos, required tuition, and men needed to be confident of their dancing before they could be among the first to venture out onto the floor. Ability to dance was, therefore, an asset in successful courtship, and while many learnt from their sisters or other female acquaintances, others went to one of the city’s many dancing schools. There were beginners’ nights at the major ballrooms. The dance halls also offered camaraderie. Groups from different areas of town would rendezvous at set pitches in each dance hall, but courtship no doubt provided the basic motivation. Male toolroom employees met few women at work because they were segregated by skill and they rarely met the office and shop girls they aspired to marry. Courting couples were left to other areas of the dance floor where they would try to be lost to the group.

No doubt, there were some for whom the attraction of a particular hall lay in its resident dance band. The biggest firms’ hall, which most effectively escaped the canteen atmosphere and rivalled purpose-built commercial halls, was the GEC ballroom (shown below), often referred to as ‘The Connor’. Attendances were large, averaging over six hundred by 1936. Special occasions, in particular, the New Year’s Eve dances, drew massive audiences, as many as 1,350 in 1930. Attendances thereafter were limited to eight hundred, and in 1937 a second dance was organised for New Year’s Day, to accommodate the 750 dancers who had been unable to get tickets for the previous night.

 

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This ‘new leisure’ was the subject of many contemporary social investigations and surveys conducted by organisations such as the Pilgrim Trust and the NCSS. Following his visit to Coventry in January 1939, Sir William Deedes wrote to its local Employment Exchange Officer, Philip Handley, to express his alarm at what he referred to as a lack of social and recreational provision in the form of community centres, boys’ clubs, churches and hostels. His distaste for working class preferences in leisure activities is clear from the following extract from his subsequent report, which he attached to his letter:

Cinemas are thronged and on a Saturday afternoon queues ‘a quarter-mile-long’ and mainly of young people are to be seen. I was informed that on Saturday and Sunday nights also Road Houses within a twenty-mile radius of Coventry are full of young people dancing and entertaining themselves. The night I was there a small road house four miles out of Coventry had fifty cars and four charabancs outside and some three hundred persons inside dancing. A football match the same afternoon was attended by thirty thousand to forty thousand people and ‘the Dogs’, I am told, never fail to draw large numbers… Is it proper to ask oneself whether, if there were better facilities for playing games, both out and indoor, use would be made of them? An answer to the question cannot be given in Coventry because the facilities are not there!

Handley might have replied that Deedes seemed to have ignored the facilities provided by local firms in making this assertion, but we do not have such a letter. Deedes may have had in mind the ‘model’ which Bournville in Birmingham provided in terms of recreational provision. J. B. Priestley, who visited Cadbury’s Birmingham ‘village’ in 1933, pointed out that they had long been in the top class of the school of benevolent and paternal employers. Their workers had been provided with magnificent recreation grounds and sports pavilions, with a large concert hall in the factory itself, where midday concerts are given, with dining-rooms, recreation-rooms, and drama facilities. The factory was almost as busy in the evenings as it was in the daytime, with games, music, lectures, classes, plays, hobbies, conferences all keeping the place in full swing. The membership of the various clubs and societies ran to several thousand for whom no form of self-improvement, except those that have their base in some extreme form of economic revolution, was denied. The only form of pastime which was precluded was the ancient one of getting drunk. The factory had all the facilities for leading a full and happy life and, he asserted, what progressive people all over the world are demanding for humanity was what the Cadbury workers already had. Those in charge insisted that the firm used no compulsion whatever and never moved to provide anything until it knew that there was a real demand for it. He added his conviction that…

 … whether all this is right or wrong, the employers themselves have acted in good faith … Is it right or wrong? … It is easy for some academic person, who has never spent an hour in a factory and does not really know how people live, to condemn it on philosophical grounds … Now there is no getting away from the fact that here, owing to this system of paternal employment, are factory workers who have better conditions, more security, and infinitely better chances leading a decent and happy life, than nearly all such factory workers elsewhere … who worked in bad conditions, who had no security, and whose employers did not care a rap if their people drink themselves silly in their leisure … No factory workers in Europe have ever been better off than these people. 

Despite this accolade, however, Priestley has his doubts as to whether, taking a longer view, it was good for people to see the factory where they worked as the centre of their whole lives, even if it offered them so much. A worker whose whole life was centred on the factory might, he suggested, enjoy many unusual luxuries, but one obvious ‘luxury’ they could not enjoy was a spirit of independence. Pensions and bonuses, works councils, factory publications, entertainments and dinners,  garden-parties and outings, all organised by the firm, were all very well, but they could easily create an atmosphere injurious to the personal growth and ‘self-help’ of the men and women working for the firm. Although he conceded that workers in such places as Bournville had so many solid benefits conferred upon them that they were better placed than the ordinary factory worker, who is probably not so content at either work or play, …

On the other hand, I for one would infinitely prefer to see workers combining to provide these benefits, or a reasonable proportion of them, for themselves, to see them forming associations far removed from the factory, to see them using their leisure, and demanding its increase, not as favoured employees but as citizens, free men and women.   

In reality, the ‘new leisure’ cut across class and regional demarcations, especially in Coventry, where it mixed, mingled and blended with older forms of leisure, some of which had migrated with their adherents from the older industrial areas. There were, evidently, many in key positions within the social service movement in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ industrial areas, who regarded the development of mass, commercial forms of entertainment  as undermining their patronage, and when these critics wrote of the lack of leisure provision or of the absence of a communal ethos, they were writing from an ‘establishment’ perspective. Meanwhile, the Coventrian workers themselves, whether newcomers or ‘established’ citizens, both at work and at play, were re-modelling and re-making their city in their own image and shaking off the bonds of both patronage and paternalism.

The reactions of the migrants themselves to the social life of the new industry areas, documented in previous chapters, are more relevant in comprehending the wider cultural factors at work within the processes of migration and settlement. In Coventry, the streets themselves, the neighbourhoods and districts reflected the migration of labour. Some areas were completely cosmopolitan in this respect, with neighbours from all parts of the Midlands and North of England, Scotland and Ireland. In other neighbourhoods, there were concentrations of certain nationalities, Welsh, Scottish and Irish. Certainly, from the mid-1930s on, Coventry was a stronghold of the affluent worker. The roast every Sunday, the buying of your own house, early TV and car ownership all bear witness to rising living standards. Not everyone experienced the improvement in quite the same way or to the same degree, but enough did for it to constitute a trend. From the late thirties onwards, and especially with the onset of war and after, married women found that they had jobs to go to. Women began, increasingly, to have dual roles, providing the family with two wage packets, allowing many to enjoy a short period of affluence before the privations of war and the Blitz hit home.

Women at War in Coventry:

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Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller.

While the main onslaught of the ‘Blitz’ of the autumn of 1940 was directed at the capital, other ports and cities were subjected to severe attacks over short, concentrated periods, or to single raids. The ten-hour incendiary and explosive blitz upon Coventry caused tremendous damage, overnight, in November 1940 (I have written more extensively about this elsewhere on this site). Most of the ‘inner’ city’s factories sustained some damage, with the Daimler factory, the GEC and British Thomson Houston being badly hit. In 1981, Muriel Jones, then a young worker in the city, recalled her experience of that night:

 The night of the November Blitz, I was on day shift with my sister and two friends. Just as we left work the siren sounded so we ran as fast as we could, hoping to get to our digs or a shelter. One of my friends stopped along the road to say goodbye to her sailor boyfriend; it was their last goodbye, they were never seen again. We made it to one of the four shelters, and ours was the only one that escaped the bombs, all the other occupants were killed. About sixty people. After the raid we had to dig ourselves out as best we could, to face all the damage. Around us our digs were gone along with a lot more houses. Our landlady and husband with them, although they were in a garden shelter.

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 Coventry,  14 November 1940

“Those of us who lost everything in the war will never forget. We don’t need anniversaries and war films and books, we just remember … everything seemed so vast, so much happened, we thought that nothing more could happen. We often believed that things would never come right again.”

– Two elderly ladies who had survived the blitz, interviewed by The Coventry Standard on the twentieth anniversary of the raid.

“Please don’t let it die Coventry. We managed to survive then when all the odds were against us. We can do it now if we try.”

 – A ‘young lady’ interviewed by The Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1980, about the previous evening’s television documentary.

 

Sources:

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936: The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.

Mark Abrams (1945), The Condition of the British People, 1911-1945: A Study prepared for The Fabian Society. London: Victor Gollancz.

J. B. Priestley (1938), English Journey: Being a Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933. Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (1986), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

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

René Cutforth (1976),  Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Andrew J. Chandler (1988), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-40. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cardiff.

 

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