Archive for the ‘Britain’ Tag

The Week After the Fire: Pepys’ Diary for September 1666.   Leave a comment

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Many people will be familiar with Samuel Pepys’ account of the Great Plague of 1665-6 and the Great Fire of London of 1666. He became Clerk of Acts to the Navy Board after the Restoration, and a leading member of it during the Anglo-Dutch War of 1665. They will have read extracts, or listened to them read out, from the outbreak of the Great Fire on the night of 1-2 September, 1666, through its spread to the immediate aftermath a week later. His vivid descriptions of the events of that week have come down to us in an archetypal first-hand eyewitness form, but it is only as the process of recovery begins that we are given a clear perspective of, and insight into, the significance of  those events in the context of the time in which they happened.

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On 13th September, a Thursday, Pepys’ brother-in-law, Balty St Michel and his wife arrived at the Pepys’ house, to help them put the house and their belongings in order:

13 September: Up, and down to Tower Wharfe; and there with labourers from Deptford did get my goods housed well at home. So down to Deptford again to fetch the rest, and there eat a bit of dinner at the Globe, while the labourers went to dinner. Here I hear that this poor town doth bury still of the plague seven or eight a day. So to Sir G. Carteret’s to work (1); and there did, to my great content, ship off all the rest of my goods, saving my pictures and fine things, that I will bring home in wherrys when my house is fit to receive them. And so home and unloaden them by carts and hands before night, to my exceeding satisfaction; and so after supper to bed in my house, the first time I have lain there; and lay with my wife in my old closet upon the ground, an Balty and his wife the best chamber, upon the ground also.

14 September: Up, and to work, having carpenters come to help in setting up bedsteads and hangings; and at that trade my people and I all the morning, till pressed by public business to leave them, against my will, in the afternoon; and yet I was troubled in being at home, to see all my goods lie up and down the house in a bad condition, and strange workmen going to and fro might take what they would almost. All the afternoon busy; and Sir W. Coventry (2) came to me, and found me, as God would have it, in my office, and people about me setting my papers to rights; and there discoursed about getting an account ready against the Parliament, and thereby did create me infinite of business, and to be done on a sudden, which troubled me; but however, he being gone, I about it late and to good purpose; and so home, having this day also got my wine out of the ground again and set it in my cellar; but with great pain to keep ther port{er}s that carried it in from observing the money chests there. So to bed as last night; only, my wife and I upon a bedstead with curtains in that which was Mercer’s chamber (3), and Balty and his wife (who are here and do us good service) where we lay last night.

15 September. All the morning at the office, Harman being come, to my great satisfaction, to, to put up my beds and hangings; so I am at rest, and fallowed my business all day. Dined with Sir W. Batten. Mighty busy about this account, and while my people were busy, myself wrote nearly thirty letters and orders with my own hand. At it till 11 at night; and it is strange to see how clear my head was, being eased of all the matter of those letters; whereas one would think that I should have been dozed – I never did observe so much of myself in my life. Home to bed and find, to my infinite joy, many rooms clean, and myself and wife lie in our own chamber again. But much terrified in the nights nowadays, with dreams of fire and falling down of houses.

17 September. Up betimes, and shaved myself after a week’s growth; but Lord, how ugly I was yesterday and how fine today. By water, seeing the City all the way, a sad sight endeed, much fire being still in – to Sir W. Coventry, and there read over my yesterday’s work; being a collection of the perticulars of the excess of charge created by a war – with good content.

I find it interesting that Pepys visited Deptford, south of the river, a ‘town’ still affected by the plague. One of Pepys’ main concerns was to secure the efficiency of the Royal Dockyards there. Of course, as schoolchildren we are taught that the fire destroyed the plague in London, but not that London only really consisted then of the City of London, Westminster and a few other districts. It’s also revealing that Pepys considers the true marker of his family’s recovery as being that of his and Elizabeth’s return to their own bed and bedroom. His not shaving for a week during the emergency is another manly reaction that has a timeless context to it.

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His recurring nightmares about the disaster, especially the falling houses, provided the theme and narrative for an excellent, recent BBC Radio series, After the Fire. It juxtaposes Pepys’ orderly, chronological diary with the sense of discordant flash-backs, using them as a means to explore his inner psychology and emotional relationships.

Notes:

  1. Sir G. Carteret: Treasurer of the Navy, 1660-67, and Vice-Chamberlain of the King’s Household (see below).
  2. Sir W. Coventry: Secretary to the Lord High Admiral, 1660-67; Navy Commissioner (see below).
  3. Mercer: Mary was Elizabeth Pepys’ maid who had returned to her family during the fire and did not return to their service.

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Source: Robert Latham (ed.)(1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates). Contents provided by Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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A TEACHER’S TALE OF LIFE BETWEEN RURITANIA AND ‘BREXIT’ FAIRYLAND   1 comment

Here is my recent blog for ‘Labour Teachers’:

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A Summer’s Sojourn in Brexit Britain

 

I wonder, I wonder,

If anyone knows,

Who lives at the heart,

Of the velvety rose?

Is it a goblin, or is it an elf?

Or is it the Queen of the fairies herself?

 

I took early retirement from the UK Education Industry in 2012, and have been teaching in Hungary ever since. My wife is Hungarian, and we have two boys, one, born here, teaching MFL in Suffolk and the other, born in Bristol, attending a Hungarian State Primary School run by the Reformed Church. Both are naturally bilingual, bicultural and binational. When we returned to Hungary after fifteen years, including a year teaching in France, we found it difficult to recognize the country as the same one we left in 1996. We had been back on extended visits during the summer, but nothing prepared us for the more nationalistic atmosphere which pervaded every walk of life, and still does. Five years later, Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is a project which seems to attract popular support with almost everyone who isn’t a gipsy, a migrant or a refugee, or at least two thirds of them, enough to change the constitution.

Although the once-mighty MSZP, Hungarian Socialist Party, is still around, it has little prospect of returning to power, as it did three times in the twenty years of transition which followed the cutting of the iron curtain in 1989. The Left is like Humpty Dumpty, so fragmented and divided that it would take a whole regiment of Huszárok (Hussars) to put the pieces back together again. Here, referenda have become the preferred tool of the populist politician, except that, unlike Cameron, Orbán would never call one he thought he might lose. We’re just about to have one about the meneköltek, the asylum-seekers or bevándorlok, the ‘vagabonds’ or immigrants, as the government prefers to see them. Hungary is, of course, a strategic crossing point from the Balkan migrant group, and is third behind Germany and Sweden in the number it has played host to, but only for short transits on the way west. Few migrants or refugees want to settle in the country, and the revived Christian patriots of the Great Plain are not keen to receive people who they erroneously compare to the Muslim Ottomans of distant centuries. Here, national mythologizing is more important than a more interactive narrative between past and present.

This year, however, on returning to Hungary from our usual two-month sojourn in the UK (school summer holidays are longer in Hungary but are paid for throughout the year), I had decided not to give my usual answers referring to landscapes, seascapes and weather, to polite questions about ‘how I felt myself’ in England. I overlooked the obvious mistake, having spent a week in my beloved Wales, and replied that I didn’t recognize the country. It was true. For the first time in the ten years spent in Hungary, in the 1990s and more recently, I felt more alien as a returning native than I did in Viktor Orbán’s Ruritanian retreat. This was not to do with language, but rather with the bits of culture which don’t depend on language. I arrived with my younger son (aged 13) on the day before the Referendum vote, having promised to help with canvassing for the ‘Remain’ side in Bury St Edmunds, which voted 57% to 43% to ‘leave’ the EU.

My son enjoyed posting the reminder to vote leaflets, and we did find some encouragement on the poorer estates of the rich Cathedral city. But most people kept their heads down against the wind on an inclement early summer day. We could tell there was a sense of not wanting to engage about what they were about to do, or had just done, a sense of guilty pleasure in expressing the traditional antipathy of Suffolk people for the ‘Establishment’. The results across East Anglia were generally even worse, with only Cambridge and Norwich defying the regional trend. While the people of those two cities may have been better-informed on the finer points of the debate, this vote was not, fundamentally, a result of a lack of education. Neither was it, at least in central Suffolk, about excessive immigration. As the TV engineer who called at my teaching son’s house a week later told me, it was about a feeling of powerlessness in people’s lives, a lack of control, of which immigration was an obvious symptom, but one which the political élites refused to talk about or treat.

The day after the result was declared was one of the worst in my life, and there have been some pretty low troughs. It was the complete opposite of how I felt on 2 May 1997, as if twenty years of my personal and professional life had been completely wasted. My younger son, listening to the news with me, said he felt that he had been betrayed. I spent the rest of the morning writing to our local ‘pro-Remain’ Conservative MP about whether, in five years’ time, we will have to pay full-cost overseas student fees for my son if we don’t return to live in the UK before Brexit takes effect. I also asked about the Erasmus funding my elder son had received for teaching English in a special comprehensive school in Germany. Could my younger son expect to have such an experience after Brexit? I haven’t yet heard from him, except for a feature article in the local newspaper telling the people of Suffolk that Brexit would bring many opportunities for the county, things which he obviously hadn’t noticed when he wanted them to vote the other way the week before. He obviously doesn’t want to be deselected by the partisan Tory burgers of central Suffolk. Of course, Labour MPs would represent all of their constituents, not just the revolutionary cadres in the CLPs, and they wouldn’t change their views on the EU, and then change them again, just to keep their positions, unless they were party leaders. That wouldn’t be ‘authentic’!

Eventually, when we walked out together mid-morning, it was difficult to meet the eyes of elderly neighbours and other vaguely remembered faces in the small town where my elder son lives and teaches. The young waitress who served us in the en route café briefly expressed her disappointment, however. Yet no-one was celebrating. At my elder son’s school there was a full-scale staffroom inquiry, since the teachers already knew that nobody had voted ‘Leave’. Even some tears began to flow, so bereaved did people feel. A fortnight later, in Pembrokeshire, I overheard the conversation of two elderly ladies sitting on a bench in a town square. One told the other that she had voted no because too much money was going to the EU, and we got nothing in return. The other pointed out that her friend was among the ‘misinformed’, because Wales gets far more out than it pays in. A month after the vote, my son’s well-networked colleagues reported that they had still not yet met one person in the whole of central Suffolk who admitted to having voted for Brexit, nor had the other people in their network. Ironically, the day following the vote, her son had arrived at our flat in Hungary, having walked across Europe for charity of one of his friends whose sister had died from a rare form of leukemia, into which research was going on in Cambridge, part-funded by the EU.

So, here we are at the beginning of a new school year, and I have to think about how to enthuse my students to get their EU-rated ‘B’ and ‘C’ level grades in English so that they can travel and study in the world, while the birthplace of English, my birthplace, my reason for being here, is pulling out of the whole inter-cultural project I am supposed to represent. As I teach ‘British Studies’, what is still called ‘Anglo-Saxon Civilization’, I will need to find reasons not to feel ashamed of my country for the first time since the early 1970s, and explanations for the events of the summer.

I think I might take ‘The Velvety Rose’ nursery rhyme as my starting point, since most of my students are training to be teachers. The rose could be taken to symbolize both England, and the Labour Party. The goblin and the elf could be taken to represent the struggle for control of the heart of the party personified by Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. At present, it is the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, Theresa May, who seems to live at the heart of England, however, with her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra repeated as often as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland emerged to cry ‘off with their heads!’ at the men around her. Certainly, teachers will recognize the resentment felt towards senior managers who return from their long holidays ‘reflecting’ on a Mediterranean beach or in Alpine meadows to lead a ‘brainstorm’ on a ‘bombshell’ announcement made at the end of term. All the teachers want to do is get on with the planning and preparation in their own departments, focusing on their pupils. But no! The ‘Headmistress’ wants us to help her create ‘Fairyland’, an abstract, utopian place otherwise known by the much more concrete noun ‘Brexit’. For Brexit, read Fairyland. It’s much more true to real life!    

Twin Crises – The Autumn of 1956: Suez & Hungary (part one)   Leave a comment

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September 2016’s BBC History magazine marks some important historical anniversaries for Britain, such as the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Whilst these are both highly significant and highly colourful events in British history, they are not, in my view, more significant in context than the Suez Crisis of 1956. After all, the succession of the House of Wessex, usurped by both Harold II and William I, was restored by Matilda of Scotland and Henry I, and the Great Fire destroyed little over the square mile covered by the City of London today. The Luftwaffe did far more damage in this century. However, the Suez Crisis was not simply a major event in British history, but also in the history of the British Empire in the Middle East, as well as in Cold War European history.

The crisis began with a decision taken in the US by the US Secretary of State, Dulles. In July the Americans announced that they would not give financial assistance to the Egyptians for the construction of the Aswan Dam. Their relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the dictatorial ruler of Egypt, had always been ambivalent. Within a few days the British followed suit. For Nasser, the dam was a symbol of the re-building of Arab nationalism, and the withdrawal of western aid in this peremptory manner was a stinging personal rebuff. The British tried to claim, somewhat improbably, that their decision had been taken almost entirely on economic grounds; the immense political implications of the step do not seem to have been apparent to either the State Department or the Foreign Office. As one statesman commented in 1964, the decision was taken which was to plunge the world into a desperate crisis.

Nevertheless, this was the first of two key global events which defined the autumn of 1956. The Suez crisis saw Britain, France and Israel launch a politically disastrous assault on Egypt, which was both condemned by US President Dwight D Eisenhower and the cause of rising tensions with the Soviet Union. The subsequent and near simultaneous Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule, meanwhile, was brutally crushed. These episodes led to the escalation of the nuclear arms race in addition to lasting tensions in the Middle East.

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Alex Von Tunzelmann, an Oxford graduate, has worked as a researcher, screenwriter and columnist for The Guardian and The New York Times, among other publications. She has also written books about the Cold War in the Caribbean (2011) and Reel History: The World According to the Movies (2015). Her book, Blood and Sand (details above) looks at the Suez crisis simultaneously with the Hungarian Uprising. When she began researching, she found that many people didn’t appreciate that, although tensions emerged first in Egypt, both ‘eruptions’ took place within the same fortnight in the autumn of 1956, and interacted with each other in a significant way. Together, these explosive events propelled the world as close as it got to nuclear war until the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The Suez crisis was the tipping point between the period of imperial rule, in which France and Britain had a major say in the world, and the rising superpower status of the United States and the USSR. It was these superpowers, not the empires, who were now running the show.

Tunzelmann argues that there really aren’t rational explanations for a lot of what happened in the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Uprising, but that both sets of events were driven by national emotions. For the French, it was about the revolt against their rule in Algeria, which, they had wrongly convinced themselves, was the surreptitious work of Nasser. Getting rid of him would calm the situation across North Africa. Britain wanted to overthrow Nasser and keep control of the Suez Canal because it was the main conduit for its global trade, especially in oil. The two nations considered different options to achieve their main aim, including assassination. The parallels with the 21st century conflict in Iraq are uncanny. They went into Suez having no real plan for what would happen if they did assassinate or topple Nasser, no idea of what type of government they would replace his rule with, and no exit strategy at all.

The Tripartite Aggression – Britain, France and Israel – was a secret plan which was so crazy that, afterwards, many of the British establishment refused to believe it had just happened, and were ‘in denial’ for a long time afterwards. Israel undertook to stage a raid on Egypt, due to tensions which already existed between the two countries. This would take them towards the Suez Canal so that Britain and France could then intervene as peacekeepers and occupy the canal for the benefit of the world. When Egypt refused to accept a ceasefire, the British and French troops would advance to Cairo and overthrow Nasser. It was a thinly disguised bluff, and how the ‘allies’ thought they would get away with it is beyond comprehension. Everyone quickly spotted the collusion, and the Soviet Union was convinced that the US was also involved. In the second part, we’ll consider the relationships between the events in Egypt and Hungary, and their outcomes in Cold War history.

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‘The King’s Grace’ – The Reign of George V: 1916 (part two).   1 comment

Total War and the Temper of the People:

Besides the course of the war itself, in the early part of 1916, the two subjects which, according to John Buchan, most agitated the popular mind were the temper of Labour and the matter of conscription. In addition to the troubles in the first two years of the war on Clydeside and in the south Wales coalfield, the new munitions policy, with its wholesale suspension of trade union rules, increased the tension. In spite of high wages, industrial troubles were always on a hair-trigger until the end of the war. There was, Buchan wrote, a work-weariness as well as a  war-weariness, factory-shock as well as shell-shock. British Labour reflected the mood of the country; it had moments of revolt and discontent as well as its steady hours of resolution. In 1915 Lord Derby had made to organise recruitment on a more scientific basis, but in the figures published in January 1916 showed that ‘voluntaryism’ had failed and that conscription would soon follow.

There was little opposition to conscription in the country, and although an official Labour congress instructed the Party in Parliament to oppose the measure, and although this was upheld at the annual conference three weeks later by a majority of more than a million card-votes, it was also decided by a small majority not to agitate for repeal should the bill become law. Furthermore, it was agreed that the three Labour members whom Asquith had invited to join the war cabinet should keep their positions, despite Ramsay MacDonald’s pacifist stance. Buchan commented:

“The result was a typical product of our national temperament, and only the thoughtless would label it inconsistent. The Labour delegates were honest men in a quandary. They were loath to give up a cherished creed even under the stress of a dire necessity. But they were practical men and Englishmen, and they recognised compelling facts. If they could not formally repudiate their dogmas, they could neglect them.

A week after the Battle of Jutland, about which I have written elsewhere, the cruiser carrying Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was sunk by a mine west of the Orkneys, while on course for Russia. The news of the sinking and Kitchener’s death filled the United Kingdom and its allies with profound sorrow. Labour leaders and trade union delegates, according to Buchan, were as sincere in their mourning as his professional colleagues and the army which he had created. At the time he was beyond doubt the most dominant personality in the Empire, and the foremost of Britain’s public servants… In twenty-two months he had expanded six divisions into seventy and made a great army.

As the late summer and autumn of the Somme campaign wore on, the temper, not just of the British Labour movement, but that of Britain as a whole, was beyond the mood of exasperation of 1915. Britons were beginning to learn the meaning of the task they had undertaken. The civilian hatred of the enemy had gone and the mood of the people was more like that of the men at the Western Front, one of resignation to fate. As Buchan pointed out;

The War was no more a reported tale; enemy aircraft had stricken down men and women in English streets, the life of the trenches could be envisaged by the dullest, and death, which had left few families unbereaved, was becoming once more the supreme uniter.

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This new mood of poise nevertheless emboldened people to be more critical of the War Government which, according to Buchan, was trying to cure an earthquake with small political pills. Far from being a mobilisation of the best minds and talents of the nation, the Coalition cabinet had turned out to be a mere compromise between party interests. Neither were its traditional processes fitted for the swift dispatch of business. During the autumn men of all classes were beginning to ask themselves, and each other, whether such a government was fit for the vital purpose of winning the War. The great majority of the British people had become convinced by the late summer that a change was necessary, but the Government was slow to discern this shift in public opinion. Thus, when the attack came, there was a tendency to attribute this to a combination of conspiracy and calumny by the press.  However, it was evident that no government could have been driven from office purely by these means. The press owed most of its power to its ability to echo popular opinion which felt entitled to criticise results which were not adequate to the sacrifice and spirit of the nation. David Lloyd George was, as ever, the one leader capable of interpreting the subconscious popular mind. Buchan had this to write about him:

Alone of his Liberal colleagues, he realised that the political ‘expertise’, of which they had been such masters, was as much in the shadow as the champion faro-player in a Far Western township which has been visited by a religious revival. His powerful intelligence was turned into other channels, and he brought to the conduct of this war between nations the same passion which in other days he showed in the strife between classes. When he succeeded Lord Kitchener at the War Office he found himself with little authority; he was convinced that things were being mismanaged at the front, and he was determined to infuse into their conduct a fiercer purpose, and to win back policy and major strategy to the control of the Cabinet. To do this he must either be Prime Minister himself, or head a small War Directory which had full executive responsibility. At the close of November he put the latter proposal before Mr. Asquith.”

The matter soon found its way into the newspapers. The Conservatives in the Cabinet had little love for Lloyd George, but were anxious that Asquith should resign in order to reconstruct his Cabinet. At first, Asquith seemed inclined to accept Lloyd George’s proposal for a War Directory, but due to the press campaign and on the advice of his Liberal colleagues, he withdrew his offer. Lloyd George resigned, and so too did Asquith, believing himself to be indispensable to the King. However, George V sent for Bonar Law instead, who declared that he was unable to form an administration, so the King turned to Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister on 7 December. Balfour accepted the role of Foreign Secretary and his fellow Conservatives followed. Lloyd George was therefore able to create his War Cabinet of five to include Bonar Law, Lord Curzon, Lord Milner, Arthur Henderson (Labour leader) and himself as president. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey, both of whom had served in Liberal-led governments for more than a decade, retired to the back benches. Buchan believed;

beyond question the change was necessary, and it had behind it the assent of a people not careless of the decencies. That new leaders should be demanded in a strife which affects national existence is as natural as the changes of the seasons. Few men are so elastic of mind that, having given all their strength to one set of problems, they can turn with unabated vigour to new needs and new conditions. The nation, again, must be able to view its masters with hopefulness, and in all novelty there is hope. There was that, too, in the temperament and talents of the Prime Minister himself upon which men had begun to look coldly. He left on the ordinary mind that he thought more of argument than of action. It seemed to his critics impossible to expect the unresting activity and the bold origination which the situation required from one whose habits of thought and deed were cast in the more leisurely mould of an older school of statesmen… When a people judges there is usually reason in its verdict, and it is idle to argue that Mr. Asquith was a perfect, or even the best available, leader in war-time.

 Below: Lloyd George with Balfour at the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919

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The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916   1 comment

The 18th of November marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the bloodiest battle in British military history. The Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July, has become the symbol of the war on the Western Front, with its imagery of massed ranks of inexperienced soldiers rising out of their trenches to be mowed down by machine guns or blown apart by artillery. Although intended to produce a decisive strike against the Germans, forcing a gap which British and French forces could drive through. More than being a single battle, it was a drawn-out war of attrition within the Great War, much like Verdun was for the French, which involved twelve separate battles:

Albert, 1-13 July

Bazentin Ridge, 14-17 July

Delville Wood, 15 July-3 September

Poziéres Ridge, 23 July-3 September

Guillemont, 3-6 September

Ginchy, 9 September

Flers-Courcelette, 15-22 September

Morval, 25-28 September

Thiepval Ridge, 26-28 September

Le Transloy, 1-18 October

Ancre Heights, 1 October-11 November

Ancre, 13-18 November

Preliminary Bombardment

The battle followed a preliminary artillery bombardment of the German trenches in which 1,732,873 shells were fired, of which thirty failed to explode.

Lochnagar & Y Sap

At 7.28 a.m. on the first day of the battle, the British detonated two large mines near the village of La Boisselle. The Lochnagar mine was the bigger of two (60,000 pounds of explosives against the 40,000 pounds in Y Sap) and it was reported by Royal Flying Corps pilot, Lieutenant Cecil A. Lewis, that the column of earth reached four thousand feet in height. Despite the force of these explosions, and the week-long bombardment beforehand, the Germans’ deeply dug defences and barbed wire were left mainly intact. They had heard the British tunnelling and moved their machine-gun positions accordingly.

Montauban and the Great European Cup

At the assault at Montauban, British Lieutenant Colonel Fairfax and Commandant Le Petit of the French Army advanced across no-man’s-land with their arms linked on their way to taking their objective. Fairfax survived the war despite being gassed later that month. Le Petit was wounded in August, but whether he survived the war is unknown. Captain Wilfred ‘Billie’ Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment began his company’s attack by kicking a football towards the German lines as they went over the top. The ball was marked The Great European Cup – East Surreys v Bavarians. Nevill was killed minutes into the attack. The day after the offensive began, a ‘semi-official statement’ was published in The Times:

The first day of the offensive is, therefore, very satisfactory. The success is not a thunderbolt, as what happened earlier in smaller operations, but it is important above all because it is rich in promise. It is no longer a question here of attempts to pierce as with a knife; it is rather a slow, continuous and methodical push, sparing in lives the day when the enemy’s resistance, incessantly hammered at, will crumble up at some point. From today the first results of the new tactics permit one to await developments with confidence.

The Pals’ Battalions

When the first ‘results’ came through, far from inspiring confidence among the British public, they undermined it. Many of those who had volunteered to join the British Army had done so as ‘pals’ from the same towns and cities. They fought and died together, often in large numbers, which had a devastating effect on their families and communities at home. Of the Leeds ‘Pals’ battalion on the first day, 248 were killed, 267 wounded and 181 were listed as missing. Only forty-seven emerged uninjured. In the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, 159 men were killed by a single machine-gun at Fricourt Wood. The number of British Army soldiers killed on the first day of the battle, 19,240, remains the the army’s highest death toll for a single day’s combat. Out of the 120,000 that launched the attack, almost half became casualties.

The Film, The Battle of the Somme

While the fighting was still taking place, an hour-long film called The Battle of the Somme,  showing scenes of the actual battle (with several staged sequences), was released in British cinemas. Over the first two months of its run, an estimated twenty million tickets were sold.

Fathers, sons and sweethearts

World-famous for his music-hall stage performances as the canny Scot, Harry Lauder wrote his most popular song, Keep Right on the the End of the Road as a tribute to his son John, who was among those killed in 1916. It later became the traditional song of Birmingham City Football Club, so I remember the words very well from the terraces:

Keep right on to the end of the road,

Keep right on to the end,

Though the way be long,

Let your hearts be strong,

Keep right on to the end.

Though you’re tired and weary,

Still carry on,

Till you come to your happy abode,

Where all you love,

And you’re dreaming of,

Will be there at the end of the road.

John Lauder’s fiancée, Mildred Thompson, never married and left her estate to the Erskine Hospital charity set up for injured service personnel in tribute.

Many fathers and sons fought alongside each other in Pals’ battalion or, like George Lee and his son Robert, served in the same artillery battery, were killed on the same day: 5th September, and were buried side by side in Dartmoor Cemetery. When the Battle of the Somme, the total casualties were:

British:    420,000

French:   200,000

German: 450,000

Captain von Hentig of the German General Staff summed up the view of the German Army:

The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army and of the faith in the infallibility of German leadership.

RIP

Source:

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

Six of the Best British Reasons to Remain… in brief…   1 comment

 

1. Integration is not assimilation… we keep our self-government and maintain our sovereignty, as well as, in chosen circumstances, pooling it together with other individual member states.

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2. Freedom of Movement is internal Migration, not permanent immigration, and is a benefit for British people and economy.

3. Peace and Security are continuous processes which have to be worked on through establishing trading agreements and arrangements: Trading relationships make the antidote to war.   

4. Educational, Language and Cultural Exchanges are essential for all our futures: The positive ‘multiplier’ impact of exchange programmes on schools, colleges, universities and young people themselves is impossible to measure simply in financial terms.

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5. The European route is the way to a broader internationalism: Britain has its own historic responsibilities in the world, through its Commonwealth, but it can do far more to address the major inter-continental issues in the twenty-first century, like migration, by working ‘in concert’ with its European allies to produce joint, compassionate foreign policies.

My grandparents told that if something was broken you fixed it.

6. Britain is at its best when leading, not when leaving: Its vocation is to lead where its collective moral conscience takes it, to extend its peaceful influence through language, trade and culture.

The EU is a product of that other great British value, ‘giving way’, or ‘compromise’: It is a work in progress, with many unresolved conflicts, and the British people are an integral element in this joint endeavour.

The Aftermath and Legacy of the Easter 1916 Rising   Leave a comment

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The 1916 Rising took place over a bloody Easter week in Dublin, when the city centre became a battlefield. During that week, it had little support, but as John Dillon argued, the executions which followed in May infuriated the Irish population. Speaking in the House of Commons, the veteran Nationalist MP and last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, pointed out that…

What is happening is that thousands of people in Dublin, who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole of life of the Sinn Fein movement and to the rebellion are now becoming infuriated against the Government on account of these executions and, as I am informed by letters received this morning, that feeling is spreading throughout the country in a most dangerous degree…

 We who speak for the vast majority of the Irish people, we who have risked a great deal to win the people to your side in this great crisis of your Empire’s history, we who have endeavoured, and successfully endeavoured to secure that the Irish in America shall not go into alliance with the Germans in that country – we, I think, were entitled to be consulted before this bloody course of executions was entered upon in Ireland. 

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These arguments led to Asquith accepting that some political solution was necessary. The Prime Minister himself, in the aftermath of the Rising, and under pressure from America over the executions in Kilmainham Jail, stopped General Maxwell, the military commander in Dublin, from shooting his prisoners, and announced in the House of Commons on 11 May:

The government has come to the conclusion that the system under which Ireland has been governed has completely broken down. The only satisfactory alternative, in their judgement, is the creation, at the earliest possible moment, of an Irish Government responsible to the Irish people.

He went to Ireland, returned, and told parliament that the government had asked Lloyd George to negotiate for agreement as to the way in which the Government of Ireland is for the future to be carried out, so that the Home Rule Bill, shelved when the war broke out, could be put into immediate effect, without waiting for the end of the war. Yet the position of the Protestants of Ulster – 27% of the total population – and their determination to resist any settlement in which they would be left as a small minority meant that any solution was likely to be accompanied by violence. On the eve of the Great War it was apparent that Ulster’s Protestant population would resist Home Rule if need be by force of arms and the Curragh Mutiny indicated that the army might not repress rebellion in the North. The question of partition from the Ulster Unionist point of view was reported in a letter from Hugh De F. Montgomery, of the Ulster Unionist Council, to his son, dated 22 June 1916. Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a member of Asquith’s Cabinet as Solicitor-General for Ireland, spoke to a private meeting of the Council for an hour and a half to explain the situation over Home Rule. The main point was…

The Cabinet having unanimously decided that under pressure of difficulties with America, the Colonies and Parliament (but chiefly with America), they must offer Redmond (the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party) Home Rule at once; and (not being prepared to coerce Ulster) having authorised Lloyd George to arrange a settlement, Carson, after what had happened at the Buckingham Palace Conference in 1914, could not well refuse to submit to his followers the exclusion of six counties as a basis of negotiation. Carson had satisfied himself, apparently, that he had lost all the ground gained in their anti-Home Rule campaign before the war, and that the majority of the Unionist members and voters took the same view as the majority of Unionist papers as to the necessity of a settlement… If we did not agree to a settlement we should have the Home Rule Act coming into operation without the exclusion of any part of Ulster, or subject only to some worthless Amending Act which Asquith might bring in in fulfilment of his pledge, and we should either have to submit to this or fight…

I was in Dublin for two or three days last week, and the Southerners I met are all convinced that there will be another rebellion whether the Lloyd George terms are accepted or not. The fact that these terms were accepted has enormously strengthened the Sinn Feiners in the country. The acceptance of these suggestions by the Ulster Unionists has not had much effect on this part of the question. The Unionists’ acceptance under protest has increased Redmond’s difficulties, and, as we are given to believe, placed us in the position in the eyes of British public opinion of being reasonable people. If Redmond actually forms a government and tries to rule this country, the rebellion will be directed against him; if he does not, it will be directed against the existing government; in any case, the country will have to be more or less conquered outside the six counties, and that may possibly be the best way out of all our troubles, which have all their root in a British Prime Minister having brought in a Home Rule Bill.

To try to find a solution of a moderate nature, a Convention was called for 1917. Its meetings were boycotted by both organised labour and Sinn Fein, and any attempt at a solution was blocked by in the conference chamber by the total refusal of the Ulster Unionists to consider the possibility of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. This meant that partition was now the only possible solution, leading to all the problems which were still apparent in the the 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.

The legacy of the Easter Rebellion lived on. According to Liam de Paor and Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1966 was a watershed in the relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland: the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising gave an impetus for the Nationalist population to resurrect their ideal of a united Ireland. The celebrations which accompanied the anniversary led to a backlash from the Ulster Protestants who remembered 1916 for the way in which the Ulster Divisions were cut to pieces on the Somme from 1 July to 18 November that year. From an Irish Nationalist perspective, Liam de Paor wrote in 1971, of the contemporary significance of the battle compared with that of the Rising:

Pearse and his IRB comrades, who broke with Redmond, did not feel that they owed any loyalty to England or that they should fight her wars. On the contrary they hoped that the great European war might provide an opportunity to strike against the colonial connection, and they planned accordingly. Connolly, with his tiny Citizen Army, was even more opposed to Irishmen fighting, not only England’s, but in any capitalist war, and he was bitterly disappointed to see Europe’s socialist parties forgetting their principles when the drums beat and the banners waved, and hastening to wear the uniforms of Europe’s various oppressors on both sides. He too was a nationalist of a kind, although he had made it clear that he was not interested in a mere change of flags but in attacking capitalism through colonialism… 

On the 1 July the battle of the Somme opened, and the 36th (Ulster) Division was ordered out of their section of the British lines at Thiepval Wood on the River Ancre to attack the German lines. They attacked with tremendous courage… and in two days of battle… ended more or less where they had begun, in terms of ground gained. But their dead were heaped in thousands on the German wire and littered the ground that had been bitterly gained and bitterly lost: half of Ulster was in mourning. 

These two bloody events drove Irishmen further apart than ever, for although the Catholic and nationalist Irish also, 200,000 of them, fought, and many died, at the Somme, at Gallipoli, at Passchendaele, and other places with names of terror in that appalling war,  their sacrifice seemed, by the turn Irish history now took, irrelevant – barely a footnote in the developing myth by which the political tradition is animated…

… In Ulster, on the other hand, the Somme is more central in the Protestant political tradition, for, futile as the battle was, the Orangemen who fought in it displayed in the most convincing way that, however eccentric their ‘loyalty’ might seem at times, it was to them quite real, and they showed that in this they were, as Pearse had perceived, not ridiculous at all…

World War One British Soldiers.

Above: Soldiers at the Western Front, waiting to ‘go over the top’.

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Above: Soldiers at the front in Gallipoli, 1915.

The well-known folk song, The Foggy Dew, which commemorates the 1916 Uprising, does at least contain a verse recognising the suffering of Irish soldiers in the Great War, even if it places it firmly in the nationalist narrative:

It was England bade our wild geese go

That small nations might be free;

Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s wave

Or the fringe of the Great North Sea;

But had they died by Pearse’s side

Or fallen by Cathal Brugha

Their graves we’d keep where the Fenians sleep

With a shroud of the foggy dew.

Source: Richard Brown and Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

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