Archive for the ‘Neville Chamberlain’ Tag

September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

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

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

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

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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September 1939 – Blitzkrieg & Spheres of Influence: A Narrative of Actions & Reactions…   Leave a comment

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Chronology of The First Week of War; September 1-8:

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued an ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; the Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encircled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw but was repulsed by the Polish resistance.

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demand that Poland agrees to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the Western Allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Kraków, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

The Final Steps to European War:

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At the start of 1939, Hitler had had no plans for war even against Poland. Since the Munich crisis, diplomatic pressure had been put on Poland to consider the return of the Prussian city of Danzig to the Reich, and to discuss possible readjustments to the status of the ‘Polish Corridor’ which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

In March, the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, had given a firm refusal to these requests. Stung by what he saw as intransigence on the part of the Poles, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for war against Poland. At the end of April, the Polish-German Non-Aggression pact of 1934 was abrogated by Germany, and across the summer months, German forces prepared ‘Plan White’, the planned annihilation of the Polish resistance. But Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary was not so taken aback. Four months previously, he had warned the British Cabinet of the possibility of a deal between Stalin and Hitler. Both the British and French governments now realised that the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany freed Hitler’s hands for an invasion of Poland – and so it proved.

On 1 September, German troops crossed into Poland and two days later, Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations with Poland, declared war on Germany. Hitler had expected a local war with Poland, lasting a matter of weeks. Instead, he now faced, at least potentially, a major European war with Britain and France.

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The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August:

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above: Molotov (seated), Ribbentrop (standing, left) and Stalin at the moment of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin, as this picture shows, was happy and at ease with the Nazi Foreign Minister.

Laurence Rees (2008) has pointed out that, by the summer of 1939, pragmatism had taken precedence over principle. Hitler wanted the German Army to invade Poland within a matter of days. As he saw it, there were German territories to retrieve – the city of Danzig, West Prussia, and the former German lands around Posen, as well as the rest of Poland’s valuable agricultural lands to conquer. But he knew that any into Poland risked war with Britain and France. Moreover, from the Nazi point of view, a vast question hung over their plan to invade Poland; what would be the reaction of the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbour to the east? If the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the French and the British, how would the Germans react to encirclement by enemies?

So, that summer, off the back of trade talks that were happening in Berlin, the Germans began to sound out the Soviets about a possible treaty of convenience. By 2 August, the urgency of the Germans was palpable. The economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on 19 August in Berlin. Ribbentrop then pressed the Soviets to allow him to come to Moscow to sign a non-aggression treaty. When the Soviets seemed to dither, Hitler stepped in personally and wrote an appeal to Stalin to allow Ribbentrop to go to Moscow. The Soviets relented and Ribbentrop arrived there on the 23rd. The motivation of the Germans was not difficult to fathom. Hitler’s long-term policy was still to view the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy. As far as he was concerned, its Slavic people were not ‘worthy’ of owning the rich farmland they currently possessed. His almost messianic vision was that one day soon there would be a new German Empire on that land. But he was not concerned, for now, to pursue visions. This was the time to deal with the urgent, practical problems of neutralising a potential aggressor. The Nazi régime acted with at a speed that impressed even the Soviets, as Molotov testified in a speech in September:

The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometres an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration. His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with Germany.

Yet whilst it was relatively easy to see what the Germans were getting out of the deal, it was, initially, far less simple to explain the attitude of the Soviets. Unlike the Germans, they had a choice and could have accepted the offer of an alliance with the British and the French. At a cursory glance, that seemed to be the logical course of action, not least because they had signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in July 1932 and neither of the two western democracies was as vehemently antipathetic to the USSR as the Nazis. In addition, the British had already made peaceful overtures towards Moscow. But Stalin knew that Britain had preferred a policy of appeasement to the Germans to an alliance with the Soviets, and he still felt insulted by Chamberlain’s failure to consult him about the Munich Agreement of a year earlier. Moreover, the fact that it had taken the British until the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939 to realise the potential benefits of a treaty with the Soviet Union did not impress Stalin. Five days earlier, he had made a speech to the 18th Party Congress in Moscow in which he talked of a war being waged by…

aggressor states who in every way infringe upon the interests of the the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily Britain, France and the USA, while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors. Thus we are witnessing an open redivision of the world and spheres of influence at the expense of the non-aggressive states, without the least attempt at resistance, and even with a certain connivance, on their part. Incredible, but true.

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

The Führer accepts that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Duena, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Stalin objected at once to these proposals, insisting that the entire territory of Latvia fall within the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The meeting was immediately adjourned until Ribbentrop had contacted Hitler about this request. The Führer was waiting for news of the negotiations at the Berghof, his retreat in the mountains of Bavaria. Herbert Döring, the SS officer who administered the Berghof and witnessed the events of that day, noted the reactions of the commanders meeting there to the news that Ribbentrop was about to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviets:

The generals were upset, they were looking at each other… It took their breath away that such a thing could be possible. Stalin the Communist, Hitler the National Socialist, that these two would certainly unite. What was behind it, nobody knew.

Suddenly, the call came through from Ribbentrop with the news of Stalin’s demand. Döring recalled:

Hitler was speechless during the phone call, everybody noticed. Stalin had put a pistol to his head. 

Hitler agreed to ‘hand over’ the whole of Latvia to Stalin. The main details of the ‘spheres of influence’ were enshrined in a secret protocol to the pact. Then the conversation in Moscow became more discursive as Stalin revealed his frank views about his ‘dislike and distrust’ of the British:

… they are skilful and stubborn opponents. But the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world it is due to the stupidity of other countries which let themselves be cheated. It is ridiculous that only a few hundred British are still able to rule the vast Indian population.

Stalin went on to assert that the British had tried to prevent Soviet-German understanding for many years and that it was a ‘good idea’ to put an end to these ‘shenanigans’. But there was no open discussion in Moscow of the Nazi’s immediate plans to invade Poland, nor what the Soviet response to it was expected to be. The nearest Ribbentrop came to outlining Nazi intentions was when he said:

The government of the German Reich no longer finds acceptable the persecution of the German population in Poland and the Führer is determined to resolve the German-Polish disputes without delay.

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a ‘casus belli’ by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic Port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939,

Danzig is not the real issue, the real point is for us to open up our ‘Lebensraum’ to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.

Yet Hitler was driven by more than simple practicalities. The forthcoming war over Poland was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the promises he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen  (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly ideological war, and, as Andrew Roberts has written, the reason why the Nazis eventually lost it. By August 1939, Danzig and the Polish Corridor had become the focal point for Nazi propaganda.

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The Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was finally signed in the early hours of 24 August 1939. German and Soviet photographers were allowed into the room to immortalise the unlikely friendship that had blossomed between the two countries. But Stalin’s last words to Ribbentrop were spoken with apparent sincerity:

I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.

Back at the Berghof, the atmosphere grew ever more anxious in the hours before news of the signing of the pact came through. Herbert Döring watched that evening as Hitler and his guests stared at a dramatic sky over the high mountain peaks. He recalled that:

The entire sky was in turmoil. It was blood-red, green, sulphur grey, black as the night, a jagged yellow. Everyone was looking horrified – it was intimidating. … Everyone was watching. Without good nerves one could easily have become frightened.

Döring observed Hitler’s reaction to the remark of one of his guests, a Hungarian woman:

“My Führer, this augers nothing good. It means blood, blood, blood and again blood.” Hitler was totally shocked. … He was almost shaking. He said, “If it has to be, then let it be now.” He was agitated, completely crazed. His hair was wild. His gaze was locked on the distance. Then, when the good news that the pact had been signed finally arrived, Hitler said goodbye, went upstairs and the evening was over.

The reaction in Britain to the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union might have lacked the drama on the terrace at the Berghof, but it was certainly one of immense surprise. It was a new and incomprehensible chapter in German diplomacy, as one British newsreel declared, asking what has happened to the principles of ‘Mein Kampf’?… what can Russia have in common with Germany? All over the world, Communist parties, who had been campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism, struggled to make sense of the new reality. In Germany, the Nazis were equally non-plussed by the news. SS officer Hans Bernhard heard of the news of the signing of the pact as he waited with his unit to invade Poland. For him, it came as…

… a surprise without doubt. We couldn’t make sense of it. …in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy. … (it was) politically unnatural.

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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The German armed forces made meticulous preparations for the Polish war. They committed fifty-two divisions (against Poland’s thirty), organised into five armies surrounding Poland on three sides. They included five Panzer divisions of three hundred tanks each, four light divisions, with fewer tanks and some horses, and four fully motorised divisions, with lorry-borne infantry. These tank and motorised divisions spearheaded the attack, supported by 1,500 aircraft. Altogether, they had 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the ‘Kriegsmarine’, the German navy. Poland had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanised brigades, three hundred medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and four hundred combat-ready aircraft, of which only thirty-six were not obsolete. They had a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than a million men, Poland tried to mobilise its reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell at the hands of 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

Polish forces planned to fight a holding action before falling back on the defence of Warsaw. When the campaign opened German forces moved with great speed and power, quickly penetrating the defensive screen and encircling Polish troops. At 17:30 hours on 31 August, Hitler ordered hostilities to commence the next morning, and at 04:45 on Friday, 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command (OKH), with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document.  At this early stage in the war, there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, so that the Führer did not interfere too closely in the troop dispositions and planning. Neither was he cowed by his generals, as he knew that, had he been a German citizen, he would have been commissioned and have emerged from the Great War in command of a battalion. Moreover, his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Despite being mocked as ‘Corporal Hitler’ by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill, he showed no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had outranked him by far in the previous conflict.

According to ‘Plan White’, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland and crush its armed forces. Army Group North would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig, unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia and move swiftly capture Warsaw from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying two thousand kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munitions dumps, mobilisation centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences, where there were any, were wholly inadequate.

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The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, believed to have derived from the pre-Great War Schlieffen Plan. Whatever the provenance, it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between the Polish ones, enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not the preponderance in men and arms, but above all the military doctrine of ‘Blitzkrieg’. Poland was a fine testing ground for these tactics. Although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks. Since the British and French governments had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British PM Neville Chamberlain formally promising ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army on the Siegfried Line or ‘West Wall’, a three-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along  Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to leave no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. His best troops, however, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, he devoted to the attack on Poland.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as a homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air, chaos ensued. It soon became clear to everyone, except the ever hopeful Poles, that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions facing the forty German. Fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if they had attacked in the west, Poland could not have been saved in time. Although the RAF had reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not start to arrive until the next day.

What the Allies did not fully appreciate at this stage was the ever-present fear in Hitler’s calculations that there would be an attack in the west before Poland was defeated. In particular, he thought there might be a secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed motorised forces through Belgium and over the German frontier into the industrial zone of the Ruhr. In addition, he suspected that there might also be an agreement between the British and the Dutch for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland in order to attack the German north flank. In the event, it turned out that no such agreements were in place. As the Poles retreated, seven thousand ethnic Germans in Poland were massacred by their Polish neighbours and the retreating troops. The Poles did this on the basis of their fear of betrayal, but the Nazis soon responded in cold blood, and on a far larger scale.

By 5 September, the Polish Corridor was completely cut off. On the night of 6 September, France made a token invasion of Germany, advancing five miles into the Saarland along a fifteen-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilising, no further action was taken and five days later, the French troops returned to their original positions with orders only to undertake reconnaissance over the frontier. This was hardly the all-out support of the Allies, and Hitler did not have to remove a single soldier from the Polish front. Meanwhile, by the eighth, the Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north and the German Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw but was initially repulsed by the fierce Polish resistance.  Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. However, at the same time, the Eighth Army had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Lodz armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were welcomed at first, but were later interned under pressure from Hitler. Hitler’s plan had been to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite what was to happen.

On 9 September, Hermann Göring predicted that the Polish Army would never emerge again from the German embrace. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzebra of the Poznán Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzuta river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not, in fact, happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed:

All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.

By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantrymen and artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course, it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start. In fact, they were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and they were simply better at it than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

But as the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union made no more to invade from the east. Consequently, Ribbentrop was concerned about Stalin’s reaction to any German incursion into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact which, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, and before the USSR came into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent Belarusian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarusians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without any significant resistance. Soviet forces began to cross the frontier in the east against only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places and there was confusion in some places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the Germans, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

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The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to only 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. Mellenthin concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

The whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft. After the defeat of Poland Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather, and both sides sat through the winter and early spring of a ‘phoney war’.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the ‘class enemies’ of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

On the same day that Boguslava Gryniv’s father was arrested, the Soviet government’s new best friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to the Kremlin to finalise the exact borders that would exist between them. After tough negotiations lasting until five in the morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. The Soviets had obtained the lands in their ‘sphere’ without meeting any serious opposition and without even making a formal declaration of war on Poland. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf:

Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.

The Germans had faced fierce Polish resistance in the west, but they had completely consolidated their hold on these lands. After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale ‘invasion’ from the Russians in the east, and communications cut between Smigly-Rydz and much of his army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on 28 September. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time it was too late for many of them. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October, all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. On that day, Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train to visit his victorious troops. Take a good look around Warsaw, he told the war correspondents there, … that is how I can deal with any European city.

What was to be called the policy of  Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their ‘living space’, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the rest of the war, Poland lost 17.2 per cent of its population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism they found as they followed the troops into Poland. Since Nazism was a racial ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies of the Reich, to whom no mercy could be shown. Fortunately, between ninety and a hundred thousand Polish combatants managed to flee the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, eventually making their way to the west to join the Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and set up a government in exile in Angers in France.

The Wehrmacht took an active part in the violence, burning down 531 towns and villages, and killing thousands of Polish POWs. The claim made by German soldiers that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews, was a lie. The nature of the SS had become immediately apparent upon the invasion of Poland. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by them at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. Even Jewish farmers were forced into ghettos, despite the obvious need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich, early evidence that the Nazis were willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves. Far worse was to come…

(to be continued…)

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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).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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1968 and All That… MLK, LBJ, Bobby, Tet and the Prague Spring.   Leave a comment

The Escalation of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive:

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At the beginning of 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson thought that victory in Vietnam was worth the sacrifice the US servicemen had already made since President Kennedy had committed 16,500 troops to the support of the South Vietnamese in 1961-62. By 1968, Johnson had committed up to half a million men to the conflict. On taking office in 1964, he had said, I am not going to be the President who saw South East Asia go the way that China went. But by the end of February 1968, he was increasingly isolated in Washington. Robert McNamara, who had been John F Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, had left the White House to become president of the World Bank. He said he did not really know whether he had quit or been fired. The new Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford, opposed General Westmoreland’s latest request for another 200,000 men, arguing that there would soon be further requests, “with no end in sight.” He recommended pegging the level at twenty thousand, and Johnson agreed. What had happened in the war, and the response to it, to change his mind?

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In January 1968, just as President Johnson was announcing that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong had launched the Tet Offensive within virtually every town and city in South Vietnam. It was their most spectacular offensive yet. In Saigon, a commando unit even penetrated the US Embassy compound; it had to be flushed out man by man. This feat, which took place in front of television cameras, stunned America and public opinion worldwide. Although the US military had intelligence that an attack was imminent, they appeared to have been caught completely by surprise. But the bitterest fighting in the Tet Offensive took place in Hue, previously a tranquil city, where intense house-to-house fighting and killing went on for several weeks. The photo on the right below shows US Marines call for assistance for those wounded in the bloody fighting which took place in the city on 1st February. The beleaguered president finally accepted that there was a limit to the losses of US servicemen in Vietnam that the American people would accept. The photo below (left) of Lyndon Johnson shows him preparing a speech on Vietnam.

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On the other side, the Tet Offensive was intended to inspire a popular rising across South Vietnam. It totally failed in this, but rather led to massive losses of some of the Vietcong’s best fighters. Nevertheless, in propaganda terms, the offensive was a magnificent victory for them. Before Tet, the American leaders had talked of grave enemy weaknesses and of how the Vietcong had met their match and were desperately hanging on. Now the Vietcong had shown that they could attack at will and could strike even at the very nerve centre of the US presence in South Vietnam. The gap between what the US Government said and what people saw on their television screens had never been greater, nor credibility lower. Support for the president’s handling of the war dropped to an all-time low in the polls. Eighty per cent of Americans felt that the United States was making no progress in the war. Tet was thus a turning point.

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Added to this, there was international revulsion and outrage at the American tactics. The British journalist, James Cameron, reported:

There was a sense of outrage. By what right do these airmen intrude over a country with which they are not formally at war? Who gave these people the sanction to drop their bombs on roads, bridges, houses, to blow up the harvest, to destroy people of whom they know nothing? Would this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

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Despite the bombing, North Vietnam continued to supply the Vietcong in South Vietnam with ever-increasing amounts of aid. Much of it came from the Soviet Union and was driven across the border at night in convoys of heavy, Russian-built trucks. They regularly moved weapons and ammunition into the South, smuggling them right into the hearts of towns and cities. President Johnson had hoped for a ‘quick kill’. But the tactics of America’s land forces in South Vietnam were based on several errors of judgement. First, the soldiers were told to fight for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Yet the GIs simply shot and killed the peasants on sight, often en masse and without discrimination, assuming that they were Vietcong supporters. They also destroyed the land itself, as James Cameron testified (above). Richard Hamer, an American journalist commented, after his visit in 1970, that Vietnam had become a country of refugees … once the rice bowl of Asia, now unable to feed itself. Secondly, the USA believed it could ‘win’ the war and simply could not believe that the US could be defeated by a bunch of guerrillas in black pyjamas. But the reality of guerrilla warfare was very different:

… this enemy is invisible … it is not just the people but the land itself – unfamiliar … frightening … it can be that field ahead littered with land mines … the enemy can be the kind who comes out smiling and then lobs a grenade … or that bent old lady carrying a watermelon.

You walk down a road between rice paddies. Vietnamese are in every paddy. Then a mortar shell lands right in the middle of a patrol. A couple of guys are dead, others are screaming in agony with a leg or arm blown off, or their guts hanging out. Did one of them (the peasants) lob the mortar? If so, which one? Should you kill all of them or none of them at all?

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There was widespread opposition to the American presence in Vietnam, not least from within the US itself. The determined peace protesters outside the White House would not leave Johnson in peace, continuing to chant:

Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!

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In fact, the hostile chanting accompanied him wherever he went and had a devastating effect on him. Senator Eugene McCarthy announced he would oppose Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination; Robert Kennedy also declared he was a candidate and spoke out harshly against Johnson’s foreign policy and conduct of the war. In the second half of March, the ‘wise men’ went into conclave again to review progress and consider their options in Vietnam. By now the civilians in this group were openly critical of the assessments presented by the military commanders. When told that eighty thousand of the enemy had been killed and that the normal ratio of killed to wounded was 1:3, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg calculated that would mean that all of the enemy’s manpower must be dead or injured: “Then who the hell are we fighting?” he asked. Then, on 31st March, in a live television address, Johnson announced that the US would halt all bombing above the twentieth parallel in the hope that peace talks could begin promptly. He then went on to surprise everyone, even his own advisers, by announcing  that he would “not seek … nor accept” his party’s nomination for a second term in the White House. With his crushing triumph over Goldwater only four years behind him, Johnson now recognised the deep unpopularity of his policy of escalating the Vietnam War. He had lost his fight with public opinion.

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Martin Luther King’s Death in Memphis:

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Above Left: Martin Luther King, Jr., waves to the marchers at the Lincoln Memorial, on 30th August 1963, before making his “I have a dream…” speech. Above Right: Lyndon Johnson shakes King’s hand after signing the Civil Rights Bill into law, 2 July 1964.

Four days after Johnson’s announcement, on 4th April, Martin Luther King was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support a workers’ strike, marching with the strikers, who wanted to protest peacefully, singing and holding hands. Most of them were black street-cleaners, who were badly paid. But gangs of young blacks had not wanted to protest peacefully and had begun rioting, breaking shop windows and fighting with the police. One of them had been killed during the fighting.  After the march, King had talked to the gangs and told them that violence was not the answer and that all protests had to be peaceful if they wanted the workers to win. Some of the gang-leaders had argued back, saying that times had changed and that peaceful protests no longer worked. Finally, King had persuaded them to join the workers on their next march, and they had promised him not to use violence. The date for the second march had been set for 5th April.

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On 3rd April, King had returned to Memphis and had made a speech at the Baptist Church prayer-meeting. It had been full of hope about the cause, but also of foreboding for his own life:

I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

On the next day, 4th April, King had told his friends that he needed some air. He went out of his hotel room just after six o’clock in the evening. Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire. His friends ran outside and found him lying on the ground, shot. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s young supporters, held him in his arms while the ambulance was sent for. An hour later Martin Luther King died in hospital. He was just thirty-nine years old.

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The whole world grieved the loss of this man of peace. All the people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were first shocked and then angry. Go and get your guns! Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, told a crowd in Washington DC. Riots swept the American nation; a hundred cities erupted, the rioters fighting the police. There were more than twenty thousand arrests and forty-six more black deaths. Seventy-five thousand troops were called out to keep the peace. For many, King epitomised the dream of racial equality, but for two years his influence had been diminishing. Now the leadership of the black community passed to more radical figures like Carmichael, who wanted to replace passive, nonviolent disobedience to active and violent resistance. The Black Panthers trained as paramilitaries in the ghetto of Oakland, California, for a civil war with racist police. Other black ‘nationalists’ called openly for revolution.

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James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, was arrested and went to prison for King’s murder, though many believed he had not acted alone. Even Coretta King did not believe that Ray had killed her husband. King’s body lay in his father’s church in Atlanta. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to the civil rights leader. Later, his body was buried next to those of his grandparents, and written on his headstone, are the last words of his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial five years earlier:

Free at last, Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, 

I’m free at last!

From Paris to California and on to Chicago:

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Above: Robert Kennedy, campaigning in California.

In May, preliminary peace talks began in Paris. In the face of obdurate North Vietnamese negotiators, the talks soon ran aground. The dispute focused on whether or not the United States would halt all bombing of the North and who could sit at the negotiating table; would the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong sit down with the United States, as well as North and South Vietnam? There was no agreement. With a million college students and faculty members boycotting classes because of Vietnam, the stage was set for the confrontation between McCarthy and Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination. In the California primary, in June, Kennedy won by a whisker. Then, as he was leaving his hotel through a back entrance, he was shot in the head and stomach (below). He died in hospital the next morning. There was no rioting, just silence. The American nation was traumatised by these killings, asking what was wrong with the country to make it so violent.

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Above right: Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters do battle in Chicago.

Everything came to a head when the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its nominee for the presidency – now either McCarthy or Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Chicago was controlled by Mayor Richard J Daley, a hard-liner who ruled the streets through a broad network of ethnic supporters. He promised, as long as I am mayor, there will be law and order on the streets. In the riots following Martin Luther King’s death, he had given his police authority to “shoot to kill” arsonists. Daley was determined to keep order during the convention when rumour predicted that a hundred thousand activists and anti-war campaigners would assemble in Chicago. Only about one-tenth of that number arrived, but Daley had no intention of allowing any marches to go ahead. His police, some out of uniform, attacked a group of ‘hippies’ and ‘yippies’ in Lincoln Park and pursued them – and anyone else who happened to be on the streets – with clubs and batons.

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On the night that Humphrey was to accept the nomination, the police used tear gas to break up the demonstration outside the convention hotel. More than two hundred plainclothes policemen tried to infiltrate the march. Demonstrators, newsmen, and even elderly passers-by were all clubbed and beaten. Tear gas got in the air vents of the hotel, including Humphrey’s suite, as he was preparing his acceptance speech. Live on television, the cameras kept cutting between the convention and the extraordinary scenes outside. Humphrey left feeling shattered, despite having secured his party’s nomination. Chicago was a catastrophe, he said later; My wife and I went home heartbroken, battered and beaten.

According to the to the New York Times, the Chicago police had brought shame to the city, embarrassment to the country. Lawyers defending those charged for their role in the demonstration spoke of a “police riot.” Senator George McGovern denounced Daley and his “Gestapo” for creating a “bloodbath.” Radicals were driven even further outside the political system; they believed that the government was now totally illegitimate and led by war criminals so that only further militancy could win the day. Bring Us Together was the campaign slogan of the Nixon camp, but as the campaign hotted up, there was little prospect of this happening in reality. In fact, Governor George Wallace had declared himself as an independent candidate. Wallace’s plan to stop the trouble on the streets appealed only to the right-wing Republican heartlands:

We ought to turn this country over to the police for two or three years and then everything would be all right.

Meanwhile, Richard M Nixon had won the Republican nomination for president. With conservative Spiro T Agnew as his running mate, Nixon tried to defuse the support for Wallace. He also met with Johnson and agreed not to attack the outgoing president over Vietnam during the campaign, in return for an understanding that Johnson would not abandon Saigon. Nixon tried to come across as the statesman and peacemaker. He spoke of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam and to bring peace with honour. Nixon also agreed that during the campaign he would not call for a pause in the bombing. In October, the Paris peace talks were still deadlocked over the issue of representation, with President Thieu, in Saigon, deeply opposed to negotiating with North Vietnam if the Vietcong were also present. This would imply formal recognition of his hated enemy. With the election only days away, Johnson received FBI reports that Anna Chennault, a Nixon fund-raiser, was acting as a go-between for the Republicans with Thieu. Nixon’s campaign manager had asked her to tell Thieu to oppose the cessation of bombing, and so undermine the peace talks, promising that Thieu would get a better deal under the Republicans. Thieu held out and refused to attend talks at which the Vietcong were present. Despite this, Johnson called a halt to the bombing on 31st October.

Nixon talked of the “tired men” around Johnson and the need for a new team with “fresh ideas”. The opinion polls showed a swing away from Humphrey, who up to this point had had a narrow lead. On 5th November, the American people came out to vote. In the end, the vote was nail-bitingly close: Wallace won thirteen per cent, and Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey with 43.4 per cent of the vote to 42.7. There was to be a new team in the White House, but outside America was split into two nations. But, although the North had set out the terms on which the war would eventually end, the fighting in Vietnam would go on for another five years and cost many thousands more lives.

The anti-war movement clearly boosted North Vietnamese morale and sustained Hanoi’s will to fight on. The hostile chants had almost certainly upset Lyndon Johnson and helped persuade him not to stand for re-election. The movement also affected the atmosphere of decision-making by which it was resolved not to broaden the conflict into a wider war in Southeast Asia. More than anything, the protests against the war exposed a growing cultural divide among the American people and, in the rest of the world, provoked widespread anti-American sentiment on both sides of the Cold War divide. The protest movement was international. In Paris in May 1968, the Fifth Republic was nearly toppled when it came into conflict with a massed combination of workers, students, and intellectuals. In London, police laid into anti-war demonstrators outside the Grosvenor Square US Embassy, in full view of television news cameras. In Northern Ireland, civil rights marches, modelled on those in the American South, sparked a new phase in the long-running confrontation between Irish republicanism and the British State. In Germany and Japan, radicals fought with the police.

Another Year Ending in Eight – The Prague Spring:

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The action of the Chicago police took place just a week after Soviet troops shocked the world by moving into Prague. In Central/Eastern Europe, new thinking had been influenced by the counter-cultural currents in the West, but the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also had their origins in the fight for Czech independence which goes back four hundred years and seems to contain major events in years ending in the number eight. It began with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, following the defenestrations of Prague, when the Bohemian Calvinists refused to acknowledge Ferdinand, a Hapsburg, as their king, inviting Frederick, the Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England, to become their king and queen. This was both a religious and a political challenge to the Emperor. Frederick was overwhelmed by Bavaria and Austria at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, having received no help from the Protestant Union of German princes, or from his miserly father-in-law, James Stuart. Frederick and Elizabeth went down in the annals of Czech history as ‘the Winter King and Queen’ due to the brevity of their reign, and it took another three centuries for independence to be restored, in 1918/19. It was then taken away again in 1938/39, by Hitler, with Chamberlain’s connivance and, after a brief post-war restoration, in 1948 the Communists seized power at Stalin’s insistence.

001Jan Masaryk, the independent foreign minister and son of the first president of inter-war Czechoslovakia, was also defenestrated in 1948, by the Communists. A re-examination of the case in 1968 turned up a document which stated that scratch-marks made by fingernails had been found on the window soon after he had fallen to his death. The ‘Prague Spring’ also had economic roots, in common with other protest movements in the Eastern bloc countries. There was deep concern about declining growth rates and the failure to keep up with Western levels of consumer progress.

In Poland, agricultural output had been dropping year after year, and the régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka, so rapturously welcomed in October 1956, was growing steadily more oppressive. Intellectuals who spoke out against the government were imprisoned and in March 1968 a student demonstration was brutally broken up by the police, resulting in several days of street rioting in Warsaw. Gomulka had lost almost all of his support in the country, but Brezhnev and the Soviet Union stood by him. But the crises of 1968 passed quickly in Poland, and Gomulka remained in power for two more years, until food shortages and rising prices finally brought his régime to an end.

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Above left: Alexander Dubcek in Spring, 1968, promising “socialism with a human face.” Right: He shakes hands with Brezhnev in Bratislava, 3rd August 1968.

In Czechoslovakia, there were also concerns over lack of growth in the economy, and in 1966 the government of Antonín Novotny took the first steps towards decentralising the economy, giving greater power to local managers and greater priority to the production of consumer goods. Profits rather than quotas were made the measure of performance, a practice dubbed market socialism. However, these reforms were too slow, and, against a background of student revolts, Alexander Dubcek was appointed party chairman in January 1968. He was no fiery revolutionary, but as the boss of the Slovak party machine, he was a committed party loyalist. He did, nevertheless, promise the widest possible democratisation of the entire sociopolitical system aimed at bringing communism up to date. His appointment speeded change, as he widened the reform debate to those outside the party. Censorship was eased; freedom of speech was introduced in newspapers, on the radio and on television. Amidst unprecedented debate in the press and on television, in April the party approved an Action Programme with a two thousand word manifesto in June, when writers and intellectuals advocated democratic reforms within a broad socialist context. Dubcek’s reforms became known as socialism with a human face. Above all, Dubcek was trying to improve living conditions in Czechoslovakia:

We want to set new forces of Socialist life in motion in this country, allowing a fuller application of the advantages of Socialism.

Trade with the West was developed; different religions were allowed. Dubcek’s Government, though still Communist, wished to have less control over people’s lives. In this, he had the full support of the Czechoslovak people. The thaw in Czech Communism in early 1968 was therefore known as the ‘Prague Spring’. The Prague leadership tried very hard not to upset the Kremlin. They remembered how Hungary had been crushed in 1956, and Czechoslovakia, unlike Imre Nagy’s Hungarian one of twelve years earlier, had no desire to make changes in its foreign affairs or to leave the Warsaw Pact.

Over these months, Moscow and the other Warsaw Pact capitals became increasingly agitated by the so-called ‘Prague Spring’. They believed that economic reform would inevitably test the party bureaucracy’s ability to maintain control, and would ultimately undermine its monopoly of power. They feared that fervent debate about economic objectives would be contagious. Indeed, in Poland demonstrators did call for a “Polish Dubcek.” Gomulka in Poland and Walter Ulbricht in East Germany led the hard-line against reforms in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek continued to proclaim his commitment to the one-party system and his loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, but other Satellite states grew more and more impatient. Moscow itself despaired over the Prague reforms. Inside the Kremlin, it was feared that Dubcek’s government would dismantle the internal security apparatus and evict the KGB from the country. The Soviet military was also worried about its agreements with Czechoslovakia. In the early sixties, the Soviet Union had agreed on terms with its Warsaw Pact allies for stationing nuclear warheads in Central/Eastern Europe. Under these terms, the weapons would remain under strict Soviet military control. The USSR had large numbers of troops stationed in Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but no permanent garrison in Czechoslovakia. When Prague embarked on its reform programme in the first half of 1968, the Soviets delayed their deployment of nuclear weapons there, fearing that they would not be able to maintain tight control over them. Moscow saw Prague as a weak link in the Warsaw Pact frontier.

In July, Leonid Brezhnev met the leaders of his Central/Eastern European allies in Warsaw. Dubcek’s changes were too much for Brezhnev, and the other Warsaw Pact leaders, who shared their concerns over events in Czechoslovakia. They warned the Czechoslovak leadership not to run the risk of opening up a ‘hole’ in the iron curtain:

The word ‘democracy’ is being misused. There are campaigns against honest Party workers. The aim is to end the leading role of the Party, to undermine Socialism and to turn Czechoslovakia against other Socialist countries. Thus … the security of our countries is threatened.

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Above: Students occupy Wenceslas Square, awaiting the invaders

A few days later Brezhnev, Kosygin, and the senior Soviet leadership met with Dubcek (see the photo above), and made new demands on him to re-impose censorship and tighten control over the media. An agreement at Bratislava appeared to promise a reconciliation between Prague and Moscow, but when Yugoslavia’s Tito was given an enthusiastic reception in Czechoslovakia it seemed yet again that Dubcek was steering the country down its independent road. The Soviet Politburo went into a three-day session on 15 August to consider what action to take. When Brezhnev spoke to Dubcek on the telephone, he shouted at him that the whole Communist system in the Eastern bloc could crumble because of what was happening in Prague. Why were the Soviets so frightened of change in Czechoslovakia? The Czech historian, Zeman, has given us this clue:

Twice in this century the Russians have had to face an onslaught from the centre of Europe. Only they know the extent of their losses in the last war … and the country is still governed by the men who fought in it. The Russians have no intention of dismantling their defences to the west.

The Iron Fist and the Heavy Hand:

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At midnight on 20th August, Ladislav Mnacko awoke. He peered out of his window to see shadowy shapes in line all along Stefanik Street. But the road was closed for repairs; nothing could be driven along it. Then he realised that they were tanks, which could be driven anywhere, and there were a lot of them. Czechoslovakia had been invaded; Soviet paratroopers had seized control of Prague airport. Over the next few hours, half a million Warsaw Pact troops crossed the borders into the country. In marked contrast to the events in Hungary twelve years earlier, the government told the Czech and Slovak people to stay calm and not to resist with arms, but only to offer ‘passive resistance’. There were pockets of such resistance, one led by the young playwright, Václav Havel. This campaign was organised through radio station broadcasts, like the following:

Citizens! – go to work normally … keep calm … do not give the occupation forces any excuse for armed action … show the invaders your scorn in silence.

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But the Warsaw Pact tanks moved against unarmed civilians, and again demonstrated how ill-prepared the USSR and its allies were to allow change or national autonomy within the Warsaw Pact. The West was shocked by the invasion but was no more likely to support Czechoslovakia than it had been to support Hungary in the previous decade, perhaps even less so, since the USA had long-since abandoned its ‘roll-back’ foreign policies, and was still heavily committed to its war in Vietnam which, as we have seen, was increasingly unpopular both at home and abroad. The West spoke out but could not intervene without risking nuclear confrontation, and therefore did not attempt to do so. The most significant critic of the USSR’s action was China, partly due to the already strained relations between the two Communist powers. The Chinese leadership had urged Khrushchev to invade Hungary in 1956, but it was now quick to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of another Warsaw Pact member.

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Many of the Soviet soldiers were told they were being sent to protect Czechoslovakia from invasion by the Germans and Americans. As they learned the truth, some sympathised with the demonstrators. A few defected to them and were executed when they were caught. As the Soviets took control, arrests of Dubcek and the other leaders began. The invading troops tried to find the radio stations and close down their transmitters:

We do not know how long we will be able to broadcast. If you hear an unknown voice on this station, do not believe it.

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The Russian troops were surprised to see how much the Czechoslovak people hated them. They had believed Soviet propaganda:

‘Tass’ is authorised to state that the leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and allied states to render the Czechoslovak people urgent assistance. This request was brought about by the threat which has arisen to the Socialist system, existing in Czechoslovakia.

(Tass, 21 August 1968)

There were continual rumours that key Czechoslovak party officials invited the Soviets to invade their country to reimpose hard-line law and order. The key documents were locked away in a top-secret folder in the Moscow Communist Party Archives, and have only recently (c 1998) become available. They prove that this was indeed the case. It is now known that the anti-reformist Slovak Communist Party chief, Vasil Bilak, wrote to Brezhnev a direct letter of invitation “to use all means at your disposal,” including military force. to “prevent the imminent threat of counter-revolution.” Bilak warned that “the very existence of socialism in our country is in danger.” Rather than risk sending the letter directly to Brezhnev, he passed it to a Soviet intermediary in a men’s lavatory.

When the Politburo began its three-day meeting to review its options on Czechoslovakia, Bilak dispatched another message to the Soviet leader, on 17th August, not only encouraging the Soviets to act quickly but also offering to form an alternative government that would oust Dubcek and seize control in Prague when the Warsaw Pact troops arrived. It is doubtful that this was a decisive factor in the Soviet decision to invade, but it must have boosted the pro-military faction in the Kremlin, and it helped to provide a pretext for the Soviets to claim that they were acting on behalf of a legitimate alternative government. In reality, the anti-reformists were entirely unable to deliver a government, and the Soviet Union ended up having to reinstate Dubcek’s, which survived for several months. In any case, Brezhnev’s own justification for the intervention was based on the common security of the Warsaw Pact countries, not just on the Tass statement:

When forces that are hostile to Socialism try to turn the development of some Socialist country towards capitalism … it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem of all socialist countries.

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Others among the satellite countries took careful note of this concept, which came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Of the Warsaw Pact nations, only Romania refused to participate in the invasion. Nikolae Caecescu had visited Prague during the ‘Spring’ (above) and had become an unlikely ally of Dubcek, since he also wanted to pursue a more independent line within the Soviet bloc. János Kádár (pictured below), the Hungarian leader whom the Soviets had installed after the 1956 Uprising, and was to survive in power for another twenty years, had tried to caution Dubcek not to fall too far out of line with the Kremlin. In spite of Kádár’s desperate effort to mediate between the Kremlin and the Czechoslovak leadership, whose experiment was not very different from what was happening in Hungary at the time, Hungary’s foreign policy was marked by unconditional loyalty to Big Brother on all accounts (Kontler, 2009). This meant taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to avert a counter-revolutionary takeover. That was a decision which lost Hungary many of its remaining ‘friends’ in the west and led to a further worsening of its bilateral relations with the US administration. Martin J Hillebrand, a skilfull career diplomat who had been appointed as the first US Ambassador to Hungary in September 1967, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement  of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely-publicized mediatory role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

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In any case, it was already too late for mediation by the time the invasion was underway. Alexander Dubcek was flown to Moscow and for days, the Czech and Russian leaders talked. He was forced to accept the end of Czech moves towards democracy. On 27th August the Czech leaders returned from Moscow and the Czech President Ludvik Svoboda announced the ‘mixed’ news:

Dear fellow citizens … after four days of negotiations in Moscow we are back with you. Neither you nor we felt at ease.

Dubcek added the bad news:

… to normalise the present complex situation … it will be necessary to take measures limiting freedom of expression as we have become accustomed to it.

In addition, Soviet troops were to stay in Czechoslovakia and censorship was brought back. Yet, for a time, at that time, after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia, there had seemed to be a feint possibility that the reformists could stay in power and the reforms of the Prague Spring would continue. Dubcek, though taken to Moscow in chains, returned as Chairman of the Communist Party still. President Svoboda (his name means ‘freedom’) was still the head of state of the People’s Republic. Together, they promised that nothing would change, but everything did change, though they resisted for as long as they could; virtually every change that had been made during the Prague Spring was overturned within a year.

The heavy hand of Moscow once more gripped Czechoslovakia. A Czech student, Jan Palach, set fire to himself in the centre of Prague as a protest. Over the next year, hard-line Czechoslovak officials replaced their reformist predecessors at all levels. An experiment in political pluralism had come to an abrupt end. The orthodoxy of one-party rule was restored. In April 1969 Dubcek was forced to resign; his idea of making Czechoslovakian Communism more human lay in ruins. He was sent to Turkey as an ambassador, where he was a virtual prisoner in his own embassy. Svoboda died shortly after being replaced by Moscow’s nominee, Gustav Husák, obedient to the central authority in Moscow, who remained in power for the next twenty years until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1970, Dubcek was expelled from the party and the people of Czechoslovakia, eager for freedom, were either purged or effectively ‘buried alive’.

Throughout the Prague Spring the secret police, the Statni Bezpecnost (StB), had continued to operate for their old masters, not their new ones. Photographs existed of everyone who had spoken at every important public meeting throughout the short interlude of freedom. Large numbers of people in the crowds had been photographed too, and notes were taken of everything that was said. All this had been carefully collated. The tribunals began to sift through the StB’s material. Every member of the government, the civil service, the management of factories and businesses, was investigated to see what line he or she had taken during the Prague Spring. It was a long and careful business, carried ou with obsessive attention to detail of a new Inquisition. As with the original Inquisition, the purpose was not to rescue the individual soul of the heretic but to preserve the integrity of the faith. Active supporters of the heresy were dismissed. Usually, they could find only menial jobs. The applications of young men and women applying for places at universities were examined with the same care. No active supporter of the reform movement was accepted.

Lethargy, Legacy and the ‘unhoped-for moment’:

The caretakers, road sweepers, stokers and maintenance men of Czechoslovakia were the best educated in the world. Distinguished academics, senior civil servants, leading journalists and economists tended furnaces, washed steps, and cleaned out lavatories. The men and women who took their jobs in the Party, the government and the economic life of the country were less well-educated. The looking-glass world was well represented in Czechoslovakia. There was no let-up in the tight control, not just of the Party, but also in the group that headed the Party – the group which took power in 1968 and 1969. Gustav Husak, Milos Jakes and the others remembered the last months of the old Party leader, Antonín Novotny, in 1967, and how the hope of greater liberalisation had split the Party and forced even the liberals to go much farther than they intended. Husak and the others knew that if there were the least easing up, they would be swept away. Under such tight control, it remained difficult for the Party to generate any enthusiasm or activity even among its own members. Three days after the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, the Party newspaper Rude Pravo complained, on the 24th August 1983:

It is a serious matter that our Party members live in near-anonymity. They cannot be formally rebuked for this, because they pay their membership dues, regularly attend Party meetings, and take part in agitprop sessions. However, they have nothing to say on serious matters under discussion, they never raise their hands, and they never speak their mind. They never oppose others, but they never fight for their Party.

John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, likened this state of mind to that of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Czechoslovakia, he said, had undergone a kind of lobotomy. People had been encouraged to express their political opinions in 1968 and then had suffered for doing so. It was rare to find anyone, during his visit in 1983, who was prepared to make the same mistake again. Czech journalists who did try to talk to Simpson about 1968 found the awakened memories too painful to share and, perhaps more significantly for that time, they saw no “point” to “raising” them since it would just remind them of the way things used to be, just for a bit … We’ll never be like that again! The authorities demanded quiescence and offered in return a decent material standard of living. The shops were well stocked with food and every weekend in the summer people would head out of the cities to the dachas which were made available in large numbers. It was, Simpson wrote, a sleepwalker’s existence.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia came at a crucial time in the rebuilding of relations between the USA and the USSR. The Americans knew that any serious action on behalf of the Czechs and Slovaks would, at the very least, set back the slow process of improving East-West relations. So, in 1968 the Czechs were left to their fate by the West, as they had been in 1948 and 1938. However, there is a comforting, if comic, codicil to this story. The following year, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team secured a rare win over their Russian rivals. They became world-wide heroes literally overnight, but in the real global power-play, they were still the victims rather than the victors.

Global, ‘regional’ and ‘local’ events in 1968 blurred the distinctions in the images of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to view the United States as freedom’s ‘sheriff’ in the world when at home, its police were clubbing civil rights and anti-war protesters, and abroad its GIs were being made to commit war-crimes in an escalating and undeclared war in south-east Asia. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed its own people with grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a form of government which claimed to rule on behalf of its ‘proletariat’. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended, for decades at least, a possible third way in Central/Eastern Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the Soviet bloc.

On the morning of 23rd October 1988, I was standing with a group of British Quaker teachers, at the Esztergom Basilica on Hungary’s ‘Danube Bend’. Looking down to the river, we could see a ruined bridge which, until the Second World War, had connected Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We were excited, together with our hosts, about the changes taking place in Hungary, two of which had been announced on the radio that morning, the thirty-second anniversary of the beginning of the 1956 Uprising. The first was that those events would no longer be referred to as a ‘counter-revolution’, as they had been, officially, ever since. The second was that a phased, but complete withdrawal of Soviet troops would begin the next year. Our excitement was tinged with sadness when we looked across at what, today, is Slovakia. Our host, a fellow historian, expressed her view that Husak’s hard-line régime would be the last of the Warsaw Pact to liberalise. Almost exactly thirteen months later, Husak and Jakes had gone, and Alexander Dubcek was back in Wenceslas Square, addressing crowds of 300,000. Yet in 1988, he was still, officially, the ‘disgraced leader of the Prague Spring Movement’. His granddaughter had told him:

Grandpa, don’t be sad. We never take any notice when our teachers say what a bad man you are. I always leave the classroom and the teachers never say anything. I know that you’re good.

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Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

 

 

 

Posted June 11, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Cartoons, Civil Rights, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, democracy, Egalitarianism, Europe, France, Germany, guerilla warfare, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Ireland, Journalism, Marxism, Militancy, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Renaissance, Resurrection, Russia, Satire, Second World War, terror, terrorism, Trade Unionism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, World War Two

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; II.   Leave a comment

Chapter Two: Class, the ‘Celtic Complex’ & the ‘Black Dog of Capitalism’.

 

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It is possible to detect from Hilda Jennings’ 1934 book and other publications on the Brynmawr ‘voluntary’ venture, that its dominating ‘outside’ participants were strongly motivated by a specific definition of ‘Community’ which was different, but just as alien to the coalfield ‘communities’, as that which was prevalent in official government and ‘social service’ circles. None of these was a definition or set of ideas which was readily shared by ordinary residents of the town, who might be forgiven for thinking that an attempt was being made to elevate ‘community’ over ‘class’.

She asserted that the cosmopolitan nature of the people of Brynmawr and its long history of industrial and political revolt were factors that acted against the building up of a sense of community. She wrote that it was despite this militant history, rather than because of it, that Brynmawr had maintained its cohesion as a community, exerting power over individuals through their attachments to various institutions. Furthermore, her writing-up of the Survey’s findings was clouded throughout by an overbearing concept of ‘community’, which placed its accent firmly on the importance of continuity with a pre-industrial past:

… the life of Brynmawr is still shaped by the dynamic forces of nature, race, common traditions and common history… Probably no force which has influenced its past can safely be ignored in the consideration of its future… We cannot ‘pluck out the heart of the mystery’ of Brynmawr, but it is well that we should study its history if we wish to plan a future for it instead of drifting down the stream of declining prosperity and disillusionment.

She went on to stress that these traditions were underlaid by the retention of a ‘rural-urban complex’, a pride of craftsmanship and an affinity for the common culture of the Welsh countryside which had transferred itself into the urban context. Much of the Survey, in common with other writing on the town by those who were attracted to it in these years, is coloured by eulogy for the rural heritage of the Welsh people. J Kitchener Davies, reporting on the 1932 Plaid Cymru Summer School held in Brynmawr (thus enabling the people of the town, so he claimed, to live in Wales again for a week), held it up as a model community, in stark contrast to its more urban neighbours:

Bryn Mawr … suffers from the advertisement of its poverty which had made us expect distress writ larger over it than over any other mining community. This is not so… (it) has a background of lovely open country, easily accessible, and this, I imagined, reflected in the faces of the people, made a contrast with those of more hemmed-in communities . The objectiveness of an open plateau turns men’s minds from their subjective brooding. 

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For nationalist visitors like Kitchener Davies, Brynmawr represented a model ex-coalfield community worthy of being reclaimed for their ‘new Wales’, confirming the suspicions of many of the ‘militant generation’ that they were seeking to elevate both ‘community’ and ‘nation’ over ‘class’. That such suspicions were well-founded is evident from the Walter Dowding’s pamphlet, Wales-Know Thyself!, published during the war by Foyle’s Welsh Press and dedicated to Saunders Lewis, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party, as well as to Peter Scott and ‘the Group’ in Brynmawr. The author, who had taken part in the Brynmawr experiment as a volunteer, proposed that a ‘free’, post-war Wales would need to be based on small communities and that since the word ‘community’ or ‘commune’ was not synonymous with the word ‘town’, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport would, therefore, need to be broken down into ‘natural, sizeable units’. Dowding also advocated the redefinition of coalfield communities and their transformation into new, re-cymricised, re-sanctified, classless communities. He may have disagreed with the party leadership’s anti-communist, pro-fascist international policies, but in ‘domestic’ matters, his pamphlet echoes Saunders Lewis’ Ten Points of Policy, a personal declaration for consideration as the principles of the Nationalist Party’s social and industrial policy, providing, as far as Lewis was concerned, its ‘social catechism’. In them, Lewis called for wholesale de-industrialisation of South Wales:

… industrial capitalism and economic competition free from the control of government (i.e. free trade) are a great evil and are completely contrary to the philosophy of cooperative nationalism… Agriculture should be the chief industry of Wales and the basis of its civilisation. For the sake of the moral health of Wales and for the moral and physical welfare of its population, South Wales must be de-industrialised.  

These were quite clearly extreme nationalist views, compared with the liberal-nationalism outlook of the left-over leadership of the old liberal and nonconformist Wales, who had now found a new role for themselves as mediators between the Conservative government in Whitehall and the trades unionists and municipal socialists in south Wales, as the depression deepened. They were comprised of Welsh professionals, clerics, administrators and academics who, although small in number were, by the nature and value of the positions they held, influential in the political life of both Wales and Britain as a whole. Their image of the coalfield, past and present, was one of a society in which industry had distorted nationality and brought an incursion of alien people bringing with them an alien culture.

These people had never, it was claimed, shared in the inheritance of Welsh culture. Such alien accretions to the population had gradually stultified the natural development of native culture, as though the industrial invader, having no culture of his own, would brook no other either. This was a view expressed by delegates to the Welsh School of Social Service which met at Llandrindod Wells in 1934 and was one which was repeated at several public forums both before and after. Contemporary novelists also saw industrialisation, together with immigration, as being the root of all evil as far as the continuity of older Welsh traditions. The popularity of Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley, made into a Hollywood film in 1941, was perhaps an indication of the widespread acceptance of this explanation of the region’s fall from grace. The nation had moulded itself to the will, and abandoned to the needs of industry. The Coal industry had dominated South Wales, bent it to its will and made it hideous. Worst of all, for these ‘liberal-cymricists’, it had strangled our language and scorned our culture. 

The view of those at the Ministry of Health was that whereas the Welsh-speaking miners of the western anthracite district of the coalfield had clung to the manners and customs characteristic of the ‘Cymric’ race. They had remained largely uninfluenced by immigration, except that of people from the Welsh-speaking areas. The Eastern sector, however, had been invaded by a more or less alien population which partly accounted for the acceptance by South Wales miners of economic and social theories and policies which would appear to cut across Welsh tradition.  The events of 1926 were a case in point: The liberal-Cymricists expressed their belief, within official services, that the old Welsh Collier was a home-loving and God-fearing man who was only inflamed when an outside man came in, like Mr A J Cook, who was not Welsh. Cook was seen as representative of an undesirable element… which we have never got rid of. In a similar vein, the people of Rhymney were contrasted with those of Blaina by the General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health:

In this and other districts where the native Welsh culture most strongly persists and the influences of the Methodist revival… are still felt, there is a noticeable difference in the character and outlook of the people as compared with the districts where the industrial revolution submerged the populace and introduced an economic doctrine and a philosophy of life both of which are strange and unsatisfying, though socially disturbing, to the Celtic Complex.

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These commentators may have differed in the degree of their dislike of industrialisation, but all were agreed in their projection of an image of a coal polluted by immigration. For them, the militancy of the coalfield was not the product of closely-knit communities, valuing their mutual solidarity, but of the openness of the coalfield to people and influences from far and wide. The ‘Celtic Complex’ – the love of home, of chapels, of language, of eisteddfodau, of music and singing; the cultural emblems of nonconformist Wales had been crumbling in the face of an anglicising, alien onslaught. An expatriate Welsh minister of religion, writing a tour guide to Wales in 1930, described the coalfield communities as outposts… of hell itself, with their inhabitants, almost to a man, supporters of the left wing of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, he was pleased to find an Eisteddfod taking place in the Rhondda and the rendering of Welsh hymn-tunes – and all this despite the considerable admixture of aliens. However, as far as he was concerned, the South Wales miners could not compete with their Flintshire brethren:

The colliers here are more purely Welsh than they are in the southern mining districts. Most of them speak Welsh, their politics are a milder shade of red, and they hold much more tightly to the ancient cultural and religious standards of the nation. 

Merthyr, in particular, was singled out for condemnation by ministers of religion and literary travellers from rural Wales for whom it encapsulated their sense of  ‘hemmed-in’ South Wales. Rev. W Watkin Davies had described it, after a brief visit in the 1920s as a hideous place, dirty and noisy, and typical of all that is worst in the South Wales Coalfield. P. B. Mais, a non-Welsh traveller along the Highways and Byways of the Welsh Marches a decade later, went into culture-shock as he came down from the Brecon Beacons to discover the town, with these unbelievably narrow, wedged rows and rows of miners’ houses huddled in a land where there was so much room that you get lost on the moors if you leave the town in any direction but downward. He went on to describe…

… ill-nourished children playing in the over-heated, crowded streets, or in the filfthy, offal-laden, tin-strewn streams at the backs of the houses with little strips  of backyards that make Limehouse backyards look like the Garden of Eden.

Mais could not believe that Merthyr people could be ‘content’ to live in such conditions, given their heritage:

Are they not sprung from hillsmen, farmers, men and women who regard air and space to breathe as essentials of life? Why, then, do these people go on living here? All of these South Wales mining villages want wiping out of existence, so that the men and women can start again in surroundings that are civilised, and not so ugly as to make one shiver even in memory.

It is significant that Welsh ministers of religion were continuing to express this image of a coalfield defiled by immigration a decade later, a decade which had seen ‘their’ communities suffering from large-scale unemployment, emigration and de-industrialisation. Rev. J Selwyn Roberts of Pontypridd wrote that,

…it is clear that for the last two generations there have been alien factors at work which have almost completely overcome the traditional conscience and spirit of the Welsh people.

According to Rev. Watkin Davies, a decade on from his original pronouncements, the coalfield was a grimy, foreign country made up of things and people which in no true sense belong to Wales. John Rowland, of the Welsh Board of Health, continued to present his ‘liberal-cymricist’ image of the impoverishment and demoralisation within the Borough of Merthyr as minatory to the ‘Celtic Complex’ of the ‘old Welsh stock’:

The prevailing impression after all my dealings with Merthyr Tydfil is of the real poverty that exists. This poverty is visible everywhere, derelict shops, execrable roads and deplorable housing conditions. Merthyr is inhabited by many worthy persons of old Welsh stock, hard-working and religious… It is very hard to see such people gradually losing their faith in the old established order and turning to look for desperate remedies.

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Yet, for the government bureaucrats who viewed the community from the outside, Merthyr was a Borough which in the early months of 1939 still had forty percent of its working population idle and was costing central government a pound per family per week, and so could no longer be said to be viable, let alone on the road to recovery. Some went so far as to suggest that the whole town should be abandoned, and its population transported wholesale to the coast. The reaction of the Merthyr Express, stating that such a proposal was ‘fantastic’ reflected the gulf which had opened up between the liberal-cymricists and the representatives of the coalfield communities themselves. It was highlighted by their ‘arch-druid’ Tom Jones’ ironic suggestion, that the entire population of South Wales should be transferred out of the region so that the valleys could be flooded, used as an industrial museum or could serve as an ideal location for bombing practice.

The third group of investigators, Marxist propagandists, themselves regarded as aliens by the liberal-cymricists, projected an image of south Wales which was shaped by a belief in a class struggle in which they saw the colliers as the vanguard.  For writers like Allen Hutt, whose books were published as propaganda for the times, the South Wales miners were the cream of the working class… the most advanced, most militant, most conscious workers. His neat definition of the Welsh working class led him to an even neater explanation of why they did not rise up against their suffering:

One of the obstacles confronting the revolt of the workers in South Wales is precisely that degradation of which Marx spoke of as an accompaniment of the growth of impoverishment under monopoly. 

In this way, the preconceptions of the these ‘propagandists’ often led to an idealisation of coalfield people in which individuality was frequently subsumed into an image of ‘the masses’ which could be made to fit their ideology. The tendency is also apparent in the historiography of the period, particularly that written in the following four decades, which tended to eulogise the miners and their leaders. Some, however, like Fenner Brockway, chose to focus on Merthyr for a chapter of Hungry England (1932), which naturally painted the bleakest possible portrait of the poverty and ill-health among the Borough’s people.

Historians tended to draw on the sources provided by the contemporary ‘propagandists’ and therefore projected an image of the 1930s coalfield communities as hotbeds of militancy, restrained by the demoralisation resultant from mass unemployment. More recently, over the past four decades, historians have demonstrated how such imagery tended to dominate much of the contemporary fiction, newsreel footage and photography of ‘The Thirties’. These preconceptions of coalfield societies served to create and perpetuate what may be termed, the myth of ‘The Unemployed Man’. This image of ‘the unemployed’ as a uniform group within British society, by definition excluding women either as factory workers or colliery housewives, was one which served the purposes of those who saw the causes of unemployment as correspondingly straightforward in economic terms. Thus, John Gollan began a chapter of on unemployment in his 1937 book, Youth in British Industry: A Survey of Labour Conditions Today with the following classical Marxist statement:

What is unemployment? We would be fools if we thought that unemployment depended merely on the state of trade. Undoubtedly this factor affects the amount of unemployment but it does not explain why, for instance, unemployment is absolutely essential for capitalist industry, while under socialism in the USSR it has been abolished completely. Modern capitalist production has established an industrial reserve army is essential in order that capital may have a surplus of producers which it can draw upon when needed. Unemployment is the black dog of capitalism…

In his book, Unemployment and the Unemployed (1940), H W Singer was scathing in his criticism of such generalisations both about unemployment and the unemployed. He argued that there was no such thing as the ‘unemployed man’, but only ‘unemployed men’, that there was no uniformity but an intense variety. He listed sixteen independent causes of unemployment and pointed out that since work enforced a common routine on the people who took part in it, it was reasonable to expect that when people became unemployed their suppressed individuality would again assert itself. Poverty, the dole queue and the Means Test might all restrict diversity, but that didn’t mean that the unemployed could be described as…

… a uniform mass of caps, grey faces, hands-in-pockets, street-cornermen with empty stomachs and on the verge of suicide, and only sustained by the hope of winning the pools…  

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Singer divided his ‘reserve army’ into two camps, the ‘stage army’ and the ‘standing army’, or the ‘short-term’ (under three months) and ‘long-term’ unemployed. The short-term unemployed could include those, like B L Coombes, who were ‘temporarily-stopped’ for two or three days per week from their colliery, so that they were paid for three shifts and could claim dole for the rest of the week. But if they were called to work a fourth shift, they would then lose their dole money for the rest of the week:

All that spring and summer I was working, but was not a penny better off than if I had been on the dole; while the men with big families and who had a shilling a day plus bus fare to pay were losing money every week by working…

Many miners would avoid losing dole in this way by ensuring that they were not at home when the colliery officials sent for them. For the twenty thousand or so unemployed miners over fifty in South Wales who were unlikely to work in the pits again, there was a three-fold ongoing problem. First, they had lost their sense of purpose as skilled, active workers and bread-winners for their families; relationships with younger, working members of the family became more difficult, particularly if these members were working away from home and thirdly, they found it impossible to make any kind of provision which would enable them to keep up the home’s standard of living when they reached the old age pension age.

Apart from these variations in income from week to week and even day to day, which made household budgeting (usually done by the women) impossible, the drop from full-time working to full-time unemployment had a dramatic impact on both family standards of living and general wellbeing. A skilled collier may well, in the prosperous early twenties, have brought home a wage of up to eight pounds per week, and when three or more sons were working on full shifts, the economic standard of the family would have been greater than that of an ordinary middle-class family such as that of a shopkeeper, policeman or small businessman. The maintenance system, however, led to an immediate drop in income per head of at least a pound per week, even starting from the more precarious wage levels which existed in working collieries by 1928-29. H W Singer commented:

It is just the extent of this drop… which will largely determine an unemployed man’s attitude to unemployment and work, whether he compromises with this present state and tries to settle down somehow, or whether he will frantically refuse to accept and submit… It is, therefore, the skilled men… that are feeling the edge of their condition of unemployment most keenly, because it is these people that are in fact being penalised by the existing system of ‘welfare’.

The effect on mental health was also felt by the miners’ wives. James Hanley was one of few writers who let the unemployed speak for themselves in his 1937 book, Grey Children: A Study in Humbug, reported his interview with one of them, John Williams:

My missus is in a mental home. We had a nice little lad, and were doing not so bad until I lost my job, and that and one thing and another, well, I suppose it got in her way.

Significantly, Hanley entitled one of his chapter’s ‘Many Voices’. Despite the common experiences involved in unemployment, many stemming from bureaucratic procedures, including the hated ‘Mean’s Test’, there were varied voices among the unemployed and their families. The myth of ‘the unemployed man’ not only excludes the experience of women in what might more accurately be defined as ‘the unwaged family’, but it is also an unreal image of uniform processes of impoverishment and demoralisation throughout coalfield society in the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is important to identify the factors which tended towards uniformity. Firstly, there was what Singer called the common pattern of poverty, the reality that since most forms of association cost money, the freedom of association of unemployed people was severely restricted in this way. Unwaged families could easily become cut off from institutions which required expenditure incompatible with unemployment. Attendance at chapel might stop, for example, because of the lack of a good suit. Secondly, the physical routine of standing in the dole-queue provided the forum for the formulation of opinion between the unemployed, much as the shared experience of the coalface did for the employed:

… One will usually find that this occasion is a sort of social meting, that people hang about the Exchange or the street near… for some time after, or they even go to the Exchange outside their own hours to meet the other people waiting there. It is there that information about prospective jobs is exchanged, or that politics, pools or the last fire or ‘whatnot’ are discussed.         

The ‘institution’ of the dole queue was particularly important to the long-term unemployed as they began to lose contact with the institutions which were based around work, such as the Miners’ Federation Lodge. For many of the long-term unemployed, the dole queue was a reminder that their condition was not ‘a special personal handicap’. It is in this sense that the examination of both individual and collective experiences of unemployment within coalfield communities is essential for social historians.

It was this combination of idealism and practical community cohesion which helped transform Jennings’ survey into a model for similar joint local-national ventures elsewhere, but it perhaps also significant that many of the key figures in other distressed places were also determined women sharing her values. In June 1926 Emma Noble had first gone to the Rhondda Valley, during the Coal Lock-Out, and contacted the local distress committee to investigate the need for outside assistance. She reported the deep need for material help and loving sympathy in the Rhondda to Friends in Oxford and London who had expressed concern for the miners. Funds were raised for leather for boot repairing, and clothing was collected, so Emma returned to the Rhondda, living in a miner’s cottage where Joyce Bater later joined her, and they did relief work based at Tonypandy until just before Christmas. The relief work closed down, as the government and social service agencies sought to encourage migration from the coalfield as the solution to its problems, and “relief” was seen as immediately necessary, but also “harmful” to the longer-term ‘Malthusian’ objective of transferring the “surplus population”.

Nevertheless, the Maes-yr-Haf settlement was opened in 1927 as an experiment backed by the Coalfields Distress Committee comprising Joan Fry, Peter Scott and others. They helped to inspire the nationwide publicity for the Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion Hose Fund in 1928, which had drawn a generous response from the British public, following an appeal by Edward, Prince of Wales. By March 1928, Friend’s “Meeting for Sufferings” was asked to make a wider appeal for financial support and to recruit volunteers for personal service, since Emma Noble had reported from the Rhondda that further relief was now essential. It was decided to send representatives to the government, as the Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain, was known to be having a change of heart.

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Emma and William Noble were appointed to become Wardens of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement by Dr A D Lindsay, renowned Master of Balliol College, who became Chairman of the Coalfields Distress Committee at that time. A great number of activities developed at the centre, and eight other settlements were established throughout south Wales over the next decade or so, led by people who had worked with the Nobles or had been influenced by them. Emma and William had similar backgrounds, both under the strong Methodist influence of their schools, which they both left at twelve. Later, they both became members of the Workers’ Education Association, where they met. In 1908 they married in the Methodist chapel in Weymouth and had a son and daughter before attending Ruskin College from 1921. There they came into contact with Oxford Quakers and became members of the Labour Party. Emma became an Alderman and William a JP and Trade Union official. They became Quakers in Swindon but left for South Wales with the support of their Meeting and their MP.

Under their guidance, Maes-yr-Haf became a centre for friendship, counselling and practical help. With their knowledge of local government and the poor-law, they were soon able to assist the unemployed in practical ways, but the Nobles were also determined to make education a priority. By the mid-thirties they had established fifty-two unemployed clubs in the Rhondda with a membership of nine thousand men, women and juveniles. The courses taught ranged from philosophy to country dancing, and they were supported by the University of Wales, the National Council of Music for Wales, the WEA, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and the Carnegie Trust. A few of the unemployed were able to advance to full.time residential courses at Coleg Harlech, Fircroft College in Birmingham, and Ruskin College. One of the unemployed men who attended the clubs went on to Fircroft and later became Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Lord Lindsay said of them:

These unemployed clubs came out of Maes-yr-Haf and spread all over England and even migrated to America.

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Above: The well-known photograph of Mrs George, Pontypool, washing with a doll-tub, about 1900. Photographs of domestic work are rare, but oral evidence reveals that little changed in washing methods, even when unemployment meant fewer shirts in the tub.

They began in the Rhondda Valleys and then the Welsh Council of Social Service helped them to spread to all the other valleys and area officers helped to make sure the unemployed had a meeting place for the courses. Women, in particular, had had little hope of employment or of improving themselves before, since all their time and effort was taken up with the traditional, daunting task of looking after men and their clothes, as described below. Now, with at least some of their men no longer coming home covered in coal-grime, women’s clubs and sewing groups were formed up and down the valleys to unpick, alter and make children’s garments, which were then distributed through the schools. Women were not used to independence but soon enjoyed providing their own entertainment, organising concerts, drama, dances and discussions, often exchanging ideas on the best uses for their very limited resources. Thus, the guiding principle of the settlements and clubs was ‘self-help’ and women were beginning to find a new role for themselves outside the home, organising with other women.

As the settlement did not wish to be associated with relief, ‘jumble sales’ were organised, which enabled the new material to be bought wholesale so that clothes could be made and sold for the cost of the material. A concession was made for baby clothes which were kept in a box in the hall and given away when needed. Altogether, thirty-five women’s clubs were formed, some with a membership of over a hundred. Maes-yr-Haf again supplied new materials at wholesale prices as well as providing the instructors in many and various handicrafts including needlework, leather glove making, and quilting, covering old pieces of blanket with new material, and renovating the members’ old garments. Belts were made from scraps of cellophane, which the women were taught to fold and weave into a belt, they looked like mother of pearl, and were very popular. By the late 1930s, not much clothing was sent to the Settlement, but jumble sales still made it available cheaply to members at small prices.

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In 1929 girls clubs were started. In 1932, they asked, why can’t girls have a holiday? So a holiday camp was arranged for them at which the girls enjoyed team games, physical culture handwork and inter-club competitions. A hand-loom was given to the Settlement so Emma and two others went to the movement’s centre at Haslemere for ten days’ training in weaving: they were then able to instruct others, so a small weaving industry was started. Wool embroidery also became popular, rugs being made for sale, favouring Welsh and Celtic traditional designs. Leatherwork was done, rush stools were made along with pottery, which was readily saleable: exhibitions took place on both sides of the Atlantic and some samples went on permanent exhibition in the National Museum of Wales. All these activities needed more space, so a two-storey annexe was built by voluntary labour.

In 1930, with the effects of the general economic recession spreading to the whole of the British Isles, the opportunities for large-scale family migration from the coalfields came to a rather abrupt, if temporary halt. At the very least, it became apparent that men over forty-five would struggle to find work in new industries and places once the economic recovery set in, which wasn’t to be for another four years in many of the more prosperous areas of the country. In these circumstances, the Settlement’s work among older men and women became more important, as their more independent children continued to leave the valleys in large numbers, leaving their parents ‘stranded’ in long-term unemployment and relative poverty. Maes-yr-Haf helped many thousands of people to escape from spiritual isolation, at least. Through the clubs and range of activities it offered, new interests and enthusiasms developed.

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In 1931 Emma Noble started a Nursing Association, so two Queen’s Nurses were appointed to the district. The following year, the Settlement acquired a disused malt-house, twenty-two miles away, by the sea. Unemployment led not only to material impoverishment but also to spiritual deprivation and a “shut-in” syndrome. One woman from Llwynypia in the Rhondda recalled how her mother only ever left the town on one occasion each year:

We had a good clean home, you know, a good mother, and I mean a careful mother… And the only outing we used to go on was with the Sunday School. We’d go to Porthcawl. We’d walk to Pen-y-graig station, I’d have a couple of coppers, and that’s all we had to be satisfied. Take our own food, init? And that’s all my mother ever went, love ‘er. 

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Above: Woman carrying a baby “Welsh fashion”, Rhondda 1930.

As a remedy, the Malthouse provided thousands of men, women and children with breaks by the sea, with regular meals, good food, cheerful company and, above all, healthy rest. An interesting observation on gender relations was that men, notorious for riots, rebellions and disputes throughout the period, never failed to uphold democratic discipline, collective action, common sense and co-operative goodwill in the clubs and camps. In five summers, there was not a single expulsion. They did their camp duties with good humour, and when asked, reported that the three hours per day of these were the most enjoyable part of the day for them. This was a revealing comment coming from men who, traditionally, had been used to a division of domestic duties in which they relied heavily on their wives. There were also separate camps held for juveniles, helping the next generation of men and women to adapt to these important social changes in the nature and divisions of labour between the sexes.

Emma and William Noble understood trade unionism and working conditions as well, so they were able to work closely with organised labour, emphasising the importance of democratic organisation in all work undertaken with the unemployed, whenever they were called upon to give evidence to the numerous commissions and social service surveys which took place among them. Nonetheless, as in Brynmawr, there was much local criticism of the voluntary schemes and unemployed clubs, particularly from the unemployed men themselves, though this was often glossed or scripted by those with their own sympathies to external agencies. Although the film Today We Live (1937) was commissioned by the NCSS and produced by the Strand Film Company, it was made by a documentary unit led by Paul Rotha. Its directors were Ralph Bond, John Grierson and Donald Alexander, all of whom were determined to give the local critics of unemployed clubs a voice.

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Significantly, there were few women involved in the outside scenes which were shot in Pentre, and certainly no main character. When the character Glyn Lewis, played by a real unemployed miner, hears that they have to contribute fifteen pounds of their own to the scheme to build a new unemployed club hut, he grabs his cap and leaves the room in disgust (see the picture and caption below). The scene was supposed to take place in ‘Big John’s’ living room, but it had to be filmed in the Marylebone film studio in London and Les Adlam, playing Big John, was introduced to a ‘girl’ from Lancashire, who was supposed to be his wife. Obviously, she wasn’t expected to say much, if anything, on film, let alone voice a feminine opinion, but Adlam found the actress very nice, a homely sort of person.

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The support given to the Riverside Club by the Quaker centre at Maes-yr-Haf was not mentioned in the film, undoubtedly because it would distract attention from the role of its sponsor, the NCSS. However, Glyn Lewis commented, realistically if critically, on the practical significance of its role:

When we were unemployed and formed our club in the stable, the garage, Maes-yr-Haf used to give us cheap cocoa, a bag. We used to have cocoa and sell it. Maes-yr-Haf then developed coming in there, coming back and forth. They had lectures: Jack Jones, the Rhondda Roundabout, started lecturing in the Riverside… They bought us carpenter tools and things like that. You know, the social side of it. Mr Noble was the head of Maes-yr-Haf and he had his lieutenants of course to see how everything went. They were very good indeed., but that wasn’t our problem. It was no money and nothing much around.

Les Adlam agreed with the policy that was adopted concerning the film, that…

… they were trying to expose the Government paying money to build these huts and not create jobs. I think the club did a good thing. It took us off the streets and filled idle hands with the arts and crafts centre and the social activities that it was performing. Otherwise we’d spend our time going on the mountains or standing on street corners… You couldn’t go in the pubs, you had no money. You couldn’t even go to pictures. we had nothing.

Glyn Lewis was even more emphatic about what was really needed:

The film was saying to tell you that the Government, the National Council of Social Service, was doing something for you. Well, there was a club in this district, there was one in Treorchy, there was one in Cwmparc, there was one in Treherbert. They’d spread them all around, so as to keep you quiet, not to cause rampage. But the point was the living of the people, people with families and no work and not much money. That was the problem of the unemployed. They didn’t want a club – it was all right for them, but it wasn’t the real thing – work was what we wanted! 

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In his ‘Swarthmore Lecture’ on Unemployment and Plenty, delivered on the evening preceding the assembly of the Friends’ Yearly Meeting at Friends House in London on 24th May, 1933,  Shipley N Brayshaw spoke on the role of what he called ‘Palliatives’, referring specifically to the Quaker work in the Occupational Centres of the Rhondda, mindful of the criticism which had been directed at this work from both within and outside the coalfield. He dealt directly with these, fully accepting the limitations of the Quaker relief work:

Our Society is taking at least its full share in seeking to alleviate the hardship caused by unemployment, but no one recognizes more clearly than Friends themselves the insignificance of such work in relation to the main problem of dealing with the fundamental causes of the evil. Palliatives, have their place so long as they are not linked with an attitude which accepts the existence of unemployment. In addition to many small contributions, such as lending their premises fitted up with wireless and other amenities, Friends have been prime movers in the work of Occupational Centres which, started in the Rhondda, have spread throughout the country and which are helping to arrest the moral disintegration of enforced idleness and poverty. Allotment cultivation has been developed through the past four or five years to such an extent that it has received government recognition and help and has become national in character. This work while bringing to impoverished homes a regular supply of fresh vegetables, not otherwise obtainable, has been of incalculable benefit in finding healthy interest and useful creative labour for more than a hundred thousand unemployed men.

We are thankful for all such work; but when a Prime Minister eulogizes it, and allocates to it an important place in relation to the major question, we ask to be saved from our friends. These efforts make no real contribution to striking at the roots of the evil; yet we do not know but what the knowledge and experience gained may prove to be of unexpected worth… those who are most anxious to conduct present-day business aright may also be the ones most keenly aware of their inability, by such efforts, to solve the troubles of the community…

If all the employers in the country had the maximum both of business ability and of benevolence they could not, under capitalism as it exists today, set everyone to work and distribute the available goods… 

Whatever the acknowledged limitations of the Quaker work in the Rhondda, the gender division among the workers at Maes-yr-Haf reflected the Nobles’ own partnership of equals. In addition to their son, Mac Noble, who later became the committee chairman, and Rowntree Gillett, its treasurer throughout, there were five male and five female full-time craft-workers/ instructors. This balance between the sexes among the ‘settlers’ was also found in Merthyr Tydfil where John Dennithorne was ‘appointed’ by Friends’ House in London to work alongside Margaret Gardener. Dennithorne was a  local Quaker and gifted orator, and in Dowlais, who had started the Dowlais unemployed club in 1928. It became a full settlement in 1935, when Margaret Carslake was the mainstay of the settlement, often visiting the Brynmawr group. The Merthyr settlement was founded in 1930, placed under the wardenship of Oxford graduate, Gwilym Jones. The Risca Educational Settlement (established in 1931) was associated with Maes-yr-Haf and organised by Mary Dawson. At Pontypool and Bargoed married couples were in charge. The Thomases at Bargoed were Friends from Yorkshire who had worked at Maes-yr-Haf and followed the lead of Emma and William Noble in establishing an educational settlement, with women’s clubs formed up and down the Rhymney Valley, specialising in sewing groups and belt-making. In May 1929, the Glamorgan Gazette reported that, in the Garw Valley, the local company known as the “Society of Friends” were doing splendid work towards the alleviation of distress among the unemployed. Clearly, by the 1930s, the social service movement had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the coalfield and was well-co-ordinated by the Joint Committee and from Maes-yr-Haf. 

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Above: Unemployed miners getting coal, Tredegar patches, late 1920s.

Like the Nobles, many of the wardens had a background in the Labour and trade union movement, and so fitted well into the local community. Jim Thomas helped to organise the Rhymney Outcrop Scheme in 1933-34, enabling the unemployed to get supplies of free coal without falling foul of the local police by picking coal from tips and levels. By 1936-37 the first level had yielded fifteen thousand tons of coal, which had been supplied to about 450 unemployed families for 2d or 3d per week, plus voluntary labour. The group of men in charge worked long hours and had many disappointments, but enjoyed the struggle, as Jim Thomas himself reported:

Miners like mining much better than gardening because it is their trade, and they rejoice in the freedom to do the work as real craftsmen should. In no mine, however well-managed, has better workmanship in road making and timbering been accomplished … the committee explained difficulties to the rest of the men. The committee had no misconceptions about human nature … men at work can be difficult to control … in voluntary schemes they can be more difficult than ever. With some men a great deal of firmness has been necessary, but with the majority there has been willingness to do even more than their share.

The other voluntary workers at Bargoed included two single men and single women. In terms of employment and class composition, the colliery towns and villages were more truly one-industry communities than Merthyr or Brynmawr.

Some historians have suggested that social service movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution. This opinion is, however, based on the level of direct government funding which occurred after 1932 and do not take into account the level of funding that which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct from private and charitable funds. The funds from the Carnegie Trust were small but significant, and large amounts were committed by the Society of Friends in the early period. However, it was the establishment of the Pilgrim Trust and the Nuffield Trust which helped to transform the situation. The duty of the Pilgrim trustees was to apply their resources at key points of the present distress, … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair. The impact of these fresh funds on the settlement work was immediate. In Dowlais John Dennithorne was able to receive a proper wage, two full-time female assistants could be engaged, more social and classroom accommodation was secured and materials and equipment bought in order to extend the work being done. The Trust’s grants to South Wales were essential in enabling both Dennithorne and Scott to develop their plans for Merthyr and Brynmawr.

(to be continued…)

The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38   2 comments

Chapter One: The Brambles of Poverty in a Distressed Area.

‘Women’s History’ in Britain has too often been viewed through the prism of ‘Great Men’s History’ by emphasising the roles of well-known individuals rather than focusing on the everyday lives of the masses of working-class women and their families. This is sometimes blamed on the lack of sources with which to describe and analyse these lives, but women and women’s experiences and ‘issues’ were by no means overlooked in the social documents of the inter-war period. In fact, given the pace of change in both working-class life in general and the lives of women in particular, which was of particular concern to social investigators, there is a wealth of relatively unused primary source material of both quantitative and qualitative types. At the time, it took almost a decade before their social surveys to break through the fog of denial which emanated from Neville Chamberlain’s Ministry of Health:

Our observations did not disclose any widespread manifestation of impaired health which could be attributed to insufficiency of nourishment. In this view we are confirmed by the opinions of the medical practitioners who have the best opportunities of watching the physical condition of families.

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Although women had won the vote in 1928 on the same basis as men, the struggle of working-class women for better rights and conditions in the home, at work and in society was, in many respects, still in its infancy. Much was expected from the first majority Labour government which came to power at the beginning of 1929 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The photograph above, taken by Arthur Lovegrove in Reading in 1929, shows a group of women supporters of The Daily Herald, which became an important campaigning mouthpiece for the Labour movement throughout the years of financial crisis and economic depression which followed in the 1930s. The experience of mass unemployment and widespread poverty in Britain reached into all areas of Britain, including relatively prosperous towns such as Reading, but it was in the older industrial areas of South Wales and the North-East of England where it was most protracted, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness as well as a determination to fight back by the working-class communities located in these ‘distressed’ areas. But though they were particularly dense and piercing in places, the ‘brambles’ of poverty did not grow evenly throughout the depressed coalfields of Britain in the 1930s.  They did not even grow evenly in the same street, in the same terrace, and neither did they ensnare one individual or family in quite the same way or to the same degree as the next. They grew at different rates in differing places. This diversity of growth has much to do with the nature of the places in which they grew.

It is therefore imperative that historians should move away from the contemporary, stereotypical images left behind by propagandists, investigators and politicians and seek out how working-class communities were defining and redefining themselves during the period. It is necessary to examine the intricate cultural and institutional web of coalfield societies before judgement can be made about the relationships between impoverishment and demoralisation. Considerable evidence has already been advanced that, during the early part of the century, coalfield society developed its own autonomous culture alongside the received one, a culture which rejected values that did not stem from the community’s own sense of economic and social solidarity. This alternative culture reached its zenith during the 1926 lock-out, and, despite the impact of the depression, there was tangible continuity in its institutional life over the succeeding decade.

This alternative culture was allied to a revolutionary counter-culture in other parts of Britain, including London, and increasing involved women. The picture below shows The Women’s Red Army marching through East London to Epping Forest, 1928. This is a rare shot of the LLX, the women’s section of the Labour League of Ex-servicemen. The women and some men, about two hundred in all, had assembled at Gardiner’s Corner in the East End and marched through Mile End, Bow and Stratford, held a rousing meeting at Leytonstone and continued onwards to Epping Forest, closely followed by plainclothes officers of the Special Branch.

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On practising their marching in a forest glade, an urgent message produced the arrival by car of the Commissioner of Police who accused them of performing military movements. Apparently, they succeeded in convincing him that they were only practising their marching in readiness for May Day and the police withdrew, leaving the ‘red army’ to dance on the greensward and make their way back by bus, having been forbidden to march.The uniform was first seen in public on Sunday 11 March 1928 when thirty-five women, led by Mrs J R Campbell, marched into Trafalgar Square for an International Women’s Day meeting and took up a position on the plinth, along with the speakers who included A J Cook, Marjorie Pollitt, Beth Turner and Hanna Ludewig from Germany. The uniform was officially described as a fawn coloured blouse and serviceable short skirt, stockings to match, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, khaki berets, red tie and regulation armbands. An official Communist Party pamphlet described the LLX as having ‘guarded the plinth’ and it would seem that they and the uniformed men drew their inspiration from the Workers’ Guard in Germany where the Red Front Fighters numbered some three hundred thousand.

The picture below shows the Prince of Wales on his extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where he is shown shaking hands with a worker at Middleton. He met families who had been unwaged for years and seemed sincerely and visibly shaken by their plight. He is reported to have said,

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman… isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile?

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Eight years later, after his accession to the throne, he made his noted second tour of South Wales and witnessed the effects of a decade of ‘the slump’ in the Rhondda and Monmouthshire valleys. After being shown the derelict steelworks at Dowlais, that once provided employment for nine thousand, he uttered the words that are remembered to this day as something must be done to find them work, though others have argued that his words were more direct, and specifically aimed at the government ministers who travelled with him, something will be done.The young MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious at the whole event, however…

To organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go the Congo was an outrage.

He said that the king was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied the king, was the instrument of that persecution. He declined a suggestion that he should meet Edward VIII at Rhymney, saying:

I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or could ever make, a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales.

In 1938, the authors of a Review of the decade-long Industrial Transference Scheme (1938) suggested that it was ‘the clan spirit’ found in the depressed areas of South Wales and northern England which continued to represent the major source of political opposition to National Government policy towards them. The Review characterised these areas as small, self-contained communities in which most of the residents are known to each other and cited their geographical position as a major factor in the intensification of ‘parochialism’. Coalfield ‘communities’ were defined in negative terms by politicians and government inquirers; they were no longer ‘real’ communities with a proper social leadership provided by a resident, benevolent middle class. Neither did they any longer serve any useful economic purpose, but were infamous for their industrial militancy before the world war, and for the obduracy of the miners’ leaders in 1926.

Many of the national voluntary agencies shared these negative stereotypes of the coalfield communities, although their social investigators managed to produce, both in print and on film, a generally softer image than the official one, showing far greater sensitivity to their plight without wallowing in sentimentality. Nonetheless, some of them set about their task as if they were embarking on an anthropological expedition, to echo Bevan’s condemnation of Edward VIII’s 1936 tour of South Wales. The editor of the journal Fact, prefacing Philip Massey’s Portrait of a Mining Town, asserted the need for an attempt to survey typical corners of Britain as truthfully and penetratingly as if our investigators had been inspecting an African village. He stated that, like African villages, mining communities are isolated and relatively easy to study and went on to make the dubious assertion that they were so cut off from the neighbouring townships like Cardiff and Newport that in the latter a ‘collier’ was regarded as a sort of strange being. 

Many of the philanthropists of the 1930s used this image of isolation to justify their concept of social service ‘settlements’ in the valleys, as a means by which the ‘outlook’ of the communities might be ‘broadened’. They were attempting to infuse their middle-class notions of ‘citizenship’ of a wider community extending beyond the boundaries of the valley. The Pilgrim Trust Annual Report for 1936 described each valley as being a self-contained community with its own traditions accustomed to leading its own life in isolation from its neighbours. Stereotypes such as these had as much to do with the projection of an image for specific ends as with reflecting the reality of coalfield communities, no matter how sympathetic the process and product of the investigations might appear. Thus Hilda Jennings, the author of the 1934 book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area wrote in a similar vein,

The small town or village environment is predominant. Mining communities, often separated from each other by a bleak stretch of moor or mountain, and dependent on one industry, naturally have a distinctive character. Local attachments are strong, family connections widespread, and modes of thought remarkably homogenous. There are few if any wealthy or leisured inhabitants, and the children of teacher, shopkeeper, and miner attend the same elementary and county schools. Men, women, and children, are so intimately known to their fellows that their doings are invested with a personal interest which gives warmth, colour and drama to day-to-day events. The influence of public opinion and local tradition is correspondingly strong.

Hilda Jennings’ book consisted of a detailed, ground-breaking survey of the coalfield towns on the northern, Breconshire edge of the south Wales coalfield. This most ‘untypical’ coalfield community had been stranded like a beached Leviathan by the receding tide of the coal industry well before the miners’ six-month lock-out of 1926 and the ‘slump’ of the late 1920s. Her survey was conducted in co-operation with the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service (SWMCSS). It first led its readers, not into a Miners’ Institute full of unemployed men, but into the bedroom of a terraced collier’s house:

In one of the older streets containing a large proportion of back-to-back houses with very small, airless rooms, little access to sun, and leaking roof and walls oozing with damp as many as seventeen cases (of consumption) were notified from the twenty-nine houses in the street… In one such case one of the two small bedrooms was given up to a dying girl, while the father and mother and six children crowded into the second bedroom and living room (used also as a bedroom). It is not to be wondered at that two other children contracted the disease, and that two out of three infected children died within two years.

This tragic tale needs no literary embellishment and is a narrative which is typical not just of the older mining towns at the heads of the valleys, with their high rates of home-ownership among once-prosperous workers, but across the steam-coal valleys from Nantyglo in Monmouthshire to Neath and the Swansea Valleys. The ‘Brynmawr Experiment’ was started by Quakers but was not run by them. To understand the problems of Brynmawr Peter Scott, with others, decided to have a comprehensive social survey undertaken.  Scott had served since 1926 the Society of Friends as Field Officer for the Society’s relief work in South Wales. In November 1926, Horace Fleming reported to the Society’s Coalfields Distress Committee on the possibilities which the work in the Rhondda had opened up:

It seems clear that the spirit expressed in and being kept vigorous by the mens’ and womens’ groups, is the living root on which an educational movement may be grafted… Being cul-de-sacs, the mental ventilation of the valleys is poor, with the result that the inhabitants are much more self-centred than non-valley dwellers. This movement (the National Council of Labour Colleges) with its condemnation of existing economic conditions and its doctrine of class war, has spread with remarkable rapidity throughout South Wales… To a people who, for generations, have been dependent on the spoken word, the clergy’s failure has meant the demagogue’s gain.  Nor is this surprising, when it is remembered that the only advocacy, with rare exceptions, of a new world heard in these valleys, was that of the Marxist, even though his new world was only to be entered through war… the present defeat is being traced to the theories of the extremists…

Fleming added that this tide of criticism was beginning to undermine the NCLC and that the Quakers could grasp the opportunity to address the educational needs of adults who were conscious of the failings both of the chapels and the communists. There was, he felt, a desire for a more constructive approach than that offered by the NCLC. The strategy proposed was that ‘a fluid movement’ should be built upon the foundations of the existing groups. Such a movement would not be dependent on bricks and mortar but would flow into the Miners’ Institutes and the chapels. A more sympathetic organisation could follow later, but the immediate priority was to provide a fellowship wider than sect, party or class.

The Quakers who settled in Brynmawr eighteen months later had similar concerns. In the summer of 1928, Peter and Lilian Scott, together with a number of other single male and female ‘Friends’ had gone to the Welsh coalfields due to their concern for the unemployed. They had held Quaker meetings for worship standing in groups in the marketplaces and street corners in the towns and villages they visited, starting in Abertillery, trying to give spiritual comfort and fellowship to the people among whom they lodged, the local unemployed, by first getting to know them and their problems. One of the Quaker women remembered the puzzled reaction of local people to their meetings, which appeared to be so different to their own nonconformist religious services, dominated by male preachers, deacons and hymn-singing:

These open air meetings were held under conditions very different from today. There was little wheeled traffic: the few bicycles and carts made very little noise and motor-cars were rarely seen. In every street, but particularly in market squares and on street corners, there were men in typical ‘miners’ squat’, unemployed and with no money for recreation, just talking, or silent.

During the morning the group of Friends would decide where to hold their meetings and would go to perhaps two places to advertise them, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. Advertising was done mainly by chalking the on pavements, with an occasional handbill in some prominent place.

At the time agreed, the group of Friends, usually six or eight,… would gather standing in silence. The men around would watch, unmoving, until someone spoke. Then by ones and twos the men would get up and gather round to hear what we said, and if held by the speaker would move in closer until there was quite a crowd.

The messages given were mainly concerned with the presence of that of God in each of us, of the love of God for us all, and with the love we should bear to one another in all circumstances. These meetings might be illustrated by a gospel reading, a prayer, a story of early Friends, a personal experience: all the things one might expect in any Quaker meeting… at the end of the meeting men would come to one or another to ask questions – why were we doing this and who were we anyway?

Occasionally there was a hostile reaction. On one such occasion the men crowded around threateningly, interrupting the meeting. ‘Who were we to come talking like this? What did we know of unemployment and the conditions under which they were living, why didn’t we do something for them?     

At Brynmawr, the Quakers faced a challenge from trade union leaders and other local people who also told them, You say you want to help us: prove you mean what you say; stay here and do something for us. So that is what they did. Peter went back to Friends’ House in London and said food and clothes were vital, so Joan Fry from the Coalfields Distress Committee went to Brynmawr and later addressed a public meeting at Golders Green. Brynmawr was a good place to start for a project which, from the start, was concerned with the unemployment ‘black-spots’, by contrast with the earlier ‘settlements’ in the Rhondda. The coal seams were nearer the surface on these northern ridges, and the coal on this higher ground had been mined in ‘levels’ for a century and a half so that they were practically worked out. The deeper, more modern mines further down the valleys were still working, albeit on ‘short-time’ and to keep the pits from flooding. However, they had enough labour in the colliery villages close by, so the heads-of-the-valleys towns had higher levels of long-term unemployment. Those in work were mostly bank clerks, ministers of religion, policemen, shopkeepers and teachers.

Peter Scott was a utopian visionary and his experiment, from the start, was of a different nature to that of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement. He was more interested in the social and economic reconstruction of the town than in the concept of an educational settlement. Nevertheless, both projects were species of the same desire, one which they shared with the liberal-Cymricists, of promoting unifying spiritual values above the interests of the working classes. Both experiments opened up important channels of communication into a crisis-ridden society. The Baldwin Government and its civil servants viewed the approach of the winter of 1928-9 with some trepidation. The Mansion House Fund had begun to deal with the immediate need for relief as well as aiding the work of the newly established Industrial Transference Board. However, they also began to realise that longer-term measures were required to deal with the problems of ‘demoralisation’ and their perceptions of the real threat of social disorder. To the middle-class social workers, many of them Quakers or Oxford graduates, ‘demoralisation’ meant not just the psychological effects of impoverishment, but also the extent to which the workless in these communities would espouse ‘desperate remedies’ in response to their condition, and uphold loyalty to ‘class’ above that to a broader ‘community’ and sense of ‘citizenship’.

Later in 1928, Peter and Lilian made their home in Brynmawr, where they were joined by a few others moved by a similar compassion to share in the life of a suffering community.  Disillusioned as so many were at that period with the existing social and economic order and inspired by a Utopian vision, the Scotts concluded that it was just in those areas where the breakdown of the old order was most complete that there lay the greatest opportunity for the creation of a better one. Margaret Wates arrived in Brynmawr from London at the beginning of December 1928, having joined the Society of Friends at the beginning of the year. She was full of youthful enthusiasm and idealistic socialism.

She was put in charge of the Relief & Service Centre as relief was reluctantly regarded by both government and the social service agencies as an unfortunate necessity in the winter of 1928-29. She was supported by local women, most of whom were twice her age. An empty shop in the main street, Beaufort Street, was adapted for the purpose, to which second-hand clothing came pouring in. She recalled that all her local helpers were neatly dressed, not just Mrs Price, the local policeman’s wife, who was regarded as comfortably off, but also the wives of the unemployed miners.  It seemed to her that the Welsh women were more tastefully and neatly dressed than their English counterparts. They would also clean, brush and put away their husbands’ Sunday clothes on Mondays so that they were ready to be worn the following Sunday. Their working clothes also looked cleaner, now they no longer had to go underground. In these ways, married couples were able to keep up a veneer of respectability and to cover up their poverty. She discovered later that they stitched paper together to make extra bedding for themselves.

Margaret was also responsible for placing girls in service, almost the only work available for women at the time. A few men and boys were also placed through Worthing Friends (the town was twinned with Brynmawr through the Mansion House Fund), and other Quakers helped to find employment in other areas, but most of these returned to Brynmawr in the end. Margaret was particularly involved in the work with women, helping organise them into self-help sewing groups in neighbouring places. It was easier for the outside volunteer workers to get hold of premises and get people to work together, as they were trusted not to have an “axe to grind”. They had gifts of material and sewing machines to help these groups establish themselves. She ran a playgroup once a week for the families of the poorest children in the district, who lived in shacks on the hillside. The idea came to her on one of her evening walks “up the mountain” and saw the pathetic settlements, made of bits and pieces. She talked to the women, who struggled to look after their children in sickness, but discovered that they were, in some ways, better off than the unemployed miners with homes to maintain that they couldn’t afford to keep or sell, or rents that they couldn’t afford. The “tent dwellers” at least had a home of their own, however primitive, each with a little fire.

Margaret Wates had a secretary, Marion Richards, who was younger than her, who called her by her Christian name, which was unusual in professional relations at that time but was the kind of relationship that the Quakers wanted to encourage. The local people were very loyal to the local chapels otherwise and showed little interest in meetings for worship or Quaker business methods. Marion Richards was the youngest of a large family whose men were colliers, her father unemployed. They were heavily involved in local politics and she later became a County Councillor. She helped Hilda Jennings with the Survey. Jennings was an Oxford graduate and a well-qualified and tactful social worker as well as an experienced leader of local committees. Although not a Quaker herself, she shared Peter Scott’s outlook on many things, and he gave her a free hand with her work. The book, published in 1934, was subtitled A Study of a Distressed Area and was said to be a classic of its kind. She later became the admired, loved and respected Warden of Bristol University Settlement, where she worked for twenty years.

The survey was different from the other social surveys done by trained social workers, as it was done by local people themselves. All sections of the Brynmawr community took part in this self-study, in order to understand the long-term effects of unemployment on many aspects of the town. There were two hundred volunteers involved in the Survey Committee which became ‘the Community House’, work starting in the attic. It was divided into eight sub-committees dealing with Commerce, Education, Health and Housing, Industry, Municipal Services, Population and Transport. These were led by people with a professional interest in a special area, chosen not elected. However, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party refused to co-operate with the survey, as they felt their dignity and authority had been undermined; they considered themselves to be the truly representative body since they had been elected. Two models of democracy were in open conflict, and it was a conflict which could not be resolved easily. This was, however, more of a loss to both the Urban District Council and the Miners’ Federation than to the survey itself.

Hilda Jennings insisted on using Quaker business methods, refusing to take votes on difficult issues, although this inevitably slowed down the processes of investigation and the overall progress of the survey. She was undaunted in her belief also in the educational value of conducting the survey by these means, helping to develop open-mindedness and raising people above sectional interests, since pooling experience enriched the common life. The community should raise itself to a higher level because it aimed to give the fullest life to everyone. It could and it wished to work with the elected bodies: this would benefit all, and help to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The idealism applied to the means by which the survey was conducted is evident in the ends, the text of the survey. The evidence it presents is both quantitative and qualitative, especially when dealing with family life. Although other surveys of the unemployed contain moving references to the lives of women, they tend to regard their roles as secondary, or adjunctive, to those of both employed and unemployed men. In the Brynmawr Survey, full details are given of how the mothers in these families were the first to suffer privation, and so became dispirited, debilitated and apathetic. The school children had free school meals and free milk provided for them, and there was milk given at the infant welfare clinics. But family relationships were strained. The diet was poor, even when the miner was working, and for those unemployed, it mostly consisted of tea, bread and margarine, with some meat and vegetables on Sundays. Men’s health suffered as a result, making them unemployable and destroying their self-respect, so that women would increasingly ‘go without’ in order to maintain these factors in their husbands in particular, but also in their adult sons, if they still lived at home and were unemployed, as was most likely the case in Brynmawr.

It was difficult for miners of any age to settle in other forms of work elsewhere, as they could only become labourers and unskilled factory workers. They were very proud of the crafts of the collier, timberman, fireman, haulier, etc. They were also proud of their dangerous and manly occupation. They resented having to take work as labourers, road-menders and gardeners, even though such work often required great physical strength, if not the same level of skill as that of a collier. Some work was available in the English coalfields after the General Strike, and some Welsh colliers were prepared to uproot their entire family in order to take it, but from the end of 1929, the trade depression took away much of this demand in, for example, the industrial towns of the English Midlands which had been expanding in the 1920s. When relative prosperity returned to these areas in 1934, most of the available jobs were in unskilled engineering, especially in the automotive industries. Some families moved to cities like Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham, but most of those who continued to leave the coalfields were single men, or at least childless. For the older family men, it was often too late.

The Welsh collier also had very strong roots in his locality and in his loyalty to his family and the wider human relationships within solidly working-class communities. Jennings’ Survey revealed this to be nowhere more the case than in Brynmawr. In addition, the climate at the top of the valley meant that the houses were continually damp. The houses were also older than in many colliery villages further down the valleys. Many were over a hundred years old and in a deplorable condition, unable to give protection from the frequent heavy rains and gales. Walls oozed with damp so that rheumatism, influenza and bronchitis were common complaints. There were 93 back-to-back houses of which there were seventeen cases of tuberculosis in 29 houses. Some unemployed families took lodgers in order to boost family income, but, as most houses had only two bedrooms, this created overcrowding, despite there being a large number of empty houses in the town which their owners couldn’t afford to sell or let.

One Brynmawr volunteer remembered visiting a house near the town centre with the living room, as was traditional, opening directly off the street: it had a tea-chest as a table and some boxes to sit on and was miserable-looking beyond belief. Many of these houses had shared yards and toilets, and rarely had gardens, so their occupants were unable to improve their diet by growing fresh food unless they had access to an allotment. Yet family pride meant that with local traditions of polished brass hangers and black leading inside and colour washing outside, plus the need to keep the fire burning day and night, mainly using coal dust, these homes seemed more weathertight and snug than they were in reality.

Moreover, as there were no collieries in Brynmawr, just the ‘levels’ cut into the hillsides, this meant that there were no colliery companies and therefore no company houses available for miners to rent, or as “tied houses” in Brynmawr. There was a Council-run housing estate as well as some more modern, bigger hoses that miners had built for themselves in more prosperous times. If a family owned or expected to inherit a house, they would, therefore, be far less willing to move away to find work. Some unemployed house owners had to mortgage their houses before they could claim poor relief, later known as Unemployment Assistance, which was all that the long-term unemployed could claim after using up the insured benefits they were entitled to. The Council tenants who were unemployed had also been allowed to accumulate very large rent arrears. Since these could not be collected, the Urban District Council, already deeply in debt due to the local poor rate system, could not afford to repair these houses, thus adding to the general dilapidation and deterioration of the housing stock.

By 1928, as Margaret Wates recalled, there were already youths of eighteen who had never worked, having left school four years earlier. They went about in groups up the mountain, or out in the streets after dark, as they did not want to be seen in their shabby clothes. She knew a mother and daughter who shared one pair of shoes so they could not go out together. One family of ten members had two cups between them, so the children were always late for school! When savings were exhausted there was nothing left for sickness or replacements, or even to do repairs.

The Brynmawr experiment, under the dynamic leadership of Peter Scott, maintained a certain independence in its operation. Scott insisted that anything done must spring from the community and not be imposed from the outside. His determination that the work should not be controlled by any outside committee led him into direct conflict with the Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee to the extent that,  at the end of 1929, he severed his connection with the official Quaker undertakings in the area, thereafter working independently with a group of volunteers. In December, a general town’s meeting was called, chaired by the local MP, with two thousand people in the hall. The rather emotional approach taken by Scott’s group alienated the hard-headed trades unionists, but it was successful in rallying several hundred people of different backgrounds to volunteer to community service over a period of three years, including hard manual work. Significant opposition to this was raised by some unemployed on the basis that the only commodity they had for sale was their labour. They did not want to surrender this right and ruin their chances of future employment, or of losing their dole if they did voluntary work.

A compromise was agreed that the unemployed miners would always be deemed available for, and thereby genuinely seeking work as far as the employment exchanges were concerned. Nevertheless, the Labour Party and the Miners’ Federation continued to shun the scheme. They insisted that all labour should be paid for at trade union rates. They were also suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town, even if they supplied help that was desperately needed. Thus, the claim that the work at Brynmawr sprang from the community was not borne out by reality. The cautious welcome which Brynmawr had initially given to the Scotts’ activities soon waned and his group’s relationship with the local community deteriorated. The newcomers were never fully integrated into the town’s civic life and, as a result, the Quakers became known, disparagingly, as ‘the BQs’ – ‘the Bloody Quakers’! 

Soon after the big meeting, and despite the ostracism of voluntary workers, their wives and children, a small group of local men started work on a piece of land near the railway station, converting it into a garden, and planting trees on a nearby ‘tip’. The men slept in the two large empty rooms above a shop, while the women shared another large building. They had meals on site – the food was plain, plentiful and cheap. Local women helped with the cooking as well as with the laundry, mending, cleaning and first aid, in addition to doing colour washing and gardening. There were also men’s and women’s clubs. By 1936 these were ‘vigorous’ and would have expanded had they had more accommodation. The men repaired furniture, tapped boots, made bows and arrows for an archery range, and wove scarves. The men did not make much use of the boot repairing and carpentry facilities, but the women’s club had seventy-five members and joined the Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guild. Needlework and foreign language courses were started in 1931. The women made leather gloves and other useful and ornamental things. There was also a demand for cookery classes, including food values. The keep-fit classes were crowded out.

In January 1934 some of the group around the Scotts formed themselves into ‘An Order of friends’, choosing to dedicate themselves to the new community of their vision, as expressed in Jennings’ book, published the same year. Thereafter all the Scotts’ undertakings were carried on in the name of ‘An Order’, though in fact its members never had more than a nominal responsibility for its administration. The most successful efforts made were in the two new industries of furniture and bootmaking. These conformed to the accepted pattern of industrial life and were more readily tolerated by local people on that account. Subsistence Production, the largest, most costly and most visionary of Scott’s undertakings, diverged too far from the current industrial mores to be readily accepted. The theory which lay behind it stemmed from J W Scott (no relation to Peter), a Professor of Philosophy at University College Cardiff, who in the 1920s had worked out an elaborate theory for producing and distributing goods as far as possible free from the constraints of the monetary system. He had envisaged groups of men, each working at his own trade without wages, producing goods for exchange within the group.

The Welsh tradition of spontaneous community singing, Gymanfa Ganu, was also revived. Brynmawr and the heads-of-the-valleys towns were usually more culturally, if not linguistically Welsh, than the anglicised colliery towns further down the valleys where many English ‘immigrants’ had settled. There ‘Welshness’ was based on the surviving Welsh-medium chapels founded by the earlier Welsh immigrants. Margaret Wates remembered one old lady who gave Welsh lessons to the English volunteers at the Centre using her Welsh Bible. For many of the older women, their lives outside the home, when time allowed, continued to revolve around the chapels, whether services and activities were in Welsh or English. Many men had long-since abandoned the chapels in favour of the Workmen’s Institutes, built earlier in the century. Since membership of these was based mainly on colliery employment, the institutes had been built in colliery villages, rather than in the heads-of-the-valley towns. Their activities were almost exclusively male until well into the 1930s, and in this respect, they were slow to adapt to the impact of mass unemployment on the social lives of men and women. On the other side of the northern outcrop, Resolven Institute near Neath was one of the first to allow women access to certain ‘new’ activities, as one local woman recalled:

 In Resolven now there was a reading room, you see. There was a lot of debating. You could say that the Reading Room was the House of Commons of the village. And I remember the first wireless coming. It came to the Reading Room. And women were allowed to listen to the wireless for the first time. It was a very important evening!

The new clubs were, therefore, had a more immediate practical purpose for women than for their unemployed men, since the latter were able to maintain their access to the local Miners’ Institutes through continuing to pay their subscriptions to the Miners’ Federation, which set up Unemployed ‘Lodges’ in parallel to those for miners still in work. Women were also more receptive to the new cooperative ideas than men, however. Nearly all the men over forty-five in Brynmawr had been unemployed since 1921. They were more regular volunteer workers than the younger men but regarded the Subsistence Production Society (SPS) as second best. Faith in Socialism as a Utopian form of Christianity, if not Marxist Communism, was almost universal. They had a strong family life and were resigned to lower standards of living, but they were opposed to the means test, and to irregular working hours and differentials in wages. Their outlook was set in the industrial unionism of the pre-1914 years, and these traditions were fiercely maintained among them. They distrusted “An Order of Friends” and the SPS, which they regarded as they did any other large industrial undertaking, as fundamentally capitalist and therefore automatically opposed to the interests of labour. At the same time, it was not quite real, but a pastime, so they were not prepared to work so intensively on it. The principles behind the scheme were either not understood or not trusted by many of the older men. To those behind the SPS, they meant benefiting people according to their needs.

The women, by contrast, wanted the cheap milk and other necessities provided by the SPS. The opposition of the men lessened as time went on, but few were interested in creating a new order of society through the schemes, as Jennings and the Quakers advocated. Other groups, not just the Communists, the trades unions and the Labour Party were opposed to the SPS, but even the Co-ops and the and the shopkeepers, who were also fearful of the involvement of government. A Viennese psychologist, Dr Marie Jahoda, concluded (after a four-month local sojourn and study of the Cwmavon Scheme in 1937/38) that while the SPS was ‘a valiant experiment’ and ‘a heroic attempt to tackle a problem at the right point’, it was doomed to failure because the leaders’ eyes were blinded by their glorious mirage of the future to the extent that they were unable to see the numerous pitfalls of interference from outside the normal development of the community.

Marie Jahoda noted that the scheme could never surpass the limits of charity. In the absence of a sufficient number of idealists from other social classes who would resign voluntarily the advantages offered to them by their privileged position, it was necessary to employ technical staff at normal rates of pay. As long as this remained the case it was not possible, she argued, for the organisers to preach the necessary idealism and to create a common ‘ideology’ within the scheme while maintaining a standard of living high above that of the members. Without this community of interest there was no chance of making the experiment fully successful; without paternalistic supervision, there was no chance of making it work at all. Nevertheless, she concluded, the SPS was small enough to be understood in its general operation by every member and big enough to provide an insight into various social processes and a comparison with normal social life:

The colliery system with its problem of export trade and finance, extending over the whole world, is far too complicated to allow the average miner to understand its working; the family unit or a handicraft job is too small for the same purpose in the modern world. The amount of collective social experience represented by the membership of the SPS is one of the main positive effects.

This was no doubt why Dai Payton of Nantyglo, an unemployed miner, and his wife Phoebe, who had a fine family of eight children themselves, remained sympathetic contributors to the Brynmawr schemes. Margaret Wates came to know the family well during and after her brief sojourn in Brynmawr and the Eastern Valley:

They lived in a company room at Nantyglo with one bedroom and one living room, no ‘parlour’. This one-up-one-down had a spiral staircase joining the two rooms, which was dangerous for their small children. They had a ‘longish’ yard in front of the house with a gate to the main road through a low front wall. Next to this was the coal-shed and toilet!

Just inside the front door was flimsy wooden partition with a shallow stone sink beside it. They had a blackleaded oven which went under the stone stairs and was also used for drying the wood. The fire was kept going with a few lumps of coal to the front and dust to the back, carefully flattened, where the teapot could be kept warm. The fire irons were kept polished. I think there was a good-size table, a few upright chairs and boxes.

I visited Phoebe when she was ill, and found there were two double beds and an upright wooden chair… there was a cheap curtain between the beds, but it was very Spartan. Phoebe’s parents lived at the back of them, so some of the children slept in their house…

… every morning they had toast and margarine, and tea with condensed milk: on Easter Sunday they had half an egg each and fresh milk, which wasn’t bottled, but scooped out of the milkman’s churn on wheels. For tea on Sundays they had rice pudding. On Friday they had four faggots and sixpence worth of peas for dinner – “it was delicious”. On Sundays some of them had dandelion pop or nettle pop, a sort of home-made wine. The family never went hungry.

The children had school dinners, after the forms had been filled in about earnings, etc.: these were called “feedings”, and they had a half-pint of bottled milk a day at school. The school attendance officer… would call at the house if a child had been away from school for only two days.

Dai always gave his wife his unopened pay packet. She would buy his tobacco, pay his bus fare and his union subscription, and might give him tuppence to go into the welfare ground to watch a match. She would be responsible for paying the doctor when necessary…

Dai and Phoebe had been given a striking clock as a wedding present, which must have been the only thing of any value they possessed.

There was a traditional “Grace”… before meals, that was sung to a Welsh tune… remembered in 1930:

O Lord have mercy upon us

And keep us all alive;

There’s round the table nine of us

And food enough for five. 

Dai and Phoebe were exceptionally strong people, working so hard to ensure that their family survived under such difficult conditions. Despite all their best efforts, one of the children did not survive, however, a little sister who died at the age of four. Phoebe seems, in some ways, to correspond to the image of the ‘Welsh Mam’ that recent historians have become somewhat obsessed with, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

As soon as the whistle went they (the women) put chairs outside their front doors ans sat here waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, fathers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working.

This image is not exclusive to the south Wales valleys, however. It was a regular practice in mining families throughout Britain for the woman to collect the wages of the men, before they were given back their beer and tobacco money. At Binley, near Coventry, if the men went to the pub on the way home, the children in the house would be sent out to intercept them and bring home the sovereigns. This practice continued into the 1940s. Neither did women scrub their husbands’ backs, which were generally left coal-black in order to harden against conditions underground. What perhaps typified the ‘Welsh Mam’ as compared with miners’ wives in other coalfields was that they never worked outside the home, except as shopkeepers, whereas in Coventry many women did shifts in textile factories, working around their husbands’ shifts and depending on whether sons were also miners. In Coventry, they usually became car-workers and engineers in the 1930s.

The ‘Mam’ was, of course, primarily a wife and a mother, clean and pious, and had the responsibility in and for the home. She was certainly as prevalent in other depressed areas where industrial work outside the home was essentially the province of men. By the end of the thirties, this pattern was beginning to change among the younger generations, especially at the southern end of the valleys, but in the heads-of-the-valleys, it remained the same throughout the thirties.  Here, it was women like Phoebe Payton of Nantyglo who continued to scrimp and go without.

As Gwyn A Williams and Dierdre Beddoe have pointed out, although aspects of the portrait of the ‘Welsh Mam’ were dominant in coalfield communities into the inter-war period, the image was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. In Wales, there was nothing really comparable to the industrial out-work done in domestic settings across the West Midlands of England by weavers, chain and nail-makers. Moreover, the British middle-classes were alarmed by the Chartist demonstrations and uprisings of 1831-51 into thinking that there might be a revolution, similar to those which had happened in France, in Britain. One of the chief ways that the middle-class sought to bring about stability was through the strengthening of the idea and role of the family. They advocated a bourgeois view of the family: male breadwinner, dependent ‘domesticated’ wife and dependent children. It was this version of the family that the middle class wished to impose upon the working classes and which working-class families came to aspire to: the dependent wife was to become the symbol of working-class male success. This message about the woman’s role was essentially domestic was trumpeted from the pulpit and reinforced by religious tracts, poems, magazines, paintings, prints and manuals of behaviour for women.

One of the myths which emerged from this stereotypical image which mining women aspired to conform to was that women and men had equal power and that, with the onset of male unemployment, women became the dominant power in unwaged households. The handing over of the sovereigns to the wife is often cited as evidence for this, but this act also involved the passing over of the burden of managing the household. Women’s authority was entirely limited to the private, domestic sphere. Not until the end of 1928 were working-class women able to exercise the vote in parliamentary elections on the same basis as men, but even then very few had access to the public sphere of politics. Besides this, they still had no control over their bodies and its reproductive functions. Miners were oppressed by coal-owners and poverty. Their wives were doubly oppressed by poverty and patriarchy. As one woman said, we were slaves because they were slaves to the coal-owners.

Of course, this does not mean that all miners treated their wives badly, either physically or psychologically, whether in work or out of it. Neither did they consciously ‘enslave’ them. If anything, there is a sense in the evidence that unemployment often brought about a more equal relationship between husband and wife. On the other hand, the poverty it brought often placed great strains on the household, and men, by their own admission, sometimes took out their frustrations and loss of personal pride on their wives.  Dai Payton worked at the level at Coalbrooke Vale for the SPS. A Brynmawr resident had transferred the lease of the level, a mile from Brynmawr, which supplied work for forty older men for eighteen months. After twelve months the management was handed over to the men, but in 1931 the Miners’ Federation called a strike, so the co-operative was also asked to join the strike, although they were both workers and owners. If they had agreed, they might have ruined the small enterprise, since they had not yet established if the plans of the old workings there had been correct. When they refused, they were called “blacklegs” and “traitors”, showing how difficult it was for co-operative ventures and trades unions to work together. The unemployed miners overcame all the technical difficulties, but the coal seam did not yield as much as was expected, though the group struggled on with courage and patience. By 1934, Dai Payton, together with a ‘butty’, made a success of it for a time, until nature forced them to retire. The unemployed were forced accustomed to going up “the mountain” to get a sack of coal, which they would bring back long distances on their backs. Working cooperatively decreased unnecessary physical strain, enabling the group to achieve a more rational way of working as well as running a successful if small, industrial enterprise for some years.

The Brynmawr Experiment was an attempt, unique in Britain, to encourage a whole community afflicted by desperate levels of unemployment, averaging 75% throughout the period 1928-38, to fight back on a number of fronts, tapping an entire range of resources, from the enterprise of volunteers to social service agencies and central government. The national network provided by the Society of Friends was crucial to the work as it supplied management and technical skills and money to get things done. But a community that has suffered such levels of long-term unemployment needs even more than a revivalist inspiration to overcome its paralysing effects. Immediately, it needed relief work, as an absolute necessity. In the medium-term, reconstruction projects were put in place, including a swimming pool, a park and a nursery school. Then the industrial decline had to be offset by starting small co-operative enterprises in boot and furniture making, which by the end of the period were achieving considerable success.

Another enterprise was stocking-making, in which a dozen women worked under a trained forewoman, making long, thick miners’ stockings, but mass production and keen competition proved too much for the group. They produced fine quality socks for a time but had to close down in the end. A further group of about a dozen women and girls made Welsh quilts of silk material, padded with lambswool, to traditional Welsh designs. They also made tea-cosies and other products to order. They worked in a big room above an empty shop for a period of a couple of years. As these ventures received no government support for five years, they had to be funded over this period by grants from private individuals and charitable organisations. The aim was not to replace the volume of jobs lost in the coal industry, but, in the words of Hilda Jennings, to…

… build up a new and better community in which the human spirit will be released from bitterness and divisions, and find outlets for creative energies in craftsmanship and right human relationships.

(to be continued)

The Land of Might-Have-Been, chapter one, part six.   Leave a comment

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30 November – 9 December 1936:

End of the Exhibition, but the Royal Show goes public:

London’s one-and-a-half million pound amusement centre and landmark, the Crystal Palace, was destroyed by fire on November 30th. Within half an hour of the first alarm, the building, covering twenty-five acres, was wholly ablaze, and the blood-orange glow from the fifty foot flames could be seen from another great landmark of pleasure, the Grand Pier in Brighton, eighty miles away. The Investigation failed to find the cause of the fire, which started around 6.30 p.m., during an orchestral rehearsal in the lobby. At first it was dismissed as a minor fire, and the band played on, but the flames were fanned by a strong wind so that the musicians had to be evacuated. The central transept collapsed only minutes after they got outside. The whole structure was now ablaze and melting, made as it was of wood, iron and glass. The noise of the crashing glass roof could be heard five miles away. Thousands of Londoners came out to see the spectacle of streams of molten iron and glass, looking like a volcano, so many that they had to be held back by a cordon of police to allow the ninety fire-tenders to tackle the blaze through the intense heat, which could be felt on faces half a mile away. The Duke of Kent arrived on the scene, boosting the morale of the firefighters by donning a helmet and staying until 2.30 a.m. The next morning all that was left of the structure were the two 300 ft, stone-built water towers.

The destruction of the immense glass palace, built to Joseph Paxton’s design to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, symbolised a breach in continuity with the Victorian Age and the commencement of a new, frightening age in which fires, whether started accidentally or by bombing, were becoming commonplace. The only relics of this bygone era were plaster of Paris effigies of the kings of England on their tombs and the concrete sculptures of dinosaurs, which can still be seen in the gardens to this day. The glass exhibition hall had first stood in Hyde Park, before being moved, at great cost, to Sydenham in 1854, where it was reconstructed, enlarged and made the centre of a large pleasure park. By the thirties it had gone into decline as an exhibition centre, being used mainly for choral singing and orchestral competitions. It still housed waxworks, which had, of course, all melted away. John Logie Baird’s new television laboratory was also destroyed, but this did not affect the BBC’s new TV broadcasts.

Some saw the fire almost as a divine judgement on the King’s rejection of traditional values. Queen Mary was deeply affected by the sudden fall of the People’s Palace she had re-opened with George V as the first home of the Imperial War Museum in 1924, before it moved to Lambeth. She watched the smoke rising in the distance from the windows of Marlborough House, visiting the burnt-out site three days later, still dressed in black, surveying the mass of bent and twisted metal. The sense of melancholy which the scene conveyed must have matched her mood at the end of an annus horribilis, with the monarchy on the verge of collapse, just as her late husband had predicted at its beginning. Abroad the warlike turn of events had destroyed Chamberlain’s hopes of economic recovery and social reform on the home front. Resources were needed for Rearmament, the fire-fighting appliances needed priming, and the prospects for peace had been shattered. The public mood, like that of Queen Mary herself, was deeply pessimistic, symbolised in the tangle of steel and glass she stood before. It looked like a bomb site and reminded some journalists of the bombing of Madrid. In recent weeks, the newspapers and newsreels had been full of images from Spain of huddled men and terrified women and children taking shelter from the German bombers.

On 2nd December Baldwin went again to the Palace and informed the King that he thought that the lady he married should automatically become the Queen, and that, although inquiries in the Commonwealth were not yet complete, neither Britain nor its Dominions would tolerate a morganatic marriage. In fact, this was not true. We now know that only the Australian Prime Minister’s response was entirely against the morganatic marriage. Both the New Zealand and Canadian responses were far more sympathetic to the idea, but they were either changed or not put formally to the Cabinet, and were withheld from the King.

However unbelievable it may seem from the perspective of the multi-media society of the twenty-first century, most of the country had still not heard of Wallis Simpson until December 2nd, when the Yorkshire Post  reported a fairly innocent comment made by the Bishop of Bradford, the aptly named Dr Blunt, who also had never heard of Mrs Simpson, at a Diocesan Conference the previous day:

The King’s personal views are his own but it is still an essential part of the idea of kingship…that the King needs the grace of God for his office.

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Above: Alfred Blunt, Bishop of Bradford.

The Bishop said that he wished, therefore, that the King would show more positive evidence of the need for Divine Guidance.  All he meant was that the King ought to go to Church more often, but a local journalist in the audience wrongly took the Bishop’s remark as a none-too veiled reference to the King’s affair. When his report was carried by the Press Association, the national news agency, the newspapers interpreted Blunt’s words as the signal they had all been waiting for: an official breaking of the silence by the Church, and therefore the Establishment, over the Simpson affair. The national press soon circulated the story, breaking their self-imposed silence about the monarch’s love-life. The whole story of the King’s affair was now filling the pages of the newspapers. Over the previous few months, only a relatively small number of Britons had known what was going on. Now the newspapers quickly made up for lost time, filling their pages with stories of crisis meetings at the Palace, pictures of Mrs Simpson and interviews with men and women in the street, asking their opinions. Feature articles included biographies of Wallis Simpson, photographs of her previous husbands, reports of the Nahlin cruise, pictures of the couple together and columns of comment. While Dawson of The Times attacked the King, with Baldwin’s collusion, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Daily Mirror backed him, reflecting their owners’ views. They have much in common, began a profile of the royal couple in the Daily Mirror on 4 December. They both love the sea. They both love swimming. They both love golf and gardening. And soon they discovered that each loved the other. The Liberal-nonconformist Daily Chronicle also came out in favour of a morganatic marriage. While only eighty thousand read the broadsheets, the combined circulation of those supporting the marriage was nine million.

The same day, 3rd December, Baldwin addressed the House, simply reporting that no constitutional crisis had yet arisen. Harold Nicolson MP went to Islington, where he gave a public lecture, a long-standing engagement. Out of an audience of four hundred only ten joined in the singing of ‘God Save the King’ at the beginning of the meeting. He wrote that evening that he didn’t find people to be angry with Mrs Simpson, but that there was a deep and enraged fury at the King himself. In eight months, Edward had destroyed the great structure of popularity which he himself had raised. Apparently, for Nicolson, not even his popularity with the armed forces, the ex-servicemen and the unemployed miners, so recently demonstrated, would be enough to break this fall from grace.

The King retreated to Fort Belvedere, clinging to his morganatic dream, which Baldwin demolished it in a public statement:

There is no such thing as what is called a morganatic marriage known to our law…the lady whom he marries, by the fact of her marriage to the King, necessarily becomes Queen…The only way in which this result could be avoided would be by legislation dealing with a particular case. His Majesty’s Government are not prepared to introduce such legislation.

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The Duke of York, Albert, and his family, had been in Scotland during the previous days. Alighting from the night train at Euston on the morning of 3 December, they were confronted with newspaper placards with the words, The King’s Marriage. Albert and Elizabeth were both deeply shocked by what it might mean for them. When the Duke spoke to his younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, he found him in a great state of excitement. The King himself had not yet decided what to do, saying he would ask the people what they wanted him to do and then go abroad for a while. In the meantime, he sent Wallis away to Cannes for her own protection. She was already receiving poison pen letters and bricks had been thrown through the window of the house she was renting in Regent’s Park. The couple feared that worse was to come. The same day the Duke of York telephoned the King, who was at his retreat at Windsor Great Park, Fort Belvedere. ‘Bertie’ wanted to make an appointment to see his brother ‘David’ in person, but this was declined. He kept trying over the next few days, without success, the King refusing to see him on the grounds that he had still not made up his mind as to his course of action. Despite the huge impact that his decision would have on his brother’s life, Edward refused to confide in him. He must have known that Bertie had no desire to become King. The Duke’s sense of foreboding was growing and, according to Princess Olga (sister of the Duchess of Kent), he became mute and broken… in an awful state of worry as David won’t see him or telephone. 

Wallis Simpson had not been not entirely as disinterested as she later made out, even if she was more capable than Edward of being dispassionate in public. She had encouraged him to take up Churchill’s morganatic marriage idea and now urged him to appeal to his people over the heads of the politicians by means of a radio broadcast. Her plan for him was that he should then fly to Switzerland and wait to see what the impact of public opinion on the government would be. Edward went along with this and again summoned Baldwin to the Palace on the evening of 3rd December. The PM told the Cabinet that he had driven to the Palace and had been taken in by a back entrance to avoid the photographers camped out at the front. The King had read a proposed draft of his radio broadcast to Baldwin, who had responded by saying that, although he was willing to put the idea to the Cabinet, he thought they would regard it as thoroughly unconstitutional. At this, the King had lost his temper with Baldwin, demanding to know what more the PM would have him do. Baldwin had replied, so he said, that what he wanted was what the King had told him he had wanted: to go with dignity, not dividing the country, and making things as smooth as possible for your successor. Trying to calm the situation and step back from the abyss that he must have sensed opening between them as they sat together on the sofa, Baldwin is then said to have raised his whisky-and-soda and said: Well, Sir, whatever happens, my Mrs and I wish you happiness from the depths of our souls, at which the King burst into tears, and Baldwin followed suit. What a strange conversation piece, observed Harold Nicolson when he heard of this from Liberal MP Robert Bernays, those two blubbering together on a sofa!

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As Baldwin predicted, the entire Cabinet was once more united behind him the next morning and against the whole idea of a royal broadcast. Chamberlain again urged the PM to bring the King sharply up to the point and get him to abdicate the same day. The politicians now began to panic because they feared that if he were to broadcast, public opinion would move irrevocably in his favour, especially as Chamberlain confirmed, from the whips, that Churchill and Beaverbrook were working on the King’s speech together. The terrible consequences of Churchill being asked to form a government, then demanding a General Election were too dreadful to contemplate, apparently. Baldwin calmed the situation, agreeing to make a statement in the House ruling out any possibility of the King making his broadcast.

Wallis told Edward, ‘You must speak!’, perhaps confusing his powers with those of an American President. As she was now nearing a nervous breakdown herself, she had agreed to go to France, to stay at the villa of friends in Cannes. When Churchill went to meet the King the next morning, 4 December, he found him ill and isolated. He persuaded Baldwin to delay the Cabinet’s ultimatum, and the following day accused the King’s ministers of acting unconstitutionally in demanding his abdication and in reaching secret deals with His Majesty’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ to confront him with the ultimatum. In his press release, he also made an implicit appeal to the Dominions, perhaps sensing that Baldwin had not been entirely truthful in his representation of their views. Forty Conservative MPs were ready back Churchill, who had already selected much of his Cabinet, and was planning his first actions on replacing Baldwin as PM. Crowds formed outside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street cheering for the King, holding placards which read Cheer Your King at the Palace: After South Wales, You Can’t Let Him Down.

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Liberal opinion was also behind the King: John Maynard Keynes wanted to know, on simple utilitarian grounds, why the King could not have his morganatic marriage. However, many liberals were nervous about joining forces with the reactionary Beaverbrook and Rothermere press to support the monarchy. There were demonstrations against Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but as the MPs toured their constituencies that weekend, they also found a widespread sense of betrayal felt by many who, like the Jarrow marchers, had seen the royal family as a model of family life, symbolising the most important values of their subjects. Perhaps this helps to explain why there was no great spontaneous uprising in support of a previously immensely popular member of that family. Apart from the welcome support from Churchill and Duff Cooper in parliament and government, most of the vocal and visible support was unwelcome, coming from the pro-fascist Right and, more sinisterly, Mosley’s blackshirts who, not yet proscribed from wearing their uniforms, marched up and down Whitehall with a picture of the King, shouting: One, two, three, four, five, we want Baldwin dead or alive! But, in any case, it was largely uncoordinated, useless and simply too late.

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By the end of the following weekend of 5th-6th December, if not at its beginning, Edward had decided to give up his fight and hand the Crown to his brother. Yet Albert had none of his brother’s charisma and was ill-prepared for the role he was being handed by him. He also had come close to a nervous breakdown during the four days since his return from Scotland, during which his brother had declined to see him. On Sunday 6th, the Duke again rang the Fort to be told that the King was in a conference and would call him back later. The call never came. Edward had summoned his lawyer, Sir Walter Monckton, to his room at Fort Belvedere and told him of his decision. The next day, Churchill, unaware that the decision had been made, was shouted down when he tried to argue that no pistol should be held at the King’s head. Edward finally made contact with his brother, inviting him to the Fort after dinner. The Duke wrote his own account of this meeting:

The awful and ghastly suspense of waiting was over… I found him pacing up and down the room, and he told me his decision that he would go. 

When he got home that evening, he found his wife had been struck down with flu. She took to her bed, where she remained for the next few days as the dramatic events unfolded around her.  She wrote to her sister:

Bertie & I are feeling very despairing, and the strain is terrific. Every day last a week & the only hope we have is in the affection & support of our family & friends.

Meanwhile, events moved swiftly. At a dinner at Fort Belvedere on Tuesday 8th, attended by several men, including the Duke and the prime minister, Edward made it clear he had already made up his mind. Baldwin had arrived with a suitcase, ready for lengthy negotiations. For a moment, the King was horrified at the prospect of his PM staying the night. The King’s brothers, Princes Albert and George were also at the dinner. According to Baldwin’s account, before they sat down the King merely walked up and down the room saying, “This is the most wonderful woman in the world.”   The Duke of York’s account reported his astonishment as his brother, the life and soul of the party, told Baldwin things I am sure he had never heard before about unemployment in south Wales. Edward may have felt that this was, at least, some small way in which he could honour his Dowlais declaration before departing. Apparently, the Duke turned to Walter Monckton and whispered, and this is the man we are going to lose. Monckton later wrote that it was his lawyer’s acumen that probably prevented  him from retorting, and this is exactly why we are going to lose him, because he makes the politicians feel uncomfortable.  The Duke was in sombre mood and wrote that it was a dinner that I am never likely to forget. On each of the following days, crowds gathered in Whitehall, waiting for news (see below).

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The contemporary journalist and commentator René Cutforth, wrote forty years later that his remark, Something must be done (as it was wrongly reported) to an unemployed miner in Dowlais had indeed been made to the umbrage of the politicians, who wanted none of that sort of talk. To that one sentence he owed most of his reputation among them as ‘irresponsible’. But while the remark may have sealed his fate as far as Chamberlain and others in the cabinet were concerned, the King had left Baldwin in no doubt about his determination to marry Wallis Simpson. Cutforth made an interesting comment on this:

Millions of words have been written in explanation of this world shaking affair, and American friends of mine cling to this day to the theory that only some shared sexual deviation could explain Edward’s insistence on a world well lost for love. In the Thirties we thought Freud could explain everything… It was, in fact, a simple case of delayed adolescent romantic love… Ernest Simpson… knew this well enough: he used to refer to the Prince of Wales as ‘Peter Pan’. Years later Wallis wrote of Edward: “Over and above the charm of his personality and the warmth of his manner, he was the open sesame to a new and glittering world that excited me as nothing in my life had done before… All I can say that it was like being Wallis in Wonderland.”

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