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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Western Armistice of November 1918 and its Aftermath in Britain & its Empire.   Leave a comment

Celebrating the Armistice in Britain:

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Londoners celebrating the Armistice.

Even before the Armistice was signed on the Western Front, there was a clattering down of thrones in Europe, and the world was a little dazed by the sound and dust which this created. But to those thrones that endured – in Britain, Belgium and Italy – the peoples turned, as they had always done, to the symbols of liberty for which they had always fought. On 11th November great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, following a common impulse, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely greeted the sovereigns of an unemotional people. The writer H. G. Wells described military trucks riding around London picking up anyone who wanted a ride to anywhere, and ‘vast vacant crowds’ consisting mostly of students, schoolchildren, the middle-aged and the old, and home-front soldiers choking the streets: Everyone felt aimless, with a kind of strained and aching relief. A captured German gun carriage was thrown on to a bonfire of ‘Hun’ trophies in Trafalgar Square.  Vera Brittain, who had left Oxford University to be a Red Cross nurse witnessed the jubilant atmosphere of Armistice Day, drawn out from the hospital where she was working to observe the celebrations with mixed emotions, including a chilly gloom resulting from the realisation that almost all her best friends were dead and that she would be facing the future without them. She later wrote about her memories of it, and those she had lost in the war, in her biography, Testament of Youth (1933). She noticed that…

When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. … the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”

From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut. Deeply buried beneath my consciousness there stirred a vague memory of a letter that I had written to Roland in those legendary days when I was still at Oxford …

But on Armistice Day not even a lonely survivor drowning in black waves of memory could be left alone with her thoughts. A moment after the guns had subsided into sudden, palpitating silence, the other VAD from my ward dashed excitedly into the annex.

“Brittain! Brittain! Did you hear the maroons? It’s over – it’s all over! Do lets come out and see what’s happening!” …

Late that evening … a group of elated VADs … prevailed upon me to join them. Outside the Admiralty a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis. … Wherever we went a burst of enthusiastic cheering greeted our Red Cross uniform, and complete strangers adorned with wound stripes rushed up and shook me warmly by the hand. …

I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over, a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.   

On the late afternoon of Armistice Day, in the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove in a simple open carriage through the city of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly lit streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted the meaning of a ‘People’s King’. Next morning, 12 November 1918, ‘Victory’ dawned upon a western world too weary even for comprehension. The crescendo of the final weeks had dazed minds as ordinary people could not grasp the magnitude of a war which had dwarfed all other, earlier conflicts, and had depleted the world of life to a far greater extent than centuries of invasions, conflicts and wars put together. There were some eight million dead combatants in addition to twenty-five million non-combatants worldwide. In Britain, the figures were too astronomical to have much meaning – nearly ten million men in arms from the Empire as a whole, of whom over three million were wounded, missing or dead. At least seven hundred thousand British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another hundred and fifty thousand were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some three hundred thousand children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out.

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But the statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last man and the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors from the Western Front. John Buchan, journalist and war correspondent, commented that the ordinary citizen…

… could only realise that he had come, battered and broken, out of a great peril, and that his country had not been the least among the winners of the victory.

The newspaper headlines from around the world were:

 

Great War Ends

Chicago Daily Tribune

Armistice Signed, End of the War!

The New York Times

Germany Gives Up: War Ends at 2 p.m.

New York Journal

Germany Signs Armistice

Sydney Morning Herald

The World War At An End

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star

Allies Drastic Armistice Terms to Huns

How London Hailed the End of War

The Daily Mirror

Peace!

Greatest Day In All History Being Celebrated

The Ogden Standard (Utah)

World Celebrates Return of Peace, End of Autocracy

Oregon Journal

Germany Surrenders

New Zealand Herald

War is Over

The Washington Times

Armistice Is Signed

The Toronto Daily News

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Britain’s fleet had conducted the blockade which sapped the enemy’s strength and had made possible the co-operation of Allies separated by leagues of ocean. Its wealth had borne the main financial burden of the alliance. Its armies, beginning from small numbers, had grown to be the equal of any in the world, in training, discipline and leadership. Moreover, the resolution shown by the British forces and people had been a bulwark to all her confederates in the darkest hours. Such had always been Britain’s record in European wars. At the beginning of the war, Germany had regarded it as a soft, pacifistic power already on the decline. It had come to a decision slowly, entered the war unwillingly, but then waged it with all the strength and determination it could muster and did not slacken until its aims had been achieved.

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The next few days and weeks were pregnant with ceremonial events. On the 12th the King and Queen went solemn procession to St. Paul’s to return thanks to the ‘Giver’ of victory. In the following week, they drove through all the districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. On the 27th, the King visited France. He had been on the battlefield during the final offensive of 8th August and was now able to examine the ground on which victory had been won and to greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier, or westward to return home to Britain. In Paris, at banquets at the Élysée and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. On Tuesday, 19th November, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, he replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. In the presence of political leaders, and the great officers of State, and representatives of the overseas dominions, he expounded in simple words the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible, and the task still before the nation if a better world was to be built out of the wreckage of the old:

In what spirit shall we approach these great problems? How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. … The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, and to a fuller realisation of what the English-speaking race, dwelling upon the shores of all the oceans, may yet accomplish for mankind. For centuries Britain has led the world along the path of ordered freedom. Leadership may still be hers among the peoples who are seeking to follow that path. … 

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He was entitled to exhort his people in this way because he and his family had played their part in the struggle, performing hard and monotonous duties, sharing gladly in every national burden. John Buchan commented that it was also beginning to dawn on the British people that they had also been well-served, in the end, by the military leader to whom they had entrusted their ‘manhood’:

Haig could never be a popular hero; he was too reserved, too sparing of speech, too fastidious. In the early days his limitations had been obvious, but slowly men had come to perceive in him certain qualities which, above all others, the crisis required. He was a master in the art of training troops, and under his guidance had been produced some of the chief tactical developments of the campaign. He had furnished the ways and means for Foch’s strategic plans. Certain kinds of great soldier he was not, but he was the type of great soldier most needed for this situation, and he succeeded when a man of more showy endowments would have failed. Drawing comfort from deep springs, he bore in the face of difficulties a gentle and unshakable resolution. Gradually his massive patience and fortitude had impressed his efforts for the men who had fought with him won their deep and abiding affection. The many thousands who, ten years later, awaited in the winter midnight the return of the dead soldier to his own land, showed how strong was his hold upon the hearts of his countrymen.

For many others, however, his name became synonymous with the way the war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history, as well as being stamped on billions of artificial poppies. For them, his name became a byword for stupid butchery. He himself felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help. After the Armistice, the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, while the ‘other ranks’ were lucky if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the families of every member of the armed forces who were killed were given what became known as the ‘Death Penny’. This was actually a four-and-a-half-inch circular bronze plaque depicting Britannia, a lion and the name of the deceased. The disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions and some were reduced to the helplessness of the wounded soldier being pushed around Leicester in a pram in the picture below, taken in 1918.

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A Fit Country for Heroes? The Political Aftermath of the Armistice in Britain:

As the new minister for ‘war and air’, Winston Churchill understood the strange mix of emotions the country was feeling. He was responsible for demobilization which, before he took office, had already become a source of great anger and distress for all those who had survived the inferno. They were supposed to be discharged according to industrial and economic priorities, which inevitably meant slowly. Judging this inhuman, Churchill speeded up the rate of discharge and made wounds, age and length of service the priorities instead. But there was an outpouring of meaningless platitudes from politicians. Lloyd George proclaimed the fruits of victory with his usual eloquence in speeches like the following as the General Election approached at the end of the year, the second made in Wolverhampton on 23 November:

“Let us make the victory the motive power to link the old land in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before and that at any rate it will lift up those who have been living in dark places to a plateau where they will get the rays of the sun.”

” … the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed. Let us work together first. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”

‘Never again’ and ‘homes fit for heroes’ fell easily from the tongues of those who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ while persuading others to do the fighting.

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The purpose of the politicians to maintain the same corporate national effort as had been successful in the war did them credit, but it was shallowly interpreted and led to the blunder of the 1918 Election in Britain. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. A fresh mandate from the people was required for the work of peacemaking and to continue, the war-time coalition of all parties; both worthy aims to tap the patriotism of the country. But for sitting MPs the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons from the previous May on a criticism of the Coalition Government by a distinguished staff officer, a criticism which may have been ill-timed, but was fair. Those who supported the government in that vote had been given ‘coupons’, whereas the malcontents were ‘outlawed’ as far as their candidature in the forthcoming election was concerned. The immediate consequence of this was a descent from the Prime Minister’s high words after the Armistice about a peace based on righteousness, and the need to put away base, sordid, squalid ideas of vengeance and avarice. The coupon candidates swept the board in the election and gave the government a huge working majority with 484 members (see the caption above). Labour returned fifty-nine MPs and the non-Coalition Liberals were reduced to a little more than a score.

But the mischief lay more in the conduct of the campaign than in its result. Responsible statesmen lent themselves to cries about “hanging the Kaiser” and extracting impossible indemnities from Germany. Britain stood before the world as the exponent of the shoddiest form of shallow patriotism, instead of the reasoned generosity which was the true temper of the nation. The result of the election produced one of the least representative parliaments in British political history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, more like a chamber of commerce than a House of Commons. It did not represent the intelligence, experience or wisdom of the British people since it was mainly an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. It also left out certain vital elements of opinion, which as a consequence were driven underground. It mirrored the nation at its worst and did much to perpetuate its vengeful mood. The feverish vulgarities of the election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and engineers, and made infinitely harder the business of economic reconstruction. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been held in abeyance during the War and which could not afford any decline in esteem at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutional politics to more revolutionary ideas, attitudes and methods, as apparent on the continent.

The returned prime minister’s aspirations and promises were not met or fulfilled, and by 1919, the euphoria of victory was replaced by reality as the ex-servicemen found that their old jobs in fields and factories were no longer available. There followed a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst returning servicemen who often found themselves unemployed, as did many women who had worked in the munitions factories and other engineering works during the war. At the same time, the number of trade unionists had risen to its highest level since 1912 and the second highest since figures were kept in 1893. Trade Unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the ‘demobbed’ servicemen. The post-war boom was suddenly replaced by a trade slump, throwing many more out of work. The number of unemployed reached two million in 1921, and ex-servicemen stood on street corners selling matches, playing the barrel organ and singing for pennies. Some remembrance events were disrupted by protesting ex-soldiers as the year turned, and especially on the anniversary of the armistice, which had become ‘Poppy Day’. The picture below was taken outside the British Legion offices on 11 November 1921, showing a protest by the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors’ Federation.

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Dominions, Colonies & Mandates:

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John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and died of pneumonia in January 1918. He was a distinguished doctor who wrote an important book on pathology. He went to Europe in 1914 as a soldier, a gunner, but was transferred to the medical service and served as a doctor in the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His famous poem, In Flanders Fields, appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital in Boulogne but died before he could take up his appointment. Although written and published in the early years of the war, it is one of a number of poems that in various ways manage to look at the War from a distance. McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died.

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McCrae’s poem also serves to remind us of the contributions of the British Empire’s dominions to the war on the Western Front, and the effects it had upon them. But while the British only have to be reminded of the contributions of the ANZACs and the Canadians to the war in Gallipoli and on the Western front, their ‘gratitude’ to those from what Simon Schama has called the ‘off-white empire’ has been a lot less apparent. Nearly a million Indian troops were in service, both in the ‘barracks of the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front and in the ultimately disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Official estimates of Indian losses in that campaign were put at fifty-four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. At least forty thousand black Africans had served as bearers and labourers in the British armies in France, as well as a larger force fighting in the colonial African theatre; their casualty rates were not properly recorded, but they are likely to have been very high.

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The contribution of Indians made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would suffice to stem the nationalist tide, which Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India (pictured right), had described in November 1917 as a seething, boiling political flood raging across the country.  For a while, the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if he had done nothing else, wrote Montagu in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.

In the middle east, a whole gamut of British interests which previously had rested fairly heavily on Turkish neutrality was imperilled, chief among them, of course, the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The Arab Revolt which began in 1916 had helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields. But this did not solve Britain’s longer-term problems of how to safeguard its middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem of how to avoid quarrelling with its friends over it. To settle these problems, the British had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned after the war.

Then, in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It was the kind of commitment which could only have been made in wartime when political geography was so fluid that such an artificial creation could be considered. To reassure both the Arabs and the growing number of critics at home, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arab leaders in a series of ‘declarations’ from January to November 1918.

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By the end of the war, the middle east was a tangle of promises which Britain had made to the Arabs, to the Jews, to France, and to itself. They were contradictory, although no-one knew quite how contradictory, or how intentional the contradictions had been. Words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation in the middle eastern context as much as they were in the European one. The British believed that Arab ‘independence’ was quite consistent with a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon said at the end of the war that he was quite happy to accept ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the Arab people would ‘determine in our favour’.

In October 1915, the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon had promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire which had begun with British military and financial help in June 1916. But in one of the reservations to Arab independence contained in ‘the MacMahon Letter’ there was ambiguity in the use of one word, which in Arabic could refer either to a district or a province, and on that ambiguity hung the fate of Palestine. The most ambiguous term of all was in the Balfour Declaration, however, because although Balfour himself was subsequently clear that he had intended the promise of a national home in Palestine for the Jews to refer to a Jewish state, on the face of it the term could be taken to mean a number of lesser things. Yet no-one pretended that all the pieces of the diplomatic puzzle could be put together in such a way as to make them fit. Curzon was sure that MacMahon had promised Palestine to the Arabs, but Balfour read the exclusion of Palestine from Arab control into MacMahon’s ‘reservation’. These were contradictions of interpretation which led, after the war, to accusations of ‘betrayal’.  T. E. Lawrence (…of Arabia), who was to accompany the Arab delegation to Paris in January 1919, claimed that it had always been evident to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would be ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he was complicit in deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. 

The African-Near Eastern empire was much shakier in its loyalty after the war than before. In 1918, partly driven by the accumulating momentum of post-Khalifa Muslim nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals and politicians – the wafd – asked the British authorities to set a timetable for the end of the protectorate that had been in force since 1914. The high commissioner in Egypt did not dismiss them out of hand but was not optimistic. Even this degree of cooperation was laughed at by Curzon in London as being deeply unwise. When the rejection became known, the Egyptian government resigned and there were strikes and riots, precisely the same kind of demonstrations which occurred contemporaneously in India, and with even more tragic results. Some fifteen hundred Egyptians were killed over two months of fighting between the British army and the nationalists. As in Iraq, the anti-wafd monarchy was established on the understanding that Egypt would be ‘protected’, along with the Suez Canal, by British troops. The resentment caused by these events towards the British created the context for future conflicts over Egypt and Suez, and therefore in the middle east more widely.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government after the war simply because she had promised it to them. It might keep its promise and very often it did, but if it could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was modified subsequently, was determined much more by the immediate post-war conditions – the interests, strengths and weaknesses of the different parties at that time – than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the course of the war itself. The conditions which existed at the end of 1918 determined that, in colonial terms at least, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. Britain and its allies had won the war, Germany and Turkey had lost. This meant that there were a number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, and only Britain and France were in a position to ‘snaffle them up’, as Porter (1984) has put it. Japan would be satisfied with expanding its empire in the north Pacific, the USA did not want colonies, and Italy, whose contribution to the Entente victory had been negligible, was considered by the other allies not to deserve any.

The ‘Khaki’ election of December 1918 had returned Lloyd George’s wartime coalition with an unstoppable majority; Balfour, Curzon and Milner were all in it, and they were not the kind of men to exercise self-restraint in colonial matters. Neither was Churchill, the jaw-jutting, table-pounding belligerent defender of empire, as Schama has characterised him. Nor were the leaders of the Dominions. For his part as their Prime Minister, Lloyd George was not bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists accepting whatever fell into their laps. In the final days of the conflict, Leopold Amery had soothed his conscience by emphasising that while the war had been fought over Europe, incidentally …

… if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

This was probably the interpretation of Britain’s position that most people in Britain and the Dominions shared. The first result of the war for Britain was, therefore, a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up almost according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq, which may at first have looked like ‘annexations’ but were not called that at the time. In 1919 at Paris, they became ‘Mandates’ under the League of Nations, which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France to administer in the interests of their inhabitants, and with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, in the short-term these territories, together with Britain’s existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up, in Porter’s words, a tidy little middle eastern empire. As a result, the British Empire was larger than it had ever been. But in adding new territories to Britain’s collection of colonies, the war had also weakened her grip on old ones. The fact that the self-governing dominions had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily mean that they wished to be shackled to the empire in peacetime. In all of them, not just in India, the experience of war had stimulated local nationalism just as much as did a common imperialism, whether among Afrikaners or French-speaking Canadians.

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The war had provoked or provided an opportunity for, a more vigorous assertion of forms of nationalism with a harder edge than had existed before it. In India, the war had given the Muslim League over to Congress, and Congress over to the extremists. Before the war there had been violence and terrorism both in India and Ireland, but the mainstream of colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress or Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party: moderate in their aims, generally not in favour of absolute independence, and in their methods, which were constitutional. Sinn Féin in Ireland shared with Gandhi’s campaign of ‘non-cooperation’ a willingness to work unconstitutionally, outside the system. Many had assumed that the shared experience of fighting for a common cause would unite the Irish, but the unexpectedly long duration of the war changed everything. Support for the war by constitutional nationalists, and their willingness to compromise in the preceding negotiations exposed them to criticism from more extreme nationalists when the war dragged on. Dissatisfaction with the Irish Party – who sought Home Rome by constitutional means at Westminster – was galvanised by the events of Easter 1916. Ireland might possibly have accepted old-fashioned ‘Home Rule’, self-government in domestic affairs only, which had satisfied the constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, in 1914, had it not been for the fifteen punitive executions carried out after the ‘Easter Rising’, as depicted above. Moderate ‘Home Rulers’ were appalled by the heavy-handed reaction to the rebellion, the executions and the thousands of arrests which followed it.

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This alienation from British rule of any kind, combined by the willingness of the Irish Party to compromise and the looming introduction of conscription in Ireland turned the population away from the Irish Party to the more revolutionary objectives of Sinn Féin. This became increasingly apparent in the increasingly daring nature of the actions of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, but even clearer in the 1918 general election. The Republican party almost swept the board in the 1918 election, winning seventy-three seats compared with just six won by the constitutional nationalists, all of them in the North, though Sinn Féin actually only won forty-eight per cent of the vote, conducted on an all-Ireland basis. It was also clear that in Ulster, the contribution made by Irish regiments in the war had strengthened the determination of Protestants to remain within the United Kingdom. The Republicans refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. The electoral success of Sinn Féin was subsequently used to justify the republican’s violent campaign for independence, but their 1918 manifesto did not suggest the use of physical force but rather had strongly advocated passive resistance and an appeal to the Versailles Peace Conference. When this failed, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) became increasingly violent, leading to the outbreak of the bloody Anglo-Irish War in 1920.

The nationalist struggle in India and Ireland had shifted into a higher gear and this foreshadowed danger for the empire as a whole. By the end of 1918, it seemed secure from attacks from outside but was now more vulnerable than ever before to threats from within. It might be able to contain one of these at a time, two – as with India and Ireland – with difficulty, but if it were challenged on three or four fronts at the same time, it could collapse. With the troops back from the western front, the empire should have been in a position to contain trouble in Ireland or/and India. Its armies were big enough if they could be kept in ‘khaki’, but they could not, not because of the expense alone, but because of the very real threat of mutiny. Many of the soldiers were restless at not being demobilized immediately, and there were strikes and mutinies both in Britain and France. When they had beaten Germany the British soldiery felt they had done their job. They had not joined up to police the empire.

Churchill argued that the government had no choice but to speed up demobilization and in this, as in so many other matters in the immediate aftermath of the war, he was right. Looked at from the twenty-first century, the post-First World War Churchill was proved correct in almost all of his positions and prophecies – on Russia, Ireland, the Middle East and even on the issue of German reparations and the blockade put in place by Balfour to force assent. Often he would swerve from a hard-line to a soft one, so that having banged away like Lloyd George in the election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, he then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, as did Lloyd George, in opposing the blockade. After all was said and done, the Great War was a war which Britain only just won, with the help of its empire but also that of the USA. There had been many defeats along the way, as Lloyd George himself noted: the prestige and authority of the British Empire were still intact, even if dented and damaged.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

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

Centenary:
Armistice & Aftermath, 1918

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A Hungarian Traveller in Jacobean England: Márton Csombor of Szepes   Leave a comment

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Márton Csombor’s Europica Varietas was first published in Hungarian in 1620, but has only recently been translated into English, in 2014, by Bernard Adams, who has also written an introduction. Wendy Bracewell has written a preface. Csombor’s  book, republished in English by Corvina Books, was first printed in Kassa (Kosice, pictured above) as the first travel account published in Hungarian, but is part of the growing genre of European travel writing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He shows us Europe as seen through Hungarian eyes, but it is more than a simple travelogue of place-names and sights. His preface laments the paucity in Hungary of books about the laws, customs, dress and doings of  foreign countries, so that he fills in these details for each successive country visited. Only then does he recount the personal incidents of his journeys and sojourns in each country. He therefore follows a method, one which follows the advice of many contemporary manuals advising travellers how best to systematize the various things seen and heard on their journeys. His Protestantism led him to venerate the beauty of Canterbury, though his visit there was accidental (he confused Cantuaria/ Canterbury with Cantabrigia/ Cambridge and so substituted a visit to the cathedral for a visit to the famous university), and though it lacked any gold or silver decoration.

Born in 1595 in the small town of Szepes, now in southern Slovakia, Csombor was born to a bourgeois tradesman or craftsman about whom we know little. He went to school in Késmark in 1607, having very likely been sent there to learn German. Between 1609 and 1611 he returned to live in Szepes, from where he went on the series of journeys that marked his short life (he died of the plague in 1622, aged only 27). On his first trip, he was accompanied to Transylvania by his tutor, Márton Sámsondi. He then went to school in Nagybánya, where he studied Poetics, Logic, Greek and Theology until 1613. On leaving, he took a trip to Máramaros in Transylvania and on his return to Szepes began to plan other journeys to foreign countries. These were delayed, however, while he completed his secondary studies, and in 1615 he took a post as a schoolmaster in Tekibánya in order to earn a few forints for his travelling plans. In 1616 he set off to study at a gimnázium in Gdansk, Poland (Prussia at that time). He spent over a month walking the seven hundred miles to Gdansk, hitching lifts in carts, thus establishing a trend which he would use in later travels. He arrived there in June 1616 and stayed until 1618, concluding his studies in Philosophy and Theology. From there he set off on his tour of Europe, arriving back in early August 1618, then taking up the post of schoolmaster back in Kassa in February 1619, just as the Thirty Years War was beginning and the anti-Habsburg policies of Gábor Bethlen were beginning to be felt throughout the region. The Bohemian and Moravian estates had rebelled against the Austrians, and Bethlen joined them in the autumn of 1619. Elected Prince of Hungary on 21 September by the Parliament meeting at Kassa, Bethlen fought a successful campaign in Upper and Western Hungary. It was during this time that Csombor wrote his account of his travels of 1618, which he published in 1620. The freshness and immediacy of his writing, in Hungarian, contributed much more to the popularity of the book than the previous material derived from his predecessors could have done

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Above: Gábor Bethlen

His book forms an intriguing mixture of travel diary, personal reaction and reminiscence as he passes in swift succession, due to a rapidly shrinking purse, through a series of European towns and countrysides, meeting a wide variety of people and viewing much of lasting interest. It is not autobiographical in purpose; his clear object is to inform and entertain his reader with an account of cherished experiences. Due to that degree of objectivity, it is certainly of great use to historians. From Gdansk, he went by sea to Denmark, then to Holland and Zealand, and from there to England via the Thames, into London. The people of England, he commented early on in his chapter on ‘Anglia’, guard their lineage jealously, and when one speaks with them they trace their descent, be it never so humble, back to a noble or royal generation. The second topic of conversation, predictably to a modern reader, was the weather, and here he also drew a predictable response:

Those that live there say that England is much better and more moderate of climate than Gaul; there is neither such great cold nor such great heat there. It has wheat, rye and barley aplenty, only the ploughlands are all enclosed, from which it appears that it is costly because the people are many that require it, and there is other fruit too in abundance. It has livestock of many kinds, but chiefly many sheep, from the wool of which all kinds of fine cloths are made… they have a plentiful fleece which differs little from white silk. It is said that their sheep have such fine wool because they graze on the herb known as rosemary, which by nature has a sweet and moderate temperament, which matter I believe because on the meat of the sheep, when it has been butchered, a pleasing and delightful scent is to be detected.

He found all kinds of metal being mined and manufactured. Only the King’s coinage was accepted in trade, never any foreign currency, though silver and gold was taken in exchange, only by weight. English coinage was pure silver and gold, and could not be taken out of the country, but was exchanged at the ports into the money of the intended country of destination. Chalk, white marble and alabaster were to be found nowhere as fine as in England. In addition, jet-stone was used for eternally burning candles, which could only be extinguished with oil. There was also a legend that the powder from the stone could be mixed with wine to provide testimony of a maiden’s virginity. If they were virgins, it did not disagree with them, but if they were not, it made them vomit immediately.

There were no wolves in England at this time, though there may have been some in Hibernia (Ireland). Csombor had read in the Annales Civitatum Angliae that one reason given for this was that…

… as in this country the greatest profit comes from the keeping of sheep, in time gone by, since the citizens suffered great loss by wolves, a certain decree went forth from the common government that should a town, as an act of grace and mercy, reprieve a man sentenced to death for his crimes, he would be obliged to produce to the town council within a twelvemonth twelve wolves’ heads for his liberty, which being a frequent happening all the breed of wolves has disappeared from among them, and as (Britain) is on all sides surrounded by the sea there is no way that they can arise.

The date of the extermination of the wolf in England is thought to be around 1500; in Scotland and Wales perhaps as late as the eighteenth century, when the last Welsh wolf was killed, according to tradition, at Bleddfa in Powys. The story of the twelve wolves’ heads as the price of a reprieve connects with the legends of Robin Hood, who was said to have been made a Wolfshead (‘outlaw’) for killing a Norman knight, possibly his step-father, in a fight, hence his exile to the forest. The wolf was also a totemic symbol for the Anglo-Saxons. A fellow-traveller in Delft summed this up in a rhyme referring also to the growth of separatist puritans in England, wolves in England are nowhere to be found, but wolf-like heretics now there abound!  The longest day was said to be nineteen hours, but in summer the nights were so bright that craftsmen could work almost as well as by daylight, since the sun did not sink entirely below the horizon. 

The language was, he wrote, a mixture of the languages of Hibernia, Gallia and Germany. Their pronunciation, to his Hungarian ears, was very bad, since they pronounced every ‘u’ as ‘ü’ (in other words, without phonetics). Since he knew no English before he arrived on the island, his observations are those of an elementary learner, perhaps trying to match up written with spoken forms. Neither did he get as far north as Northumberland and Durham, let alone Scotland or Ireland, so would not have heard other dialects of English or Scots.

Observing the speakers of these odd combinations of vowels and consonants, he found them a handsome people of moderate physique. He thought the women folk were especially beautiful, clear and pale of complexion, tall, kind to foreigners, whom they greet with a kiss, both in the street and indoors, and a curtsy. It was evident, he wrote, that they were Anglae angelae, having so angelic an appearance. The male dress was similar to that of the Gauls, but they also wore wide-brimmed black hats. The women had many kinds of dress,  some wearing  high-crowned hats, plaiting their hair above their ears on both sides some wearing just kerchiefs. They widened their skirts with hoops and all agreed in having passed fourteen but not forty. He also commented on how they displayed their breasts very finely if they consider that they can stand forth in white and shapely form, into the cleavage whereof they hang a costly cross or ‘Agnus Dei’, as they call it. Both men and women rode horses, and the ‘girls’ were so good at racing that they could often out-race their husbands in the fields.

In terms of religion, true English people were of the Helvetian denomination, but bishops, organs, white robes in church and other such paraphernalia were preserved. The two great archdiocese, then as now, were Canterbury and York. In addition, there were 19 bishoprics and 50 chief towns. There were just the two universities, Cambridge and Oxford. In London, he was amazed above all at the people’s ignorance of Latin. In his autobiography, Miklós Bethlen also complained of this during his 1664 visit, though in his case with special reference to the professors at Oxford, whom one might have expected, even at that time, to have had a better command of what was still, for Hungarians, along with German, the international language of letters. Csombor was being rather too optimistic, nearly a decade after the mass printing of the King James Bible in English, to expect the craftsmen, shopkeepers and artisans of London to know anything of a language which people of their sort had largely abandoned at least a century before:

… I went along three whole streets among merchants, furriers, tailors etc. and nowhere found a single person that could speak to me in Latin, but after a long time I came upon an Italian on whom I expended the little Italian that I know, and who directed me to the common master of the Italians, saying that there was there a young Hungarian gentleman, at which I was highly delighted and sought him most assiduously, but although he called himself a Hungarian, he could not speak a word of Hungarian to me because he was a Czech, and had only wished to give himself a good name in coming from a distant land a therefore had called himself Hungarian.

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He found lodgings at The Fox and Hounds, by the Great Bridge (probably destroyed in the Great Fire, or possibly The Fox Hall Inn), and went out to look at London’s widest streets, probably including Cornhill. There he observed fine paved roads adorned with big houses and countless channels of running water. Water-sellers could be seen contending for this and taking it in wooden buckets from street to street. The buildings were very tall, made of stone, and their were also pillars bearing the coat of arms of Cornhill, decorated with beautiful images, but he soon found that many of the other streets were extremely narrow and not troubled by the light of the sun. He estimated the circumference of the city as being no more than about four and a half miles. He described London Bridge as the third wonder of the land of England, with eighteen arches… a veritable town in itself, with a church on it and countless merchants’ shops. He was drinking at a fountain near to the Tower of London when a Frenchman, thinking that I was of his nation, reproached me most severely; he held it a disgrace that in the eyes of those that lived there that one of his race should drink water, but on learning my country, he embraced me and begged my pardon, and left me honourably. 

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Entering via a small gate into the City of London, he next encountered a crowd of Saracen girls whom armed robbers had just brought from Ethiopia, and as they were selling them they had dressed them in very fine clothes. He made no further comment on this practice of slavery, being more concerned with describing a huge crayfish, or lobster, presumably more unknown than the slave trade in Hungary. Heading west, through Bishopsgate, with the King’s arms on the outside, and a church to the left on the inside, he saw magnificent grassed gardens where the fine London cloth is dried. Given that the stone wall around the gardens was half a mile in circumference, Csombor was amazed by the amount of cloth that was to be seen within it. He passed through a lower cemetary enclosed for the parish by the City of London just a few years before, in 1615, very near the Aldgate, another of the eight gates into the City. Going on up that street he came to the old Basilica, on the tower of which, before the hour was struck, the statues of two men dragged out a bell,…

… and I was reliably informed that both are cast in pure silver, and neither of them is smaller than me.

Neither the Basilica nor the two figures are mentioned by other contemporary commentators, but it may be St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate, the foundation of which goes back to the Priory dedicated by Matilda of Scotland, daughter of St Margaret (born in Hungary), and wife of Henry I, in 1115, though the origins of the site may go back even further to Saxon times. It was one of four medieval churches, each built by one of the gates to the City and dedicated to the seventh century Saxon saint. The original church was destroyed by the Great Fire, and the current church was built in two phases in the early and mid-eighteenth centuries. Csombor then walked on to St Paul’s Cathedral,

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… divided into three aisles, its paving-stones… inordinately large, and the sanctuary, in which there are many tombs of white, red and black marble and alabaster, is twelve steps above the nave; the sanctuary is opened only at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but looking in at a window I could see the effigy of a bishop carved in black marble; after the natural corruption of his bones they were dug up and placed above him (with) this verse:

Disce mori mundo, vivere disce Deo

(Learn to die to the world and to live to God)

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Next to the entrance to the Cathedral was a school, and behind that were streets where only booksellers lived, spread over a wide area, bigger than the Hungarian towns he knew. It took him two and a half hours to walk from Tower Hill to Westminster, so this must have included the time visiting the sights he described. He also visited Westminster Abbey which, because of its fine tombs, he agreed was worthily counted one of the three wonders of England. From there, he made his way through various courtyards and gardens to the King’s palace, without being stopped, and tried to glimpse King James,…

… but learnt from his servants that he… had not left his house for fourteen days, nor would he admit any on account of his great business. These palaces are enclosed on all sides by pleasure gardens, and apart from these walks and gardens have been planted with countless linden trees, so many that other than Italy, I believe, no country may boast more of its city, and any that has seen the king of England’s gardens, the people of his court and his palaces in this city will consider as nothing the graceless peasants of Germany…

Go look on London, you whom Fate had made a wanderer,

You who wish to see the land of England.

Seeing London you will see all that glitters under the English King;

this city is esteemed by the good.

Here are piety, calm safety and true love,

and here the faith is seated in a high place.

Csombor found English fruit, especially cherries, very expensive in London, especially compared with Hungary. He was told that the people of England were of such a disposition that when they see some new thing they will buy it at a high price, some for their lovers, some for their husbands, others for their good friends, some simply to hang it on their ears and keep it there until it becomes plentiful, merely as an ornament.

For him, the population of London was so great that he found it crowded every day. In addition to visitors, it was estimated that there were 300,000 people living there. He was clearly staggered by the amount of food entering the City, so that he could say with confidence that there was not a week in which a hundred and fifty oxen and a thousand sheep were not slaughtered there, not counting the numbers of birds and fish.

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Csombor gained entry with the schoolmaster at the Cathedral school, to the sanctuary of St Paul’s, where he saw the tombs of Seba, King of the East Saxons, erected in 677 (it was the kings of Essex who first founded the diocese of St Paul’s), that of King Aethelred I (871). He marvelled greatly at the sight of the extremely beautiful tombs of many bishops, because the carved effigy of each was so lifelike… nature could not find fault with their features. 

He was impressed by the custom by which each ship coming up the Thames fired all its cannon for the king’s pleasure, which could happen as many as two hundred times each day.

On leaving London, Csombor made for Canterbury, and found himself having to ascend Shooter’s Hill, but he soon met up with a pleasant Walloon as a travelling companion who nevertheless, after three or four miles, called for a horse and left Csombor. From the top of the hill, he could see far and wide, as it were a little province, over the City of London. There was a large beacon at the top, at which the City had stationed men so that they could send news of any danger to the towns and villages nearby. From there Csombor could observe a large part of southern England. Descending from the hill, he ate beside a spring and carved the following into a nearby tree, in Latin:

As he gazed on the countryside of England, Márton Csombor here ate and drank from this sweet spring.

He went on unaccompanied, passing Gravesend, and was in the forest beyond the town when he suddenly met with a great Saracen with an axe. He had never seen…

… a blacker man in my life, before or since, and he addressed me in English… but I could make no reply, but said nonetheless that I was making my way to Cantaurium; I was much afraid of his axe, but God granted that he parted from me with great civility having pointed out the way.

He then came to Rochester, a little town like a large French village, but half as big. By this time, the castle was already in ruins. He had seen stone bridges both large and small, but this was more beautiful than any, because its whole length had been decorated with painted ironwork and the arms of the King and country. Here he also saw four big galleys and and fourteen of the King’s ships, finer than those which he had seen in Prussia, Denmark, Frisia, Holland or Zealand; every one had ports for twenty-four guns. He went into an inn, not for a drink, but to have something to eat, and for the sake of appearances he asked for a beer. The barmaid came over to him, as if to pity him in his tiredness and long absence from home, and began to squeeze his hand, caress his head, and kiss him frequently, to which, as a Hungarian, he felt unaccustomed. Realising what she intended, he roused his tired limbs and set off again. Evening drew on, and after going a distance further, he slept at a good inn called The Two Monkeys. 

Setting out from Rocheser the next day, he covered the thirty miles to Canterbury in good time. However, unbelievably for modern Europeans, he had mistaken Canterbury for Cambridge, and, not being able to see it from a distance, was surprised to find its buildings quite poor, except, of course, the Cathedral. When he entered the Cathedral gate, he met James Lambe, the archdeacon, as he thought, though Lambe was in fact the vicar of nearby Holy Cross, Westgate. He asked him, in Latin, for the whereabouts of the grave of the Cambridge divine, Whittaker, and Lambe, who had just graduated from King’s College, Cambridge replied that he had mistaken Cambridge for Canterbury. Seeing that Csombor regretted his wasted journey, the priest told him not to worry, since here he would see the first wonder of England. Taking him by the hand, he took him to an inn, where both he and I became very merry on English beer. Lambe then sent for the key to the Cathedral in which, in papist times, the body of St Thomas of Cantuarium had been venerated, opened it, and took Csombor everywhere inside. The Hungarian felt that a more beautiful building no-one ever saw, for which reason it is reckoned as one of the three wonders of England. He went on:

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Never in my life would I have believed that so beautiful a church could be without gold or silver (for the golden vessels and vestments have all been removed thence) in this world. It has two exceedingly big towers outside; inside it is very high, and on the vaulting are all the coats of arms of the lords of the land; there are countless aisles in it, supported by some hundreds of black marble columns, many picturesque chapels and high and low flights of steps. There are two sanctuaries; the first, in which the everyday prayers and singing take place, is 22 steps above the nave, and there are the episcopal and the archiepiscopal seats; the lectern is very big, of pure Venetian brass, on which a great eagle holds the book on its spread wings; the second sanctuary is somewhat higher than the first, and in it lies the body of St Thomas. On all the columns in the nave there are books, exceedingly old, and among them, to show the eternal blindness of the papists, the Gospel of Nicodemus too is kept, in which there are as many falsehoods as words. There is no plain glass in the windows, but they are decorated with pictures of scenes from the New and Old Testaments; it is an amazing thing that among so many hundreds of columns every corner of the church is so light. A large chapter keeps the church nowadays too, and almost as in papist time they sing the psalms in antiphonal manner, and man, young and old alike, put on the monastic cowl and sing in monkish fashion.

Around the church on all sides are the palaces of the archbishop, bishop and canons, and a fine school, but principally a cloister, a wonderfully dark and serpentine building, in a word everywhere that one looks in this place one sees huge traces of antiquity. The town is not very big, nor beautiful, nevertheless it is flat, has many ruinous gardens, fine gates and a decent town hall; bread and wine are expensive there, and the beer is good and tolerable in price.

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Having seen all these things, Lambe and Csombor returned to the priest’s house where from three to six o’ clock they kept the company of the beer glasses. His host sought to detain him, but Csombor’s purse was becoming very thin, partly due to the cost of everything compared to Hungary, and partly due to the ‘exchange rate’ he was given for his gold forints, which were worth no more than 160 pennies each, about two-thirds of a pound. Taking leave of James Lambe, he set off for the coast; in the evening he came to a dense forest, and as he could no longer see his way ahead, he lay down under a thorn-bush. He was awoken by two peasants gathering wood who directed him to a nearby inn, but, as it was so late at night to disturb the innkeeper, and he had very little English, he decided to stay in the forest, surrounded by the song of nightingales and the doleful cries of owls.

Next morning he rose early and reached Dover at seven. It had two bastions, both overlooking the sea, with four cannon on each, and a strong castle on the hilltop almost like that of Szepes, its walls extending to the seashore. Here, and in the other coastal towns of England, the sailors would not take anyone on board without credentials. He therefore went to the Commissioner of the Passage (an official appointed by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to issue licenses to travel abroad) who mistook him for a Walloon and therefore questioned him in French. When he replied in Latin, the Commissioner continued in German, questioning him as to where he was from and what his religion was. Csombor said that he was a Protestant from the city of Frankfurt ad Oderan in Germany, and was therefore given a pass for the Normandy port of Dieppe. From Dieppe, he went on to Paris and then through Germany to the Czech lands and Silesia, returning to Kassa via Krakow. He arrived home in August 1618, having set off in April. He was then ordained in the Calvinist Church and became Schoolmaster in Kassa in 1619. His little book appeared in 1621, but Csombor died in an epidemic of plague the following year.

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