Wednesday, December 29, 2010
This book presents rare insights about a little-known aspect of the 1914-1918 conflict. It is the first history of the only primarily black African military unit raised by the British in Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) to fight in World War One. Like their German opponents, the British recruited “native” troops in various regions of Southern Africa. Typical RNR volunteers were ex-miners or farm workers living in what are now Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi. They were commanded by European officers, mostly British settlers or frontiersmen seconded from the British South Africa Police. Despite tropical heat, meagre food, and fatal diseases, the RNR fought well in a gruelling campaign for two years against German and African forces led by the wily General Paul von Lettow Vorbeck.
Stapleton’s researches into unit war diaries, personal reminiscences, previously unpublished manuscripts, and Zimbabwean National Archives formed the basis of this unique military history. Sad to say, even though some of its members received British medals for bravery, the Rhodesia Native Regiment was quickly disbanded after the war and soon forgotten. He found it was also ill-served by the current Zimbabwean government’s anti-colonial policy that led to the destruction of all local monuments to these valiant but unheralded Africans who died in white men’s wars.
-- Sidney Allinson.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Shortly after dawn on Dec. 25, 1914, the first Christmas Day of the First World War, hundreds of British and German troops spontaneously climbed out of their trench fortifications and crossed the usually deadly No Man's Land between to shake hands with their enemies, exchange gifts, and sing carols together. Considering they had been fighting each other for almost five deadly months, costing the lives of half a million men already, this brief unofficial truce still remains one of the most astonishing but heart-warming Christmas stories of peace during war.
In the 96 years since, the world's attitude toward warfare has changed immensely. If the very idea of millions of civilized volunteer soldiers killing each other is incomprehensible to most people now, the fact that thousands of them called a temporary truce in 1914 and greeted each other with brotherly love does have an appeal to modem-day pacifism. Considering that between August and December, 1914, the small British Expeditionary Force had lost 89,964 trained soldiers and Germans suffered similar heavy casualties, it is all the more surprising their survivors took part in this legendary Christmas Truce.
When repeated attacks proved unable to force either side to retreat, the Western Front battlefield became deadlocked into a line of opposing trenches that stretched from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast. Crouching in these muddy ditches, often knee-deep in freezing water, the hapless soldiers endured continual shellfire and counterattacks day and night without any let-up.
It was bitterly cold that frosty Christmas Eve along the British sector between Messines and Neuve Chappele in Flanders, with crystal-clear moonlight illuminating the enemy trenches opposite. Both foes had often shouted insults or even jokes across the mere 90 metres that separated them at some points, but this time the Germans began to sing Christmas hymns instead. They harmonized Stile Nacht, Heilige Nacht, in reply to which, British choirs raised their voices in Silent Night. One Scotsman later recalled ruefully, "I don't think we were as harmonious as the Jerries,"
All gunfire stopped and a suddenly friendly atmosphere grew at nightfall when candle-lit Christmas trees and paper lanterns began to appear on the German parapets, accompanied by harmonious singing of Oh, Tannenbaurn. Then came Teutonic calls of, "How are you tonight, Tommy?" British soldiers shouted back their own goodwill, "Nice singing, Fritz! Merry Christmas!"
The overtures were not a complete surprise, though, as rumours had been circulating since the night before that an unauthorized live-and-let-live period might honour the Holy Day. It seems to have been initiated by a few German junior officers. They carried lanterns while they came across to British lines the previous night to propose a temporary ceasefire period during the Christmas Season.
British front line commanders agreed, at first seeing it mostly as an opportunity to safely recover the bodies of their men who still lay in No Man's Land. They sent out burial parties who worked peaceably alongside Germans who were recovering their own dead.
Senior British officers who caught wind of the arrangement had a somewhat less sentimental attitude. On Dec. 24, Field Marshal Sir John French had sent a message to all British units. "It is thought that the enemy may be contemplating an attack during Christmas or New Year. Therefore, special vigilance will be maintained during these periods." As the commander-in-chief was ensconced in safe comfort well to the rear, front-line officers turned a blind eye to their men's respite from combat by fraternizing on Christmas morning.
For hours, enemy soldiers - Saxons and Scots, Bavarians and Englishmen - patted each other on the back, exchanged buttons off their uniforms as souvenirs, sang carols together, gave gifts of British cigarettes or Berlin cigars, admired family photos, and laughed heartily at the latest London music-hall jokes. A surprising number of the German soldiers had been working in England just a few weeks before, and spoke nostalgically of happier times. The few who did boast they would be marching victoriously through London within a month were only laughed down by Tommies. Several soccer games between national teams were arranged, with hardened troops kicking improvised footballs in the snow like carefree schoolboys.
A British soldier later wrote home, "Just think, while you were eating your turkey, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!" One German participant commented, "It was a day of peace in war. It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace."
Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, who became a hugely popular cartoonist, recalled, "This was my first real sight of them at close quarters - actual soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate shown on either side that day. Yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match."
A certain young Austrian soldier named Adolf Hitler in a reserve trench was furious when his comrades went forward to join the truce. He shouted after them, "Such a thing should never happen in wartime! Have you no sense of German honour at all?"
Henry Williamson, later a prolific novelist and wildlife conservationist, recalled, "I took the addresses of two German soldiers, promising to write to them after the war. I had a childlike idea that if all those in Germany could know what the soldiers had to suffer, it might spread, this truce of Christ on the battlefield, to the minds of all."
Despite such congeniality, few participants forgot the grim realities for long. One veteran sergeant of the Norfolk Regiment warned his platoon, "Remember lads, we're still at war, so keep a sharp lookout." He noticed that among the smiling Germans were a few quietly watchful men wearing mud-caked uniforms that bore the green shoulder-lanyards denoting trained snipers. He warned off one who was obviously taking stock of British defence positions, "That's close enough, Fritz. Now hop it!"
British officers also took advantage of the opportunity to observe details behind enemy lines. Capt. Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards disguised his rank with a stocking cap and corporal's overcoat to escort some visiting Germans back to their barbed-wire line. "Having a jolly good look around all the time, picking up various little bits of information. We parted after an exchange of cigarettes, and I went straight to HQ to report what I had seen.”
By nightfall of Christmas Day, infuriated senior commanders on both sides sent firm orders that such unauthorized peacefulness must end. "Hostilities to re-commence immediately." German and British officers arranged to start fighting again around midnight on Boxing Day. They symbolically fired their revolvers into the air, saluted and wished each other good luck.
The First World War was to grind on mercilessly for another four years without pause, that single early Christmas Truce forgotten. Eventually, the war cost the lives of almost a million British Commonwealth troops and many more French and Germans before the final Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.
Victoria historian Sidney Allinson is
author of "The Bantams; The Untold
Story of World War One."
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
THE SOMME AND TOLKIEN -- A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine, BBC News Magazone.
Ninety years ago, Allied commanders launched the World War I offensive lastingly remembered as the Battle of the Somme. At 7.30am on 1 July, 1916, officers blew their whistles to signal the start of the attack. As 11 British divisions clambered out of their trenches and walked slowly towards the enemy lines, German machine guns opened fire, causing wholesale carnage. The first day of that battle was the bloodiest in the whole history of the British Army. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties; almost 20,000 were dead, including 60% of all the officers involved.
One of those who survived that horrific first assault, and who endured the prolonged ghastliness of the months of fighting that followed, was the young JRR Tolkien.
The Allied plan had been to launch a coordinated Anglo-French assault. The British would attack along a 15-mile front north of the meandering river Somme. Five French divisions would attack along an eight-mile front through rolling farmland south of the Somme. To ensure a rapid advance with minimal resistance, Allied artillery had been pounding German lines for a week beforehand, firing over a million and a half shells at the enemy.
British soldiers recalled later how throughout the night before the battle, the entire length of the English trenches shuddered and vibrated from the reverberating shock waves of uninterrupted big gun bombardment of the enemy lines.
The saturation bombardment was supposed to annihilate the opposing forces, leaving their positions undefended. Cavalry units would then pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans. But open preparations for the assault gave clear advance warning of an impending attack, and German troops simply moved into underground concrete bunkers and waited.
Almost five months later, the Allies had advanced only five miles, at a cost of over half a million lives. Early in 1917, the Germans fell back from their positions for strategic reasons. Their withdrawal made a mockery of the months of bitter battle and appalling loss of life. It had all been for 'a few acres of mud'.
Intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter.
At the Somme, the new, devastatingly efficient weapons of mass destruction -the tank, mustard-gas and the machine gun - marked the beginning of mechanised warfare on a huge scale. War would never be the same again.
The poet Wilfred Owen was killed in the final week of World War I at the age of 25. His poems offered searing testimony to the way this new kind of war ended any possibility of romanticising personal sacrifice, or elevating the individual in combat to the status of hero.
For me, his Anthem for Doomed Youth captures better than any military history an absolute disenchantment, no matter how "good and true" the cause:
"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns?
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle?
Can patter out their hasty orisons."
A more mundane kind of eye-witness account - but as compelling - comes from an extraordinary collection of audio-recordings of the recollections of ordinary serving soldiers, to be found on the Imperial War Museum website as part of a virtual Somme commemoration.
Pte Don Murray, for instance, recalls how, as he and his comrades walked towards the enemy lines, the Germans appeared from their bunkers: "They just wound up their guns on automatic and fired... and of course they just mowed us down."
And he goes on to evoke the sense of numbing isolation, still vivid to him all those years later, he says: "And it seemed to me eventually there was just one man left, I couldn't see anybody at all, all I could see was men lying dead, men screaming... and I thought what can I do, I was just alone in a hell of fire and smoke and stink."
Tolkien had just graduated from Oxford with a first-class degree in literature when he saw his first active service at the Somme. From July 1916 until he was invalided out with trench fever at the end of October, he experienced the full relentless ghastliness of day after day of trench life under fire - the discomfort, the cold, the mud, the lice, the fear, the unspeakable horrors witnessed.
He had taken comfort from the fact that he was fighting alongside his three oldest and dearest friends from his school-days - a quartet of gifted would-be-poets who hoped to become outstanding literary men. But by November, two of those friends were dead.
Tolkien and the one other surviving member of their "club" were never able to rebuild a closeness shattered by the enormity of what had occurred - by the sense of total loss, the obliteration of the band of friends almost before their creative lives had begun.
Imagination is a uniquely human attribute. Freely exercised, it allows each of us to transform our everyday experience, elevating it into something more consolingly meaningful. How, then, does the human imagination cope with trauma of the kind Tolkien and his fellow-soldiers experienced in 1916?
We might expect those months of unremitting horror in the trenches of the Somme to have fed into, and coloured, the ferocious battles and scenes of slaughter in Tolkien's three-part "Lord of the Rings" (begun in the 1930s), or in "The Fall of Gondolin" which he began writing while convalescing in the spring of 1917.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Among other distortions, is the movie’s melodramatic portrayal of the moments before his execution, when the actor has Morant shout at the firing-squad, “Shoot straight, you bastards!”
The facts of Morant’s last moments were described in a letter written at the time by an Australian eye-witness, Mr. J. H. Morrow, warder of the Pretoria Gaol, with reference to the shooting of Lieutenant Morant and Handcock. The letter was mailed to a mutual friend, dated March 1, 1902, and published in an Adelaide newspaper. The letter states :-
"Dear George, I write these few lines to you on behalf of Lieutenant H. H. Morant, who was shot here on February 27, two days ago, by order of court-martial. His last word was that I should write and tell you that there were four officers -- one South Australian, one Victorian, one New South Welshman, and one New Zealander, all Australians -- concerned. The South Australian and the New South Welshman were shot, and the others were transported [to prison]."
"It is quite a mystery here regarding the deed. All I know is that they shot 38 Boers, and there are rumours circulating that these Boers surrendered to them. Morant told me that he was guilty of shooting the Boers because they shot his captain.”
“I was the warder who was in charge of the officers the last week they had on earth, and they faced their doom as brave as men could do. Everyone said it was a pity to shoot two such brave men. Morant came out here with the South Australian Mounted Rifles with which you and I enlisted. Morant got a commission with the Bushveldt Carbineers, and I went on the railway here, and I was only transferred to this prison about six weeks ago. I was not here when they came here.
They had been in prison at Pietersburg for four months, and then they were transferred to Pretoria, where sentence was passed upon them. They were shot next morning at 6 o'clock, and were buried at 5 o'clock in the evening. There were a large number of Australians at the funeral; no less than 30 of them were Australian officers. I felt it very much.”
“The only reply given by the two men when asked if they were ready was, 'Yes, where is your shooting party?” and the men marched out hand in hand. The firing party went to blindfold the men, but Morant said, 'Take this thing off,” and pulled the handkerchief off. As the two sat in the chair awaiting death Morant remarked, 'Be sure and make a good job of it.' Morant folded his arms across his chest and looked them straight in the face. The firing party fired, and Morant got all in the left side, and died at once. With his arms folded and his eyes open you would have thought he was alive."
[See other passing reference in “KRUGER’S GOLD: A novel of the Anglo-Boer War.”]
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Possibly more depressing, there is also a steady decline of public interest in the entire subject. One can repeat until blue in the face the wise old saw, "A nation ignorant of its history is doomed to repeat it."
Here is one likely cause of the circumstance:
Historian Jack Granatstein, an outspoken critic of the public school system, said there is no doubt in his mind that "standards have collapsed."
After becoming director of the Canadian War Museum, Mr. Granatstein said one of the reasons he left his long-time teaching position at York University was that "the students were so depressingly bad."
"They could not write a sentence, they could not read or understand complex things, they had lost the ability to speak in sentences, and... on top of that, they had no knowledge of history," said Mr. Granatstein, author of his controversial book, Who Killed Canadian History? (HarperCollins).
He blames the schools and teachers in large measure. "They could all use a computer," he said of his former students at YorkU, "Perhaps they had some skills I didn't know about."
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
In 1902, just as in 2010, guerrilla fighters challenged the might of the pre-eminent world power. A 100 years ago it was Dutch settlers, called Boers, fighting Great Britain for possession of South Africa. Today, a band of Islamic extremists attack the United States and its allies everywhere.
The lesson from both: small forces are potent. Kruger's Gold is not a dry military history book, nor does the reader miss anything if, like this reviewer, he or she comes to it more or less ignorant of the Anglo-Boer War that took place in 1899-1902.
Victoria author Sidney Allinson has written the sort of gripping, fast-moving novel that keeps you turning pages long after bedtime. The characters and their loves and hatreds, their ideals and weaknesses, failures and triumphs, would have provided the human material for a thoroughly satisfying novel even if presented in an imaginary setting.
The novel's hero is a Canadian volunteer from Victoria, Lieut. Harry Lanyard serving with the British Army. Given the choice between disgrace before a court martial and leading a particularly hazardous mission, Lanyard takes the latter. With a rag-tag troop of mainly Canadian mounted infantry, Lanyard is ordered to recover a king's ransom in stolen gold bullion - enough money to keep the Boers fighting for goodness knows how many more years.
The gold had been looted by Boer president Paul Kruger, hence the book's title -- an actual real-life hidden treasure, portions of which are still being discovered to this day. And hence also, the skilful merging of the fictional characters in the foreground of the story with the meticulously researched historical events that provide the backdrop.
We are introduced to the tough Afrikaner Boer fighters whose title "Commando" has been handed down through generations since as the hallmark of military excellence. We discover to our chagrin that the South African War also fathered the concentration camp, a term now synonymous with death. Although these camps were devised initially by the British as shelter for destitute families whose homes had been torched by one side or the other in this increasingly cruel campaign, disgraceful mismanagement and rampant disease reduced the camps to death-traps.
Meanwhile, the action continues: ambush, deception, guerrilla warfare, espionage mutiny, pitched battles and encounters with bandits - while a forbidden romance struggles to survive across the invisible line separating friend from foe.
Lieut. Lanyard would be a real asset in today's Special Forces; but is this enough to gain his two objectives, Kruger's gold, and the love of his life, the Boer-American girl, Beth?
This book has stirred great interest among historians and military buffs of the period, some of whom have been brought up on "official" versions of events that omit what is unpalatable about your own side. The truth is that war brings out the best and the, worst in mankind and there never was an unblemished battle record. Sidney Allinson pays his respects to Boers, Brits, and colonials, and avoids any temptation to portray the fighting in terms of good guys and bad. To assist the keen researcher, the author includes a glossary, casualty statistics and bibliography, plus a summary of later events in South Africa.
Reviewer Maurice Tugwell is a retired brigadier of the British Army, and director of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
A roofing salesman who studies Canada's military past in his spare time has prompted the country's professional historians to rethink one of the great controversies of the First World War: the success -- or not -- of the conscription policy that created a deep national divide along French-English lines.
Michel Gravel, a history buff from Cornwall, Ont., has unearthed what appears to be a significant error in the traditional calculation of how many conscripted soldiers were sent into battle before the end of the war. And the find has been hailed as "a great service to scholars" by none other than Jack Granatstein, the dean of Canadian historians.
Generations of war chroniclers -- most notably Mr. Granatstein himself, author of a book on the subject, as well as the conscription entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia -- have accepted the figure of 24,132 compulsory recruits who reached the front lines in Europe.
Mr. Gravel probed the conscription question while researching his recently published biography of Ottawa native Sgt. Hillie Foley, a long-overlooked hero from the First World War. Part-time researcher Gravel discovered evidence that as many as half of the supposed Canadian conscripts were actually British-born Americans who volunteered for overseas duty through a U.S.-based recruitment drive orchestrated by British patriots in North America.
The British-American recruits were sent north to enlist in Canada until mid-1918, when the U.S. military announced its own draft.
"The error came about because both volunteers obtained by the recruiting missions in the U.S.A. and conscripts raised in Canada were assigned regimental numbers from the same block (3,000,000 to 4,000,000)," Mr. Gravel writes in an appendix to his book about Foley.
"This made it impossible to tell the American volunteers apart from the Canadian conscripts ...The contribution to the great Canadian victories of 1918 by these late-war volunteers from the U.S.A. has never been examined."
Mr. Gravel's conclusions about the conscription numbers have impressed Mr. Granatstein.
"Gravel launches a full frontal assault on the standard and accepted numbers of conscripts who went overseas in 1918. I'm one of the people he attacks, and I'm afraid I must agree that he is likely right," Mr. Granatstein writes in the latest edition of Legion magazine.
"I took as fact the number of 24,132 put forth in Col. G.W.L. Nicholson's official history (as did everyone else), but Gravel -- who comes to it all with a fresh, skeptical eye -- has done a great service to scholars by parsing the data with exemplary care.
"By studying regimental numbers, by examining the late war volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force recruited in the U.S., Gravel has forced me to reassess matters. The Military Service Act of 1917 clearly worked less well than the politicians -- and the historians -- believed."
The act was passed in August 1917 by the wartime Conservative government of Robert Borden. Opposition to the plan in French Canada was intense and nearly universal, prompting realignments in Parliament and riots in Quebec in response to a measure that forced thousands of young men to fight in what some Canadians viewed as an essentially "foreign" war.
Borden, who had once pledged not to impose a military draft, had become convinced by the summer of 1917 that the terrible carnage in Europe -- even in victories such as Vimy Ridge, the focus of a landmark 90th anniversary commemoration in France last week -- meant Canada's army would collapse without a faster flow of reinforcements than voluntary recruitment alone could supply.
But recognizing the huge political risks, Borden invited rival Liberals who would back conscription to join his Tories in a bipartisan Union government. Many from English Canada did, but Quebec MPs remained solidly against the policy, crippling the Conservative party in that province and deepening the country's French-English rift.
And what was achieved? Though the policy was intended to raise 100,000 front-line soldiers, the war ended in November 1918 with the number of deployed conscripts still well short of the target. To many historians, including Mr. Granatstein, even the 24,132 figure represented a failure for Borden's policy.
The much lower number suggested by Mr. Gravel's research could erase any lingering doubts about whether conscription was worth the trouble it caused for Canada.
Mr. Gravel, who spent five years and $15,000 to publish his book, says Mr. Granatstein's "gracious" endorsement of his discovery is deeply satisfying -- particularly since "I never went to university, and make my living selling roofing materials."
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Saturday, October 02, 2010
The most critical issue connected with historical writing in general, and historical novels in particular, is the problem of revisionism. Revisionism is a deadly and contagious condition which afflicts some researchers – and more than a few novelists. Its chief characteristic is the urge to "reveal" something extraordinary to the public, which will cause readers to completely change their opinion about how and why the event being described occurred.
Revisionism is not to be confused with valid new research which fills broadens our knowledge and understanding of historical incidents. This is what legitimate historical research is all about, though the distinction between the two can sometimes by subtle. Revisionism, however, can be clearly identified because its theory is always astoundingly new and sensational and turns an accepted historical happening upside down.
Have you ever noticed that nowadays nothing of consequence happened the way it was originally explained? Napoleon Bonaparte died of cancer, yet now two centuries later, it is widely accepted that he was poisoned by his British guards. Millions of credulous folk firmly believe Princess Diana was not simply killed in an automobile accident caused by her drunk driver, she was "murdered by the British Secret Service". Lone assassin” Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill JFK” -- the dastardly CIA did it. Amelia Earhart did not crash her plane into the Pacific and die; “she came down on a desert island and was shot as a spy by the Japanese.” James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King; he was the patsy for some huge conservative conspiracy. These are just a few typical examples of fashionable (and comical) revisionism.
Although most of these examples are from the 20th Century, wise men throughout the ages have been well aware of this tendency by some to disbelieve the obvious. Why is this belief in "hidden truth" so pervasive? For the public, there are many reasons: an under-lying distrust of anything said by authorities; a need to believe that bad things just could not happen to people in a simple or random manner; and finally, there may be the delight caused by gossip or sensationalism.
For historians, it is even more complicated. As human beings, they are subject to the other motives, but additionally, the very validity of their field of study rests on their ability to revise. There is a fundamental presumption within the discipline that what is known to have happened did not happen in the generally accepted manner or for the generally accepted reasons. Furthermore, their professional reputations and individual egos are based on their revisions. Any historian who investigates the French Revolution and discovers that it simply happened exactly as described in history books is professionally dead. This drive to radically alter the accepted truth is not the only reason many historians change history; they also change it for cultural or national self-interests, or the simple urge for political correctness.