Sunday, 31 January 2016

Raising wartime morale in Paris

The date was June 12th 1942. France had been under German occupation for two years and a parade of German soldiers marched down the Champs Elysées in Paris every day, reportedly between 12.15 and 12.45. For the ordinary French person, who was deeply patriotic and conscious of the symbolism of such an act, this was a humiliation that was difficult to bear.

At one end of the Champs Elysées stood (and still stands) the magnificent Arc de Triomphe, commissioned in 1806 to commemorate the victories of Napoleon Bonaparte and inscribed with the names of French military successes and the generals who carried them  out. Nothing could have lowered French morale more than to have this monument mocked by the seemingly invincible army of the hated Germans.

However, the Royal Air Force had a surprise in store. Flight Lieutenant Ken Gatward, together with his navigator Flight Sergeant George Fern, volunteered for a daring solo daytime mission, the aim of which was to ambush the German parade and perform the symbolic act of dropping the flag of the Free French on to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, from their twin-engined Bristol Beaufighter.

The mission had had to be abandoned three times, due to lack of cloud cover, but on the morning of June 12th Gatward and Fern were able to fly at low level all the way across the English Channel and northern France, avoiding detection by not rising more than 30 feet above the waves or the ground. This plan nearly came unstuck when a bird was hit and got stuck in a radiator, but this did not impede the aircraft.

On reaching Paris exactly on time the plane banked over the Champs Elysées but there were no German troops to be seen. It turned out that the SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent who had given the original report about the daily parade had got the time wrong and the parade had yet to take place. However, the fighter plane was able to fire off a few salvos at the HQ of the Gestapo and the two RAF men saw a number of SS officers running for cover as the cannon shells found their mark.

The secondary objective of the mission, namely the dropping of the flag, was achieved to perfection, and the symbolic act of restoring pride to a demoralised nation was a triumph in itself. It proved to the ordinary French man and woman that they had not been abandoned and that, despite the apparently total control over them of the Nazi military machine, there were times when its impenetrability could be breached.  The sight of the German officers being reduced to waving their fists at the departing Beaufighter must have gladdened the hearts of many an onlooker.

Flight Lieutenant Gatward was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, and after the war he was honoured by the French government and presented with own French tricolour flag. His unusual mission showed that raising morale can be one of the most effective weapons in winning a war.

Ken Gatward continued to serve in the RAF for thirty years before retiring. He died in 1988 at the age of 84.

© John Welford

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The General Strike, May 1926

The General Strike of May 1926 was short, and a failure, but it had a profound effect on how trade union leaders and members regarded themselves and their place in the economic life of the United Kingdom.

The causes of the General Strike

The General Strike of 1926 is looked upon as the “gold standard” by some of today’s militant unionists who regard it as a triumph that they would like to repeat. Bringing the vast majority of working people out on strike at the same time would be seen by them as a good way of asserting their industrial muscle.

Ironically, it was a real “gold standard” that was the root cause of the strike. The Conservatives, under Stanley Baldwin, won the General Election of 1924 and replaced Ramsay Macdonald’s short-lived minority Labour government. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer was Winston Churchill, whose greatest desire was to return Britain and the pound sterling to the gold standard that it had left on the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Gold Standard Act of 1925 had the effect of over-valuing the pound and making it more difficult for British goods and services to be sold abroad. Prices rose sharply, as did unemployment in such labour-intensive industries as coalmining and shipbuilding. The owners of mines and factories wanted to cut wages (and lengthen working hours) in order to lower export prices, whereas their employees sought increased wages to compensate for the higher prices of food and goods.

An added pressure on the mine-owners was the renewed production of coal from mines in Germany that had been closed after the 1914-18 war. This extra competition meant that British mines needed to keep their prices as low as possible, even if this meant being bribed with government subsidies so that they avoided the need to cut wages.

A Royal Commission was established in 1925 under Sir Herbert Samuel to investigate the economics of coal production, and it reported in March 1926 by recommending that subsidies be withdrawn and wages be cut, but that miners’ hours should not be increased. This compromise pleased nobody, with the mine owners and trade union leaders subsequently taking more entrenched positions.

The miners’ leader, A J Cook, came up with the slogan: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”. Lord Birkenhead, who was a notable lawyer and a friend of Winston Churchill, remarked that he had thought the unionists to be the stupidest men he had ever met, until he met the mine owners.

The course of the Strike

It was the mine owners who brought matters to a head on 1st May, in what certainly looks like an act of stupidity, by locking union members out and refusing to let them work until they accepted a wage cut. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) then called on all union members in affiliated unions to come out on strike on 3rd May. The General Strike had begun.

One myth associated with the General Strike is that it was truly “general” by being a united strike by all members of TUC affiliated unions. It is true that around one and a half million workers downed tools, but ninety percent of them were miners and the rest came out in their support. Some important groups of workers were not called out on strike, including those in the vital sector of power generation. Given that virtually all the electricity and domestic gas supply was produced by the burning of coal, the lights would stay on and food would be cooked for as long as the coal stocks held out.

However, the public transport unions did strike, and the popular image of the General Strike is of upper-class students from Oxford and Cambridge manning the buses and trains to keep them running. However, there is another myth here, because most of the strike-breakers came from the same working-class background as the strikers.

There were fears among some in high places that the General Strike would turn into a “British Revolution”, but this also proved to be far from reality. The strike was pursued with hardly any violence, certainly not against the Police and armed forces who guarded the power stations and other key facilities, and not even against the many strike-breakers. Apart from suffering the inconvenience caused by interruptions to transport and various other services, the British public took the General Strike in their stride and patiently saw it through.

The legacy of the Strike

The General Strike ended as suddenly as it had begun, with the TUC calling it off on 12th May, having gained nothing from the nine days that it lasted. Far from being the class war that had been anticipated, the strike proved to be little more than a bloodless skirmish.

The country was little different at the end of the nine days than it had been at the beginning. Most of the miners stayed on strike for some time longer, but coal supplies held up well enough to allow the infrastructure of the power and transport systems to continue. Britain stayed on the gold standard for another five years, but was eventually forced to leave it for ever in 1931.

Worse conditions were to follow for working people during the Great Depression that was not far away, starting in 1929, with its rocketing unemployment and hunger marches.

However, although the General Strike was a failure, from the working class point of view, it did mark a major step forward for the trade union movement in that it showed how working people could act together and demonstrate solidarity against oppressive owners and managers of factories and mines. The unions now knew that they had a powerful weapon at their disposal in the battle for workers’ rights and improved conditions, and later union leaders were to make full use of their growing power as the century progressed.

The General Strike also did much to accelerate the growth of the Labour Party at the expense of the Liberals, with Labour winning the largest number of seats at the 1929 general election. The mining areas of Britain would be rock-solid territory for Labour for decades to come, and that legacy continues to the present day, especially in South Wales.
Whether there will ever be another general strike in Britain is a matter of conjecture, given the relative weakness of the trade union movement at the present time. However, the 1926 example is still one that many on the left-wing fringes of trade unionism look back on with misty-eyed fondness.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-3

31st January 1943 saw one of the major turning points of World War II when the German Sixth Army surrendered at Stalingrad.

When Adolf Hitler had ordered the capture of Stalingrad the previous September he believed that the Red Army was on the point of collapse and that the fall of the city named after the Soviet leader would be the knockout blow, both physically and psychologically. However, he had completely overlooked not only the size of the force that was ready to be launched against the Germans but also the determination of the Russian people to oppose him. Also, just like Napoleon Bonaparte more than a century before, he had ignored the effects of the Russian winter which comes early and with devastating consequences.

The battle for Stalingrad was savage and costly, as troops fought their way through the city street by street and building by building, most of which were soon reduced to rubble.

The snow began falling on 12th November and on 22nd November the entire Sixth Army, of nearly 300,000 men, was surrounded and cut off from its supply lines. Thousands of men died from exhaustion and starvation, as well as from Red Army attacks.

When surrender was eventually forced on the Germans there were only 91,000 prisoners to be taken, including 22 generals. An eye-witness remarked that the generals appeared to be in considerably better shape than the soldiers under their command.

Of those 91,000 men, only 5,000 survived being prisoners of war and were released when the war ended. Even so, the final tranche of 2,000 men did not get home until 1955, ten years after peace had been declared.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A double suicide with tragic consequences

On 30th January 1889 an event occurred that was to have tragic consequences years later, although the event itself was tragic enough for those involved.

This was the double suicide of Prince Rudolf, son and heir of Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria-Hungary, and his young mistress, Baroness Maria von Vetsera.

Rudolf was a married man, but it was not a happy marriage and Rudolf resorted to a string of mistresses, most notably a 16-year-old that he met at a ball in Vienna. This infuriated Franz-Joseph and caused a deep rift to open between father and son.

On 28th January Franz-Joseph told Rudolf that both he and the Pope were completely opposed to a divorce and that Rudolf would have to fall into line and not cause a royal scandal. Rudolf’s response was to leave Vienna the next day for his hunting lodge at Mayerling, 15 miles from the capital. He took Maria with him.

The actual events of the early morning of 30th January have been the subject of speculation ever since. A double suicide seems the most likely scenario, with Rudolf killing Maria before shooting himself, but there are many other theories including murder by agents of Emperor Franz-Joseph.

The result, however, was clear enough. Franz-Joseph’s only son was dead, so the succession passed to his nephew, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand. The second tragedy, therefore, was that on 28th June 1914 it was Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, rather than Crown Prince Rudolf, who were in the firing line when assassins struck in Sarajevo, thus precipitating the outbreak of World War I.

© John Welford

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The birth of the United States Republican Party

On 28th February 1854 a meeting was held at a church in Ripon, Wisconsin, that would lead to the foundation of the United States Republican Party.

The issue at stake was slavery, and in particular the threat of its expansion into the territories of Kansas and Nebraska under the Kansas-Nebraska Act that was about to overturn the 1820 Missouri Compromise. The group that met at Ripon, under the leadership of Alvan Bovay, passed an anti-slavery resolution and agreed to meet again a month later.

The first two meetings attracted a great deal of attention from people who agreed with the Abolitionists, and the third meeting had to be held at a larger venue, in Jackson, Michigan. This became the inaugural conference of a new political party which adopted the name “Republican” after Thomas Jefferson’s “Democratic-Republican Party”. Despite the obvious admiration of Jefferson as a role model, the new Republicans were apparently not willing to be reminded that Jefferson had been the owner of 250 slaves!

The new party achieved success remarkably quickly, gaining 33% of popular support in the 1856 Presidential election and getting their man, Abraham Lincoln, into the White House in 1860. There have been a total of 18 Republican Presidents, which sounds like a proud boast until you remember that these included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes!

The Republican Party delights in the name of the “Grand Old Party”. This sounds like a strange definition of “old”, given that it has been in existence for only 160 years and is younger than the Democrats, who also took their inspiration from Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but 22 years earlier!

© John Welford

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Reichstag fire, 1933

On 27th February 1933 a young Dutch bricklayer with a grudge against the government set fire to the Reichstag (the Parliament building) in Berlin and inadvertently helped Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to take complete control in Germany.

Marinus van der Lubbe had been a Communist at some stage in his life but had no formal link with the German Communist Party at the time of his action, although he was motivated by a general loathing for capitalism, the workings of which he blamed for Germany’s woes including rampant inflation and mass unemployment.

However, the knowledge that van der Lubbe had been a Communist was enough to prompt the Nazis to launch a crackdown on the opposition. Hitler had been Germany’s Chancellor for a month before the Reichstag fire, and elections were due to be held that the Nazis hoped would give them a clear majority, although this was by no means certain. The destruction of the Reichstag was all they needed as an excuse to demonstrate the dangers that Germany faced from Bolshevism unless the Nazis took complete control.

Van der Lubbe never denied his part in the Reichstag fire, but always claimed that he acted alone. The Nazis thought differently and immediately passed laws that were aimed at all Communists and parties of the Left. The right to peaceful assembly and free speech was withdrawn, press censorship was introduced, and Nazis thugs targeted trade unionists and intellectuals for beatings-up and torture.

Van der Lubbe was tried alongside the head of the Communist Party and three other party members, all of whom were accused of having conspired to torch the Reichstag. However, much to Hitler’s disgust, the court could find no evidence to convict anyone except van der Lubbe, who was duly convicted and later executed.

There has been considerable speculation over the origins of the Reichstag fire, including the theory that van der Lubbe was duped into his action by the Nazis themselves. In the end, the fire was just what Hitler needed to unite public opinion in a fervour of anti-Communism, so it is not inconceivable that this idea has some merit. If van der Lubbe did indeed act alone, as still seems probable, his actions cannot have had anything like the result he intended.

© John Welford

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The United States enters World War I, 1917

Early in the morning of 23rd October 1917 the first shot was fired by an American in World War I. The United States had done its best to keep out of what was primarily a European war (much less “world” than “World War II”) for the best part of three years, but the Allies finally persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to join the war on their side in April 1917. However, it would be another six months before the promise turned to reality.

By the time the war ended the following year, the Americans had mobilised just under two million men, under the overall command of General John Pershing (pictured). They fought in thirteen battles with the loss of 116,000 dead and 200,000 wounded.

Before the United States entered the war it had been in a state of stalemate. After their arrival the tide started to turn in the Allies’ favour. This was probably due less to any particular expertise or fresh ideas that the Americans introduced than to the sheer numbers of extra troops. Despite the widening scope of Army conscription in Britain in 1916-17, the numbers reaching the front were always far less than were needed. Throwing those two million Americans into the fray made all the difference.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

21st October is one of those dates that many people in Great Britain recognise as having special significance, because this is Trafalgar Day, the day on which Admiral Lord Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 but lost his life thanks to a sniper’s bullet.

The Battle of Trafalgar was like many British victories down the centuries, whether at sea or on land, that was won against the odds. Nelson had a fleet of 27 ships at his disposal, including his flagship “HMS Victory”, as against a combined French/Spanish fleet of 33 ships. However, by the end of the day 19 of the latter fleet had been sunk, crippled or captured whereas the British fleet was still intact. The British lost 1,500 men as against the French losses of 14,000 killed or captured.

Nelson’s triumph was due to his decision to throw away the rulebook in terms of naval warfare. Instead of the two fleets lining up so that they could fire broadsides at each other, Nelson went for a frontal assault, with two columns of ships breaking through the French lines before the latter could get into position to fire at the British ships.

However, Nelson’s decision to be among his men at the height of the battle was to prove personally fatal. The medals glinting on his uniform offered a tempting target to a French sniper high in the rigging of “Redoubtable”, and his shot shattered Nelson’s spine. The Admiral died three hours later, knowing that victory was assured.

Trafalgar was one of the most decisive naval victories of all time, because it ensured British domination of the seas, meaning that any plans Napoleon Bonaparte might have had for an invasion of Britain went out of the window. Although the final defeat of Napoleon was ten years away (at Waterloo) all future battles would be fought on land.

As for Nelson himself, a hero’s funeral awaited him at St Paul’s Cathedral, and London’s most prominent memorial to a commoner, namely a 17-foot high statue atop a 150-foot high column in Trafalgar Square, which was laid out specifically to commemorate his greatest victory. However, it was not until 1843 that the famous statue was put in place.

© John Welford

The flight of Pilatre de Rozier, 1783

On 21st November 1783 an unsung hero became the first man to do what millions now take for granted every day – he made the first untethered flight.

This was Pilâtre de Rozier, a French physicist, who, with a colleague, floated across the River Seine in Paris in a hot-air balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers.

The flight came after a series of experiments by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, that had involved a sheep, a duck, a rooster, and de Rozier. Although considerable interest had been shown by all and sundry in these experiments, there was a constant fear that lifting human beings above the ground would be dangerous, hence the use of animals in the early attempts, in which the balloon was tethered to a 90 foot rope.

When it was proposed to send men to this dizzying height the local officials suggested that two criminals, already sentenced to death, should be put in the balloon, but King Louis XVI overruled them and allowed the Montgolfiers and then de Rozier to go aloft.

The first flight without a tether went perfectly smoothly, lasting 25 minutes, covering five miles and reaching a height of 1500 feet.

It was witnessed by, among thousands of others, the American ambassador to Paris, Benjamin Franklin. When a friend of his remarked that the flight would prove to be of little use in the long run, Franklin made the perceptive and prophetic remark: “And of what use is a new-born baby?”

Pilâtre de Rozier did not live long to enjoy his celebrity. Two years later he attempted a balloon flight across the English Channel. He was aware of the lighter-than-air properties of hydrogen and so he placed an extra hydrogen balloon on top of the hot air balloon. As a physicist he should also have been aware that hydrogen and heat do not mix well, but the oversight cost him his life when the hydrogen duly exploded.

© John Welford

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Battle of Verdun, 1916

At 7.00am on 21st February 1916 German artillery began a barrage that signalled the beginning of the most protracted, and one of the bloodiest, encounters of World War I, namely the battle of Verdun.

The aim of the Germans was to “bleed the French to death” by pummelling their defensive positions north of the historic city of Verdun. On each day of the battle a massive bombardment, from more than a thousand artillery pieces, was followed by an infantry advance to which the French were forced to respond.

This went on for day after day until the French defences began to give way. On 25th February they lost control of Fort Douaumont, which had been thought to be impregnable, after which the French supply lines came under severe threat.

The tide began to turn when Major-General Philippe Petain was put in charge of defending Verdun. He reorganised the supply route, as well as the French artillery, and rotated his troops so that nobody spent too long in the front line. This latter move had a massive impact on morale.

By the 23rd of June German resources were beginning to ebb as French counter-attacks took effect. Fort Douaumont was retaken on 24th October and by December the battle had fizzled out into the stalemate of continuous trench warfare.

The Battle of Verdun lasted for ten months and caused some 700,000 casualties (killed, missing and wounded). Nobody won, although some reputations were enhanced and others diminished. An early casualty of the battle, in that he was taken prisoner, was a young infantry captain named Charles de Gaulle. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp and was therefore saved for much more important roles later in the century. Petain, the hero of Verdun, was to take a much less heroic part in World War II when he led “Vichy France” as a puppet state of the Nazis.

© John Welford

Thursday, 7 January 2016

The Battle of Poitiers, 1356

On 19th September 1356 the English won a notable victory against the French at the Battle of Poitiers.

This was one of many battles fought at various times during the period that has become known as the Hundred Years War. This is something of a misnomer because it actually lasted for 120 years and it was not a single war but a series of eight separate conflicts between the royal houses of England and France.

Poitiers was fought during the third phase of the war, which had been interrupted for seven years by the ravages of the Black Death, which had had devastating consequences in both England and France.

In 1355 King Edward III of England launched a three-pronged attack on France. He led an army into northern France while one of his sons, John of Gaunt, raided Normandy and his eldest son and heir, Edward (also known as the Black Prince) raided south-western France from English-held Bordeaux.

In August 1356 Prince Edward began a raid into central France with the deliberate aim of attacking soft targets and gathering as much booty as possible.  His force, consisting of cavalry, infantry and archers, numbered around 12,000 men in total.

Opposing Edward was the French King Jean II, who began pursuing Edward on 8th September. King Jean could move faster because of the huge amount of booty that Edward was taking with him. The chase was on, but neither side was aware of where the other actually was and the routes they took were somewhat confused. On the late afternoon of 17th September the English advance guard accidentally ran into the French rear guard, three miles east of Poitiers, and Edward realised that battle was inevitable. He therefore sought a good defensive position.

18th September was a Sunday, on which a truce was arranged. However, Edward used this breathing space well by arranging his troops above a gentling sloping vineyard with his left flank protected by a marsh and a creek. He stationed his cavalry behind a hedge on his left flank, but dismounted them. He left a force of mounted cavalry on his right flank, which was more exposed. Archers were posted in hiding along a front 1,000 yards long.

The French force was more than three times the size of the English one, divided into four divisions each of around 10,000 men. In three of these divisions Jean dismounted his cavalry, in the belief that this was the way to defeat the English who had adopted the same tactic. Jean’s plan was to attack the English in a frontal assault, launching each division at them in turn.

The battle began early on the morning of 19th September, with the only mounted French division making its attack. However, they did so prematurely, which took the French crossbowmen out of the action. The cavalry charge was easily beaten back by the English archers.

The second French division was also met by a hail of English arrows but had more success than the first. Edward was forced to bring most of his reserves into the battle, and only just managed to hold on. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

However, had the French appreciated just how exposed Edward’s right flank was at this stage, they could have won the battle. Instead, the third division, led by the King’s brother, was so alarmed by the French losses that they fled the field before getting in range of the English archers, whose numbers were now much depleted.

This only left the largest French division, led by King Jean himself. Although they had marched for a mile in heavy armour to reach the point of attack, Prince Edward also knew that his men were exhausted and were heavily outnumbered. He therefore brought his last reserve of 400 men to the front of his force. He ordered a “do or die” frontal attack that included his archers who had by now run out of arrows. He also sent 200 light cavalry to encircle the French division and attack its rear.

There was fierce hand-to-hand combat in the vineyard and the battle was still in the balance when the French realised that they were being encircled by the English cavalry. They then either fled or gave themselves up to capture. Among the prisoners was King Jean himself.

The losses at Poitiers were about 2,500 French and 1,000 English dead, but the French also had more than 2,500 of their finest fighting men captured. King Jean was taken to London, where he spent four years in captivity, although he was treated more like a royal guest than a prisoner.

Edward did not advance further at this stage but returned to Bordeaux, safe in the knowledge that the French would not meet him again in open battle. For the next few years he was free to range all over France and raid as and where he wished.

The Peace of Bretigny in October 1360 recognised English land claims in France, but King Edward gave up his claim to the French throne. King Jean was allowed to return to France, after a ransom of three million gold crowns was paid.

© John Welford

The debt owed to France by the American Revolutionaries

On 19th October 1781 the War of the American Revolution ended, to all intents and purposes, when General Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown.  However, the American rebels needed a substantial amount of help from the French before this was possible.

The war had been fought for six years, during which the British had always been able to rely on their command of the sea to switch troops relatively rapidly from north to south and vice versa. Without a fleet, the Americans were reduced to forced marches on land, which was a slow and exhausting process.

However, the rebels had a powerful ally, namely France, which did have a fleet that could be used strategically to help the Americans. It was the use of this fleet that turned the tide (pardon the pun) at Yorktown.

Washington’s troops were at New York while the British were in Virginia. However, the French, under Admiral de Grasse, were in the West Indies and offered to sail north towards Chesapeake Bay. If the British could be isolated there, without support from the sea, there was every chance that they could be defeated.

Washington therefore led a joint American/French army south from New York at the same time that the French fleet was moving north. Another American force, under General Lafayette, also moved towards Virginia.  When the French fleet, which was carrying 3,000 extra troops and siege artillery, drove off a British fleet near Chesapeake Bay, the way was open for an assault on Yorktown.

It did not take long for General Cornwallis to realise that his position was hopeless, and he duly surrendered.

The fact remains, despite all the subsequent hype and flag-waving, that without a substantial amount of French help, Washington would not have been able to drive the British out of North America. Not only did he depend on the timely intervention of French naval power, but his own army at Yorktown was around 50% French.

The American Revolution was seen by France as a way of getting their own back for defeat in the Seven Years War, and American independence was therefore a side issue as far as they were concerned. Victory at Yorktown was revenge for defeat at Montreal and in India, where the British had imposed their imperial will.

Even so, it does seem unlikely that the Revolutionary War would have resulted in British victory had it continued for much longer. History has shown that it is very difficult for a colonial power to maintain its grip when the people in the colony in question are determined to break away. The Americans were convinced that the time was right for them to be independent, and the British were foolish to try to stand in their way. Whether all the reasons advanced by the colonists for so doing really stand up to scrutiny is another matter (“No taxation without representation” for example), but independence would have come soon enough.

However, I wonder how much credit is given in school classes in the United States today to the essential part played in the American Revolution by France under King Louis XVI, who would soon lose his head after resisting the revolutionary fervour of his own people?

© John Welford

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Napoleon Bonaparte's retreat from Moscow, 1812

18th October 1812 was the day on which Napoleon Bonaparte began his retreat from Moscow, realising for the first time that his dream of dominating the whole of Europe was not going to come true. There were two great turning points in the fortunes of Napoleon’s Empire – the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had shown that France would no longer rule the roost at sea; the Retreat from Moscow made it clear that the same now applied on land.

Napoleon had marched his army 500 miles into Russian territory from the relative safety of Vilnius (in Lithuania). It had taken twelve weeks across territory laid waste by the Russian peasants who had destroyed anything of use to the French before they abandoned their farms and moved elsewhere.

When the French eventually reached Moscow they found that the same policy had been adopted. This had been a thriving city with a population of 250,000 but now only 15,000 remained. The Russians had set fire to much of the city before leaving, and Napoleon was now the conqueror of piles of smoking ruins that contained very little food or anything else of value.

Napoleon sought to do a deal for a truce with the Russian Tsar, Alexander I, but the latter would not even reply to Napoleon’s letter. After 35 days in Moscow, Napoleon had no choice but to order a retreat. The whole Russian campaign had been a complete waste of time, resources and lives.

The Retreat was worse than the advance because Napoleon’s demoralised army now had to march through the devastated Russian territories in the depths of winter. They also came under attack from marauding Cossacks and gangs of guerrillas who were properly equipped for the conditions, which the French were not. Every fresh raid was another defeat.

The men and horses that died, whether from cold, starvation or enemy action, were left where they fell, their bodies becoming food for wolves.

90,000 men began the Retreat from Moscow but only 20,000 returned to Vilnius. Napoleon could only comment that it was but a short step from the sublime to the ridiculous. He had been defeated not so much by the Russians as by Russia.

© John Welford

The Crusades: Christianity at its worst

On 18th November 1095 Pope Urban II called on the Christians of western Europe to march to Jerusalem and reclaim the city, together with its Christian holy places, from the Seljuk Turks who were occupying it. This must therefore count as one of those “days that will live in infamy”, of which the world has had far too many.

Pope Urban had been influenced by the stories told by a monk named Peter the Hermit, who had travelled to Jerusalem and witnessed the oppression meted out to resident Christians by the Muslims, and the lack of respect shown to their shrines. The Pope therefore came up with what he thought would be the solution.

An army of 4,000 mounted knights and 25,000 men on foot was assembled, mainly from France, Italy and the states of Germany. They set off for Constantinople full of religious fervour, having painted white crosses on their tunics and shields, but Christian piety soon went out of the window once opportunities for personal enrichment began to present themselves.

The army turned into a pillaging horde once it left its home countries, and any riches encountered on route were likely to be looted and their defenders killed. Pope Urban had declared that anyone fighting as a Crusader would be absolved of penance for sin, and many of the men at arms took this as permission to commit any crimes they felt like. When a city fell to their swords they would shout “God wills it” as they plundered, killed and raped.

Needless to say, many of the Crusaders, who may well have started out with good intentions, saw little point in continuing once their packs were full of loot. Desertions, coupled with battle casualties and disease victims, reduced the army to 1,500 knights and 12,000 foot soldiers when it eventually reached Jerusalem in June 1099.

The city was captured on 15th July, followed by a massacre of its Muslim inhabitants. It would remain in Christian hands until 1187 when it was recaptured by Saladin who, much to the surprise of the defeated inhabitants, treated them with much more humanity and forbearance than had been shown when the boot was on the other foot.

The Age of Crusades was to last until 1365, with nine crusades being held in total, these having very mixed results. However, it was not an age of which Christianity can be all that proud. Unfortunately, mankind has never learned that claiming to have God on your side is no excuse for behaving in a thoroughly ungodlike way.

©John Welford

Monday, 4 January 2016

Operation Market Garden: Monty's bridge too far

17th September 1944 saw the launch of Operation Market Garden, the campaign that Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery hoped would end the Second World War by Christmas.

The plan was to complete the Allied invasion of Europe by attacking Germany via the northern route, i.e. through the Netherlands, although this would mean crossing the River Rhine at its widest point.

The plan was to land 20,000 airborne troops behind the German lines near Arnhem, on the far side of the Rhine, capture all the bridgeheads over the river, then hold these positions while ground-based troops caught up. Montgomery was confident that the latter would reach the captured bridges within two days.

However, the strength of German resistance was much greater than had been anticipated and the plan went wrong both with the airborne and ground assault. Capturing the bridges took much longer than expected and the armoured divisions moving north towards Arnhem could only move painfully slowly.

An attempt to reinforce the airborne troops went disastrously wrong when a division of Polish paratroopers landed on the wrong side of the river.

Eventually the signal was given to withdraw and the surviving troops escaped back across the Rhine, some of them having to swim. 17,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or captured, and the generals were forced to think of a different way of achieving their objective.

The title of the 1977 film based on the campaign was entirely appropriate – “A Bridge Too Far”.

© John Welford

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Altmark incident, 1940

The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, but it was not until May 1940 that most people in Britain were aware that there “was a war on”. This period of relative inactivity became known as “the phoney war”.

However, the word “relative” is important, because there was action at sea right from the start, including the sinking of a British aircraft carrier (HMS Courageous) within weeks of war being declared, with more than 500 lives being lost.

Another naval action occurred on 16th February 1940. HMS Cossack pursued a German supply ship, the Altmark, and forced it to run aground in a Norwegian fjord (see photo). The action had two unexpected consequences.

The first of these was that when the Altmark was boarded and its hatches opened, the Royal Navy sailors discovered that the ship was carrying around 300 British merchant crewmen who had been rescued and captured when their ships had been sunk earlier the previous year by the German battleship Graf Spee. They were being transported to Germany where, given their civilian status, they could not have expected the treatment accorded to accredited prisoners of war. They could have found themselves working for the rest of the war in German factories as virtual slave labour.

HMS Cossack returned to Britain with the rescued seamen, leading to much rejoicing on the part of the British people. However, the incident was seen by the Norwegians as an act that violated their neutrality, and by Germany as a threat to their supply route for Swedish iron ore. The second consequence of the incident was therefore that Hitler pushed his already planned invasion of Norway to the top of his list of priorities and delayed plans to invade France and the Low Countries.

The rescue of the British merchant crews led to a new catchphrase. When the hatches of the Altmark were opened and the crewmen discovered, the Royal Navy sailors announced “The Navy’s here”. Winston Churchill used this in a speech in London when he announced that, to Nelson’s famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” should be added the words “The Navy’s here”.

© John Welford

The Boston Tea Party, 1773

16th December 1773 was the day of the “Boston Tea Party”, which is generally regarded as the opening move of the American Revolution.

It cannot be denied that the British government mishandled the colonial problems that it faced. In short, the colonies were costing more to administer and protect than they were producing in benefit for the home country. When the Seven Years War ended in 1763 the British were faced with having to maintain a standing army in the American colonies that was being paid for by taxing their own population to the hilt. The colonies had to be made to pay their own way.

The methods that the British government used to achieve this end may have seemed logical at the time but they did not go down well with the colonists who were far more concerned about their own situation than the bigger picture of the British Empire – naturally enough. The colonists saw no reason why they should pay any sort of tax to the home country, but the British parliament, equally logically, saw no reason why the colonists should expect a free ride at Britain’s expense.

A whole series of financial impositions was made on the colonies, of which the duty on tea was only one. A complicating factor was that the company that controlled Britain’s trade in tea, the British East India Company, had been given permission to send tea to the colonies tax free and charge what they wanted for it rather than going through a middleman.

This move was resented by the colonists, who saw it as a move to establish a trade monopoly, despite the fact that the tea that was being delivered to Boston in December 1773 would have been offered for sale at a lower price than previously, due to the relaxation of the full duties that would otherwise be paid, although there was a still a residual duty. It was the very fact that some duty was still payable that offended the Bostonians, because the principle was thus established that the British government had the right to levy charges on the colonists.

The whole issue of “no taxation without representation” was something of a smokescreen, because it ignored the fact that what was at issue here were duties and not taxes. It made no sense to demand seats in the parliament of a country that levied import duties on the purchasers of its goods, because this would apply to the citizens of any country doing the importing, but this was not an argument that would have cut much ice with the American colonists for whom the tea issue was the final straw.

As it was, an organised mob of about 60 Boston citizens, led by Samuel Adams, dressed themselves as Mohawks – to add an element of theatre to the proceedings – and boarded three ships in Boston Harbour to tip 342 tea chests overboard.

The British response to the incident was “overboard” in another sense, in that repressive measures were taken to force the rioters to pay for the lost tea. It was this attempt to punish the colonists of Massachusetts that really lit the fuse that would lead to revolution, rather than the Tea Party itself.

© John Welford

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Albigensian Crusade, 1208

On 14th January 1208 a Papal legate was murdered, thus triggering one of the most terrible demonstrations in history of what happens when people use their religion as an excuse to commit evil deeds.

The medieval Church, led by the pope in Rome, was on the lookout for heresy in all its forms. Any group or sect that did not toe the line was not to be tolerated. This is an unfortunate consequence of religion in all its forms – once you have convinced yourself that you are right, everyone else must therefore be wrong, and if you are fanatical enough there is only one punishment for being wrong, which is that the heretics must not be allowed to live.

The target in 13th century France was the group of Christian puritans known as the Cathars, who were concentrated in the cities of Toulouse and Albi in the southwest. The problem with the Cathars was not so much their devotion to a peaceful and saintly life in which the distractions of the world were set to one side, but the fact that they dared to criticise the Catholic Church for its greed and corruption and their refusal to pay the papal taxes that were part of that corruption.

Pope Innocent III (see picture) sent his legate, Pierre de Castelnau, to Toulouse to demand that Count Raymond suppress the Cathars on pain of excommunication. The Count gave in to the demand and sent the legate on his way, but de Castelnau had not gone far before he was set upon and murdered by a knight in the service of Count Raymond.

It is unlikely that Count Raymond had ordered the killing, but that did not affect the reaction of Pope Innocent who ordered, in effect, the destruction of the entire Cathar community.

This campaign became known as the Albigensian Crusade, because the town of Albi was one of its main targets, and ironically it was by far the most successful (in terms of outcome matching aim) of all the Crusades launched by the Church at that period in history.

The task of wiping out the Cathars was assigned to a French nobleman named Simon de Montfort, who set about his task with ruthless efficiency. City after city was laid waste and the population slaughtered down to the last man, woman and child, although some did manage to escape.

When it was pointed out to Simon that not every inhabitant of a city under siege was a Cathar, and many were loyal Catholics, his response was that everyone should be killed anyway, and the task of sorting out good from bad should be left for God to sort out when their souls got to the Pearly Gates.

Even after the crusade had succeeded in destroying the supposed threat from the Cathars, Simon carried on with the genocide and was only stopped by a rock that was projected from a mangonel on the walls of Toulouse, a weapon which legend states was operated by a group of young women who were desperately trying to defend their city after most of the men had been killed.

The whole episode was a revolting example of what happens when fanaticism holds sway. Examples from much more recent times bear witness to the fact that the worst atrocities seem to occur when religion is a motive.

(Incidentally, Simon’s son, also named Simon, was to have an important part to play in the history of England, being the founder of the first English Parliament and eventually giving his name to the university that employs the current writer on Wednesday evenings!)

© John Welford

General Wolfe takes Quebec, 1759

On the morning of 13th September 1759 the British general James Wolfe executed the move that would finally upon the door to making Canada part of the British Empire rather than the French one.

The French fortress of Quebec took full advantage of the geography of the area in that the cliffs alongside the St Lawrence River guarded it on one side. The steep wooded bluffs, although not particularly high, would surely be enough to dissuade any attacking force from approaching directly from the river.

However, General Wolfe found an unguarded path that zigzagged its way up the cliff to the level area above, known as the Plains of Abraham, and under cover of darkness he was able to get seven battalions of men, some 4,800 in all, arrayed along a front a mile long. All he had to do now was wait for the French, 12,000 strong, to turn up.

When they did, at about 9.00am, Wolfe gave orders not to fire until they were within 60 yards. The volleys that were then unleashed were enough to send the French back to their fortifications. The fortress surrendered on the 18th, by which time most of the French forces had retreated upriver.

General Wolfe was badly wounded during the battle, as was his opposite number the Marquis de Montcalm. Wolfe died the same day, Montcalm the day after.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of European powers fighting to gain control of far distant lands, in military terms it was a brilliant stratagem on Wolfe’s part. The tactic of sneaking round the back to attack the enemy where least expected was not original to Wolfe, whose education would have included stories such as that of the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, in which the Persians adopted a similar move. Likewise, Wolfe’s example was to prove useful to later generals, such as Douglas Macarthur during the Korean War in 1950, when he surprised the North Koreans at Inchon by landing in an “impossible” place.

The daring of Wolfe’s attack on the Plains of Abraham made him a posthumous folk-hero among the British, with many statues and works of art appearing as a result. Of the latter, the painting by Benjamin West entitled “The Death of General Wolfe” (as shown) is probably the best known.

© John Welford