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Archive for the month “October, 2014”

018 Khudadad Khan and the apparent death of Hollebeke

Khudadad Khan

Khudadad Khan

Colonial troops on white battlefields 

 It is Sunday 25 October 1914. It is the 18th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgians flood the area between the river Yser and the railway line to Diksmuide. 

On its six-day retreat Mackensen’s Ninth Army destroys all bridges, roads and railway connections in Poland.

In Sarajevo the murderer of Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie only gets twenty years – Gavrilo Princip is too young for the death penalty.

In South Africa Louis Botha hunts for another Boer, the rebel leader Christiaan de Wet.

The British lose one of their dreadnoughts when on the Atlantic Ocean the Audacious hits a mine.

Turkish ships under German command attack Russian ports on the Black Sea.

Due to these setbacks for the Royal Navy prince Louis of Battenberg has to stand aside for Sir John Fisher as First Sea Lord.

Erich Ludendorff pleads to knock-out the Russians first, but chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn gives priority to the conquest of the Channel ports.

Indian troops land in British East Africa.

And the British hold out in the First Battle of Ypres thanks to soldiers like Khudadad Khan.

The facts are absolutely heroic. Khudadad Khan received the Victoria Cross for his act of valour as the first Indian for a reason. The Victoria Cross is the highest British military decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy. It was presented to Khudadad by King George V himself.

On 31 October 1914 we see him lying in Hollebeke, a village of a few hundred souls, sitting close to Ypres. When the war is over, Hollebeke seems to be wiped off the face of the earth. But now the battle is still fresh and the ditch where Khudadad Khan is hiding can hardly be called a trench. The front is in full motion. The lines of defence are full of holes.

The Germans are coming on that last day of October, and there are a lot of them. Khudadad and his mates, however, decide not to yield. They man a hole with two machine guns. When the officer of their unit is knocked out wounded and the other machine gun is put out of order by a shell, Khudadad continues to fire at the onrushing Germans indefatigably.

When Khudadad is finally overrun, nobody is alive of his unit, a subdivision of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis. Badly injured he pretends to be dead and the Germans leave him for dead. Then Khudadad manages to crawl back to his own ranks. He leaves his machine gun after putting it out of order.

There is nothing that can be said against the Victoria Cross for Khudadad Khan. The same goes for the Indian Order of Merit awarded to the Sikh who stabbed five Germans dead with his bayonet. When it broke off, he had picked up a sabre to continue his task. It took a year before the said hero had recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to India. Also posthumously a lot of colonial honour could be shown. At the end of October 1914 at Mesen near Ypres another Sikh by the name of Kapur Singh went on fighting until even his last comrade had been killed. He refused to surrender and saved the last bullet in the Flemish mud for himself.

The British Indian army used its own terminology and hierarchy. Its soldiers were called sepoys. It also had its own military code. The Indian Corps had landed in Europe at Marseille. The final ride to the front was by English double decker buses.

Khudadad was a muslim Rajput from what is now the Pakistan province of Punjab. But among the Indians there were also Pashtuns, Dogras, Gurkhas from Nepal and Sikhs.

In the First World War British India, which comprised present-day India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and parts of Burma, provided about one and a half million soldiers to the British armies. Around 72,000 of them did not survive the war. Indians fought for the British Empire in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia, in East and West Africa and even in China. They found it hard to acclimatize in Flanders and the north of France. The culture shock was big. There is the story of a group of Sikhs who were received by monks in a monastery near Saint-Omer. The Sikhs were told that the images of the twelve apostles represented some kind of gurus to the christians. A war can produce peculiar forms of cultural understanding.

Within a month after the outbreak of the war the Indians were at the western front. It goes without saying that already in India British officers were given command of them. Generally speaking these officers tried to act as good family men with understanding for the typical customs and traditions of their fighters. Sikhs for example were  allowed to honour their five ks, the metal bracelet (kara), the dagger (kirpan), the underpants for fighters (kaccha), the small comb (kangha) and the long hair (kesh).

The death rate among the white commanding officers was high in the First Battle of Ypres, in which also Khudadad Khan got involved. The Indians stayed behind in a daze, in a country they did not know, in a war they did not understand. The losses among the Indians were substantial, not only because of the violence of war, but also as a result of illness. New troops had to be supplied from India. On 15 March 1915 Indian soldiers got entangled in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. The Indian Memorial for those Missing in Action is a reminder of this massacre in Northern France.

Over a month later British Indian troops became acquainted with gas as a warfare agent during the Second Battle of Ypres. They were spared nothing. In October 1915 the Indian foot soldiers were transported from the western front to Egypt, before their morale started to sink away in the mud of a new winter. Indian cavalry units were not to be conveyed to Egypt until 1918.


Unashamedly the French and British mobilized their colonial reserves. The Germans would not be a party to that. In Africa, however, they did use ‘their’ blacks, called askaris, but to the Germans it was unheard-of to bring them to Europe. Logistically this would also have been an impossible job. When the French deploy Africans after the war to guard the Rhineland, the Germans are utterly outraged. Schwarze Schande, they sneered in imitation of the artist Karl Götz, who chained a naked white woman to a black penis wearing a helmet.

What is racism? Throwing black and yellow races into your global conflict? Or deeming them unfit for the white business of war? As part of their divide and rule politics the British split up their peoples into valiant and unvaliant races. The Sikhs from the Punjab were considered their boldest subjects, who were also brought together in ethnically homogenous battalions as the 47th Sikhs. Maoris, for example, were part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, be it as pioneers for the true soldiers, but the Australians would not even contemplate to supply their Aboriginals, no more than the half-breeds, with uniforms.

The First World War was essentially a European conflict. The old world could have fought it out themselves, but the Europeans dragged all other continents along into their battle. In 2008 the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres dedicated an exhibition to ‘the multicultural aspects of the First World War’. The compilers counted fifty cultures participating in the battle on Flemish soil. Zulus, Corsicans, Indians, Inuits, Catalans, Maoris, Chinese, Spahis…

Spahis? Desert horsemen from North Africa. Their role was limited to accompanying convoys of prisoners of war, but as they looked so colourful, they were photographed countless times. Also the Zouaves, North Africans of French origin, who held their own in the first two battles of Ypres, were quite a picture.

The New Zealand Maori Pioneer Battalion, which was sent to Gallipoli, was furthest away from home. Not only Maoris, the indigenous population of New Zealand, were part of it. Bits of land in the Pacific Ocean like Niue, the Cook Islands, Fiji and Tonga also sent a couple of hundreds of men. But the commander of the Samoan Expeditionary Force insisted that the Maoris with their alcoholic excesses were kept away from his boys. The Maoris were also suspected of spreading tuberculosis and other diseases among the ranks. There were also intercultural frictions of rather a trivial nature. The Maoris for example complained during their training about boots that were not suitable for ‘Native wear’.

Travelling from an island in the Pacific to a West Flanders trench, only Neil Armstrong’s trip to the moon is more breathtaking. Only one or two people have given this tragedy within a tragedy some thought: dying for somebody else’s native country. at the other end of the world. The Flemish priest Cyriel Buysse made the following reflection in the summer of 1917: ‘Later, when everything has passed, Belgian and French women will come and pray at the tombstones, adorned with fresh flowers, of their fallen  husbands and sons. But who will ever kneel at the abandoned graves of Mohammed or Ibrahim in Flemish earth?’

Buysse has not been fully right. Canadian Indians held a calling home ceremony in Ypres for their fallen ancestors in the first decade of the 21st century. Relatives of a Maori who was executed in Flanders visited his grave in 2007. They had brought a waka huia, a wooden box in which Maoris keep ceremonial objects. In the past few years Sikhs have been conspicuously present at the memorial services on 11 November, handing out leaflets with texts such as ‘Never forget the Sikh sacrifice for Europe’s freedom’. And Nepalese Ghurka, who were on a peace mission in Kosovo in the beginning of this millennium, visited the graves of their fellow countrymen in Flanders on the war mission of 14-18.

A sense of sadness may come over you on a desolate Flemish field, at the foot of a grave in a corner of a British cemetery which has Chinese characters on it. The Chinese were not supposed to fight, but worked behind the front. If a Chinese wore a ponytail, that would be the first thing he had to leave at home.


After his act of heroism Khudadad Khan rose from sepoy to subadar, a rank to be compared with that of captain in the British army. He recovered from the injuries he received at Hollebeke in an English hospital, after which he returned home and lived a long life. When in 1956 the recently founded Victoria Cross Association is having a tea party in Westminster Hall, Khudadad Khan comes along and draws up a chair as one of the 24 members, wearing the medal of honour on his chest. He dies in 1971 at the age of 84.

At home. Far away from Hollebeke, where in 1999 a memorial is erected for those strange men wearing turbans, baking big pancakes and singing strange songs together when darkness fell.

Next week: Maximilian von Spee

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

017 Käthe Kollwitz and the gravity of the war cemetery

Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

Parental grief over dying young

It is Sunday 18 October 1914. It is the 17th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee heads for Chile with his Atlantic fleet.

The Austrians attempt in vain to cross the river San.

The Germans have to flee from Warsaw and are pushed back by the Russians.

A fierce battle is fought around the medieval town of Ypres in the Flemish Westhoek.

For the first time a merchant ship is sunk by a submarine, but the German U-19 allows the crew of the British SS Glitra to abandon ship safely.

British intellectuals strike back in The Times at the Manifesto which was published a fortnight earlier by 93 German scientists, artists and writers in defence of their government and its soldiers.

Boer leaders Christiaan Beyers and Christiaan de Wet openly rebel against the South-African government.

Sir Charles Dobell starts an expedition in the west of Africa, aimed at conquering the German colony of Cameroon.

And at the Yser front young Peter Kollwitz is killed, to the lifelong grief of his mother, the artist Käthe Kollwitz.

Whoever roams the battlefields of the Great War almost a century afterwards, should search for scars in the landscape. A crater, too round in shape, may betray the past, or else a concrete bunker, which stubbornly continues its battle with the weeds. For the rest farmers, town planners, road builders and last but not least mother nature have put the conflict aside. Does that make the landscape guilty? Such is in any case the poetic meditation of the Dutch artist Armando.

Yet the war is inescapable in northern France, the Flemish Westhoek or the Yser area because of the many memorials, bombastic, serene or insignificant. But especially because of the almost endless rows of graves, spread across hundreds of killing fields, big ones and small ones.

On one graveyard the tombstones are exposed to the wind. On another the young lives lie under a roof of foliage. Vladslo, which is not far from Diksmuide, is such a leavy spot. There is a German war cemetery on the edge of the Praetbos forest (literally ‘talking wood’), a somewhat cynical name probably from before the war. Over 25,000 young Germans laid to rest here certainly do not talk.

Peter Kollwitz is one of them. He was killed in the Battle of the Yser on 23 October 1914, when the Belgian army had dragged their heels. He was a musketeer, a modest rank the name of which wrongly brought recollections of Napoleonic times. Peter Kollwitz simply belonged to the rank and file. After all he was only eighteen years old.

Full of youthful enthusiasm the German battalions had left for Flanders in cattle trucks. They were only cheered before crossing the border. They had hardly received a military training. In one giant patriotic step they went from school straight to the battlefield. They were mowed down by the dozen.

On 10 November a bunch of these students walks into the gunfire of British soldiers who know all the tricks. A day later German army command produces this bulletin: ‘We made good progress in the Yser sector yesterday. West of Langemarck young regiments, singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, broke through the first enemy lines and occupied these. About two thousand French infantrymen and six machineguns were captured.’

This was an example of deceitful propaganda. It was not even mentioned that thousands of Germans were killed in one day. And the scene of battle had been closer to Noordschote and Bikschote, but Langemarck will probably have sounded better to German ears. It is also better not to believe that the boys turned their assault into choir practice. But the myth of Langemarck was born – including all the memorials and commemorations in the Heimat. In later years Langemarck will also be exploited by Adolf Hitler.

There is a different, more appropriate name for youthful dying in the German ranks: der Kindermord. And children have fathers and mothers. When his brother is killed, a certain Kurt Lommatsch has to break the bad news to his parents and sister on 28 October 1914. The ending of his letter reads as follows: ‘Dear parents, I beg you once more not to give in to your grief over the boy too much. After all he has given his life for our German fatherland which is surrounded by enemies. Many others who came with him from Germany have done likewise and have been laid to rest in foreign soil. I wish you all the very best. Kindest regards from your only son who is now still alive.’

A French practical guide teaches that the grief of parents who lose their mature child is unfathomable. ‘They are traumatised much more heavily and show a chronic mourning with emotional, somatic and such like disturbances. The death of this child will be the predominant theme of their thoughts and conversations for the rest of their lives.’


Käthe Kollwitz had two sons, Hans, the eldest, and Peter. Soon after Peter’s death the plan grows to create a memorial not just for her own son, but for all the other boys and their parents. Käthe Kollwitz is a committed artist. In her work she is sympathetic towards the toiling and suffering human being who she also knows from the consulting rooms of her husband Karl. He is a national health doctor for whom she feels but little passion. She learned socialism at home in the Old-Prussian town of Königsberg, but she is not familiar with the blind obedience to orders of a political party.

But now she has to convert her own pain into art. And that will take her years. In December 1914 she still sees a group of sculptures before her, representing a father at the head of his son who is stretched out before him, and a mother at the foot. Not until 1932 has she finished. The final result is ‘The Grieving Parents’. Not a son. Just a father and a mother. They stand apart from each other, separated by mutual grief. There is no comfort. He stares ahead, paralysed. She crouches. Blocks of sorrow, utterly lacking in subtlety. They clasp their bodies, which would otherwise fall apart. Are they asking their son for forgiveness, both kneeling? Their son who lies buried under their feet, taken away in the earth, one of the twenty-five thousand of Vladslo. To many it is the most impressive memorial of World War One, though it does not betray any relation with a place or an event. Even the signature of the maker is missing. In winter the sculptures are wrapped up. But each spring their sorrow, diluted with remorse, awakens.

Why had Käthe Kollwitz not been able to convince her son that the war did not serve any purpose? When he left for the front, she had given him pink carnations as so many mothers, and after the fall of Antwerp she had flown the black-white and red flag from the window of his room. Now, after his death, she knew better. But was not this realisation at the same time a betrayal to Peter, who had died for his conviction? In October 1916 she addresses her dead son in her diary: ‘Do I break the confidence in you, Peter, when the only thing I can recognize now in this war is lunacy?’

Käthe Kollwitz never saw her sculptures actually standing in Vladslo. In 1956 they were transported there. She had been dead for ten years then. The governments of Belgium and West Germany had decided on a concentration of German cemetaries in Flanders. The only places where Johann, Helmut, Heinrich, Kurt and Peter are resting in Flanders fields are Hooglede, Menen, Langemark, Zeebruges and Vladslo. We had better trust that the mortal remains of Peter Kollwitz were taken from Esen-Roggeveld, close to where he was killed, to Vladslo in 1956.

Just over a week before the British inaugurate their 45-metre-high wargate at Thiepval, a brick memorial to the missing of the Somme, Käthe is there when her sculptures were erected in Esen-Roggeveld. They were transformed from plastercasts into granite. ‘When we leave, I am not cheerful but sad’, she writes in her diary on 23 July 1932. She must also have visited other cemeteries, for a little further she writes: ‘The English and also the Belgian cemeteries are clearer, in a certain sense friendlier and more conventional, familiar than the German. I prefer the German cemeteries. The war was not a merry occasion, it is not fitting to embellish youthful death with flowers. Every war cemetery should remain grave.’

When she is back in Germany a month later, she takes down the following. ‘In retrospect the most beautiful memory of my days in Belgium was the last afternoon, when Van Hauten drove us there one more time. He left us to ourselves and we went from the sculptures to Peter’s grave and all was very lively and completely intense. I stood in front of the woman, saw her face, which was my face, cried and caressed her cheeks. Karl was right behind me, I did not even notice. I heard him whisper: ‘Ja ja’. How together we were then!’

A year later Hitler is in power. Just like the novelist Heinrich Mann, Käthe is thrown out of the Academy of the Arts by the new rulers. Käthe Kollwitz’s art is entartet – corrupt. The sculptures of Ernst Barlach, who has influenced Kollwitz’s work more than the famous Auguste Rodin, suffer the same fate. The Gestapo will pay her a visit and threaten Käthe with the concentration camp. Her age will not save her, they hasten to add. In July 1936 she writes in her diary: ‘If it seems inevitable, we will decide to escape the concentration camp by suicide.’

That will not be necessary, but Käthe Kollwitz is not spared another war either. Her husband dies in 1940. On New Year’s Eve 1941 she writes a letter to her grandson Peter, named after the uncle he has never known. Peter serves in Hitler’s army. ‘Du geliebter Junge’, his grandmother writes. ‘When your father telephoned me yesterday to tell me that you were in the field hospital with a light touch of jaundice, I could not say what went through me. You are alive and have been saved in time. Keep your jaundice as long as you want.’

In October 1942 she keeps it short in her diary. Hans, the eldest of her two sons and the father of her grandson Peter, has been to see her. ‘He came in very quietly. I knew then that Peter was dead. He fell on 22 September.’ Käthe Kollwitz has had to render both her son Peter and her grandson Peter to the war.

But she goes on, because she has to. In February 1944 she urges Hans to start teaching his younger son Arne Russian. ‘Later on that will give him a head start over the others.’ And in the same month she writes: ‘The worst of all is that each war implies its answer. Each war is answered with a new war. Only the devil can tell what the world may look like, what Germany may look like. That is why I am whole-heartedly for a radical end to this lunacy and only expect something from world socialism.’

In June 1944 she longs for the end: ‘It will be terribly hard to leave you, you and your children. But the unquenching desire to die remains.’ March 1945: ‘You, my firstborn. I am very old now and will add another year. Every night I dream of you, I must see you one more time. If it is really so that you can come under no circumstance, I will believe you. But I want to hear it from you yourself.’ She is old and worn-out and cannot make art any more. But she has remained a mother till the very end.

Käthe Kollwitz dies on 22 April 1945 at the age of seventy-seven. The war, her second war, will not last much longer.

Next week: Khudadad Khan

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

016 Sir Robert Borden and his hurry with half a million

Sir Robert Borden

Sir Robert Borden

Loyal Canada turns out to be a nation

It is Sunday 11 October 1914. It is the sixteenth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgian army digs itself in behind the river Yser.

Ghent and Lille fall into the hands of the Germans, while the British march into Ypres.

The Germans attack near Diksmuide.

The trial against Gavrilo Princip, suspected of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and his comrades begins.

German troops under the command of August von Mackensen approach Warsaw, but have to retreat under Russian pressure.

Austrian troops in Galicia also get into reverse.

In South Africa military criminal law is officially enforced.

The Adriatic port of Kotor is blasted by an allied fleet.

The Japanese start their attack on Qingdao, Germany’s colony in China.

The first soldiers from New Zealand set sail for Europe, followed the day after by an Australian contingent.

And the Canadian Expeditionary Force already takes up quarters in the South English port of Plymouth, to the satisfaction of the Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden.

When war breaks out in Europe, the Canadian government is panic-stricken. What if their soldiers arrive late? It is Ottawa’s conviction, too, that the war over there will be over before Christmas. And this while the Canadians still have to prepare their soldiers in a hastily knocked up bootcamp.

Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, decides not to have a full training in that case. He prematurely sends his expeditionary force to England. Canada must and shall make a contribution to crush the tyranny. There are plenty of volunteers. They are queuing up to serve the motherland. Conscription? Not necessary. The millionaire Andrew Hamilton Gault provides 100,000 dollars for the formation of an infantry battalion. It will be called Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Gault himself will join the fight until the day that he loses his left leg.

Who are these 22,000 Canadian fanatics who set foot on English soil on 11 October 1914? They are mainly Britons who have emigrated to Canada. The group of English speaking native Canadians is not so big, while the French speaking Canadians from Quebec show less gusto to do military service for the British empire.

The war itself has drawn heavily on the relations between the various communities in a mixed Canada. Most distressing are the ups-and-downs of the so-called enemy aliens, mainly Ukrainians from the double monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Out of distrust Robert Borden’s government interns thousands of Ukrainians in camps, where they are forced to labour. Tens of thousands of others lose their jobs and have to report to the police regularly. Not until 2008 will the Canadian government express regret about this exclusion policy by filling a memorial fund with dollars. Please note that the 100 Canadian dollar bill carries the image of Sir Robert Borden.

The war easily survives Christmas 1914. Urged by Borden more and more Canadians will report at the front. In July 1915 there are over 150,000, in October of the same year 250,000 and in January 1916 half a milllion, the number promised by Borden. Half a million is an enormous number on a population of around eight million.

Yet national enthusiasm for the war will appear to be inversely proportional to the increase in the number of troops. Therefore Borden sees himself obliged to introduce military service in 1917 after all. The Canadian troops, too, pay a high price during the big allied offensive in that war year. According to Borden reinforcements are badly needed, or else he fears the day that hundreds of thousands – or what is left of them – return home with ‘resentment and even rage’ in their hearts, because they have been abandoned. Being a conservative Borden has to forge a union with the liberals. But resistance in society is tough. Especially from Quebec protest is rising. Canada has a Conscription Crisis with 1 April 1918 as an all-time low. Four people are mortally wounded when the army opens fire at a crowd of protesters in Quebec.

Borden’s loyalty is all the more appreciated in Westminster. Robert Laird Borden, originally from Nova Scotia, is a lawyer by profession. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister during the second half of the war, calls him ‘the very quintessence of common sense’. Borden proves himself to be a stable factor, who puts policy before politics and the country, or rather the empire, before his party.

In 1914 Canada is one of the five dominions joined to the British empire. The others are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland, which will not be merged into Canada until 1949. The term dominion replaced colony seven years before the war to ratify the large degree of self-government of the five. It mainly concerns domestic politics, which in general is a lot more progressive than in the motherland itself. New Zealand for example already has universal suffrage for men and women in 1893.

Most foreign relations of the dominions are dealt with through London, but Canada already enters into trade agreements before the war and also starts its own foreign office as early as 1909. Because of the war this line of gaining independence is continued at an accelerated pace. During the First World War it is especially the Canadian Robert Borden who on behalf of the dominions urges to confer and participate. January 1916 he writes his famous Toy Automata Letter: ‘It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400,000 or 500,000 men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata.’

As new recruits the Canadians set off for the battlefields of the Old World in October 1914. As experienced soldiers they  led the way in the battle far into 1918. What Gallipoli becomes to the Australians and New Zealanders, the test of their heroism, Vimy Ridge will always be so for the Canadian troops. Where Gallipoli, however, turned into a heroic fiasco for the men from down under, Vimy Ridge will go into Canadian history as a classic example of a successful military operation, a brilliant amalgam of planning, innovation, training, fire power and self-sacrifice.

Between 9 and 12 April 1917 four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Army succeed in blowing the Germans off the ridge at Vimy in northern France. The price the Canadians have to pay is high: 3,598 killed on a total number of around 60,000 deaths at the end of the war. At the highest point of Vimy Ridge the Canadians will erect their biggest memorial after the war. It has taken eleven years to build the Canadian National Vimy Memorial when it is unveiled in 1936 by Edward VIII, the king who will give up his crown within a year for the woman of his dreams.

In 2003 the Canadian government declared 9 April Vimy Ridge Day. Thus for patriots Vimy has grown into the top where Canada as a nation left the colonial era behind. The chauvinist claim on Vimy can be nuanced by highlighting the British contribution to the operation. Vimy Ridge was no more than the opening gambit of the Battle of Arras, which from a German perspective had sooner ended in a draw than a defeat. But these are marginal notes that leave the legend in Canada untouched.

Just listen to this piece of prose which has been taken from a Canadian website. ‘Progress was slow and painful, but the Canadians went on into desperate, hand-to-hand conflict with bulldog persistence. It was impossible to drive them back: foot by foot, yard by yard, they broke through the enemy line. Long before the day was closed, Vimy Ridge was won and Canada’s imperishable fame was established in the eyes of the world. Too much glory cannot be given to those who won that terrible conflict.’

If the First World War formed the labour pains of the Canadian nation, Sir Robert Borden was the obstetrician. The question is whether Canada’s First Nations really wanted the child. A relatively large number of original inhabitants, Aboriginals, went into the trenches for the British Empire, something that is frequently overlooked. Indians, Inuit or Eskimos, but also the Métis, the half-breeds, have all made their contributions.

Francis Pegahmagabow, member of the Ojibwa nation, was a first-class sniper. Here and there he is known as the deadliest sniper from the allied camp. It is said that he killed 378 Germans and took another 300 prisoner. Legend has it that at night he went into no man’s land all alone. He would lie there motionless like a corpse, sometimes for days on end, waiting for an unguarded moment of a German. In post-war white Canada Francis Pegahmagabow could not get a job despite his many decorations. His old country was still the reservation, where solace could be found in alcohol.

Canada did not only contribute flesh and blood to the Great War. The Canadian war industry was working at full speed. Canada supplied an abundance of ships, wood, aircraft engines, locomotives, chemical products, food and above all ammunition. This demanded compensation which Borden received. The Imperial War Cabinet and the Imperial War Conference saw the light in the third year of the Great War. To the full satisfaction of Borden the British empire was in conference. ‘After all they are not fighting for us, but with us’, said Lloyd George about the dominions. In the final days of the war the British Prime Minister nevertheless aroused the wrath of Borden and of his Australian colleague Billy Hughes, by fixing an armistice with the Germans without consultation.

Sir Robert Borden, already knighted in 1914, sat out the entire war, just as the other two prime ministers of British dominions, William Massey of New Zealand and Louis Botha of South Africa. But also after the war Borden lay in wait. When in 1919 no chair was available for Canada at the peace talks in Paris, the prime minister of Canada claimed one. His signature also resulted in Canada taking a place in the League of Nations as an independent country. He squarely supported the Fourteen Points of the American president Woodrow Wilson and also showed willingness to intervene in the Russian civil war by assigning Canadian troops to the White army.

In 1920 Sir Robert Borden could conclude his political life after being prime minister for nine years. He gave account in his memoirs. It can be considered a crucial failure in his term of office that he did not manage to smooth off the rough edges of the bilingualism in his country. The French-English contrast also split his own Conservative party.

When he died in 1937 at the age of 82, the British Commonwealth said farewell to perhaps a not very charismatic statesman, for whom the political game did not have much appeal. But the motherland could not have wished for a more loyal vassal in its scariest hours than Sir Robert Borden, whose integrity and sincerity only few people doubted.

Next week: Käthe Kollwitz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

015 Carol I and a crowned night’s rest

Carol I

Carol I

Romanians pass by Hohenzollern

It is Sunday 4 October 1914. It is the 15th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Both warring parties in the west try to manoeuvre around each other as if they are involved in a Race to the Sea.

The allies in Cameroon take the initiative.

The German cruiser Emden is mooring on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its inhabitants are not even aware there is a war going on.

Antwerp has to surrender to the Germans and British marines commanded by Winston Churchill hurriedly leave the town.

A new flood of a quarter of a million Belgian refugees starts to move towards France and the Netherlands.

The Austrian offensive in Galicia comes to a standstill.

The Boer general Manie Maritz sides with Germany, but other South African leaders such as Louis Botha and Jan Smuts remain loyal to the British.

The French general Ferdinand Foch takes on the defence of Flanders.

In the Pacific Ocean Japanese forces conquer the Marshall Islands, part of German New Guinea.

During the cabinet crisis in Italy war minister Grandi resigns.

And in Romania a native German breathes his last, king Carol I.

In the opening phase of the First World War it becomes painfully clear to the king of Romania that he and his people are not on the same line.

Carol I is of German descent, as betrayed by the architectural style of Peleș Castle, the summer residence which he had ordered to be built in the high mountains. Carol I even has Hohenzollern behind his name, just like the emperor of Germany. It is obvious then that Carol’s sympathy goes to the Central Powers, whereas the still young Romanian nation is to a large extent culturally influenced by France. Besides Romania has a disagreement with the German ally Austria-Hungary. This disagreement is called Transylvania. It is part of Hungary, but ethnically to a great degree Romanian. So a border readjustment would be quite welcome to Bucharest.

Without any publicity Carol has strengthened the bonds with Austria-Hungary in the preceding years. A treaty, secretly concluded in 1883, was prolonged in 1913 without ratification by parliament. In any case Vienna and Berlin count on Bucharest. But just like Italy Romania will not suit the action to the German word. We can only guess if this has initiated Carol’s death on 10 October 1914. There is no doubt, however, that this has spoilt his final days considerably. It is rumoured that he even thought of abdicating when he was 75, but his death came sooner anyway.

In August 1916 Romania will take part in the First World War after all, be it on the allied side. By then Carol I has been wrapped in eternal sleep within the monastery walls for a long time. The plunge into the global bloodbath receives the blessing of Ferdinand, Carol’s far less wayward successor. Just as Bulgaria chooses for the Central Powers because it wants Macedonia, Romania reports to the allied countries hoping to get Transylvania. It is land grab of a dubious nature. Leaders of government of second-class countries do not consider the European carnage as a reason to maintain neutrality. Romania will pay a high price when it is trampled underfoot by German boots, but in the end it will haul in the loot it has been after. In Versailles in 1919 Transylvania is transferred from Hungary to Romania.


Let us proceed now to the House of Hohenzollern, the one of the German emperor and the Romanian king. The name Hohenzollern reminds one of Prussia, but the cradle of the family can be found in the south of Germany. The castle of Hohenzollern is located high up near the town of Hechingen. After various illustrious kings of Prussia, Frederick the Great being the most prominent one, eventually in 1871 a Hohenzollern becomes emperor of the finally united Germany. It is Wilhelm I, grandfather of Wilhelm II. The Second Reich is born.

The first empire, the Holy Roman Empire, had existed for almost a millenium when Napoleon put an end to it in 1806. ‘Holy’ referred to the papal assent, which had not always been taken for granted. ‘Roman’ referred to the Romans. But the Holy Roman Empire was certainly not the powerhouse that had once been built in Rome. It was definitely not an empire, but a patchwork of small and slightly bigger states. An emperor was at the head. For the past few centuries it had always been someone  from the Austrian house of Habsburg. But the central power of this emperor, who was always elected by prince-electors, was limited.

The Holy Roman Empire had no uniform legislation. Each emperor imposed his own taxes. And there was no question at all of a united holy-roman army. The French philosopher of the Enlightenment Voltaire is the spiritual father of the apt characterization that the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy and not Roman and certainly no Empire.

After the Holy Roman Empire was shut down, the German discord remained intact for a considerable part of the nineteenth century. The call for German unification came, strange as it may sound, from left-liberal circles. Conservative forces held on to their  princedoms, which were often governed autocratically.

In this colourful German family the Prussian nephew got the upper hand in the nineteenth century. The proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in 1871 was the climax of this success story. Also the branch of the family that had remained closer to the South German cradle, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen region, had passed on its sovereignty to the distant relative in Prussia.

Then the throne in Spain had become available. Leopold, a Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was to be pushed forward by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1870 as the new Spanish king. That will never happen, a German in Madrid, said the French emperor Napoleon III. All the fuss appeared to be enough for Leopold to give up Spain. But Bismarck was not interested in the vacancy in Madrid. The diplomatic conflict was to him a reason to start a war against France and to get all Germans under one banner after the Prussian victory, that of the Hohenzollerns.

Leopold had a brother who did become king four years earlier. That particular brother was Carol I. A cheering crowd of people greeted him in Bucharest in 1866. A nation in the making deserved a fresh monarch and Berlin had one on offer. It had been quite a job for Carol to reach Romania. In 1866 the war between Austria and Prussia was raging. Bismarck needed this war for his big plan, just as he had needed the war with the Danish two years earlier. In this Danish conflict Carol had taken an active part on the side of the Prussians and the Austrians. Then, in 1866, the two German tribes had fallen out with each other.

Therefore the German Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen had to make the train journey across Austrian territory incognito in order to settle at the head of Romania. The country had only four years earlier been formed from Wallachia and Moldova. Alexander John Cuza had centralistically carried through a series of liberal reforms in the style of Napoleon III. To the dissatisfaction of the middle classes and the large landowners his new Romania, however, gradually got into financial problems. Cuza was forced to sign his abdication as monarch, after which he disappeared into captivity.

In 1866, the year when Karl was welcomed as Domnitor and changed his name into Carol, Romania was still under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. The primacy of foreign policy was in Constantinople. This would be ended at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Bismarck convened this congress to reshuffle some cards in Europe after a war between the Russians and the Turks. Romania, which had secretly been rubbing against the Russians in the preceding years, presented itself afterwards as a fully fledged player on the world stage.

Carol I, whose Romanian troops had joined the Russian army, was recorded in history as the founding father of modern Romania. Now his popularity could use a shot in the arm. In the Franco-Prussian war he had submitted to Bismarck’s party. And even then this German predilection was not favourably received by all Romanians. Their language was not related to German but to French.

Meanwhile internally corruption was rampant. Despite an abundance of oil the country had not succeeded in building an infrastructure according to western standards. Without a doubt Bucharest had its charm, but there were slums everywhere along streets that had no pavements. There was an atmosphere of oriental lawlessness. Both men and women were dedicated users of cosmetics. The orthodox church allowed three divorces, as long as both parties were in agreement.

Carol, the German, must have felt a stranger in his own kingdom. What kind of man was he? Severe, conscientious and dutiful. According to his wife he slept with his crown on his head, but this must have been poetic freedom from her part. Elisabeth zu Wied, who was also of German descent, had a career as a poetess, whose pen name was Carmen Sylva. She easily wrote in German, Romanian, French and English. Elisabeth was an excentric character, who confided to her diary that a republic was to be preferred to a monarchy. She had been offered Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as marriage partner, but the British heir to the throne had pushed her aside on the basis of photos shown to him.

The marriage to Carol which she then contracted was far from  happy, though towards the end of it they must have come to some sort of understanding. But they were complete opposites. Her only child Maria, lovingly called Mariechen, had died of scarlet fever at the age of three. Elisabeth had the admonition of Jesus from Luke’s gospel put on Mariechens grave: ‘Stop crying, for she is not dead, but asleep’. Romania’s throne was not to be granted to Maria anyway. The constitution from 1866 was generally speaking quite liberal, but only permitted succession by paternal descent.

It was Carol’s firm intention to anchor his dynasty tightly in Romanian soil. His brother Leopold’s son Ferdinand came on the screen for this purpose. At some stage Elisabeth decided to pair him off with Elena Vacarescu, one of her ladies-in-waiting. It turned into an affair, for the law required a monarch to find a wife outside Romania. For punishment Elisabeth was sent into exile in Germany. Ferdinand was to marry Marie of Edinburgh, a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria.


A native German Carol I had led his Romanian subjects for no fewer than 48 years, sometimes with the utmost severity. The liberal reforms of his predecessor and the sympathy for social-democracy which his wife had felt were unknown to him. He had crushed a peasant revolt in Moldova in 1907 at the expense of thousands of lives.

In 1914 he could not get his people on his side on the road to Germany. Whatever way you look at it, this was finally a good moment to give in.

Next week: Sir Robert Borden

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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