The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the month “December, 2014”

027 Enver Pasha and ‘Deutschland über Allah’

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

The Turks suffer heavy losses in the Caucasus

It is Sunday 27 December 1914. It is the 27th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgians occupy German trenches east of Lombardsijde and take prisoners of war.

The Germans attack Dunkirk from the air.

Both the Germans and the Austrians have to continue their marching off in Poland and Galicia.

Incited by the Austrians Albanian troops make a futile attack on Montenegran posts.

In Berlin the German commanders Erich von Falkenhayn and Erich Ludendorff and their Austrian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf get together to confer.

The War Council in London is bending over Winston Churchill’s plan to joint the Russians via the Gallipoli peninsula, before Constantinople.

In the English Channel German submarine U-24 sinks British flagship Formidable, killing 547 crew members.

The British create a new decoration, the Military Cross, for officers in the lower ranks. 

And the Russians get the upper hand in the battle of Sarikamish, which is a downright failure for the Turkish minister of war, Enver Pasha.

Whoever in present-day Turkey wants to stand up for democracy, civil rights and the separation of State and Mosque, should go to the Monument of Liberty in Istanbul. It was erected three years before the Great War:  a gun firing into the sky in memory of the 74 soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to prevent the return of an absolute monarch.

A westerner who wants to lay his bouquet there as a child of the Enlightenment, will hesitate when seeing the names Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha. Talaat Pasha is the man who is associated with the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Enver Pasha was in the same period the minister of war and commander-in-chief, who was also called ‘the little Napoleon’, a title he could rather lay claim to posthumously than when alive. Enver Pasha was anything but a great strategist. But his poor remains could make the return trip to Istanbul, just as Napoleon’s bones were allowed back to Paris from Saint Helena. It was not until 1996 that Enver Pasha was entrusted to the Monument of Liberty.

There is another parallel between Napoleon Bonaparte and Enver Pasha. Both seriously underestimated the deadly combination of the frosty cold and the Russians as enemies. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was frozen to the bone in 1812, just like Enver Pasha’s Third Army around the turn of the year in 1914. Only 12,000 of the 90,000 soldiers that he sent fighting returned home.

The Causasus formed the backdrop for this dreadful battle. Turks and Russians had already met there with each other in 1877. Enver Pasha was the man to see some good in cornering the Russians again in the Caucasus. It was a long way from Saint Petersburg, where the Russians had first and foremost focussed on the battlefields in the east of Europe. The German Liman von Sanders, military advisor of the Ottomans, dissuaded Enver Pasha from attacking in the Caucasus. In vain, however. The Battle of Sarikamish, which lasted from 22 December 1914 till 17 January 1915, was to end in a military tragedy for the Ottomans.

Long before 1914 it became clear that the Ottoman Empire had had its day. Following the track of their first sultan Osman I, the Turks had become a power to be reckoned with in three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, from the thirteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century, however, the Ottoman Empire staggered on as the ‘sick man of Europe’, a somewhat peevish diagnosis attributed to the Russian Czar Nicholas I. But it was true that both militarily and economically speaking the Turks had only little to add.

In the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire had to surrender more of its territory to Europe quickly. In 1908 Austria-Hungary had been able to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina just like that. Three years later young Italy managed to fulfill its colonial  ambitions by founding Libia in North Africa at the cost of the Ottomans. Also islands like Rhodes and Kos were passed on from Constantinople to Rome. And another year later a league of Balkan nations chased the Ottomans away fom their last piece of European soil.

So the Turks found themselves hardest hit, yet there was some talk of new panache. The Young Turks had seized power in 1908. They were a mysterious and elusive group of people, who more formally passed off as the Committee of Union and Progress. Originally the Young Turks had believed in leftist liberalism. Their organisation reminded of the freemasonry. They specifically reacted against the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who had sidelined the Turkish constitution and had started to revamp the Ottoman Empire along the lines of the Islam.

After the revolt of 1908 things looked promising. In ‘young Turkey’ liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to apply. Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Turks became each other’s equals within the parliamentary framework of a constitutional monarchy. Abdulhamid II was traded in for his brother Mehmet V, who was to remain an insignificant sultan until a few months before the end of the First World War. The Young Turks invested considerably in education and public services, but soon they appeared to conduct a nationalistic programme as well.

The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire had to be stopped. Minorities who were suspected of collaborating with the enemy, especially Armenians and Kurds, were now having a hard time. The turkification of the Ottoman Empire was embedded in the romantic ideal of the Turanists who drew a far-fetched connection between Turks, Mongols, Japanese, Hungarians and Finns. These were all peoples that had had their origins in Central Asia long ago.

Enver Pasha was the personification of this Great-Turkish ideal. He was one of three pashas, which translated means ‘gentlemen’. The three had run the show since the coup d’état of 1913. The seizure of power had not taken place without bloodshed. Enver Pasha had been personally involved in the assassination of the minister of war.

The triumvirate of the pashas mainly sought to keep the threat of Russia under control. Relations with the big boys in Europe – France, Great Britain and Germany – all shared that purpose. Of the three pashas minister of war Enver, however, was the most pro-German. After all he had been military attaché in Berlin and as a result had a perfect command of the German language. Behind his desk on the wall hung a portrait of Frederic the Great, the Hohenzollern monarch who was dear to every true Prussian’s heart.

In the two Balkan wars that preceded the Great War Enver Pasha, a hawk of the opportunist kind, had been in command of the military. As we have already seen, the first Balkan war had ended in a Turkish fiasco. In the second Balkan war, however, Enver had succeeded in retaking the Thracian town of Edirne, former Adrianople, from the Bulgarians. His ego grew so big that it nearly burst. He was determined to continue on his path to victory with the help of his German friends. Even in the years before the three pashas something beautiful had blossomed between Berlin and Constantinople.The Bosporus was swarming with German soldiers and businessmen. The BBB plan would be the crowning glory of this friendship: a railway line from Berlin to Bagdad via the Bosporus.

Yet it was not all about Germany. In maritime affairs the Turks would rather take their chances with the British. They had ordered two ultra-modern warships in England. They were virtually ready when the First World War was about to break out. Without batting an eyelid the British government informed the three pashas in Constantinople on 3 August 1914 that they would not get the two battleships. There was outrage, especially among the ordinary Turks, who had raised funds for the two warships on a large scale. After all the vessels were meant to impose the Russians on the Black Sea. The British offered some compensation, but the British decision has not gone into the history books as an example of advanced diplomacy.

It is in a much smarter way that the Germans manage to use the Turkish discontent about the two lost warships. Two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, which have both escaped the allies in the Mediterranean, hurry to the Dardanelles, the straits that lead to Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire is then not yet involved in the war. When Goeben and Breslau are allowed through, the Turks de facto choose the German side. Even to Enver Pasha this is all going too fast, after which the German ambassador plays a masterly trick. The Turks can have the two ships. Wearing their fezes the German crew on Goeben and Breslau let themselves be cheered by the people of Contantinople. And the German diplomats snigger ‘Deutschland über Allah’.

On 27 September the Turks decide to close off the Dardanelles for all shipping, which especially affects the Russians. Then German admiral Wilhelm Souchon, in Turkish service, gives the final boost on 29 October. He sails onto the Black Sea with Goeben and Breslau and attacks the Russian ports of Odessa, Sebastopol  and Theodosia. Followed by France and Great Britain, Russia declares war to the Ottoman Empire four days later. Sultan Mehmet V declares the jihad, a holy war, hoping that muslims under allied command revolt. But very little or nothing of this will be realized.


After the catastrophic Battle of Sarikamish Enver’s military reputation can no longer  be saved. Meanwhile one of his rivals, Mustafa Kemal, becomes the hero of Gallipoli, the peninsula the allied forces will waste their energy on in 1915. As Atatürk Mustafa Kemal starts building a new and modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

There is no place in the new republic for a man like Enver Pasha. He is even sentenced to death, but together with the two other pashas he manages to escape on board a German submarine. When in 1921 Talaat Pasha is assassinated in Berlin, Enver Pasha will be the first man of the Committee of Union and Progress in exile. In the same year he explains his mission in a letter: ‘Today I am aiming for the same goal as before and during the 1908 Revolution, during the Tripolitanian War, the Balkan Wars and the First World War. And that goal is simply to organize and set in motion the islamic world of four hundred million people … and to save them from the European and American oppression, that keeps them enslaved’.

Meanwhile he has come into contact with Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks. The latter considers Enver Pasha a suitable ally to warm the islamic peoples to the Soviet Union. This leads to a military confrontation between the worldly troops of Atatürk and Enver Pasha’s warriors of Allah. Atatürk is the winner and makes peace with the Soviet Union. This is then a reason for Enver Pasha as leader of what has become known as the Basmachi Revolt to take up arms against the communists.

Enver sees himself as caliph, secular leader of all muslims. But in 1922 he is killed in the Caucasus. There are two versions of the exact circumstances of his death, when he was only forty years old. He is said to have been killed in a charge against a soviet brigade by a bullet just above the heart. Or he is supposed to have managed to escape, wounded, to be finished off not much later by the soviet commander himself.

Enver Pasha is laid to rest in 1996 in the town where he was born as the son of an engineer, Constantinople, since 1930 better known as Istanbul. Although Turkish president Süleyman Demirel showed few doubts at the reburial and called Enver Pasha ‘a nationalist, an idealist and an honest soldier’, the Turks still do not seem to know what to make of Enver and his role in the First World War.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Next week: Désiré-Joseph Mercier

026 Alfred Anderson and the match without a referee

Alfred Anderson

Alfred Anderson

Tommy and Fritz are having Christmas together

It is Sunday 20 December 1914. It is the 26th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In South Africa Boer leader Jopie Fourie is brought in front of a firing squad for high treason.

The Germans do not succeed in crossing the river Bzura in the heart of Poland.

At the end of the Battle of Givenchy the British hold their positions and the French advance towards Noyon.

News about a Romanian revolt in Transylvania appears.

Australian and New Zealand troops arrive in Cairo.

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre launches an offensive in the Champagne after the backwashing battle in Flanders.

An air raid on Dover is a reason for Lord Kitchener to expand the Royal Flying Corps.

The Turks try to penetrate the Caucasus at Sarikamish, after a defeat is inflicted upon them by the Russians at lake Van.

On the west coast of Africa the Portuguese colony of Angola is invaded by German troops.

As Austrian commanding officer on the Balkans Oskar Potiorek has to make way for Archduke Eugen.

And in numerous places on the western front the arms are silent at Christmas, which is an unforgettable event for the Scotsman Alfred Anderson.

In the pitch-darkness of the Great War a small flame flickered for just a moment. At Christmas 1914 the generals on both sides came and quickly blew it out. Men who climbed from their trenches to have a smoke together or play a game of soccer, the war had not started for that.

When the Scotsman Alfred Anderson dies at the age of 109 in 2005, nobody is left to  testify to the Christmas truce of 1914. Nobody is left who had heard the Germans sing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’, and who had heard the shouting: ‘Merry Christmas! We not shoot, you not shoot!’

For just a moment no bullets whistling. No machineguns rattling. No boys either calling out for their mothers, before they died for their country.  ‘I remember the silence’, Anderson would relate in his old age. ‘The eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see.’

They would be at home before the leaves were falling. Or at least before Christmas. That had been promised. And they had believed it. But now it was Christmas and they could unwrap their Christmas bonuses in a trench, where the mud had become hard as concrete. It was a cold Christmas. The German emperor had sent a meerschaum pipe for his soldiers and a box of cigars for his officers. For the British there was a brass box containing a pipe, a lighter, cigarettes and tobacco. For the non-smokers there were some acid tablets, a khaki writing case and a bullet-shaped pencil. But the most important item in the boxes was the photograph of Princess Mary and her best wishes for the new victorious year.

On the box was also the portrait of Mary and the two words written over it for which the boys were suffering from the cold, ‘Imperium Brittannicum’. Mary was the 17-year-old daughter of King George V. Apparently it was her own idea to make a collection among the people for a national Christmas present for the troops. It was a resounding success, though they did not succeed in delivering the Princess Mary Box to each soldier. So after Christmas 1914 the production of it was continued, but the quality of the box was declining. The ammunition factories needed the brass. Besides, a shipment which was ordered in the United States went down with the Lusitania in May 1915.

Alfred Anderson cherished his Princess Mary Box like a gem all his life. In his box there were cigarettes, but as Alfred did not smoke, he gave them  away. Now the box was the place where he could keep the New Testament that his mother had given him.

No other episode has lent itself more for myth formation than the Christmas truce of 1914. Watching a film like ‘Merry Christmas’ from 2005 makes it difficult to keep your eyes dry. In this film the Christmas truce is spoiled by the romance of a German opera singer and his Danish diva. Alfred Anderson will not have been aware of this.

The story of gunner Herbert Smith is more credible. ‘On Christmas Eve there was a lull in the fighting, no firing going on at all after 6 p.m. The Germans had a Christmas tree in the trenches and Chinese lanterns all along the top of a parapet.Eventually the Germans started shouting, “Come over, I want to speak to you.” Our chaps hardly knew how to take this, but one of the ‘nuts’ belonging to the Regiment got out of the trench and started to walk towards the German lines. One of the Germans met him about half-way across, and they shook hands and became quite friendly. In due time the ‘nut’ came back and told the others all about it. So more of them took it in turns to go and visit the Germans. The officer commanding would not allow more than three men at a time. I went out myself on Christmas Day and exchanged some cigarettes for cigars, and this game had been going on from Christmas Eve till midnight on Boxing Day without a single round being fired. The German I met had been a waiter in London and could use our language a little. He says they didn’t want to fight and I think he was telling the truth as we are not getting half so many bullets as usual.’

Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment puts the Christmas truce into words as follows: ‘ I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway.  The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours.  It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee.  A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.’  Niemann also says how shocked they were when they saw that the Scots wore nothing under their kilts and that it was their officer who ordered them to end the match after an hour. According to Niemann the final score was ‘three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy’.

They had been friends for one day. A day that they played soccer together, drank, smoked and grieved together for the dead who were rotting away in no man’s land. There is the story of a funeral where Germans and British prayed psalm 23 together: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ ‘Der Herr ist mein Hirte’. In some places the truce had arisen from the mutual need to bury the dead. It was only after fulfilling this sad duty that there was time for fraternisation and merriment.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 spread over large areas of the almost 700-kilometre-long western front, spontaneously. The Pope had called for a Christmas truce a few weeks earlier, but there was nobody who had directed this short-lived period of peace. Nobody had anticipated that a German barber was going to give a British officer a haircut in no man’s land. No impresario came to watch a show presented by a German magician, who had worked in the music halls of London before the war. Except for a few places it remained quiet until the turn of the year, but generally speaking the war just went on right after Christmas, as was arranged in various places. Besides, the mud was defrosting.

The generals learned their lessons from the Christmas Truce. It had taken a while before they finally became aware in their castles behind the front lines of the outrageous reconciliation between their soldiers and those of the enemy. In the following years they started to increase the fighting before Christmas in order to be ahead of new cordialities. A regular changing of the guards prevented contact with the antipodes past no man’s land.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 – for which the French felt far less enthusiasm in their own country than the British – did not repeat itself to such an extent in the Great War. Perhaps the mountain of dead bodies in later years had become too high to shake hands on the peak. Already in 1914 there had been soldiers who cried out against the reconciliation and who kept watch in the trenches while their comrades played soccer. One of these diehards was called Adolf Hitler.

A historian like David Stevenson places the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the context of military disobedience. Stevenson argues that silent truces along the western front were normal practice. No more firing than strictly necessary, sparing areas where the enemy carried off the wounded or replenished supplies, not disturbing breakfast on the other side with the thunder of guns, deliberately aiming too high – all this must have occurred on a large scale. And when a battalion had to go ‘over the top’, chaos was so big that soldiers could easily back out of orders. Stevenson writes: ‘Governments and high commands created the circumstances in which thousands of troops with merciless weaponry were obliged to kill and maim, but they cold not determine the speed and scale of carnage.’


Alfred Anderson backed out of the game of soccer. ‘We did not have a bit of energy left to play football, and we were exhausted by the fighting, by life in the trenches.’ And he continues: ‘We shouted ‘merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merryThe silence ended in the early afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.’

In 1916 the war had ended for Alfred Anderson. Shell fragments gave him his Blighty wound, something every soldier hoped for and some even tried to inflict upon themselves. It was a wound which was serious enough to allow you to go home. ‘Blighty’, a word of Hindu origin, meant something like ‘home sweet home’. When he was recovering at home, Anderson visited the relatives of a comrade who had been killed next to him in the trenches. They would not let him in. When he asked why he was not allowed in, the answer was: ‘Because you’re here and he’s not.’ This was in line with the soldier’s song that brilliantly expressed the meaninglessness of the Great War: ‘We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…’

The sense of guilt never stopped troubling Alfred Anderson. Shortly before he died he told a journalist of The Times: ‘They looked at me as if I should have been left in the mud of France instead of their loved one. I couldn’t blame them, they were grieving, and I still share their grief and bear that feeling of guilt.’

In the Second World War Alfred Anderson served as a sergeant of the Home Guard. He even celebrated his diamond wedding anniversary and when he died he left four children, ten grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

The French granted him the Légion d’Honneur, but Alfred was also the last person to bear the Mons Star, the special medal that was presented to the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, the contemptible little army, which had so bravely fought against the Germans at Mons in August 1914.

After his death Alfred’s children gave a bust of dad to the museum of the Black Watch, the army unit in which he served. The famous truce was never a merry story for him. ‘I’ll give Christmas Day 1914 a brief thought, as I do every year’, he once said. ‘And I’ll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it’s too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad’!

Next week: Enver Pasha

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

025 Sir Alfred Ewing and the principle of hysteresis

Sir Alfred Ewing

Sir Alfred Ewing

British crack German codes

It is Sunday 13 December 1914. It is the 25th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

British submarine captain Norman Holbrook stunts in the Dardanelles. With his B11 he dives under a minefield, sinks a Turkish battleship and manages to escape.

The Serbs recapture their capital Belgrade from the Austrians.

The Battle of Warsaw rages on.

The Turks in Armenia force the Russians into the defensive.

Indian troops attack the Germans at Givenchy.

Bernhard von Bülow, former German Reichskanzler, arrives in Rome for a charm offensive.

In England the conviction of Nicholas Ahlers, a naturalized German, for high treason is annulled because of an error of form.

Hussein I is proclaimed sultan of Egypt, which as a British protectorate no longer belongs to the Ottoman sphere of influence.

The Russians manage to prevent an outbreak of an Austrian garrison from the besieged town of Przemyśl.

And the British seaside towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough are shelled by German warships, despite intelligence from Room 40, which is run by Sir Alfred Ewing.

The code of honour is broken. That is how the British feel it after the attack of Scarborough. This small northern English town nestles against the North Sea coast without any protection. For that reason an attack from the sea is unallowed, at least according to the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907. Yet the Germans blasted Scarborough. Possibly they thought that the small town did possess artillery, but that does not diminish the outrage in Great Britain. The Germans play the war game without obeying the rules. In that case Great Britain is going to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Shelling the Yorkshire coast demanded dozens of lives. It is the first time since Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter in 1667 sailed up the Thames that an enemy killed ‘Brits on British soil’, even unpunished, for admiral Franz von Hipper’s squadron succeeded in reaching their own safe harbour.

It is extra bitter for the British because they were informed in advance of the daring attacks of 15 and 16 December 1914. The code of the Germans themselves had been cracked. Room 40, the extremely secret decoding department of the navy, had already intercepted German messages about a plan of attack on 14 December. However, the fleet that admiral Jellicoe had hurriedly sent towards Von Hipper, was not successful because of the bad weather and blunders of commanding officers. Room 40 must have been swearing loudest about this.


Sir James Alfred Ewing was in charge of the cryptographic whizz kids of Room 40, which was in reality not one room but a series of rooms. He was the soft-spoken son of a Scottish vicar with firm eyebrows underlining his noble forehead. His blue eyes sparkled when he encountered a tough problem that cried out for a clear solution. He had been like that from an early age. In Ewing’s own words: ‘In a family whose chief interests were clerical and literary, I took pleasure in machines and experiments. My scanty pocket money was spent on tools and chemicals. The domestic attic was put at my disposal. It became the scene of hair-raising explosions. There too the domestic cat found herself an unwilling instrument of electrification and a partner in various shocking experiences.’

In Japan he had trained himself for seismology and magnetism to guide the country of the Rising Sun into the modern era as part of the big project of the Meiji dynasty. For science he also explained en passant the principle of hysteresis, a result does not only depend on the size of the cause, but also on the direction in which the cause  is moving. This is a physical principle, but possibly it can also be of use to a historian of World War I.

Back in Scotland Ewing was mainly concerned about living conditions of the very poorest. Among other things he threw himself into improving sewage systems, but he also had one or two things to say about a phenomenon like metal fatigue. His employment at the Admiralty, the authority over the Royal Navy, was another step in his career. He was going to look after the educational programmes there.

After the death of his first wife Ewing remarried in 1912. His bride Ellen was a daughter of his friend and fellow professor John Hopkinson, a mountaineer who had also roused Ewing’s interest in alpinism. On holiday in Switzerland in 1898 Ewing declined an invitation of Hopkinson to go up into the mountains. He felt a little stiff from the climb of the day before. Hopkinson, his son Jack and two of his three daughters would never return. Their bodies were found hanging from ropes under a mountain top.

Ewing was raised to the peerage even before the war. The navy’s intelligence service knocked on Ewing’s door soon after the hostilities started in 1914. They did not know what to do with the intercepted messages which the German radio station Nauen near Berlin had broadcast. Would Ewing be able to make head or tail of it? Well, he had always been fond of solving riddles. Didn’t he win a prize with that at the newspaper when he was a boy?

Ewing entered into a highly successful co-operation with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Reginald William Hall, who was nicknamed ‘Blinker’ because of a tic that made one of his eyes blink like a navy lamp. Hall was the perfect man for the job. He coupled ingenuity to ruthlessness. When a British judge appeared to be very lenient to a German spy, so the story goes, Hall saw to it that the judge’s house was cabled through to the Germans as the location of a factory, after which they made the place part of a bomb flight.


Even a Gyro Gearloose like Ewing needs help from the outside. And he got it from a certain Alexander Szek, born in England, but of Austro-Hungarian descent. Szek was working for a radio station in occupied Brussels and therefore he was an interesting target for the British Secret Service. The question was if Szek was willing to spy for the British. They added that in that case his relatives in London would not have to go to prison. It goes to show that one should not expect too much of ethics in wartime. The intimidated Szek very nervously started to take photos of a German codebook for the British, which could be of use to Room 40. It has never really become clear what happened to Szek. Perhaps the Germans caught him as a spy. Maybe the British got rid of him as a risk factor.

In October 1914 fortune smiles on Ewing. At the Russian embassy they have something that might interest the British. It is a German naval codebook, made heavier with lead, so that in case of danger it could be sent down to the bottom of the sea immediately. But the Russians found the book on the dead body of a German telegraph operator. His corpse was floating in the water after his cruiser Magdeburg had been eliminated in the Baltic Sea by the Russians. The poor man did not have a chance to get rid of the secret book.

The British owe another German codebook to Wilhelm Wassmuss, a sort of German Lawrence of Arabia. Wassmuss the adventurer tried to plan a rebellion against the British in Persia. In an attempt to escape, however, he apparently did not see a chance to take his luggage with him. In this luggage was the diplomatic codebook number 13040.

Together with the Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch, captured by the Australians, and another Verkehrsbuch, which was picked up from the bottom of the English Channel by a British fishing boat, Ewing can start unraveling the German codes and cipher constructions. Are the Germans aware of this? No, they are so pleased with the ingenuity of their coding system that they believe it can not be cracked.

Year in and year out Room 40 can eavesdrop in the bosom of the German war machinery. The powerful radio station near Berlin is essential to the Germans, for the very first act of war of the British had been the destruction of the transatlantic cables of the Germans. In the night of 4 August 1914, shortly after the British ultimatum to the Germans had expired, the British ship Telconia had entered the North Sea. Where the Dutch coast changed into the German coast, the Telconia crew had picked up five German cables from the bottom of the sea and cut through them one by one. Thus Germany was condemned to broadcasting wireless messages, especially with the aim to supply the many U-boats with instructions. The Royal Navy made far less use of radio messages.

The British eagerly prick up their ears in the ether. They possess four receiving stations along the English coast, but Ewing’s men also get their German signs of life from radio amateurs. The biggest problem for Room 40 is not picking up and decoding German messages, but preventing the Germans from finding out about this.

Room 40’s biggest catch is the Zimmermann Telegram, sent to the German ambassador in America on 17 January 1917. Arthur Zimmermann was then Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He linked a daring plan to the decision to resume  unrestricted submarine warfare. The telegram mentioned that the Mexican government could count on German support in case it tried to recapture Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Zimmermann expected president Wilson to throw himself into the war on the side of the allies because of the unrestricted submarine warfare. So it was important to keep America busy at home. This strategy included the intention to have Japan defect. The proposition was to have Mexico make the necessary connections. The Zimmermann Telegram was the dynamite that blew the United States into the Great War. There was no getting away for Wilson. He could no longer remain neutral against a  Germany that was stirring things up behind his back with America’s neighbours.

Historian Barbara Tuchman made a masterly reconstruction of the Zimmermann Telegram. Chapter One starts with the description of the following scene from Room 40. ‘The first message from the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual. The duty officer at British Naval Intelligence twisted open the cartridge and examined the German wireless intercept it contained without noting anything of unusual significance.’ Tuchman unravels step by step how in this message the end of the Great War was concealed.

The decoding of the Zimmermann Telegram is owed to two of Ewing’s devoted code crackers. One is the clergyman William Montgomery, who before the war became known as an expert on the work of St Augustine and as a gifted translator of theological works into German. The other is Nigel de Grey, a shy boy from the publishing trade, who will also join Room 40’s successor Bletchley Park in the Second World War.


Sir Alfred Ewing, the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Whitehall’,  will not be there in 40-45. He died in 1935 after leaving Edinburgh University as Principal six years earlier. In May 1917 he had left Room 40, the heart of British cryptoanalysis.

Next week: Alfred Anderson

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






024 Christiaan de Wet and his double loyalty

Christiaan de Wet

Christiaan de Wet

Not all Boers side with the British

It is Sunday 6 December 1914. It is the 24th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Pope Benedict XV makes an appeal for a Christmas truce.

Dunkirk in France and Veurne in Flanders are shelled by the Germans from a great distance.

The Germans start a new battle around Warsaw.  

Near the Falkland Islands four German ships carrying 2,200 men are wrecked: the end of naval hero Maximilian von Spee.

Austrian general Oskar Potiorek has to sound the retreat in Serbia.

The Austrians also suffer heavy losses near Kraków.

In Great Britain Nicholas Ahlers is convicted. The naturalized German is said to have helped Germans in England return to the Heimat for military service in the beginning of the war.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are driven back by the British.

The French government returns from Bordeaux to Paris.

The Germans bit their teeth to pieces on Ypres.

And in South Africa Christiaan Beyers drowns when on the run, while another Boer rebel spends his days behind bars: Christiaan de Wet.

October 2000 a group of people gathers at the foot of the statue of General Christiaan de Wet in the middle of the Netherlands. The co-operative of Dutch and South Africans had decided to pay hommage to the Boer warrior who had distinguished himself from other soldiers by ‘shrewdness, perseverance and strategic insight’, as stated on the Roepstem, the website of the co-operative.

Various scouting groups in the Netherlands still bear the name Christiaan de Wet. Several streets are also named after him. And then there is that statue on the Hoge Veluwe, a vast nature reserve. It is made by sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa who was commissioned by Mr and Mrs Kröller-Müller. The Kröller-Müllers combined a passion for modern art with sympathy for the Boers.

They proved to be Apartheidproof, all these tributes for an advocate of the Dutch descendants in the southernmost part of Africa.


In the first week of December 1914 Christiaan de Wet is under lock and key. He is a rebel, caged by his own government in South Africa. A sentence of six years for high treason awaits him, but in six months’ time he will be a free man again. In his cell De Wet must have realized that as a Boer he will always be condemned to the Brit. Three times he opposed the anglicization of his country by force of arms, demanding strict discipline of the ‘burghers’ of whom he was in command. De Wet led in battle during the First and Second Boer War, which the Afrikaners rather call the First and Second Freedom War. Especially his last struggle, in the first months of the First World War, was doomed to fail.

Who were the Boers? Descendants of the Dutch who took root around Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century, where Jan van Riebeeck had put up his replacement post for ships of the Dutch East India Company. When the British arrived at the end of the eighteenth century, the Dutch colonists moved on. The Great Trek took them northeast. Then Boer republics such as Transvaal and Orange Free State lodged there.

In 1880 the British decide to annex the territories of the Boers. We are in the era of modern imperialism. Her Majesty’s Africa should extend between Cape and Cairo. Boers fit just as little in this scheme as the German colonists in the southwest of Africa.

The First Boer War of 1880-1881 does not bring the British the desired result. A second armed conflict will be needed to force the Boer republics into the Union of South Africa. There are more interests than purely imperialist ones at stake.  The British have set their eyes on the goldmines of the Boers. In the British press stories have appeared about the disgraceful treatment of English-speaking labourers in the Boer republics. And there is a political motive to deal with the Boers, their approach to German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia.

In the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the Afrikaners fight the British troops of Lord Roberts, who will die very old on 14 November 1914 while inspecting the Indian troops on the western front in France. The battle Roberts is fighting with the Boers in South Africa around the turn of the century is unprecedentedly cruel. Farms are burnt down according to the scorched earth policy, the livestock thinned out. The concentration camp phenomenon emerges. The grim resistance of the Boers makes the British lock up their wives and children in camps. A comparison with the extermination camps of the nazis does not apply, but the 26,000 dead in fifty British concentration camps is really quite something.

The experience the British troops gain against the Boers will be of help to them in 1914 when stopping the Germans in Belgium and northern France. But the Second Boer War was not useful for public relations. Worldwide, but also at home in England, there is disgust about the ruthless imperialism displayed by the British at the expense of the Boers. In keeping with it is the admiration for the unyielding Boers, especially of their bloodbrothers in the Netherlands.

It takes the British three years to crush the Boers, after which the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in 1902. As acting president of Orange Free State –  Marthinus Theunis Steyn, the actual foreman, has fallen ill – Christiaan de Wet contrecoeur put his signature to the treaty. He would rather have continued the fight. In ‘The Battle between Boer and Brit’ (official English title ‘Three Years War’) he recorded his wartime experiences on board the boat that took him and his companions Louis Botha and Koos de la Rey to Europe to raise funds for the reconstruction of his country.

In the years to follow Alfred Milner, the British High Commisioner, tries to carry through the anglicization with the utmost rigour but this storm dies down when a liberal government takes office in Great Britain. The ambition is now reconciliation. To oblige the Boers, London does not make an issue of shelving civil rights of non-white people. The Boer republics had embedded inequality of races in their constitution, with the bible as underlying document. This line of segregation – apartheid in the language of the Boers – can also be followed in the new South Africa.

Not all Boers are ready for reconciliation with the British, but a man like Louis Botha is quite willing to turn South Africa into a union. In 1912 he even goes so far as to unveil a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who gave his name to Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. In August 1914 Botha does not find it difficult as prime minister to stand by London in the war, just like the leaders of the four other dominions, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand. Botha promises to deal with the Germans in Southwest Africa. From all over the country men are summoned to take up arms for that purpose.

For his old comrade in arms Christiaan de Wet this all goes too far. After all, the Germans have acted as friends of the Boers in their fight for freedom. De Wet drifts further away from Botha’s court when the police shoots another hero from the Second Boer War on 15 September. General Koos de la Rey ignores a stop signal of the police officers who are on to a gang of gangsters. ‘Dit is raak’, are De la Rey’s last words. ‘It hit the mark’. The police stick to their version of an accident, but to De Wet and his men the explanation is murder by authority of the state.

De la Rey is currently worshipped as a Boer hero even more than De Wet. Bok van Blerk scored a hit in 2007 which also aroused controversy. Van Blerk says that he is against apartheid, but at the same time he is proud of his identity as Afrikaner in the Rainbow nation. Hence this chorus: ‘De la Rey, De la Rey, will you come to lead the Boers? General, general, united we will fall around you.’

De la Rey is already dead when another commanding officer of the Boers, Manie Maritz, goes over to the Germans in Southwest Africa on 10 October. Maritz gives the South African government an ultimatum. If he is not allowed to contact other Boer leaders, among whom Christiaan de Wet, Maritz will invade the Cape Province. The government in Pretoria makes this ultimatum public, which to De Wet is the sign to go into action. In his hinterland, Orange Free State, he forms an army of seven thousand Boers. In Transvaal and Cape Province another five thousand Boers arm themselves.

But also prime minister Louis Botha takes up his old profession. He advances against his former comrades in arms with superior power. De Wet will be finished soon. In the Second Boer War he has always been too quick for the British. Fifty thousand men were after him during the ‘First De Wet Hunt’ in 1900. The Boer Pimpernel, like no other experienced in guerilla-like tactics, had grown into a legend, although he had to share his fame with Fleur, his inseparable Arab horse. Now, in 1914, with another Boer as the enemy, he got the worst in no time.

With De Wet behind bars, the leader of the Boers in Transvaal, Christiaan Beyers, is also defeated.  On the run he is drowned when he wants to cross the river Vaal. Again a week later another Boer leader falls into the hands of the government. Jopie Fourie ends his life before a firing squad because of high treason. He is the only one to suffer this fate. The Boer rebellion is crushed by Boers who have remained loyal to the British. The number of casualties is limited to 192 rebels, among whom a son of Christiaan de Wet who was killed at Doornberg, and 132 government soldiers. At the next elections it will become clear that the discord among the Boers continues. Botha’s party is just a little bigger than the National Party of independent Boers.

When De Wet is released on parole in 1915 – a fine is paid with voluntary contributions of sympathizers – , he retires for good. In the final phase of his life a ‘spirit of peace and quiet’ must have come over him. The warrior inside him stayed behind in prison.


Christiaan Rudolph de Wet dies in Klipfontein on 3 February 1922. He is buried near the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, where six years earlier Martinus Theunis Steyn, president of Orange Free State, was laid to rest. The English human rights activist Emily Hobhouse designed the group of statues which is central to the monument. She was inspired by the visit she paid to a concentration camp of the British in 1901.

A year before the Great War De Wet had spoken at the consecration of the National Women’s Monument and put his finger on the salient point of the British concentration camps. ‘Today we stand again at the graves of 26,000 women and children. During the war we often heard their songs from the camp. That was the evidence on Whom they built their faith. Let this be the slogan of every mother and child: be loyal to your nation  and your religion.’

Next week: Sir Alfred Ewing

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Post Navigation