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Archive for the month “May, 2015”

049 Komitas Vardapet and the caravan of death

Komitas Vardapet

Komitas Vardapet

Ottomans focus their anger at the Armenian people

It is Sunday 30 May 1915. It is the 49th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are urged on by the British during an amphibious operation which will be known as Townshend’s Regatta.

Eventually Major General Charles Townshend succeeds in conquering the town of Amara on the river Tigris on the Turks without any significant losses. 

The Austrians on the Isonzo front do not bow to Italian bombings and, supported by the Bavarian Alpenkorps, prefer to attack.

Austrian and German troops, united in the Mackensen Army Group, retake Przemyśl.

On the Gallipoli peninsula a trench war develops that is reminiscent of the western front: considerable losses and barely any gain of ground.

The Germans defend their West African colony of Cameroon to the death.

Bari and Brindisi, coastal towns in the heel of of the boot of Italy, are bombarded by the Austrian air force.

The Italian navy in its turn take the Dalmatian coast under fire.

The French succeed in taking trenches at Souchez by surprise during heavy fighting north of Arras, while the British gain ground at Givenchy.

And during their deportations to the east many Armenians collapse, while the most highly-strung among them is driven into a lifelong depression: Komitas Vardapet.

Mass murderers thrive when their deeds are ignored. The following quote from 1939 is attributed to Adolf Hitler: ‘Who is talking about the destruction of the Armenians today?’

Yet no subject from the First World War is so topical as the Armenian Genocide. This has been a raw nerve in Turkey for almost a century. When the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, visited Turkey in April 2009, the world held its breath. Was Obama going to say the G-word in front of the Turkish parliament?

During his election campaign he had made it absolutely clear that he considered the Armenian Genocide a historical fact. But in Ankara Obama avoided the sensitive subject, which the kindly ones interpreted as a wise decision. It would have been stupid of Obama to endanger the careful rapprochement that had been noticeable between the Turkish and Armenian governments recently.

In any case ‘genocide’ is not a concept dating from the First World War. It was not introduced until 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. He joined the Greek words for ‘people’ and ‘kill’. In 1948 the concept was taken over by the United Nations as those acts that are aimed at ‘the destruction, entirely or partially, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of people’.

Since then genocide has been considered the ultimate crime. It is not enough to kill on a large scale at random. It should be supported by a plan. The Holocaust is a very clear example of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference the nazis worked out their Endlösung der Judenfrage meticulously.

Even though there are western scientists who refuse to go any further than mass murder, outside Turkey the Armenian Genocide is widely recognized by historians. To a much lesser extent this holds good for the claims of other ethnic groups that had to tread very carefully in the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Kurds and the Pontic Greeks along the Black Sea coast.

It cannot reasonably be denied that hundreds of thousands of Armenians lost their lives during the First World War and the years following. But to start with, there is no agreement about the exact number. In Turkish circles it will hardly ever pass the 500,000 mark. Armenians themselves will rather give an estimate of a million and a half who perished between 1915 and 1923. For a clear understanding, the number of Armenians under Ottoman rule at the time of the First World War is estimated at one and a half to two million people.

More crucial than the matter of numbers is the official point of view of the Turks that ‘the Armenian question’ was part of a civil war, which simply goes hand in hand with famine and outbreaks of diseases. The Armenians were the enemy and in the fight for survival the Ottoman government was obliged to start ‘a relocation’ of the Armenian people. The language here clearly follows ‘the question’. ‘Relocation’ is the Turkish euphemism for ‘deportation’.

Even a delicate soul like Komitas Vardapet had to leave Contantinople, on 24 April 1915, the day that Armenians still remember as the beginning of their tragedy. He had tried to spread the music of his Armenian people in the Ottoman capital. He had started a choir, given presentations and lectures, played the flute and the piano and above all he had sung. Komitas was a baritone but could also reach the range of a tenor. At the Berlin conservatory he was trained to be a musicologist, but he had chosen the Ottoman countryside as his area of work. This is where Komitas had dug up his richly varied treasure of folklore music, which he had polished in mellifluous arrangements, even before Bela Bartok would do the same with the folklore music of Eastern Europe.

Komitas was born as Soghomon Soghomonyan in 1861 in a family of Armenian origin that only speaks Turkish. His father is a cobbler, his mother a carpet weaver. Both parents will die young, after which Soghomon, their only child, is raised by his grandmother. It is a bleak childhood. For nights on end he has to sleep on the cold stone floor of the laundry room. But Soghomon could sing like a nightingale.

As an orphan he is selected to go to an Armenian Apostolic seminary. When he is introduced to the bishop, he says: ‘I do not speak Armenian, but if you wish I can sing it.’ In 1890 he is ordained as a monk. Three years later he becomes a priest, a ‘vardapet’. The name Komitas which he adopts, refers to a seventh century poet of hymns.

The Christian culture is deeply anchored within the Armenian people. In the year 301 an Armenian king was the first authority who turned Christianity into a state religion. The Armenian Apostolic community has not been dependent of a higher ecclesiastical authority for fifteen centuries either. The Armenian culture also has its own unique script.

The Armenia which detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991 is only part of the old home country: the mountain areas in the southern Caucasus and the east of Anatolia. But over the centuries  Armenians had also settled in the Turkish towns, where, together with the Greeks and the Jews, they had begun to dominate business life.

In the nineteenth century there also developed a desire for independence among Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarians that had severed the ties with the Ottomans in 1878 were a shining example. Radicals were prepared to enforce an Armenian state using violence, but Sultan Abdul Hamid II firmly started to reduce all the efforts to naught. The years 1894 to 1896 showed massacres and pogroms among the Armenians. In the country the dirty work was frequently left to Kurds, another Ottoman minority with whom the Armenians had been at war for ages.

When in the years preceding the Great War the new rulers, the Young Turks, want to roll out the pan-Turkish ideal throughout Asia, they consider the Christian mountain people of the Armenians an annoying obstacle. Tension rises after the outbreak of the First World War when Armenian volunteers appear to enlist in the Russian army.

There is also talk of Armenian rebels that operate in the Ottoman hinterland, though apparently they have only become really active after the massacres. It is one of the main issues: was Armenian rebellion a cause of Ottoman repression or a reaction to it?

It is certainly true that in the first year of the war around a hundred thousand Armenians loyally followed the call to enlist in the Ottoman army. After the three Pashas have decided to deal with the fifth column of Armenians, it is they who will be first to get rid of.

The fateful Battle of Sarikamish around the turn of the first year in the war is the beginning of the hunt for the Armenians. Constantinople is convinced that they are bound to have helped the Russians put the Ottoman troops to the sword in the icy sub-zero weather of the Caucasus.

The resentment is first aimed at the Armenian men, inside and outside the Ottoman army. They are disarmed, killed or worked to death. After that the less resilient part of the Armenian people is forced to leave hearth and home. Camps in the north of Mesopotamia are the destination, but many will never get there. On the gruelling journey there an untold number of Armenians fall victim to sickness, exhaustion or famine. Robbers, rapists and murderers have free reign along the route.

Should this be called genocide? The answer of historian David Stevenson is as follows: ‘Who took the decision and why remains uncertain, and the relevant documents have been destroyed or withheld. In particular, it is unclear whether a security operation to protect the Caucasus border escalated because of Armenian resistance and the Special Organization’s indiscipline, or whether the aim from the start was to wipe the Armenians out.’

The world is too busy with the developments on the front, but the Armenian fate has not gone completely unnoticed. The German consul Johannes Lepsius tries to make his government fully aware of the tragedy the Ottomans have on their conscience. It is in vain. Berlin cannot afford to put the relationship with its ally at risk.

The American ambassador Henry Morgenthau is another voice crying in the wilderness. The following quote is from one of his reports: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.’

What did Komitas Vardapet’s eyes see in the few weeks before he was allowed to return to Constantinople and leave the caravan of death, under pressure of friendly Turkish intellectuals and the outside world? Black-and-white photos show us the naked bodies of men, women and children, left discarded by the side of the road. Did Komitas see this in bright colours? And did these pictures from hell drive him to insanity for the rest of his life? Or is it true what can be heard on the Turkish side: Komitas Vardapet already showed signs of schizophrenia before the war.

In the autumn of 1916 Komitas ends up in a Turkish military hospital. When the war is over, he is lured to a psychiatric clinic in Paris in 1919 under false pretences. They are years of infinite fears and isolation, of prolonged silence and crying of pain. In room 3 of the Villejuif Hospital he gets older and greyer, and finally dies in 1935, as an icon of Armenian suffering, which is also reflected in the Hymn of the Kiss of Peace that Komitas Vardapet composed.

Next week: Nicholas Nikolaevich

048 John Condon and the piece of boot numbered 6322

John Condon grave

John Condon grave

The Irish, young and old, are willing to sacrifice

It is Sunday 23 May 1915. It is the 48th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Italy declares war to Austria-Hungary.

With a gas attack the Germans try to capture the ridge of Bellewaerde, but due to a shortage of ammunition the Second Battle of Ypres is going to bleed to death.

Again the Russians lose ground in Galicia.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Turks and the Anzacs agree on a nine-hour ceasefire so that they can bury their dead.

British submarine E11 under the command of Martin Nasmith, torpedoes several Turkish ships in the Dardanelles.

British prime minister H.H. Asquith presents his new coalition cabinet of his own Liberals and Conservatives.

Winston Churchill is replaced as head of the admiralty by Arthur James Balfour, while Sir Henry Jackson is appointed First Sea Lord and David Lloyd George will lead the new Ministry of Munitions.

22 French airplanes bomb chlorine gas factories at Ludwigshafen am Rhein.

German-Austrian troops attack Przemyśl.

And near Ypres – so the story goes – a fourteen-year-old boy from Ireland is killed, John Condon.

It is perhaps cynical, but a regiment of dead guys in a row creates less emotion than one single boy of fourteen under a white tombstone. ‘Age 14’, it says on John Condon’s grave. You can find it on Poelcapelle Cemetery, not far from Ypres in Flanders. It is a place of interest, not to say a visitor attraction, for which coachloads of schoolchildren regularly queue. After all they could have been John Condon, even though Johnnie came from a Southern Irish seaport, called Waterford.

Johnnie is also neatly buried in a row. And his grave is like any other grave, be it of a soldier or of an officer. A white erect tombstone. The top is slightly convex. It is 81 centimetres tall, 38 centimetres wide and 7.5 centimetres thick. Those are the measurements that go with death for King and Country, even though the poor wretch under is only Known unto God.

Most tombstones are made of stone from the quarries in Portland in Southern England, but if a substitute is needed, the choice is usually Italian marble from Botticino. This type of marble is less easily affected by algae and mosses. The staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission guard all these white headstones on 23,000 cemeteries, spread around the world as a remainder of small and great wars. The headstone of an Englishman shows a rose or a lion, a Scot has Saint Andrew’s cross or a thistle, an Irishman a harp, a Canadian the maple leaf, an Australian the rising sun, a New Zealander a fern, a South African a springbok and a Newfoundlander a caribou. Plenty of symbols in the Commonwealth.

There is possibly one grave from the Great War which is better known than that of John Condon, The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster abbey in London. On 11 November 1920 a skeleton without a name was buried there.

The life story behind these bones is not known, contrary to John Condon’s. It seems like it can be told quickly. And that is exactly what the Dutch singer Bram Vermeulen has done in his moving song, Johnnie. Bram imagined himself a reincarnation of a Walloon officer during the First World War. He sang: ‘Vertel van die verschrikking. Maar niet aan mij. Ik hoef niet meer te weten. Ik was erbij’ (Tell us about the horrors. But don’t tell it to me. I don’t want to know more. I was there). Think of it what you want, but it is with good reason that Bram’s songs about the Great War are so powerful. Reliving precedes reincarnation – or the other way around.

This is the first stanza of Johnnie.

When he had lied about his age

he was quite tall, only fourteen years old

But they could use them all, so there

no one would ask for your age any more.

A few lines further down the song Johnnie gets to know the war.

Already a week later Johnnie is numbed

He is completely out

Stunned by the cold, the mud and the bombs

He only wanted it to end.

 When the order came to attack

Johnnie was like an obedient dog

He managed to advance twenty yards or so

When a bullet found his exhausted body

Is that a bullet Bram sings about? Didn’t John Condon suffocate on 24 May 1915 during the last German gas attack in the Second Battle of Ypres? Didn’t he get killed near Mouse Trap Farm and wasn’t he found eight years later by the side of the Ypres to Zonnebeke railway. The body collectors knew that it was Johnnie because of a ‘piece of boot’ which was found near the remains. On this piece of boot was the service number 6322, which belonged to Private John Condon, Royal Irish Regiment. It was the boy who had lied about his age, so they put on his grave: Age 14.

Now apparently they kept a register of births in Waterford. A birth certificate testifies that in October 1896 a certain John Condon, son of John and Catherine Condon, was added to the register. This John Condon junior was not fourteen in May 1915, but eighteen years old. John, however, did have a younger brother, Patrick. Could The Waterford News have been right after all in 1938? They wrote that this Patrick shipped himself to the war as a stowaway and died as his older brother Private J. Condon. The newspaper called it a ‘boyish adventure. Source of the story was Nicholas Condon, the older cousin Patrick was supposed to run away with.

Confusion everywhere. Is it John or Patrick Condon who is buried at Poelcapelle Cemetery? Or neither? After digging it up the number 6322 on the piece of boot was linked to the Royal Irish Regiment, but John Condon’s battalion never fought on the spot where the skeleton was exhumed by the piece of boot. The second battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, however, did fight there. And a certain Patrick Fitzsimmons was one of its members. Killed In Action on 16 June 1915, and his service number was –you have guessed it – 6322.

Patrick Fitzsimmons is one of the 54,896 names on the walls of the Menin Gate at Ypres, a majestic but pompous memorial to the missing soldiers. It was unveiled in 1927 by Field Marshal Herbert Plumer. ‘He is not missing, he is here’, said Plumer that day about all the soldiers that seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. But where was Patrick Fitzsimmons laid to rest, ‘Age 35’? As a name on Menin Gate or as a dead body in John Condon’s grave at Poelcapelle Cemetery?

Flemish writer and journalist Geert Spillebeen provides us with some guidance in this matter. Not only did he write a children’s book about John Condon, entitled Age 14, but he also contacted relatives in Ireland. However, they did not tell him what it was all about, but to Spillebeen the story of the fourteen-year-old is still credible. ‘Whatever way you look at it, the case will always be very complex’, Spillebeen hastens to add. ‘One should not forget that they were troubled times for Ireland. Taking part in the First World War in British service was not talked about.’

Of all the questions around Johnnie the most intriguing is still: why would a boy of fourteen choose for war? Perhaps because he was attracted by adventure. Or it may have given him an opportunity to get away from the grey misery of Waterford. Maybe Johnnie’s love for his country, young as he was, was overflowing and in that war he thought he could bring freedom closer to his Irish people.

After all, that had been the message John Redmond and his brother Willie had addressed to all Irish boys. Both brothers were parliamentarians in Westminster. John Redmond had been leader of the Home Rule Party since 1900. This party advocated by legal means Ireland’s independence within the British Empire. Home Rule seemed to be within easy reach on the eve of the Great War. Only few Irish considered an armed rebellion. The Redmond brothers were convinced that the outbreak of the war on the European continent would only speed up the Irish cause. The rule of thumb had always been that England’s problems offered opportunities to Ireland.

But the crack that ran through Ireland could not easily be removed. In the north Protestant Irish opposed the abolition of the union with Great Britain. This had even led to the paradoxical constitution of their own army. If Home Rule had to be prevented, Ulster Volunteers would take up arms against British troops if necessary. The response from the side of the Catholics was immediate. From 1913 Irish Volunteers were ready to defend Home Rule. Tens of thousands of boys from both camps, Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers, flowed to the British ranks during the Great War. It is estimated that over 116,000 Irish fought in the trenches, slightly more Catholics than Protestants.

John Redmond encouraged the Irish Volunteers as follows in September 1914: ‘Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the work, and then account for yourselves as men, not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war. It would be a disgrace forever to our country otherwise.’ Also his own brother Willie Redmond felt it concerned him. He was already past fifty. Despite his parliamentarian background he had been in conflict with the British law for inflammatory actions a couple of times, but with full conviction he would leave for the front for the British empire. In November 1914 he addressed young people in Cork: ‘I do not say to you go, but grey haired and old as I am, I say come, come with me to the war.’

Willie Redmond was prepared to sacrifice his blood in British service for the Irish cause. That was a radically different choice from the one Irish nationalists behind the Easter Rising of 1916 made. But they, too, paid with their blood. The British mercilessly ended the revolt in the streets of Dublin.

Till the very last Willie Redmond thought a bridge could be built in the trenches between the north and the south of Ireland, between Catholics and Protestants. He goes over the top as a major on 9 June 1917, when the battle of Messines ridge rages. He is immediately hit in his wrist and his leg. He encourages his men to go on and is then taken to the field hospital at Loker. There he dies at the age of 56. His death arouses international emotion. The French will posthumously award major Redmond the Légion d’Honneur.

The grave of Willie Redmond, the old man, a war tourist attraction in the Flemish Westhoek, is less known than that of John Condon, the young boy. The tombstone is different: there is a cross on the grave of major Redmond, a devout Catholic. But it is especially remarkable because it is in a separate place, just outside Locre Hospice Cemetery. This isolated resting place has a symbolic value. Ireland separated itself from England soon after the war. And there is still no place for the boys that put on British uniforms in 1914-18, let alone for the old men who told them to do so.

When in 2003 it was suggested to build a memorial for John Condon in Waterford, there were plenty of protests. There was a letter-to-the-editor in the Waterford Today, that read as follows: ‘As a young Republic, we are a success, so instead of looking back at the mistakes of the men that fought in 1914-18, let us concentrate on making our land fit for heroes. The poor foolish men that listened to Redmond have all gone to their reward. Let them rest in peace.’

And yet on 18 May 2014 the John Condon Memorial was unveiled in Cathedral Square in Waterford, a four-metre-tall sculpture in honour of the ‘boy soldier’ John Condon, of Wheelbarrow Lane, Ballybricken.

Next week: Komitas Vardapet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

047 Victor Emmanuel III and the five-foot tall kingship

Victor Emmanuel III

Victor Emmanuel III

Turbulent Italy rushes into war

It is Sunday 16 May 1915. It is the 47th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

The Battle of Festubert gets bogged down in skirmishes, which eventually result for the allied forces in a gain in ground of one kilometre, at the cost of 16,000 lives.

The Russians occupy the town of Van in the east of Anatolia while the Turks withdraw to the Kurdish town of Bitlis.

Based on a telegram from war correspondent Charles à Court Repington an article in The Times  is published, which attributes the Aubers Ridge catastrophe that happened a week earlier to a shortage of grenades. 

In the House of Lords the ‘Shell Crisis’ is then met with Lord Kitchener’s plea to increase the production of ammunition.

Under the command of August von Mackensen the Germans unleash their artillery on Przemyśl in Galicia. The Russians try to evacuate the town by a counter attack.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Anzacs manage to hold their own against the dominance of the Turks, but Lord Kitchener already speculates on a retreat.

In the wake of this Gallipoli fiasco British prime minister H.H. Asquith chooses to discharge Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and form a coalition government.

And the Italian government decides to mobilize, after having been entrusted with far-reaching powers. Thus the war party has won the battle for king Victor Emmanuel III.

When in May 2004 the Spanish crown prince gets married, the Italian pretender to the throne is also invited as a high ranking guest. If only this invitation had not been sent. After dinner this Victor Emmanuel IV will start bashing one of his cousins, who also claims to have a right to the Italian throne. Oh well, they must have thought in Italy. Perhaps our republic is not everything, but return to the monarchy? We had better not do that.

The longest ruling monarch of Italy was the grandfather of the present number four, Victor Emmanuel III. He wore the crown in both world wars, but the second one led to his downfall. The prince had adopted a too favourable stance regarding Mussolini’s fascists to serve his time after the war. He had already had to give up questionable titles of ‘Emperor of Ethiopia’ and ‘King of Albania’ halfway through the Second World War. When peace had come, his son Umberto II could try to save the monarchy for another month, but that turned out to be a hopeless challenge.

Victor Emmanuel III had already come to the throne in 1900, as a direct result of what in those days was called the ‘anarchism of the deed’. In the first year of the new century Victor Emmanuel’s father, King Umberto I, lost his life in the same way Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand would experience in Sarajevo fourteen years later. In the case of the Italian king there were four bullets.

Umberto’s assassin was called Gaetano Bresci. He was Italian by birth and had moved to America in order to build a life as a silk weaver. In 1900, however, he returned to his native country for a special mission, to kill the king, thus unleashing the revolution. A few moments before his arrest he would formulate this more exactly: ‘I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king. I have killed a principle.’

The killing of Umberto fits in a series of anarchist assassinations of dignitaries. In June 1894 president Sadi Carnot of France is the first. In August 1897 prime minister Canovas of Spain is next. September 1898 Empress Elisabeth, Sissi, of Austria-Hungary. September 1901 president McKinley of the United States. November 1912 prime minister Canalejas of Spain. May 1913 king George I of Greece. They were all killed by radical individuals, who were driven by social despair and were possessed by the ideal to create a society of equals. It would only take one spark, they thought.

Four of the six ‘tyrant murders’ were committed by Italians. French socialist Jean Jaurès commented: ‘For many years all anarchist hooligans have been Italians. And that is no coincidence. It is because the misery and the reaction there are very intense and the violent passion and the destructive instinct lead to murder’.

The Italian Errico Malatesta is a prominent teacher of anarchism. In June 1914 he thinks he can put his violent theory into practice. Italy is in the thrall of The Red Week. Turmoil in the streets. Workers who go on strike. But The Red Week will not only expose the division of Italian society as a whole, but also the fragmentation within the political left. When socialists and republicans decide to end the general strike, Malatesta has to go into exile again.

On the eve of the Great War Italy is a young nation, filled with assertiveness, just like Germany. But even less than Germany it is a colonial world power. As early as 1896 Italy suffered a humiliating defeat against Ethiopia, that was supported primarily by Russia, France and Great-Britain.

It should be noted that the Italian nation is very much subject to the opposite forces of left and right, republican and monarchist, agricultural and industrial, and also north and south. All these antagonisms were already visible at the time of the Risorgimento, the multicoloured movement that had indeed successfully sought to achieve Italian unification after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Before that the peninsula had been a collection of kingdoms and duchies, and on top of that the pope in the holy middle.

The annexation of the Papal States in 1870 seemed to be the completion of the Italian resurrection, but there remained a crown on the work: the territories that fell under the rule of the Austrian emperor. This desire of the irredentists would be the main motive to declare war to Austria-Hungary in May 1915, despite all German diplomacy.

The Italians were also familiar with opportunism. Prime minister Antonio Salandra called the principle of his foreign policy ‘Sacro egoismo’ (i.e. sacred egoism). Before the war Italy had chosen the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Dreibund, but this triple friendship proved to be of little or no value when it came to mobilizing in 1914.

Initially Italy emphatically declares itself neutral, but in the first months of 1915 Rome begins to estimate that the allied have the best papers. Germany is stopped at the Marne and the British attack on the Dardanelles looks promising. It encourages the Italians to sign the secret Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. The Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) grants Italy a lot more territories as spoils of war than pre-war partner Austria-Hungary had wanted to give up.

‘We want war’, a prominent socialist shouts at the king of Italy over the heads of a crowd in Milan. ‘When you, as our monarch who has the power to send our soldiers to the front, renounce your right, you will lose the crown.’ This socialist is called Benito Mussolini. He has been a self-confessed opponent of the Libyan war that Italy had fought with the Ottomans, but now the same Mussolini joins the war effort as a true patriot.

Newspapers that want to remain neutral are swamped with popular anger. And on 18 May Giovanni Giolitti therefore leaves the capital. Giolitti was the elder statesman in Italy. As prime minister he had prevented an escalation of the class struggle with social reforms and liberal politics. In these years the king had also been willing to grant his people greater freedoms.

In May 1915 Giolitti, the ‘godfather of Italy’, expects more benefit from neutrality than from war. According to him Italy is not ready for war yet. In the years to come this will prove to be an accurate observation. With his point of view Giolitti falls out with his former protégé, prime minister Salandra, but it also results in fierce demonstrations here and there in favour of war. Under this public pressure Victor Emmanuel chooses the side of Salandra.

Did ‘the people’ want war? Doubtful. ‘The street’ was not the voice of the majority as such. But this voice as so often remained silent while war was endorsed by parliament, the senate and the king.

Perhaps Victor Emmanuel III did not play a leading role in the ‘glorious days of May’, but he was a willing puppet in the hands of the warmongers. He is often described as shy and hesitant. His appearance was certainly not imposing. ‘Little Victor Emmanuel’ was only five foot tall. Kaiser Wilhelm II simply called him ‘the dwarf’. There is a photograph showing the Italian king walking next to the Belgian king Albert, as if a father is taking his little son for a stroll.

During the great War Victor Emmanuel will not leave the side of his troops. He likes the business of war. But strong man on the front is general Luigi Cadorna, a ruthless character who does not mind a few more dead bodies. The Italians therefore pay a high price for their participation in the war: 650,000 of their soldiers lost their lives. The biggest defeat is the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.

Victor Emmanuel was of the House of Savoy, which had first ruled the kingdom of Sardinia and from 1861 presided over all Italy. His father gave his only child the following poor advice: ‘Remember: to be a king all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.’ But for Italy he really needed to do more than that. Between 1900 and 1922 the king had to intervene ten times in a parliamentary crisis. But after that Mussolini took control to the satisfaction of the king, who just hated squabbling politicians.

The popularity of the monarchy also remains considerable during the fascist years. The beauty of the queen, born as princess Elena of Montenegro, gives a substantial impulse to this. She bears Victor Emmanuel five children.

In 1938 the monarch commits the biggest sin of his political life. He tacitly agrees with the racial laws that are mainly aimed at jews, thus breaching the oath he had sworn at his coronation.

As the Second World War progresses Italy’s little monrach tries to get rid of Mussolini, but the latter keeps the support of Adolf Hitler. When in 1943 Victor Emmanuel reaches a ceasefire with the allies, his daughter has to pay the price. Princess Mafalda is married to a German. Although this prince is a loyal nazi, Mafalda is imprisoned by the nazis, apparently in an attempt to put pressure on her father. Eventually Mafalda ends up in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. There the princess is mortally wounded during an allied bombardment in August 1944.

After his abdication in 1946 Victor Emmanuel III moves to Egypt in exile, where he dies in 1947 at the age of 78. During a referendum a year earlier the Italian people voted for the republic as a form of state. After a reign of almost a millennium the House of Savoy has no more subjects.

The royal residence in Turin has been put on the list of world heritage, but the members of the family were not allowed to enter Italy until the year 2002. That was painful. In 2007 Victor Emmanuel IV, the heir-apparent with the dark image, filed a claim for damages with the Italian government. He wanted 260 million euros for the injustice done to his family during all those years of exile. This is just one of the unpaid bills of the history of Italy.

Next week: John Condon

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

046 François Faber and the love for mother earth and his baby girl

François Faber

François Faber

Trenches save lives but enslave heroes

It is Sunday 9 May 1915. It is the 46th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Finally the French quite successfully mount a full-on attack at Artois.

A British offensive at Aubers ends catastrophically.

A new attempt of General Douglas Haig at Festubert, made in the nightly hours, also shows a poor result.

The British really got scared when a Turkish destroyer sends battleship Goliath, taking 570 of the 700-strong crew, to the bottom of the Dardanelles within minutes.

Sir John Fisher has lost confidence in the Dardanelles Campaign, so he hands in his resignation as First Sea Lord to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.

The Third Army and Eighth Army of the Russians collapse in Galicia.

Due to the sinking of Lusitania anti-German riots break out in England, but American president Woodrow Wilson explains again that his country is ‘too proud to fight’.

Anti-German sentiments are also stirred up by the publication of the report of the Bryce Committee, which describes the atrocities of the Hun in Belgium.

Louis Botha and his South Africans capture Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa.

The British government decides to intern all foreigners from hostile nations, who are old enough te serve.

And on the western front a sports hero is killed, Luxembourger François Faber.

It is a baby girl! François Faber has a baby girl! Yes, that ’s what it says in the telegram which he opened in his trench. The legendary ’Colombes Giant’ puts his hands up in the air and crazy of joy he jumps up and down, high enough to be hit in the heart by a German bullet. He collapses in the arms of two brothers in arms and dies.

Was this the end of the man who had won the Tour de France in 1909? He had triumphed in five consecutive stages, which was never repeated in the cycling sport. Faber was also the first foreigner to win the Tour. He had a Luxembourg passport with which he was going to serve for the French in the Foreign Legion.

Did he really die of joy over new life? Or did camaraderie drive him towards death? According to a different interpretation Faber climbs out of his trench on 9 May 1915, during an offensive at Garency, to get a seriously wounded friend from no man’s land. On his way back a German bullet is shot through his head.

Death is the big equalizer in the First World War anyway. Even celebrated  sports heroes come to an inglorious end. So many years later we cannot even establish exactly how. Yet François Faber was given a modest little memorial on the immense cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette. In the chapel, on the left past the altar, you will see his memorial plaque. ‘Cycliste, mort pour la France’.

The same words apply to Lucien Petit-Breton, who had won two editions of the Tour de France, in 1907 and 1908. He died as a humble orderly in a car crash behind the front at Troyes on 20 December 1917. But also Faber’s successor as winner of the Tour, Octave Lapize, is one of the fallen pour la patrie. As a pilot he was hit by two German flying men at an altitude of 4,500 metres in July 1917.

François Faber was a very tall man, who also did quite well in the classics of the cycling sport. There were days that his powers knew no bounds. Faber tortured the pedals and braved the elements. Not somebody to be kept calm in a trench.

He was used to keeping his head in the air, chasing the horizon. A front soldier was supposed to bend down and embrace the soil. Erich Maria Remarque, German author of the novel All quiet on the western front, expressed it as follows: ‘To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother.’

Julius Caesar ordered his soldiers to duck away in ditches, but the trench as a military phenomenon is inextricably linked to the horrors of the First World War. The paradoxical truth is that the trenches saved lives. The highest mortality figures from the war could be registered in the first months, when the war above-ground was still in full swing.

It was the Germans who first decided to duck away in the earth, thus presenting the allied generals with a fait accompli. The German Schützengräben would remain the best throughout the war. Especially the French deliberately kept their tranchées as simple as possible. A far too homely and safe atmosphere would undermine the offensive fervour of the troops.

All in all, a trench is a series of manholes, that were formed by a soldier’s natural reflex to take cover against enemy fire. It was a matter of digging or dying. ‘Sweat saves blood’. That motto was not compatible with the urge to attack with which the armies had come up to battle. However, what alternative did you have under a barrage of shells other than collapse to the ground and dig a hole as deep as possible, using the pioneer shovel that was standard equipment of a soldier.

Trenches developed from the channels between the manholes. Their architecture quickly became quite refined. Soldiers could shelter in recesses or hide their ammunition there. On the side of the parapet steps were usually made. The English referred to these as fire steps. Who knelt on a fire step, could easily aim for the enemy over the edge of the trench, hoping of course the enemy would not aim for him.

The soil structure determined the design of a trench. Ground water was just as much a nuisance as the artillery from the other side. Muddy fields had to be covered with ground and wooden planks prevented the soldiers from getting their feet wet. The English called these ‘duckboards’. To reinforce them, corrugated iron and wooden bulkheads were used. The Germans had their own specialty, wire mesh of twigs and branches. Sandbags were also useful. The Flemish had thought of an appropriate name for them: ‘little fatherlanders’. Then again the name of a complex of trenches the Belgian army had dug in the IJzerdijk sounded less familiar: Death Row.

The wider the trench, the bigger the risk a grenade would land there. So they kept the gangway between parados and parapet as narrow as possible. The trenches were constructed in a zigzag pattern for the same reason. If there was an explosion or firing from the flank, at least the comrades around the corner would be relatively  safe. Cross walls between the zigzagging ‘firing recesses’ offered extra protection.

Soon the defence would not be limited to one line of trenches. In its most detailed form a trench complex would be at least four stories deep. At an ample distance from the foremost frontline trench a defence trench was constructed. Behind this line were communication trenches. And at the very back of these the reserves waited in their support trenches for the moment that they could move forward to the front lines, via angled connections. Listeners and snipers were closest to the enemy in their forward posts, where no man’s land started.

The strips of land between the lines were filled with barbed wire or other barricades, such as Spanish riders, crossed wooden poles covered with barbed wire. But here and there also machineguns were placed to surprise the penetrating enemy. Traffic between the lines and work on the trenches mainly took place at night, when enemy planes could not spy. Preferably the excursions into no man’s land also took place in the dead of night. It could be a hell of a job, clipping away with wire cutters, to find a way through the jungle of barbed wire, that was fastened on iron stakes, resembling pigs tails. Troops that had to go ‘over the top’ the following day should have a clear passage.

Barbed wire, like the trench, has become a symbol of the Great War.The patent for  this was obtained in 1874 by the American farmer Joseph Glidden. It had made him a very rich man and it had tamed the Wild West. But in the war Glidden’s invention provided quite a few human tragedies. Those that got stuck in barbed wire would surely perish.

From the North Sea to the Swiss border the trenches swung across the landscape on both sides like a pas de deux of two armies that were not exactly swinging themselves. The Germans usually had the advantage of the terrain which in most cases they had been simply free to choose. Sometimes they had access to complete caves, such as the Caverne du Dragon under the Chemin des Dames. The underground rooms of the German officers could with some justice be called ‘ganz gemütlich’, quite pleasant. Frequently there would be wallpaper. There was electric light and furniture. A painting of the kaiser completed the picture.

The standards of the trench were of course completely different, especially on the side of the allies. Photos show us cavemen, animals rather than people, who were also forced to share their dwellings with rats and lice. In the novel Le Feu, The Fire, this is described by Henri Barbusse as follows: ‘Now you can make out a network of long ditches where the lave of the night still lingers. It is the trench. It is carpeted at bottom with a layer of slime that liberates the foot at each step with a sticky sound; and by each dug-out it smells of the night’s excretions. The holes themselves, as you stoop to peer in, are foul of breath.’

This was the habitat where also François Faber had to thrive until 9 May 1915. But perhaps he appreciated the chumminess in the trenches more than the envy in the peloton. Perhaps circumstances on the front were nothing to the legionnair compared to the hardships he had to suffer as a cycle racer.

In 1910 he had fought a titanic battle with Octave Lapize, nicknamed ‘curly’. It was the first time the Pyrenees were part of the Tour de France. The racers went up and down narrow goat tracks against a grisly backdrop. High up in the mountains Lapize was more agile than the heavy-set Faber. Yet the ‘Colombes Giant’ managed to leave the cols wearing the yellow jersey.

Then Faber got a flat tire in the leg to Brest, which enabled Lapize to start the final leg to Paris in yellow. Faber hurls his forces and dashes at the French capital like a madman. To no avail. Lapize draws the longest straw in one of the most exciting finales La Grande Boucle has ever known.

This is heroism as you will only find in the world of sports.

Next week: Victor Emmanuel III

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

045 Alfred Vanderbilt and all the kiddies his boy could find

Alfred Vanderbilt

Alfred Vanderbilt

Lusitania costs Germany sympathy

It is Sunday 2 May 1915. It is the 45th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 At Boezinge, near Ypres, Canadian army doctor John McCrae writes his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

 The wife of Fritz Haber, the man behind the German attacks with warfare gasses, commits suicide.

The Germans recapture Hill 60 in the Flemish Westhoek with the help of gas.

A German-Austrian offensive at Gorlice and Tarnów in Galicia forces the Russians back.

 Italy distances itself from the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

News about Russian victories over the Turks on Armenian territory is filtering through.

The Battle of St. Julien ends when general Herbert Plumer withdraws his troops, but ‘Ypres II’ quickly continues with the Battle of Frezenberg.

Upon the pretext of ill-health British general Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien is dismissed by Sir John French.

At Gallipoli Sir Ian Hamilton sends a telegram to Lord Kitchener: ‘Two new divisions, please’.

And off the coast of Ireland oceanliner Lusitania is sunk by only one German torpedo, causing the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom the fabulously wealthy American Alfred Vanderbilt.

There they lie on dry land. A handful of rusty bullets, eaten away by the salt of the Atlantic Ocean. Remington .303s. It is September 2008 and thanks to an Irish team of divers we are now absolutely sure Lusitania did not only carry passengers. She also transported a considerable war cargo from the United States.

Did that justify the torpedo which on 7 May 1915 accurately led to the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom 35 babies? Who would dare take the responsibility for that? And yet we have to be serious about the German argument behind the attack: Lusitania served the British army.

At ten past two in the afternoon of that fatal day U-20’s Captain-Commander Walther Schwieger can see the ship with her four black funnels slowly move into view. One torpedo is enough to carry out his death sentence. When it strikes, an enormous explosion in the inside of Lusitania quickly follows.

When Schwieger himself forever goes under, north of the Dutch island of Terschelling in 1917, Lusitania is the biggest trophy of the 49 ships he has sent down. Here and there you can read: ‘It was the beginning of the end of the war’. That is a point you can undoubtedly mark sooner or later, but there is certainly a reasoning underpinning this. When Germany has lost the war because of the weight America carried, then the tilting of the balance has started on 7 May 1915, fifteen kilometres away from Kinsale lighthouse, Ireland.

The United States are still a long way short of the war, much longer than the eighteen minutes it took Lusitania to go down with all hands. American president Woodrow Wilson calls for calm three days after the disaster: ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.’

So for the  time being Wilson was going to keep his country out of the war, but on that 7 May of the year 1915 American public opinion definitely chose sides: against Germany. Among the victims of Lusitania were no fewer than 128 American citizens. The American press wondered whether Germany had gone crazy.

They are eighteen horrible minutes. While the ship sails on, but is listed on starboard, crew and passengers desperately fight for their lives – or destiny makes them drown petrified of fear.

A man tells his wife to jump. She refuses. She wants to stay with him. But he frees himself of her and then drops her in a lifeboat. When the woman looks back a little later, she sees her husband, still waving at her, disappear into the cold ocean with Lusitania.

Children tumble from lifeboats which are crushed against the hull of the ship, while she tilts and experiences her rigor mortis. A steward tries to cut the ropes of lifeboat 7 with a knife. It turns out to be in vain when also number 7 is pulled into the deep and the water awfully quickly smothers the cries and whimpering of the women and children who had sought refuge.

That was hell, and now for the hero.

That day Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt is the richest passenger on Lusitania, which counted a total of 1,959 persons on board. He is a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a fortune in the nineteenth century with transportation by rail and ship. Another five generations before Cornelius, a certain Jan Aertszoon had left his native town of De Bilt near Utrecht in the Netherlands to go to America, where possibilities would appear to be limitless.

Alfred is a sportsman, who especially loves the foxhunt and driving a chariot. His lovelife is not without excitement either. Alfred’s first marriage ends in divorce after a one-night stand with the wife of the Cuban attaché had become public. Even worse is that the Cuban lady’s marriage also floundered, after which the poor woman took her own life.

On 1 May 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt, 37 years old, boards Lusitania in New York, destination Liverpool. Among other things he is going to inspect his riding stables in England. He is only accompanied by his man-servant, Ronald Denyer.

In the pure panic after the torpedo has hit, Vanderbilt calls out the following to him: ‘Find all the kiddies you can, boy’. This is based on an article which appeared in The New York Times eight days after the disaster. The newspaper talked to a Canadian woman who survived the catastrophe. She is quoted to have said: ‘People will not talk of Mr Vanderbilt in future as a millionaire sportsman and a man of pleasure. He will be remembered as the children’s hero and men and women will salute his name. When death was nearing him, he showed gallantry which no word of mine can describe.’

And then follows the story of the ’kiddies’ his ‘boy’ has to find. When he returns with two, Vanderbilt takes them under his arms and hurries to a lifeboat. When they could not find any children any more, Vanderbilt apparently started helping women. There are other witnesses who testify that Vanderbilt gave his own lifejacket to a woman. She recognized him as the man who had given her five dollars the night before during a charity concert on Lusitania.

The New York Times continues: ‘He looked around on the scene of horror and despair with pitying eyes.’ And then the Canadian woman finishes by saying: ‘I hope the young men of Britain will act with the same cool bravery for their country that Mr Vanderbilt showed for somebody’s little ones.’

And via Lusitania we are back again at the war and its armies. On the eve of the Great War Lusitania’s history tells us about the thin line that runs between civil society and military reality. The oceanliner was built in 1902, named after the Roman province of Lusitania in what is now Portugal. She started to commute between the old and the new world,  but already when she was designed a possible war assignment was taken into account. In 1913 the shipowner was ordered by the British government also to adapt Lusitania for use as an auxiliary cruiser. In September 1914 this was followed by the designation to have Lusitania transport goods for the army.

Before the war the maritime arms race between Germany and Great Britain was also reflected on both sides in the construction of increasingly bigger and faster oceanliners. In 1907 it had been Lusitania that broke the world sea speed record when crossing the Atlantic. This came with an award, the Blue Riband. It had been in the hands of the owner of the German Großdampfer Kaiser Wilhelm II for three years.

Lusitania’s average speed during her record race had been over 23 knots, which is more than enough to outsail any submarine. However, the May 1915 voyage was not made at full speed ahead. Ordered by the admiralty Captain Turner also stated to have refrained from the prescribed zigzag course. That fact frequently crops up in what some people might consider a conspiracy theory but which by others is thought to be more than probable. Lusitania is said to have deliberately been exposed to the threats of the German U-boats in order to ready America for the war. Winston Churchill himself is supposed to have decided to let Lusitania approach Ireland without an escort, fully realizing that the German U-boats were lurking around.

In any case Captain-Commander Schwieger was surprised at the ease with which he could sentence Lusitania to death. He wrote the following in his diary: ‘Unexplainable that Lusitania did not take the North Channel’. This North Channel is the seaway between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

There is another reason to be suspicious. In his memoirs personal assistant to president Wilson, Colonel House, mentions a meeting with both the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and King George V. Both are reputed to have asked him how the United States would react to the sinking of an ocean liner by the Germans. Apparently George even explicitly mentioned the name Lusitania.

One thing is certain, the British fully exploited the propaganda potential of the Lusitania disaster. There was also widespread indignation among the German population regarding the merciless attack on civilians, but the British papers did not mention this. Instead there was the fable that German children were given time off from school to celebrate the sinking of Lusitania, which started to lead a life of its own.

Then there is the bronze commemorative medal, put on the market by a Munich businessman in August 1915, which conveniently leads to functional mudslinging. The British immediately start producing cast iron replicas and distribute these among their own people. The suggestion is that the Germans delight themselves in the death of 1,198 innocent people.

The medal can be interpreted in a different way. Its maker could have wanted to ridicule the unscrupulous greed for money of the shipowner, Cunard Line. On one side of the medal we can see Lusitania going down, with the cynical motto ‘keine Bannware’, ‘no contraband’. On the other side there is a skeleton selling tickets for Lusitania and the words ‘Geschäft über alles’, ‘Business first’.

And this whilst the German embassy had printed a warning in American papers just before Lusitania left. ‘Notice’, it said over this advertisement, which was placed next to an advert of Cunard Line. The message was loud and clear that whoever intended to make an Atlantic voyage should be aware that the waters around the British Isles were war territory.

Alfred Vanderbilt had even received a telegram with the ominous words: ‘The Lusitania is doomed. Do not sail on her.’ The telegram was signed ‘Morte’. Vanderbilt must have thought somebody had wanted to play a joke on him.

Of all shipping disasters only Titanic, three years earlier in peace time, left a deeper impression than Lusitania. Yet a lot of questions regarding her loss still remain unanswered. Did the British army try to make the wreck of Lusitania inaccessible in the fifties for divers by using depth charges? If so, what needed to be hidden? But most of all, did high British circles give the go-ahead for the mass killing on Lusitania? Did the end, winning the war with America, justify the means, losing one single ship packed full with people?

Next week: François Faber

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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