The First World War in 261 weeks

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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)

044 Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his order to die

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

Ottomans are not so sick after all

It is Sunday 25 April 1915. It is the 44th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

South Africans and Rhodesians give the Germans in Southwest Africa a beating.

Italian diplomats sign the secret London Pact: if Rome chooses the side of the allies, it is entitled to claim parts of Austria-Hungary, among which South Tyrol, Gorizia, Istria and half of Dalmatia.

An Austrian submarine, commanded by Georg Ritter von Trapp, succeeds in eliminating French cruiser Leon Gambetta in the Adriatic Sea, killing 547.

A new type of Zeppelin bombs the Sussex coast of England.

Germans and Austrians prepare for an attack at Gorlice in Galicia.

Despite warnings of the German embassy, ocean liner Lusitania leaves New York, destination Liverpool.

A French attack at Ypres results in heavy losses, in spite of support by the British artillery.

The Germans continue to target the allies with chlorine gas.

And the allied invasion of Gallipoli paints the sea red, while on the Turkish side a true hero emerges, Mustafa Kemal.

A lot has perished because of the First World War. Even headwear has been subject to demolition. Think of the Pickelhaube, the spiked symbol of the Prussian military. Or the fez, the round red felt hat – leftover of Byzantine culture in the Ottoman empire.

In post-First World War Turkey the fez was banned. It was Mustafa Kemal who was behind the Hat Law of 1925. He was the strong man, especially honoured by secular Turks as Atatürk, Father of Turks.  No Turkish living-room would be complete without his portrait on the wall. Insulting him would be the equivalent of lese-majesty, hence forbidden by law. Atatürk was in the hearts of all the Turks and it was he who made a town in the heart of Turkey its capital: Ankara. His sarcophagus is there, too.

Back to the fez. Why does a head of state want to interfere with headwear? For the same reason why Atatürk exchanged Arabic script for the western alphabet. The reason also why he granted women the right to vote, but forbade them to wear veils. Why he closed down monasteries of the Dervishes. Why he introduced family names and abolished all sorts of titles and nicknames and epithets. Why he established a civil code. Why he founded museums and stimulated the arts. Why he adopted the international calendar and time indications. And why he, above all, separated  mosque and state. Atatürk wanted Turkey to become a modern European nation.

Historian Bernard Lewis describes it as follows in ‘The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years’: ‘Atatürk, the master of social symbolism, was not pursuing the idle caprice of a despot when he decreed that the fez and all other forms of traditional headgear must be abandoned and European hats and caps adopted in their place. This was a major social decision, and he and those around him knew perfectly well what he was doing.’ Says Lewis.

The Turkey of Atatürk radically broke with the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, the once so mighty realm of the sultans. The First World War had been the fatal blow, but the decline had begun much earlier. When the peoples of Europe tried to find their way out of the Middle Ages in utter blindness, the civilization of the Ottomans had been at an unprecedented level for ages. Medically, mathematically, chemically, astronomically, philosophically and even theologically speaking, the islamic world was a long long way ahead of Europe.

In 1453 Constantinople had fallen into the hands of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. That signified the end of the Byzantine Empire as advanced post of Europe. The Ottomans had already  earlier managed to penetrate Europe via the Dardanelles. The Balkans were overrun, but in the sixteenth century the Ottomans were also at the gates of Vienna and even made attacks on the Spanish coast. Everywhere in Christian countries Allah’s hordes were feared.

However, in 1699 after a battle against a Holy League the Ottomans are forced to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz. It is the first time that they have to face a real defeat. The realization has dawned upon them that only the western way of waging war can be successful. Military reforms will precede a cultural merger. It is the French Revolution – with its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity – that really breaks open Ottoman civilization. Napoleon brings the printing press to the Middle East.

A new western principle is introduced past the Bosphorus: nationalism. It is the aim of merging a state with a people. The Ottoman Empire has been organized differently. Numerous cultures have lived together there for centuries relatively harmoniously. Compared to Europe the Ottoman Empire was the epitome of tolerance and cultural diversity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Persecuted minorities from other countries found a place there and minorities from their own empire enjoyed a lot of freedom.

However, in the nineteenth century more and more ethnic groups – Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews – began to experience Ottoman rule as tyranny. This made the realm of the sultan sick. The eastern Question was put on the map. In 1853 the Russian czar Nicholas I expressed his worries: ‘We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.’

Despite the caring words of the czar, the Russians repeatedly wage war with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The sultans succeed in holding their own thanks to the European powers. They are opposed to a Russian extension at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. In the Crimean war, between 1853 and 1856, the French and the British even fight together with the Ottomans against the Russians.

Six decades later the situation is completely different and the Ottomans stand between the Russians on one side and the British and the French on the other. They do not allow an allied rapprochement across the water, via the Dardanelles, and across the land, via Gallipoli. The common Turk appears to be a lot more vigorous than the sick man of Europe for which the Ottoman Empire had been held.

When the allied forces land on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, a German by the name of Liman von Sanders is in command of the Ottoman troops. But commander Mustafa Kemal will be the star on the front. It seems that Australians and New Zealanders chase the Turks away from their slopes and their trenches, but then Mustafa Kemal straightens his back. The beach where the Anzacs land turns into a bloodbath. Every Turkish child learns how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk encouraged his men never ever to give up: ‘I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.’ And these words proved to be very successful. In nine months’ time around a hundred thousand were killed during the batlle of Gallipoli. More than half of them were Turkish martyrs. The number of wounded soldiers on the side of the Ottomans is calculated to be another 140,000.

Mustafa Kemal was born in the Ottoman town of Salonika, which is now known as the Greek town of Thessaloniki. His surname ‘Kemal’ means something like ‘the perfect one’. His father was a government official, who later went into the wood trade. Mustafa Kemal was born in 1880 or 1881. Due  to the absence of a proper civil registry, there has always been some disagreement about the exact date of his birth. The theory that Mustafa’s father was of Jewish descent is not accepted by everyone either.

Mustafa Kemal joins the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. He serves as a professional soldier in the Turkish-Italian War of 1911-1912 and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Strong man Enver Pasha does not like the heroic role of Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli, where he has also been hit by shrapnel. Mustafa Kemal has also spoken against the commitment to Germany in the first year of the war, though this has not prevented him from serving in the Ottoman army. After Gallipoli he is first sent to Edirne and then to the Caucasus front, far away from Enver’s power base in Constantinople. When he is in command of the Turkish Second Army after being promoted general in 1916, Mustafa Kemal made life for the Russians very difficult. After that things become tougher for him on the Arab front. Syria and Palestine offer very little perspective for him.

Meanwhile he accompanies on a tour through Germany the heir apparent of the throne of the Ottomans, the later sultan Mehmet VI. On his return he first takes sick leave and goes to Vienna and Karlsbad to recuperate. He is not only plagued by kidney problems, but also has to cope with the remnants of the venereal disease gonorrhoea. During his rehabilitation in Austria he becomes more familiar with the western lifestyle. Once returned to active service Mustafa Kemal, too, has to acknowledge defeat. On 31 October 1918 the armistice of Mudros is signed on board the British warship Agamemnon. The Ottoman Empire is left completely stripped.

On 8 February 1919 French general Franchet d’Espèrey parades through Constantinople on a white horse, just as Mehmet the Conqueror had done in 1453. The pride of the Turks is wounded. Their defeat is finalized in the Treaty of Sèvres, which will be signed by the new Turkish sultan, but which is rejected by an alternative government in Ankara. That government is led by Mustafa Kemal. He will gloriously lead the Turkish war of independence, which will result in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey is composed of Asian Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, which on the other side of the Dardanelles is considered to be a part of Europe.

Mustafa Kemal then remodels his country. Above all, he shows himself to be a Turkish nationalist. Threfore his name is not hallowed in Greek, Kurdish or Armenian circles. But whoever claims that Atatürk’s ruthless modernization has gone hand in hand with ethnics cleansing, will be addressed by any true Kemalist with the words of Atatürk: ‘It is not important that you are a Turk, but that you feel Turkish’.

He gets married in 1923, but the marriage is dissolved after two years without issue. He will, however, adopt seven daughters and a son. In 1934 Mustafa Kemal accepts the title Atatürk, Father of Turks. Four years later he dies at the age of 57 of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that must have been the result of his consumption of large quantities of raki. In that respect, too, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was far removed from straight Islam.

The Turks have erected a memorial at Anzac Cove, the bay of Gallipoli where so many Australian and New Zealand boys were killed on 25 April 1915. It carries the following words that Atatürk spoke to them and their loved ones in 1934: ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of  a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

Next week: Alfred Vanderbilt

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

 

043 Anthony Fokker and the nightmare of aeronautics

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker

The airplane breaks through as air weapon 

It is Sunday 18 April 1915. It is the 43rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The war produces a technological tour de force: two Brits hang above the Dardanelles in a hot air balloon. They are observing a Turkish camp, pass on its position by telephone to the ship they are attached to with a cable. The ship telegraphs the information to a cruiser that in its turn bombards the Turkish camp from behind the horizon with grenades.

Meanwhile on both sides of the Dardanelles the Turkish troops under the command of the German general Liman von Sanders prepare for an allied invasion.

On his way to Gallipoli the English poet Rubert Brooke dies of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship as a result of a mosquito bite.

At Zillebeke in Flanders the Germans make frantic attempts to recapture Hill 60.

The German government apologizes to the neutral Netherlands for sinking cargoship SS Katwijk.

In the Second Battle of Ypres the Germans fail to make optimal use of the chaos they caused with chlorine gas on the side of the allies.

And the French aviator Roland Garros reveals his secret to the Germans, after which there is a lot of work to be done for Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker.

Plagiarism is not the biggest crime of the First World War, but it was certainly widespread. Eagle-eyed they stared at each other’s war activities. What is the enemy capable of? Or rather, are we capable of that, too? Can we possibly do even better.

Take the story of the French pilot Roland Garros, after whom in later years a tennis tournament in Paris will be named. On 19 April 1915 he crashes near Ingelmunster, occupied territory in Flanders. Garros survives the crash, also sets fire to his plane, but cannot prevent that the Germans secure the wreck. Now they are going to figure out how that darn Frenchman succeeded in taking down five German planes in three weeks’ time.

Well, Roland Garros was the first fighter pilot who literally went straight for his target. Thanks to a technical gimmick he could fire a machine gun through his propellers. If a bullet struck the blade of a propeller, it would ricochet on a wedge-shaped metal plate. It was far from ideal, as the propeller could become unbalanced.

The Germans immediately started to copy the mechanism which they had got their hands on. However, it appeared that it was quite suitable for the French copper bullets but not for the German steel ones. Now it was time to contact a 25-year-old Dutchman, Anthony Fokker. In no time flat Fokker succeeded in reconciling a machine gun with a propeller. Via a cam, pushrods and rocker arms the machine gun stopped firing at the exact moment when one of the propeller blades passed. Fokker had done it: safe firing through the arc of the spinning propellers.

The synchronized machine gun with which Fokker started equipping his E.III planes, was the beginning of German superiority in the air. In the summer of 1915 the English newspapers started to write moody stories about the Fokker Scourge. Fokker Fodder, they sneered about their own planes.

Anthony Fokker can be called a controversial figure. Some consider him a war criminal, who shamelessly made money from the horrors of the war. For others he is a genius, who combined the entrepreneur, the inventor and the adventurer.

Soon it appeared that young Fokker was not born for teaching. Tinkering with model trains and fiddling with paper airplanes he got a grip on engineering. Tony was a do-it-yourselfer. When he was seventeen he produced a solid tyre as the solution for flat tyres that haunted motorists. Alas, apparently the patent for that had been granted earlier in France.

In 1911, on Queen’s Day, he made a name for himself by going around in circles a few times over the Dutch city of Haarlem in a plane which he had designed himself. It was called The Fokker Spin (Spin being Dutch for Spider). As a member of the local Orange committee, which organized all sorts of festivities for Queen’s Day, his father had inspired him. Fokker junior had every reason to please his dad. After all, he ivested huge sums of money in his son’s aeronautics, money he had earned as a coffee grower in the Dutch East Indies. For a long time there had been no immediate prospect of a return on the investments in the passion of his son, but for the time being dad Fokker could strut around the streets of Haarlem like a peacock.

Aeronautics in the first decade of the twentieth century is a phenomenon which only few people take seriously. That had also been the experience of bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright, when they tried to get the American army interested in their flying machines. It is all very well, was the army’s answer to the two brothers, as long as it does not cost us any money.

In 1903 the Wright brothers had succeeded in keeping a plane in the air for the first time. Six years later the Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the Channel. And another year later Anthony Fokker built his Spin in Germany. Its pilot seemed caught in a web of metal wires that held cockpit and wings together.

‘When I was a boy of sixteen and heard about flying machines for the first time, my only goal was to become an airman. They were the new heroes in those days. Perhaps that was what attracted me: to become a hero’, Fokker said in his autobiography, which he entitled ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

On the eve of the Great War Fokker leaves for Germany and starts building airplanes and giving flying lessons at the same time. In 1913 he is the first to imitate Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud’s looping. During the war he will also give demonstrations behind the front of new types of airplanes. ‘Fokker surprised us by his skill’, writes Max Immelmann, one of Germany’s flying aces, after Fokker showed in June 1915 how his new Eindecker should be flown. Immelmann will, incidentally, lose his life when his Fokker E.III breaks apart. It must have been a technical defect.

Fokker was on good working terms with the airmen. Not only Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, but also Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and Hermann Goering belonged to his circle of close friends. Behind these friendly relations also lay an economic incentive, as was often the case with Fokker. As a born Dutchman he could not rely on contacts in the highest German circles. With special thanks to the pilots on the ‘shop floor’ he kept the order books of his Fokker Flugzeugwerke filled. Between 1914 and 1918 over 7,600 Fokker airplanes left the factory.

Initially in the Great War pilots take over the role which for centuries had been assigned to the cavalry: finding and exploring hostile troop concentrations. In 1911 the Italians were the first to do so over Tripoli during their war with the Ottomans. That took some getting used to. ‘The noise those damned things make frightens our horses’, grumbles a British cavalry officer in an official protest during the First World War.

It soon became apparent that planes could also shed bombs and attack ground targets. The sky then turns into the backdrop for spectacular aerial combats, which are observed by Private Snuffy from his trench with amazement. In 1917 Orville Wright writes: ‘We thought we gave the world an invention that made war imposssible. What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.’

It will not have troubled Fokker during the war. The Fokker D-VII is his latest masterpiece in 1918. The German pilots love it. Its reputation is so great that a special clause for the Fokker D-VII is laid down in the armistice agreement later that year: all planes of this type should be handed over to the allies. Fokker will, however, deceive his way out of this. He succeeds in transporting hundreds of engines and dismantled parts of his D-VII to Holland, where he begins the Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek. This is followed in the United States by the Fokker Aircraft Corporation. It will be clear that Anthony Fokker is a man of the world.

His Dutch biographer Marc Dierikx has revealed how Fokker managed to change nationality three times. In 1914 he becomes a naturalized German for obvious reasons. After the war he succeeds in again acquiring Dutch citizenship with the help of his friend Prince Hendrik, husband of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. And in 1922 he reports to the Immigration Office in order to become an American.

Faithfulness is also in his love life not a key principle for Anthony Fokker. In 1919 he gets married for the first time, but this marriage already runs aground after four years. In 1927 Violet Austman is the bride. Her death, two years later, shows a grim side of the man behind the entrepreneur Anthony Fokker. When she is allowed to go home after a long hospitalisation because of a nervous breakdown, Fokker is nowhere to be found. He has sent a driver to pick up his wife. When he finally arrives home at night, he does not even give her a glance. Violet recognizes her sad fate and steps out of the window on the fifteenth floor of her New York apartment. She is stone dead.

Also as an employer Fokker repeatedly shows his relentless side. He gives employees the sack before Christmas and takes them on again after the end of the year in order to economize on their days off. In 1931 he even disposes of Reinhold Platz, the man who put Fokker’s revolutionary ideas in practice even before the war. Platz turned the rough sketch Fokker made into an airplane, after which Fokker himself corrected the flaws of the design during trial flights. They were a golden duo, but not for eternity.

Let us just say openly that Fokker was a moron. His biographer Dierikx has explained his ruthlessness as follows: ‘In his early childhood he was the little coffee-grower’s boy who was superior to the kampong children with whom he played. This is reflected in the way he treats his nearest staff, in the fact that he does not succeed in shaping his personal life, his relation to women. The little boy in the kampong becomes the creative kid in the attic in Haarlem, but with only a handful of friends.’

1929 is the year that Fokker sees his wife seeking escape in death. It is also the year when he suffered as a merchant. The crisis hits him hard. He no longer appears to be the innovative business man of old. He is not bold enough to change to completely metal planes. However, Fokker gets back on his feet when he can buy the licence rights of American planes for Europe for next to nothing.

His life story ends prematurely. In 1939 he needs an operation on his sinuses. This rather mild intervention has fatal consequences. Anthony Fokker dies at the age of 49, an age that most pilots in the First World War have not reached.

Next week: Mustafa Kemal.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

042 Fritz Haber and the yellowish-brown cloud at five o’clock

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Germans use poison gas as a weapon

It is Sunday 11 April 1915. It is the 42nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Bulgaria agrees to a Serbian-Bulgarian committee that will investigate Macedonian border incidents.

The British experience great difficulties in repelling the Turkish-Arab attack near the port of Basra in present-day Iraq.

Pope Benedict XV informs American president Woodrow Wilson to be prepared to launch a joint peace initiative.

Fifteen allied airplanes bomb Ostend on the North Sea coast again.

The Germans decide to increase their efforts on the eastern front.

The British submarine E-35 tries in vain to reach the Sea of Marmara via the Dardanelles.

Russian troops, with additional Armenian volunteers under the command of general Andranik Ozanian, defeat the Ottomans in the Battle of Dilman.

The Germans see their attacks stranded at Notre Dame de Lorette.

British troops take Hill 60, a hill near the village of Zillebeke in West Flanders.

And a German prisoner of war tells the French that at Langemark bottles filled with gas are ready to be used, the poisonous experiment of Fritz Haber.

The story of the First World War is a random collection of contrasts. Take Fritz Haber, generally considered to be the ultimate promoter of chemical warfare, and Albert Einstein, especially known for his pacifism. It appears that Einstein, the apostle of peace, and Haber, the poisoner, were on friendly terms with each other before, during and after the war.

In 1914, just before the war, Haber got Einstein to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which has been called the Fritz Haber Institute since 1953. Two brilliant scientists, Haber and Einstein, both of German-Jewish descent. But Haber will trade in the Jewish faith for Protestantism already at a very early stage, while Einstein will adopt the Swiss nationality long before the war. The world view of one is completely opposite to that of the other. Between ’14 and ’18 Haber wants to win the war for the Germans by putting poison gas in the hands of soldiers. Einstein persists in his anti-militarism, although it is he who in later years will be at the basis of the most horrible weapon of all time, much more horrible than Haber’s poison gas: the atomic bomb.

Both have to leave Germany in 1933, the year that the Nazis seize power. Especially Fritz Haber is getting a raw deal. He has worked hard for Germany as an ardent patriot all his life. Now the same Germany chases him away as the eternal Jew. In a letter Einstein expresses his sympathy with the exile Haber: ‘I can feel your inner conflicts. It is somewhat like having to abandon a theory on which you have worked for your whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed it in the least.’

What then was this sacred faith of Fritz Haber?  Well, he formulated his scientific creed as follows: ‘Im Frieden der Menschheit, im Krieg dem Vaterland’ (‘In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland’). Gas was his most manifest contribution to the German war effort, but the Germans also managed to keep the production of ammunition at the usual level thanks to Fritz Haber. After the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 the German army ran the risk of having no more explosives. As a result of the British trade blockade Germany had no more access to the raw materials for nitric acid. The Haber-Bosch process offered a solution. Together with Carl Bosch Fritz Haber had succeeded in making ammonia of hydrogen and nitrogen already before the war. The Germans managed to convert this ammonia during the war into hundreds of thousands of tons of nitric acid, essential for the production of ammunition.

Haber was not the only scientist who dealt with poison gas, but he was indeed the man behind the first successful gas attack of the Second Battle of Ypres. To many historians this was the beginning of chemical warfare. At the end of January 1915, however, the Germans had already made an effort to this on the eastern front near Bolimów. In the Neuve Chapelle area in October 1914 a German experiment with gas that made its victims sneeze violently was mainly aimed at eliminating the enemy temporarily. Even earlier in August 1914 the French had already been carefully working with tear gas. So it is highly questionable to call Fritz Haber ‘the father of poison gas’.

Eric Wils, a Dutch chemist who has explored the First World War, eliminates the persistent misunderstandings about poison gas as follows: ‘There has been a discussion since 1915 whether the use of tear gas grenades in 1914 by French soldiers was the first use of poison gas in the First World War. The fact remains that on 22 April 1915, when the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine at Ypres, there was a completely new situation. For the first time  a chemical weapon had been developed which was used on a large scale to achieve a breakthrough in the trenchwar. Not just blowing some smoke or poisonous vapour in the direction of an opponent during a fight, but spreading 150 tons of chlorine. Especially produced for the fights in April 1915 in an industrial manner and stored in 6,000 cylinders. This chemical warfare escalated in such a way that in 1918 millions of poison gas grenades, including the ones filled with mustard gas, were fired by the fighting parties.’ So much for Eric Wils’ explanation.

Let us put it like this: Fritz Haber is responsible for poison gas to become a factor of importance in the war. According to estimates gas attacks proved fatal to 91,000 soldiers. That is not even one per cent of the 10 million who were killed in the First World War. But gas gave the war unprecedented and macabre dynamics. Statistics prove that, cynically speaking, bombs and grenades were deadlier and therefore less humane. But gas was so elusive and treacherous. It made the war in a certain sense inhuman. One of the German soldiers who had to dive into the hole that chlorine gas had made in the front on 22 April 1915, would say: ‘I am not very happy with the idea of poisoning people. All the dead lie on their backs with clenched fists.’

We can still feel the soldiers’ fear of the gas in their trenches when reading Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum est. The poet still hears his comrades call: ‘Gas! Gas! Quick boys!’ They reach for their gas masks, but one of them does not make it. The picture of this bloke, ‘choking and drowning’, ‘blood gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs’, that picture will never vanish from his dreams.

Such was the reality resulting from Fritz Haber’s laboratory. But it is not said to have haunted him. Also after the war Haber kept defending the chemical weapon as a higher form of warfare. He has recorded this as follows: ‘One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.’ Besides, also a person like Winston Churchill will continue promoting the use of poison gas after the Great War. He intends to silence rebellious Arabs in Iraq with it.

And yet an overkill of combat gasses will remain reserved to the First World War. The Second has stayed deprived of it. It was a much too dynamic war for it. But gas also frightened both parties in World War II, just as a nuclear confrontation did not happen in the Cold War. In 1997 the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention agree to ban poison gas from the world. This is almost a century after all civilized nations of the world had promised to do  the same during the Hague Convention.

This promise, however, proved of little value in the Great War. Backed by government and army command scientists, led by Fritz Haber, experimented with the new weapon to their heart’s content. The gas escaped from cylinders and was blown towards the enemy by the wind or it was fired in grenades. After teargas at Bolimów and chlorine gas at Ypres there came attacks with phosgene, chloropicrin, hydrocyanic acid and arsenic compounds. The British and the French could only follow the Germans in their gas arms race with difficulty.

In July 1917 Ypres is again the backdrop for the release of mustardgas. It will appropriately be called Yperite. Mustard gas will prove to be the killer among combat gasses. Its victim is given the time to rot away from the inside and outside. The skin will be covered in blisters and the mucous membrane detaches from the trachea. The pain is infernal until finally death comes as the redeemer.

Likewise Fritz Haber’s wife seeks redemptive death. Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres she commits suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before hubbie had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. According to one theory another much younger woman is involved, the woman Haber will marry during the war, but whom he will also divorce again. A more plausible explanation is that Clara Immerwahr preferred death to life with a man who perverted science. As she herself had graduated as a chemist summa cum laude, she could not bear that her husband cultivated death and destruction in test tubes. She did not get through to him. Fritz Haber’s patriotism was immune to his wife’s pleading. The day after Clara’s suicide Fritz Haber travelled to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas. Others were left to arrange the funeral.

In the first months of 1915 Haber had to convince the generals of the power of the gas. But it did not turn out to be a magic formula. Gas could surprise the enemy, but when should their own infantry start chasing the cloud? Too early and the gas would turn against their own troops. Too late and the enemy would be extra prepared for the attack. As the war progressed, the quality of protective measures increased. Initially cotton rags, handkerchiefs and gauze dressings drenched in urine had to protect the breathing passages. But soon gas masks were passed around in the trenches. A gas alarm was given with rattles and whistles.

Gas could have meant a breakthrough on 22 April 1915 between Steenstraat and Langemark. Chaos on the side of the allies was complete. Thousands of Algerians and zouaves, gasping for air, fled from the yellowish-brown cloud that had come drifting in at five o’clock in the afternoon. A six-kilometre hole had been created in the front, but the Germans failed to push through. The following day Canadian troops flowed in to prevent a German advance. They, too, were treated to gas, but Ypres stayed out of reach of the Germans.

***

Yes, the story of the First World War is full of contradictions. But also the peace that follows makes you raise your eyebrows. In 1919 it is announced that the Nobel Prize for chemistry is awarded to … Fritz Haber. There are of course protests, but Haber will still be honoured in Sweden as the man who managed to bake ‘bread out of air’. Chemical fertilizers could be introduced because of Haber’s synthesis of ammonia. Behold the Janus face of scientist Fritz Haber: the number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away.

After the war Haber and his friend Albert Einstein make an effort to undo the boycott of German scientists. Haber feels responsible for Germany’s defeat, but dedicated himself fully to chemical insect control. This leads to Zyklon B, the gas the Nazis used to speed up the genocide of the Jewish people in the extermination camps.

Haber had no knowledge of this at all, having died in 1934 at the age of 65. He could not rest in German soil and that is why he is buried where he died, in Basel, Switzerland. Shortly before he passed away he required the ashes of his first wife Clara to be placed in his grave, which is what happened. It has remained a sober tomb though.

Next week: Anthony Fokker

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

041 Pancho Villa and the lead role in his own film

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Americans have a problem in Mexico

It is Sunday 4 April 1915. It is the 41st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Field Marshal Karl von Bülow, commanding officer of the Second Army of the Germans, has to leave the battlefield after a heart attack.

Also Alexander von Kluck has to step back as commander of the First Army as a result of injuries by a French grenade.

Russian general Aleksei Brusilov enters Austria-Hungary, but the Germans come to the rescue of the Austrians in the Carpathians.

Anzac troops, Australians and New Zealanders, leave for the Dardanelles from Egypt.

The Turkish government focuses its anger on two million Armenians and starts their deportations.

After a bitter mine battle, which started in February, the French finally succeed in conquering the ridge near the village of Les Éparges.

Italy declares to remain neutral, provided that Austria-Hungary gives up a number of territories.

Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German general staff, transfers troops from the western to the eastern front.

Albanian forces, under German-Turkish command, are preparing for an attack on the town of Durrës and after that on Serbia. 

And in the Battle of Celaya heavy blows are dealt to Mexican revolutionary and popular hero Pancho Villa.

Well, Pancho Villa. What are we expected to believe of this man? That he married 24 women? That he invented the tactics of the mad locomotive, stuffing a hijacked train carriage with  explosives and then setting it in motion towards the enemy? That he once ceased a pursuit when he suddenly perceived an ice cream van in the streets of Chihuahua? That his right-hand man Rodolfo Fierro shot dead a random passer-by because he had a current bet with Pancho Villa: does a dying man fall forward or backward? That in 1926 Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two American presidents, paid 25,000 dollars for Pancho Villa’s skull? And that since then this skull has been in the possession of a secret society called Skull and Bones?

One story is juicier than the other. Pancho Villa is therefore larger than life. In Mexico he is still lauded in corridos, ballad-like songs that do not always reveal whether a hero or a villain is praised.

Our question should be what Pancho Villa has to do with the First World War. We have to look for the answer with the Americans. In the middle of the Great War, when the United States are still neutral, Pancho Villa plays the game of cat and mouse with the American army under the command of general John Pershing. The country that is to put an end to a world war has not been able to collar a confounded rogue like Pancho Villa in their own backyard.

The United States’ descent into the European cesspit also had to do with Mexico. When the Zimmermann telegram, named after the German state secretary for Foreign Affairs, made public in January 1917 that the Germans were stirring up Mexico against the United States, president Woodrow Wilson was forced to resort to military means. America entered the European war.

The biggest country of Latin America, Brazil, also actually declared war on Germany in 1917, in response to the recommencement of the German U-boat campaign. Smaller countries like Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador contented themselves with the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 Latin America still bore a European stamp. In preceding decades the continent had been swamped with European emigrants. But the increasing United States inspection of the activities of Central and South America was equally unmistakable. The First World War would irreversibly speed up this process. After 1918 the almost a century-old Monroe doctrine had become practice: ‘America for the Americans’. The game of a Europe that had bled to death was definitely over in Latin America.

The omnipotence of the Spaniards and the Portuguese had already ended in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The French had remained just barely visible in Latin America thanks to a few Caribbean islands and French Guyana. The German influence was primarily military. Latin American governments preferred to professionalize their armies after the Prussian model, spiked helmets included.

But it was particularly the British who had represented Europe on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In the three decades before the First World War British businessmen increased their investments in Latin America fivefold.

Though there had no longer been any political dependence in Latin American countries for a century, economic and cultural independence was a completely different story. In fact the continent had kept its colonial structure. English and increasingly American bankers and industrialists pulled the strings.

Uncle Sam himself also played his part. It was especially under president Theodore Roosevelt that foreign politics in the United States began to exhibit imperialist features. The Spanish-American war of 1898 had been a walk in the park, a ‘splendid little war’. Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and also the Philippines, the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire had been taken under the wings of the American Eagle on a nod and a wink.

Another project of Roosevelt was a canal that would connect the two oceans. Panama was taken away from Colombia, after which the digging could start. Roosevelt stretched the Monroe doctrine a little more. Countries in Latin America that economically or politically made a mess of things, had to take into account intervention of the United States. In 1905 the Dominican Republic was the first country visited by the policeman of the western hemisphere, Teddy Roosevelt.

Nextdoor neighbour Mexico, however, was a much more complicated story, and an old story to boot. Before the Americans began to fight each other in a bloody civil war, the United States and Mexico had known a history of border conflicts.

Napoleon III’s grotesque attempt to turn Mexico into a puppet empire also lay buried in time. The staff duty puppet, Maximilian of Habsburg, had been killed by a Mexican firing squad in 1867. Nine years later one Porfirio Díaz took firm control of the situation. He allowed the economic power of the United States in Mexico to increase spectacularly, but at a certain moment it became a bit too much for Diaz. ‘Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!’, he exclaimed. As a counterweight Díaz decided to attract European investors, notably British. To the Americans this was the sign again to start looking around for new rulers in Mexico.

Díaz’s dictatorship, the Porfiriato, was double-faced. Economic progress went hand in hand with social oppression. Liberal forces therefore rose up in 1910 with the support of America. Díaz fled and drew his last breath in Paris in the year of the war 1915.

The fall of the Porfiriato leads to a turbulence in which also the Americans lose their balance. In April 1914 there is the Tampico Affair. The Mexicans have arrested an American officer, to which the Yankees react by occupying the port of Veracruz for a short while. There is the threat of war, but Argentine, Brazil and Chile manage to mediate.

In October 1915 president Wilson decides to acknowledge a new government, led by Venustiano Carranza. In doing so he incurs the wrath of one of Carranza’s opponents, Francisco Villa, better known as Pancho Villa, since he fled into the mountains after killing the rapist of his sister, so the story goes.

In April 1915 Pancho Villa had suffered a grim defeat in the Battle of Celaya. With French fervour Villa attacked, but his opponent proved a beter student of the war on the European continent. Pancho Villa’s men got hopelessly entangled in the defensive positions of Carranza’s troops.

It seemed that Villa had played out his role, but he did not admit defeat. Was it pure revenge or an attempt to pit Carranza against Wilson?  Whatever the case, in May 1916 Pancho Villa crosses the border with more than 400 men. The Villistas are targeting the sleepy border town of Columbus, New Mexico. The raid has to be paid for with the lives of eighteen Americans and about seventy Villistas.

America’s answer soon follows. Columns of soldiers, commanded by general John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, invade Mexico. America now has its own little war. But the hunt for Pancho Villa, El Centauro del Norte, remains without success. After eleven months the punitive expedition is abandoned. American soldiers have not only battled with followers of Pancho Villa, but also with Mexican government troops. This was because Carranza did not tolerate American interference. Which then to the Germans was a reason to start intriguing, with the familiar result.

Pancho Villa has also been called the Mexican Robin Hood. He divided the land of conquered haciendas among farmers and soldiers. He imposed taxes on landowners. He robbed trains. He proclaimed himself governor of Chihuahua. He printed his own money. He even created his own legend.

What is true in any case is that he played the leading role in his own films. In 1912 an American production, ‘Life of Villa’, appears. And another two years later a Hollywood crew travels to Mexico again. The title of the new film is somewhat longer: ‘The Life of General Villa’. The contract, in which Villa promises the crew that they can film him during the Battle of Ojinaga, has been fully preserved, but unfortunately the film itself has not, apart from one or two scenes. In 2003 Antonio Banderas plays the star role in a film about the curious collaboration between Hollywood and the Mexican caudillo. The title of the film is really a nice one: ‘And starring Pancho Villa as himself’.

There is also a bestseller about him. American journalist John Reed associated with Pancho Villa for a while. Reed became known as the writer of ‘Ten Days that shook the world’, an eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He published his adventures with Pancho Villa under the title ‘Insurgent Mexico’.

Pancho Villa continued his guerilla war until 1920 with a small army of peasants, cowboys and unemployed miners. His reputation is marked by cruelties. Especially the Chinese suffer under his hands. In 1920 Pancho Villa makes peace with the Mexican government, but by doing so he does not save his own skin. In 1923 hired murderers killed him by pumping an enormous quantity of lead into his body. They leave him in his car, a Dodge, American make, riddled with bullets.

Next week: Fritz Haber

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

040 George V and the final family gathering

George V

George V

British King alienates from his cousins

It is Sunday 28 March 1915. It is the 40th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The French stop German counterattacks at Les Éparges, southeast of Verdun.

A German offensive is repulsed at Bagatelle in the Argonne.

A German submarine sinks British steamer Falaba in the Irish Sea, causing the death of 104 men, among whom one American, to the great indignation of Washington.

The Russian Black Sea fleet bombs fortresses along the Bosphorus.

A German Taube drops a bomb on Rheims cathedral.

The Russians increase pressure in Poland and the Carpathians.

Bulgarians attack Serbian troops at the Macedonian town of Valandovo.

In German South West Africa the town of Hasuur falls into the hands of South African troops.

There are all sorts of festivities to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Otto von  Bismarck in Germany.

The French pilot Roland Garros makes his first victim over Diksmuide: a German Albatros.

British minister David Lloyd George declares alcohol the enemy, after which the use of it is also prohibited in royal circles for the rest of the war by His Majesty, George V.

A family squabble that got out of hand. It is a tempting but obviously too simple explanation of the cause of the First World War. France, for example, stood out by the number of war losses, but before the war the republic was not invited to a single royal event. The emperor of Austria also lacked close affinity with the other three monarchs.

Nicky, Willy and Georgie. We are talking about the three cousins. Mind, however, that only the English King George is a first cousin of both Nicholas II and Wilhelm II. For the tzar and the kaiser we would have to go back as far as the eighteenth century to find a mutual ancestor in Paul I of Russia. It is true, however, that Nicholas was married to a cousin of the other two. This cousin, Alexandra, had the famous Queen Victoria as grandmother, just like George and Wilhelm. In any case the three monarchs were very close. They shared the same childhood, though time would have a different fate in store for each of them.

King, kaiser, tzar. To which degree should they be held responsible for the immense tragedy of 1914-1918? To which extent can the causes of the Great War be traced back to their personalities? A writer like Catrine Clay dares venture into dangerous territory. In her book ‘King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War’, Willy feels excluded by Georgie and Nicky from an early age. He is going to show them something. And before Wilhelm knew what was happening, he had invoked a world war. An over-simplification indeed.

What bound them together was the institute, the monarchy. In days of advancing liberalism and socialism, dominated at the same time by a free press, they made a firm stand for their divine rights. Not all three had the same amount of leeway. Nicholas and Wilhelm can be counted to the category of autocratic monarchs, the tzar even more so than the kaiser. The king was imprisoned in a constitutional framework. English parliament called the shots.

George accepted this more sympathetically than his father Edward VII and his grandmother Victoria had done before him. This also allowed George V sufficient time for his hobby, philately. There are those who were scornful of this. The man who headed a British empire from the United Kingdom and who could even call himself emperor of India, was not to be disturbed when he was busy with his stamps. But among philatelists the George’s Royal Collection still distinguishes itself.

Another pastime of George was the weather. He kept a meticulous record of this in his diaries. On the day that England declared war to Germany George V looked  outside and recorded: ‘Warm, showers and windy’, but also: ‘I held a Council at 10.45 to declare War on Germany, it is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault.’

He was not born in 1865 as successor to the throne. That would be his brother Albert Victor who is one year his senior. Their parents are Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. The brothers are educated together, but when Albert goes to Cambridge, George continues to sail the oceans with the Navy. When in Japan the Sailor Prince has a tattoo inked on his right arm at the age of sixteen: a red-and-blue dragon.

He falls in love with cousin Mary of Edinburgh, but both mothers prevent a marriage. Mary then marries Ferdinand, who will be king of Romania shortly after the outbreak of the Great War. George’s wife will be Mary of Teck, May to close friends. Her family tree is German. It will be a harmonious marriage, though the reason behind it is a sad one. Mary was destined to sit on the throne next to George’s brother, but Albert Victor dies of pneumonia in 1892 when he is only 28. Urged by his parents George takes over both the prospect of the throne and his brother’s sweetheart. He has to say goodbye to the Navy. The kingship is now beckoning. In 1910 the throne becomes vacant when his father, Edward VII, suddenly dies.

George leads the funeral cortège of course. Nine ruling monarchs, forty imperial and royal princes and seven queens have assembled under the tower of Westminster Abbey. Never before did so much royal blood flow through one vein. To the right of George the most prominent foreign pallbearer rides his white horse. The man who, according to The Times, ‘has never lost his popularity amongst us’, even during the most strained relations of both countries. This man is Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany. He is wearing the scarlet uniform of the British fieldmarshals for the occasion.

It is all pomp and circumstance, for Wilhelm profoundly disliked Edward, the man who according to the kaiser had cast a shadow over Germany. Only three years earlier Wilhelm had called his English uncle ‘satan’ in the midst of a hysterical rant during a dinner for three hundred guests. The kaiser was friendlier to the son, George. ‘A very nice boy’, he said a few days before the funeral to former president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. And Wilhelm added: ‘He is a thorough English man and hates all foreigners but I do not mind as long as he does not hate Germans more than other foreigners.’

George V will go down in history as a weak and sickly monarch. It is true he is dutiful, but for the rest a bit pale. During one of his visits to the western front, he ends up under his horse. He breaks his pelvis and is left with pain for the rest of his life. At the end of his days the respiratory system of the heavy smoker also manifests itself. After a reign of 26 years he finally dies of pneumonia in 1936.

British historian Robert Lacey portrays George V as follows: ‘He was distinguished by no exercise of social gifts, by no personal magnetism, by no intellectual powers. He was neither a wit nor a brilliant raconteur, neither well-read nor well-educated, and he made no great contribution to enlightened social converse. He lacked intellectual curiosity and only late in life acquired some measure of artistic taste’.

That may be so, but unlike his two cousins George did survive the war as monarch. And later there are achievements that also make him a charming man. He shows for example a majestic disgust about the hard line his government takes in Ireland. And when in 1926 strikers are described as revolutionaries, the king makes the following remark: ‘Try living on their wages before you judge them.’ At an early stage he is also  clearly worried about the rise of nazism in Germany. What also speaks in favour of him is the love for his little granddaughter, which was mutual. The present Queen  Elisabeth lovingly called him ‘grandpa England’.

Did grandpa play a major role in the Great War? If you compare him with his two cousins in the index of leading books on the First World War, you will conclude that he was of little importance. Everywhere you will find references to Nicholas and especially Wlhelm, but George can only sporadically be found in the historiography of the Great War. In ‘The First World War’ by Hew Strachan for example, only one significant fragment about George can be found. The king must have used his influence in replacing Sir John French by Douglas Haig as commander-in-chief on the western front.

In line with British tradition George V occupied himself mainly with gesture politics, representation and charity in the war. In March he forbids the royal household to consume alcohol as long as the war lasts. In  August 1916 he goes to the Somme front to speak to the troops. He says: ‘Do not think that I and your fellow-countrymen forget the heavy sacrifices which the Armies have made and the bravery and endurance they have displayed during the past two years of bitter conflict. These sacrifices have not been in vain; the arms of the Allies will never be laid down until our cause has triumphed. I return home more than ever proud of you.’ When the German submarines leave behind trails of suffering for the families of British sailors, George personally makes efforts to create a fund to finance the most acute needs.

The most drastic decision, at least for the royal family itself, is the one taken on 17 July 1917. Under the pressure of public opinion George decides to adopt a new name for his family. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded far too German to the British people. Besides, Gotha is the name of the airplanes that dropped their deadly bombs on English civilians a month earlier. From 1917 the royal family carries the genuinely English name of Windsor. In Germany kaiser Wilhelm II turns this into a joke. He teasingly changes Shakespeare’s play ‘The merry wives of Windsor’ into ‘The merry wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’.

Both the mother of Tzar Nicholas and of King George were daughters of Christian IX, the Danish king who had seen Bismarck’s Prussia roll across his country. So Nicholas and George had been brought up with German aggression. Their distant attitude towards Wilhelm should partly be explained by this.

Nicholas and George were so much alike that the cousins could have passed for twins. But in March 1917 the English king slams the door in the face of of his cousin, the tzar of Russia, who had just been deposed. Prime Minister Lloyd George was willing to grant the Romanovs access, but on thinking it over, this did not seem a good idea to the king. The risk that the Romanovs would take the seeds of the revolution with them to England was too big for him. A year later the tzar and his entire family are assassinated by the bolsheviks. Many have blamed George for this.

In May 1913, more than a year before the war, the three were together for the last time. Nicholas and George had made the journey to Berlin to attend the wedding of Wilhelm’s youngest child and only daughter, Victoria Louise. ‘If you are there, I will be there’, Nicholas had cabled to George. Both were there. In accordance with custom, George wore the uniform of German Field Marshal.

Years later the English king must have said that he could not be alone with his cousin the tzar without being watched anxiously by his cousin the kaiser. Thus was the atmosphere of the very last family gathering. Suspicion and gossip. Well, it happens in the best of families.

Next week: Pancho Villa

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

039 Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz and the people under arms

Colmar von der Goltz

Colmar von der Goltz

Germany’s youth is prepared for war

It is Sunday 21 March 1915. It is the 39th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The French take back lost trenches at Notre Dame de Lorette from the Germans.

The Germans recapture the East Prussian port of Memel on the Russians.

Bombs from German Zeppelins kill one and wound eight in Paris.

The French succeed in silencing the German guns at Soissons.

Russian troops seize the town of Przemyśl in Galicia, taking 120,000 Austrians prisoner.

French airplanes bombard Metz in Lorraine.

The summit of the Hartmannsweilerkopf in the Vosges falls into the hands of the French.

The Russian advance in the Carpathians continues.

Off the English south coast a Dutch merchant ship filled with Spanish oranges is sunk by a German submarin.

And the Turks decide to transfer the further defence of the Dardanelles to German General Liman von Sanders, as a result of which the command of the first Turkish army is passed on to yet another German, Colmar von der Goltz.

‘Herr Von Schirach, will you continue?’ It is 23 May 1946, the 137th day of the Nuremberg trials. Herr Von Schirach is the defendant Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Jugend. He continues his argumentation by first announcing that he has not only propagated National Socialism, but has also wanted to impart the views of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to the youth of Germany.

And then he says that he became a member of a youth movement called the Jung Deutschland Bund when he was ten. Actually it was more like boy scouts, formed after the British model… He is interrupted by the President of the Court. The point is what the defendant himself has done to promote education of the young, not who shaped him.

To us that is indeed the point, for what sort of club was this Jung Deutschland Bund? Well, it was founded in 1911 by a Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. The objective of the Jung Deutschland Bund appears in the following appeal which was made over the heads of Germany’s boys to their parents: ‘Raise your children in a spirit of war and inject them from an early age with love for the fatherland, for which they may one day have to sacrifice themselves.’

A century later patriotism and a spirit of sacrifice with the war as a product do not get us very far any more. ‘Senseless’ is the adjective that we apply to the many deaths of the First World War. Senseless was the bloodshed for outdated love and stupid sacrifices.

Reducing the First World War to collective insanity is modelling history on the past. Portraying millions of soldiers as meek sheep to the slaughter is ignoring the fact that all those young men had a completely different worldview from the one we have, selfish representatives of post-modernism that we are. These boys still believed in ideals. They felt part of a community that knew more obligations than rights. They were molded by men like Colmar von der Goltz. They were all loyal supporters of FC Fatherland unto death.

As a soldier Von der Goltz had already obtained the rank of marshal before the Great War, but on the battlefield he would not achieve the fame of men like Hindenburg or Von Mackensen. However, Von der Goltz teaches us a lot about the breeding ground of the ‘totale Krieg’ that the Germans performed during the twentieth century in two acts.

He has not only held up a mirror of patriotism to the youth of Germany, but he has also written a series of historical military manuals. As far as the equipment is concerned he is not an innovator. Von der Goltz stuck to the importance of the cavalry and he came up with the following aphorism: ‘The bullet is a fool but the bayonet is wise.’ Yet he was anything but a soldier of the old school. Von der Goltz perfectly understood that modern warfare concerned the entire society.

He was the Clausewitz of his days. Carl von Clausewitz, military theoretician from nineteenth century Prussia, is the author of the manual ‘Vom Kriege’, ‘About War’, which has been read to pieces. Von der Goltz’s best-known book is ‘Das Volk in Waffen’, ‘The People under Arms’. It dates from 1883 and relies heavily on Clausewitz’s line of thinking. But according to Von der Goltz the nature of war had changed significantly since Clausewitz. Von der Goltz wrote that his time showed a ‘stark manifestation of national identity, which permits a people, just like an individual, to feel a sense of honor, and to comprehend when that honor, like one’s existence, is threatened.’

Von der Goltz emphasized that mobilization should not be restricted to soldiers. It was of importance to get the entire people behind the war: ‘Das Volk in Waffen’. He had seen such an esprit with the French, who had faced a quick defeat at Sedan in 1870,  but who had succeeded in taking the battle to the level of a people’s war after all. The German people had better follow this example in a future fight.

Von der Goltz hails from an old family of barons and dukes, which has spawned many Prussian soldiers. Colmar von der Goltz fights in the German wars of unification – he is severely wounded in the Austro-Prussian war – and in 1883 he travels to the friendly Ottoman empire, whose striking power has been heavily affected throughout the years. For twelve years he will busy himself modernizing the army. This is good news for the German arms industry, though Von der Goltz does not seem to have accepted any bribes. With ‘a Prussian officer does not take tips’, he is once said to have refused an attractive offer.

Back in Germany he works on reinforcements in East Prussia and along the French-German border. But he also makes enemies with his outspoken criticism of the organisation of the German army. However, in 1905 Von der Goltz is tipped by many as successor of Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the general staff. But the kaiser prefers a familiar name, Helmuth von Moltke, whose heart will stop beating during a memorial service for the deceased Von der Goltz, halfway though the First World War.

From 1909 till 1913 Von der Goltz again offers the Turks all the help they need. They call him Goltz Pasha. For the Turks his lessons especially come in handy during their battle with arch-enemy Greece, even though the Ottomans will lose the First Balkan War in 1912.

When the First World War breaks out, he is already 70 and retired. But just like Paul von Hindenburg he loves to be called in to help the fatherland in 1914. Von der Goltz regrets, however, that he is only assigned a more or less administrative job, military governor of occupied Belgium. He had rather taken command in East Prussia, where he was born.

In Belgium he introduces ruthless retaliation in response to sabotage. Adolf Hitler will turn this sort of policy into a role model. A quote of the Führer from 1941: ‘The old Reich knew already how to act with firmness in the occupied areas. That’s how attempts at sabotage to the railways in Belgium were punished by Count von der Goltz. He had all the villages burnt within a radius of several kilometres, after having had all the mayors shot, the men imprisoned and the women and children evacuated.’

At the end of the first year of the war Von der Goltz can again travel to his Ottoman friends. He becomes the advisor of the sultan, but Von der Goltz and strong man Enver Pasha do not get along, neither do he and the head of the German mission over there, general Liman von Sanders, really like each other.

When Von Sanders has to hurry to the centre of conflict of the Dardanelles in March 1915, old Von der Goltz gets command of the First Army in Constantinople. In October of the same year he leaves for Persia with the Sixth Army of the Turks. He has to see to it that the German and Turkish operations will be synchronized. The English have appeared in Mesopotamia to protect their oil supplies and to thwart a German-Turkish advance to Afghanistan and the British Raj. Third objective was to convince the Arabs that they had better commit themselves to the side of the allies than to their Ottoman fellow believers.

Von der Goltz posthumously records a hard-won victory after a long siege of Kut Al Amara, a town southeast of Baghdad. On 29 April 1916 emaciated Brits and Indians have to surrender. They will not be much better off as prisoners-of-war under the Ottomans. Von der Goltz had died in Baghdad of typhoid fever ten days before the fall of Kut Al Amara. Malicious gossip has it that young Turkish officers had poisoned him. Still in June 1916 his mortal remains were transferred to Constantinople.

Heinrich Heine was young Colmar von der Goltz’s favourite writer. In his younger years the former also wrote some novels and short stories with which he could support his family. His father had died of cholera. Heinrich Heine, the romantic, is especially known for the frightening prediction: ‘Where they burn books, they will eventually also burn people’. Would Von der Goltz have re-read that sentence? Or did he prefer prose such as: ‘One day for us, too, the cheerful great hour of battle will arrive. In days of doubtful, for the time being still secretly jubilant expectation the old royal call for battle will go heart to heart and mouth to mouth: Mit Gott für König und Vaterland.’ ‘With God for king and country!’

This is the steaming flow of words of the Jung Deutschland Bund, accounting for 750,000 members in 1914, among whom also young Baldur von Schirach. All these boys were prepared for a war that was going to be ‘frisch und fröhlich’ (bright and cheerful) . They were going ‘mit Sang und Klang zum Kriege wie zu einem Fest’ (they went to war with song and sound as if they went to a party). According to Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz it was destined to be that way. He was the man that knew there was going to be a war. And knew that education should precede war.

Next week: George V

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

038 Sir Ian Hamilton and the bloody fiasco of the Dardanelles

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Gallipoli ends allied lives and careers

It is Sunday 14 March 1915. It is the 38th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans detonate two mines below a British hill in the Westhoek in Flanders and then capture Sint Elooi, but this village is recaptured again by the British the following day.

Three British cruisers checkmate SMS Dresden, the last ship of the squadron of Maximilian von Spee, off Chile.

French army commander Joseph Joffre announces an offensive near the river Meuse and in the Argonne.

Loss of an eye causes general Michel-Joseph Maunoury to give up command over the French Sixth Army.

The Russians capture the port of Memel in East Prussia.

German U-boat captain and war hero Otto Weddigen perishes together with the crew of his U-29 off the coast of Scotland.

In the Dardanelles admiral John de Robeck takes over command from Sackville Carden, who could not withstand the pressure.

And De Robeck then enters the mine-covered channel of the Dardanelles with three divisions of ships and eliminates several Turkish fortresses, but eventually he goes off with five ships less, after which the success of the campaign is entrusted to the land forces of Sir Ian Hamilton.

The message is: attack is the best defence. Let the First World War be the exact exception to the rule. The defenders on both sides beat the attackers on both sides gloriously. And yet the ‘cult of the offensive’ was preserved in a deeply tragic way throughout the war by the commanders in chief.

Plenty of examples, but the textbook example appears to be the Gallipoli Campaign of the allied forces. It was a desperate undertaking, but for months on end British, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Newfoundlanders and French were killed by the machinegun fire of the Turks. The allied beaches were low and the Ottoman mountains further along were high. It was a shooting match for the men of commanding officer Mustafa Kemal, who after the war was to pull the new Turkey along as Atatürk. So he already built his reputation on the Gallipoli peninsula.

On the British side Gallipoli was the very cause of the loss of careers. Winston Churchill  had to give up his position of minister. And the army commander over there, Sir Ian Hamilton, had to accept a job as Lieutenant of the Tower in London, though the vice-chancellorship of Edinburgh University lay ahead of him at an old age.

Hamilton’s military failure could be called unfortunate. In the pre-war years he was actually one of the few soldiers who realized that military offensives pur sang were out of date. Hamilton had learned this lesson in the heat of the battle during the Second Boer War. But he had also paid close attention in the Russo-Japanese war, in Manchuria, when he was military attaché of the Indian Army. He learned how to fend off an attack of the infantry from entrenched positions. But he also came to notice that the cavalry belonged to the past, an understanding which ten years later in the opening phase of the Great War was shared by only few.

In his History of the First World War Basil Liddell Hart writes the following about Hamilton: ‘There is little hint, among those who were to be the leaders in the next war, that they had recognized the root problem of the future – the dominating power of the fire defence and the supreme difficulty of crossing the bullet-swept zone. Sir Ian Hamilton alone gave it due emphasis, and even he was too sanguine as to the possibility of overcoming it. His proposed solution, however, was in the right direction. For he urged not only the value of exploiting surprise and infiltration tactics to nullify the advantages of the defence, but the need of heavy field artillery to support the infantry. Still more prophetically, he suggested that the infantry might be provided with ‘steel shields on wheels’ to enable them to cross no-man’s-Land and make lodgment in the enemy’s position.’

Perhaps Hamilton was not conventional enough to be given an important post on the western front right away. However, to the surprise of many he was sent to the Dardanelles by his friend Lord Kitchener in the beginning of 1915. ‘If you succeed’, Kitchener reminded Hamilton, ‘You will have won not the battle, but the war’. Without any particular preparation 62-year-old Hamilton could start hunting down the Turks. According to some sources he had to get his local knowledge from tourist guides.

The Dardanelles is the name of the narrow waterway connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Gallipoli is the peninsula to the north of it. When you zoom out a bit more, you will also recognize the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. With this the strategic interest of the waterway has been pointed out. Already at an early stage of the war the idea takes hold in British government circles to open a third front for the Germans and the Austrians via the Dardanelles. It is estimated that Constantinople, a bit further along on the Bosphorus, will soon fall once the Dardanelles are taken. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, also predicts that a coup will take place with the Turks once the British guns roar across the Bosphorus.

It is the conviction of the British that such a casual reprimand of the Ottoman Empire will also impress the Balkans. Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks will realize that the surrounded Central Powers have little to offer and they will soon join as allies. The Suez Canal in Egypt will no longer be under threat. British and French will close the gap with the Russians past the Turks. Russian ships filled with cereal will sail through the Dardanelles to allied ports, while ammunition and equipment will go the other way. Yes, the war game will soon be up after the fall of Gallipoli.

The backbone of the plan was the maritime superiority of the British. It opened up almost infinite horizons. Around the first turn of the year of the war various invasion plans were on the table in London. Initially Churchill was particularly in favour of the Baltic Sea, with the Danish Schleswig-Holstein as the landing basis. Also the idea to disembark three quarter of a million men on Dutch beaches was rather concrete. But on 8 January 1915 the War Council opts for the Dardanelles as the lever for the war that had got stuck on the western front.

In all their optimism the military planmakers assume that the navy alone will get the job done. They have already done a couple of finger exercises. In November 1914 British ships did some shellings at the entrance of the waterway. And far into the Dardanelles a British submarine succeeded in eliminating a Turkish ship in December. But the Turks decided that that would not be so easy any more. They lay out a carpet of seamines and position launching tubes for torpedoes in the Dardanelles. Besides, heavy artillery is placed along the coastline.

On 19 February 1915 the attack on the Dardanelles is started with the bombardment of Turkish fortresses by allied warships. It is not easy for the British. Six days later the attack is repeated more successfully, though the Turkish howitzers struggle fiercely. Meanwhile British troops start going ashore at Sedd el Bahr on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. They succeed in eliminating dozens of pieces of artillery, which generates great enthusiasm at home in England.

On 18 March 1915 it appears that the path leading to the Russians remains paved with mines and framed by guns. A combined British-French fleet of sixteen battleships sails into the Dardanelles. Super dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, the most powerful ship in the world, is stationed in a division with a battleship carrying the historically very apt name Agamemnon. After all, the ruins of Troy are only a few yards away at the other side of Gallipoli.

It is an ominous sign that commander Sackville Carden reports ill on the eve of the large-scale campaign. Apparently he is on the brink of a breakdown. It is John de Robeck who can take stock as his deputy on 18 March. It is true, Turkish fortresses are badly battered, but the allied losses weigh much heavier. Three ships have been sunk, one has run aground, two have been severly damaged. And the minefield of the Turks is still intact. What the British, however, do not realize is that the Turks have almost used up their ammunition. Enver Pasha, strong man of the Ottomans, prepares to leave Constantinople.

The allies do not press ahead as they are deeply impressed by their losses. The navy cannot do it alone. That is also Sir Ian Hamilton’s conviction, who already telegraphed Lord Kitchener in London on 9 March with the following message: ‘I am being most reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the Straits are not likely to be forced by battleships as at one time seemed probable and that, if my troops are to take part, it will not take the subsidiary form anticipated. The Army’s part will be more than mere landings of parties to destroy Forts, it must be a deliberate and progressive military operation carried out at full strength so as to open a passage for the Navy.’

In the months to follow Hamilton will try again and again at full force. But the rule of Gallipoli appears to be that the Turkish artillery cannot be silenced until the minefields have been cleared. And that will only succeed if first the artillery is annihilated. In other words, the navy and the army on the side of the allies are not able to help each other.

Hamilton continues to believe in a success on the Gallipoli peninsula, whether or not against his better judgement. But in October 1915 London does not believe in Hamilton any more and he is called back as a scapegoat. His successor can start preparing the evacuation of Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Campaign has turned into a ‘bloody fiasco’ in the eyes of British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who in quite a roundabout way holds Hamilton responsible for the bloodshed on Gallipoli’s beaches.

It is interesting to compare Sir Ian Hamilton’s career with that of Sir Winston Churchill, the greatest Brit ever, according to a national poll in 2002. In 1900 Churchill publishes a collection of newspaper reports entitled ‘Ian Hamilton’s March’. As a war correspondent he described the battles Hamilton fought in the Second Boer War. Gallipoli brings both together again, but the outcome is a lot less heroic. Churchill is politically held responsible and resigns as minister. As a soldier Hamilton has to pay the price for the failure.

Churchill’s and Hamilton’s political routes diverge in the decades after. When in the thirties a new danger is imminent in Germany, Churchill is one of the very few to sound the alarm bell vigorously. He argues that Mister Hitler has to be stopped now. A voice crying in the wilderness. The British hate to think of another war. One  butchered and damned generation is more than enough.

Sir Ian Hamilton is a representative of this mood. In 1934 the octogenarian lends his voice to the prologue of the film ‘The Forgotten Men – the war as it was’. Peace propaganda as it were. Using the old general the documentary explains the horrors of war to the youngsters of Britain. Again four years older, Sir Ian Hamilton travels to Germany in the company of British war veterans. Hamilton, who is not completely free of anti-Semitic sentiments himself, has an interview of several hours with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He brings back the following message to England: Germany’s Führer is a peace-loving gentleman.

Hamilton did not die until 1947, old enough to regret his error of judgement. But what he wrote in the preface of his Gallipoli Diary stood the test of time: ‘There is nothing certain about war, except that one side won’t win.’

Next week: Colmar von der Goltz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

037 H.H. Asquith and the notes he scribbled during cabinet meetings

H.H. Asquith

H.H. Asquith

The British cabinet is under fire

It is Sunday 7 March 1915. It is the 37th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Six British planes drop bombs on the Flemish port of Ostend.

Heavy fights with changing opportunities are taking place along the entire front north of the river Vistula.

Austrian counter-attacks in the Carpathians fail.

A new Greek cabinet led by Prime Minister Dimitrios Gounaris takes up its duties.

British minesweepers try to turn the Dardanelles into a safe waterway while under heavy Turkish fire.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, cables Admiral Sackville Carden that he will have to accept losses, as long as Constantinople falls.

The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph acquiesces in a border adjustment to the benefit of the Italians.

Lord Kitchener asks the help of the experienced General Ian Hamilton for the allied army campaign in the Dardanelles.

The Belgians gain ground along the river Yser and the French achieve the same in the Champagne district.

Bombs and grenades torment Ypres again. 

And the British mount a full-on attack at Neuve Chapelle, the battle that will expose the British Achilles’ heel, to the embarrassment of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith.

On 10 March 1915 the British canons roar for half an hour. It is raining grenades on the German enemy lines near the town of Neuve Chapelle, which is in France, though not far from Ypres in Flanders. Right there the German front shows a small bulge. The military term for such bulges is salient. Time will tell that where the front meanders, the war will soon accelerate.

The British Expeditonary Force, assisted by the Royal Flying Corps high in the sky, establish a small bridgehead at Neuve Chapelle. Nothing spectacular, however, as the British and Indian troops only gain two kilometres of territory. Besides, this achievement is overshadowed a few weeks later. Field marshal Sir John French’s plan comes to nothing. He wants to push forward across the ridge near the town of Aubers to the Northern French town of Lille, which is called Rijsel by the Flemish.

Then French gives an interview to the war correspondent of The Times, Charles à Court Repington. French blames the defeat at Neuve Chapelle on a shortage of artillery shells. A rather simple explanation. Even if the British had had sufficient firepower, they probably would not have known how to handle this. But the ‘Shell Scandal’ is born in spring 1915. Press baron Lord Northcliffe’s The Daily Mail takes over the baton and points an accusing finger at the War Ministry, which is led by the hero of Khartoum, Lord Kitchener, with whom Prime Minister Asquith does not get on really well. The feelings are mutual. When one day Asquith appeared to have fallen ill, Kitchener made a very quick-witted remark: ‘I thought he had exhausted all possible sources of delay, but I never thought of the diarrhoea’.

Our boys are dying over there, because our government has not put its affairs in order over here. That is how the public feels about itThis drives the nail into the coffin of prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, called H.H. Asquith for short.

Verbally he showed great abilities. Whenever his predecessor, liberal prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, got in trouble in parliament, he was known to say: ‘Bring out the sledgehammer!’ That ‘sledgehammer’ was H.H. Asquith, who was to succeed the sick Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister nineteen days before the latter’s death in 1908. King Edward VII was not willing to break off his holiday in Biarritz for this changing of the guard. So Asquith decided to go to France.

Apart from the maritime arms race with the Germans, Asquith mainly followed a domestic agenda. He defended free trade. He was not in favour of the movement for women’s right to vote, which made him the target of the suffragettes. Asquith especially focused on the expansion of social security. With social insurance contributions and pension provisions his cabinet lay the foundation of the Welfare State.

When trying to realize these reforms, Asquith the liberal found the House of Lords, this aristocratic bastion dominated by the Conservatives, on his path. The Lords were so powerful that they had also managed to delay self-determination for the Irish for years. The matter of Home Rule was hanging over British politics like a dark cloud. Supported by Irish nationalists Asquith decided to take up the fight against the House of Lords. He also got Kind Edward VII on his side, but the monarch would die in 1910. Some thought he passed away as a result of stress. Here and there one could hear ‘Asquith killed the king’. But Asquith continued and with the help of the new King George V finally succeeded in defeating the House of Lords with the Parliament Act.

But all these domestic issues were moved to the edges of Asquith’s desk, when the war broke out. And the longer the war lasted, the clearer it became that H.H. Asquith was not the strong man Great Britain so badly needed. Though he was a thorough prime minister in peace time, Asquith did not pass the litmus test of the war.

The ‘Shell Scandal’ and the military debacle on the Gallipoli peninsula force Asquith as early as 1915 to turn his liberal cabinet into a coalition cabinet with participation of the Conservatives and Labor. Besides, a new ministry is created, the Ministry of Munition, which is led by David Lloyd George, who so far has served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George, who is not averse to intriguing against his own prime minister, proceeds with vigour. On the home front the British suffer a considerable gap compared with the Germans, whose Krupp Werke in Essen have been going like a bomb for decades.

Lloyd George uses the economic potential of the Dominions. Canada proves to be especially important as a producer of ammunition. Also at home the industry is radically made subject to the imperatives of war. On the border of England and Scotland an enormous ammunition factory is built, His Majesty’s Factory Gretna. In 1917 it employs over 11,000 women, twice as many as men. Just to make sure all pubs in the area are placed under state control. Tons of cordite, which is an explosive mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, have left the factory gates of Gretna. It is Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritual father of Sherlock Holmes, who gave cordite its nickname ‘devil’s porridge’. Gretna is certainly not the only ammunition factory. By the end of 1915 the state directly controls seventy arms factories. By the armistice in November 1918 this number has increased to 250.

Already in 1915 Asquith had to start thinking along different lines, but also in 1916 criticism of him persists. The Dublin Easter Rising and the terrible Battle of the Somme further undermine his position. One of the names among a million and a half losses – dead, wounded, taken prisoner- that the Battle of the Somme led to on both sides, was that of Raymond Asquith, the eldest and promising son of the prime minister. On 15 September 1916 he is shot in the chest at Flers-Courcelette. Raymond is carried off the battlefield, but dies on the way back. A brilliant future remains unfulfilled. In one of his many letters the British prime minister has expressed his fatherly grief as follows: ‘I feel bankrupt’.

Asquith Sr. had the peculiar habit to conduct a stream of correspondence with ladies of substance, although he had a dubious reputation of unwelcome intimacies. According to Lady Ottoline Morrell the prime minister did not shrink from guiding the hand of the lady sitting next to him on the sofa to the erection in his trousers. After his first wife and mother of their five children had died of typhoid fever, Asquith remarried a woman who would bear him two more children. But apparently marriage did not offer him sufficient female attention.

From 1910 till 1915 his penfriend was Venetia Stanley, another lady of substance who in her abundance of free time moved elegantly in the highest circles. In other words a socialite. Asquith’s affection for Venetia must have gone beyond the epistolary, but we are not quite sure of the details. However, the numerous letters he wrote to her are of importance to the historian. Asquith often scribbled his notes during cabinet meetings and he frequently asked Venetia’s advice in political and military matters. The correspondence, which was published in book form much later, ended when Venetia chose a new suitor from the world of politics, the Jew Edwin Samuel Montagu. Accordingly the prime minister of Great Britain was torn apart by heartache in the middle of the war.

In his book ‘Asquith as war leader’ George H. Cassar describes the prime minister as follows: ‘The picture of Asquith that emerges is of a man who on the one hand was reserved, serious, solitary and exclusive and on the other passionate, frivolous and somewhat irresponsible. The contrasting elements in his personality reflected the age in which he lived and make him a representative figure.’

After a long period of eight years in office H.H. Asquith has to hand over power to his party colleague David Lloyd George. It is December 1916. The relationship between the two liberals remains cool. Asquith declares to be loyal to the new government, but that does not sound very convincing. The liberal party will fall into two camps, of the old and the new prime minister. The controversy is most obvious during the Maurice Debate of 9 May 1918. The officer Sir Frederick Maurice accuses Lloyd George’s cabinet of knowingly keeping away men from the western front. In the House of Commons Asquith puts himself forward as spokesman of Maurice. Lloyd George reacts by requesting a vote of confidence. He weathers the storms gloriously.

To the general public David Lloyd George is also the man who has won the war, after having cast aside Asquith. Yet it is certainly not curtains yet for Asquith after the war. In December 1918 he had to give up his seat in the House of Commons, but two years later he appears again on the political front. Asquith is one of the politicians who paves the way for the first Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald.

In 1925 Asquith is allowed to join as a peer the House of Lords, the company he had managed to bring to their knees in an earlier political life. He needed to have a title though in order to be admitted to the House. He will be the 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Among aristocrats this is tut-tutted in disapproval. Asquith, member of the middle classes, son of a wool merchant, an Oxford Earl? It is the general opinion that this is ‘like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles’.

H.H. Asquith died in 1928 at the age of 75. His grandson Julian inherited the title. This second Earl of Oxford and Asquith dies in 2011 at the age of 94. He was born five months before his father Raymond was killed on the battlefield behind the Somme.

Then there is one of the English war poets, who listens to the name Asquith. It is Herbert Asquith Jr., the second son of the prime minister, who unlike his older brother did survive the war. But this Asquith, too, has looked straight into the monstrous face of the war. He described the destruction ‘after the salvo’, as one of his poems is called. A skull torn out of the graves near by. A poppy at the crater’s edge. And the rats. Of course, the rats.

‘Up and down, up and down

They go, the gray rat, and the brown:

A pistol cracks: they too are dead

The nightwind rustles overhead’

Next week: Sir Ian Hamilton

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

 

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