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054 Lord Kitchener and the seamless sock

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Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

It is Sunday 4 July 1915. It is the 54th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting in the Argonne gets bogged down.

After five days of attacking on the Isonzo front, the Italians have hardly been able to make progress, despite their overpowering dominance.

General Luigi Cadorna adamantly starts a new offensive with his Second Army, but again he encounters heavy resistance from the Austrians.

In the East African Rufiji delta two British warships, supported by four airplanes, turn their guns on German cruiser Königsberg, but do no succeed in eliminating the ship.

The British conquer trenches at Pilkem in the Westhoek (Flemish Flanders).

The army of the Austrian Archduke Joseph Ferdinand is defeated at Kraśnik.

The Sultan of Egypt, Hussein Kamel, again survives an assault.

The political and military leaders of Great Britain and France meet at a conference in Calais.

The German capitulation in South West Africa is a reality, but General Louis Botha allows the German reservists to keep their weapons and ammunition so that they can defend themselves against the ‘natives’.

And again an appeal is made to the virile part of the British nation by Lord Kitchener.

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024 Christiaan de Wet and his double loyalty

Christiaan de Wet

Christiaan de Wet

Not all Boers side with the British

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

Pope Benedict XV makes an appeal for a Christmas truce.

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

The Germans start a new battle around Warsaw.  

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

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

The Austrians also suffer heavy losses near Kraków.

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

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are driven back by the British.

The French government returns from Bordeaux to Paris.

The Germans bit their teeth to pieces on Ypres.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Next week: Sir Alfred Ewing

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

018 Khudadad Khan and the apparent death of Hollebeke

Khudadad Khan

Khudadad Khan

Colonial troops on white battlefields 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian troops land in British East Africa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Next week: Maximilian von Spee

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

016 Sir Robert Borden and his hurry with half a million

Sir Robert Borden

Sir Robert Borden

Loyal Canada turns out to be a nation

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

The Belgian army digs itself in behind the river Yser.

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

The Germans attack near Diksmuide.

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

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

Austrian troops in Galicia also get into reverse.

In South Africa military criminal law is officially enforced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Käthe Kollwitz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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