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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)


034 Bernhard von Bülow and the fatal tutu

Bernhard von Bülow

Bernhard von Bülow

Weltpolitik lacks diplomatic ingenuity

It is Sunday 14 February 1915. It is the 34th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

Germany declares only to discontinue its war zone if the British stop their blockade of the German ports. 

The French start the attack on almost the full length of their front, but only record a slight profit at Verdun and in Artois, Champagne and the Vosges.

On the eastern front the fighting in the Carpathians and Galicia continues.

Albanians are driven across the Serbian border.

A new French-British air raid on the Flemish seaside towns of Zeebrugge and Ostend is undertaken.

The two zeppelins which bombed the English east coast in January are forced to make an emergency landing in Denmark.

An imposing English-French navy bombs Turkish fortresses at the entrance of the Dardanelles, which marks the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign.

The Germans gain some territory at Ypres.

The Austrian conquests, notably of Czernowitz, are followed by a successful counter attack of the Russians.

And in Rome the Germans do everything they can to keep Italy away from the allies, which is a special job for former chancellor Bernhard von Bülow.

Kaiser Wilhelm II is an unpredictable man, to which also Bernard von Bülow can testify. In 1917 he stood a good chance to succeed Von Bethmann Hollweg as chancellor. The latter was dismissed because he was too soft to the liking of the military. But Wilhelm did not want to have anything to do with Von Bülow, the man whom he had cherishingly called ‘my own Bismarck’ years before.

Von Bülow served the kaiser as chancellor nine years, from 1900 till 1909. It was the same Von Bethmann Hollweg who had come to take over from him in 1909. The liberal-conservative block that Von Bülow had managed to keep together for a long time, eventually came to grief on the budget. Von Bülow had very nearly been forced to pack his bags already a year earlier. The reason was a rather unfortunate interview his emperor had given to the London Daily Telegraph. Wilhelm had planned to talk firmly to the English. What got into their heads to refuse his gestures of friendship time over again. This made it very difficult for him to remain a good friend of England. The Prussian chest-beating transcended the British newspaper columns.

In England they were not amused. But in Germany the article was not welcomed either. Von Bülow wanted to take his responsibility for the diplomatic damage by resigning. The interview had been presented to him for checking, but he had put it aside on his desk because of busy work.

Von Bülow, however, had to stay. In parliament he subsequently said he was confident that the kaiser would understand that he had to express himself more prudently in future in order to avoid damaging the unity of policy and the authority of the crown. Wilhelm II would indeed keep quiet in the time to come, but the kaiser’s love for his chancellor was over.

Even before the Daily Telegraph affair Von Bülow had been very busy dealing with the impetuous kaiser, but in 1907 the chancellor himself was staring in the full glare of the spotlights. In a pamphlet a man called Adolf Brand had argued that the German chancellor was blackmailed with his homosexuality. Von Bülow started legal proceedings for defamation. Brand, who could not provide evidence for his statement, was convicted to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

The affair did not appear out of the blue. It was part of the scandal around Philipp zu Eulenburg, a confidant of both the kaiser and the chancellor. Another writer, Maximilian Harden, had painted a homosexual picture of the highest circles in the empire, with Eulenburg as the lecherous key-figure. At the end of his life none less than Bismarck himself was to update Harden over a glass of wine on the love for men which was rampant around the kaiser. According to Harden’s analysis it was small wonder that German foreign policy so hopelessly derailed with all those effeminate protagonists at the top.

It did not help publicity either that a senior military figure, Dietrich Graf von Hülsen-Häseler, had died of a heart attack in the presence of the kaiser when doing a little dance dressed in a tutu. Ottokar von Czernin, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat who was to become Foreign Minister in the second half of the First World War, saw the kaiser himself panic: ‘In Wilhelm II, I saw a man, who for the first time in his life, with horror-stricken eyes, looked upon the world as it really was.’

Wilhelm was hardly informed by Von Bülow about all the spicy innuendo in the press. It was Wilhelm’s son, the crown prince, who had to convince his majesty of the seriousness. Embarrassed by the situation, Wilhelm decided to dismiss Eulenburg. This is how a true anglophile was removed from the kaiser’s entourage, somebody who had repeatedly urged the kaiser to engage in friendly relations with England.

When Von Bülow took on the office of chancellor, he seemed to fit in perfectly with the selfish ambition of Wilhelminian Germany. As far as that is concerned he would certainly not come forward as the new Bismarck. After all the Iron Chancellor had adopted a conservative political attitude after the proclamation of the German Empire was announced in 1871. The new Germany had better guard the status quo on the European continent first. But the young kaiser, who had climbed on the throne in Bismarck’s later life, wanted more than just mind the store.

It was Von Bülow who expressed as foreign minister the ambitions of imperial Germany in 1897 as follows: ‘We wish to throw no one into the shade, but we demand our own place in the sun.’ Gone were the days when the Germans left the earth to one neighbour and the sea to the other, while they only kept the sky for themselves.

Germany’s Weltpolitik really took off in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was especially the spectacular build-up of the navy that testified to this. In Von Bülow’s  first year as chancellor the Germans also went to China to curb the Boxer Rebellion with a lot of fuss. In German Southwest Africa the German Imperialism of the days of chancellor Von Bülow showed its ugliest face. From Berlin kisses in the air were blown to the Boers in South Africa and to the muslims in the Ottoman Empire. But then Germany did support Austria-Hungary when it annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 at the expense of the Ottomans.

It is especially the German experience in Morocco which is of importance for the relations with the two biggest European powers on the world stage, Great Britain and France. In 1905 Von Bülow sees an opportunity to play a nasty trick on the eternal enemy France. The French have a problem in unruly Morocco, where the sultan tries to forward from under the shadow of Paris. A year earlier the French were more or less given a free hand by the English in Morocco. In exchange for this Paris promised London to relinquish any claim on Egypt. This bargaining forms the basis of the Entente Cordiale, the affectionate commitment between England and France

Von Bülow now hopes to drive a wedge between the two by promising Germany’s support to the Moroccan sultan. The climate is favourable as Russia, the closest ally of the French, is lying in the corner, knocked out after the defeat against Japan.

The kaiser himself may deliver the message. On 31 March 1905 he moors his yacht in Tangier. Von Bülow has arranged a beautiful white horse on which the kaiser can ride through the packed streets of Tangier. ‘I landed because you wanted me to in the interest of the Fatherland’, Wilhelm will later tell his chancellor. ‘I sat upon a strange horse despite the riding problems my disabled left arm causes, and I came within a centimeter of that horse taking my life. I had to ride against Spanish anarchists because you wanted me to and because it was your policy to gain from this.’

It was certainly not a masterstroke of Von Bülow. The international turmoil around Morocco resulted in the Algeciras Conference. It was decided that France could continue to consider Morocco as its protectorate. The German point of view on international control was only taken over by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

In 1911 the Second Morocco Crisis takes place when German gunboat Panther enters the Moroccan port of Agadir. By then Von Bülow has already left as chancellor. And again Germany exits by the side door. England appears to stand foursquare behind France, which can also rely on Russia. After the pathetic Panther-leap of Agadir, Germany finds itself alone against the rest of Europe.

Einkreisung is the right word for this sentiment. In his time Von Bülow tried to escape this encirclement by strengthening the Dreibund. It is quite alright between two of the three, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The third partner, Italy, however, is not always in line. It even fails to inform both friends when it suddenly invades Tripoli in 1911. But the French appear to be at peace with the Italian presence in that part of North Africa.

This is an important omen, as at the outbreak of the First World War the Italians do not feel duty-bound to help their two Dreibund-partners. On the contrary, very soon Italy threatens to tilt over to the allied camp. In order to defuse this calamity, the German government calls on an ‘old’ veteran in the diplomatic profession, Bernhard von Bülow. During his time as chancellor he had been granted the title of prince, Fürst.

He is also married to a princess, who is a piano student of Franz Liszt. She is also of Italian descent. The German government hopes this will be an advantage in Rome. But the charm offensive fails. Von Bülow will not bring his diplomatic job as special ambassador to a successful end.

On 3 August 1914 Italy had emphatically declared itself neutral, but on 24 May 1915 it moves to the side of the allies in the war. Could this have been prevented? In any case, in the first months of the war Germany urges Austria to engage with Italy as constructively as possible. Rome develops a deep-rooted grievance against Vienna, which has to do with the Italian fight for freedom from the nineteenth century. The Austrians have thrown the necessary spanners in the works in that period. And then there are of course the terre irredente, territories in the Austria-Hungary empire that  according to the Italians belong to them. The allies will eagerly start accepting these claims.

From the beginning the Austrians trod cautiously on the eastern front, so there would have been strong arguments to stay friends with Italy. But ingenuity and a sense of reality happen to be scarce qualities in the circles around kaiser Franz Joseph. Vienna does not wish to pay a high price for Italian neutrality. Then Von Bülow of course will have to tell the Italian government that war with Austria-Hungary also means war with Germany. But this threat perishes in the nearly erotically charged desire for battle, which has meanwhile taken possession of the Italian people.

Would Bernhard Fürst von Bülow have looked back with satisfaction on a full political life when he died in 1929? It is difficult to imagine. During the Von Bülow years Germany got bogged down in international isolation deeper and deeper. What he sold as Weltpolitik, proved to be the prelude to a Weltkrieg.

Next week: Rosa Luxemburg

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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