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048 John Condon and the piece of boot numbered 6322

John Condon grave

John Condon grave

The Irish, young and old, are willing to sacrifice

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

Italy declares war to Austria-Hungary.

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

Again the Russians lose ground in Galicia.

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

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

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

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

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

German-Austrian troops attack Przemyśl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the first stanza of Johnnie.

When he had lied about his age

he was quite tall, only fourteen years old

But they could use them all, so there

no one would ask for your age any more.

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

Already a week later Johnnie is numbed

He is completely out

Stunned by the cold, the mud and the bombs

He only wanted it to end.

 When the order came to attack

Johnnie was like an obedient dog

He managed to advance twenty yards or so

When a bullet found his exhausted body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Komitas Vardapet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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)

026 Alfred Anderson and the match without a referee

Alfred Anderson

Alfred Anderson

Tommy and Fritz are having Christmas together

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

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

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

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

News about a Romanian revolt in Transylvania appears.

Australian and New Zealand troops arrive in Cairo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Enver Pasha

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

023 August de Block and the last bit of hope of escape

August de Block  (photo amsab)

August de Block (photo amsab)


The Netherlands puts away Belgian soldiers 

It is Sunday 29 November 1914. It is the 23rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Austrian army first occupies Belgrade, but already within days has to accept heavy losses during the Battle of the Ridges.

 King George V visits the front in Flanders.

 A German attempt to raft across the river Yser below Diksmuide fails.

A heavy battle for the Polish town of Łodz blazes away.

In South Africa the Boer general Christiaan de Wet and his rebels surrender.

After the Battle of Lowicz-Sanniki the Russians put up a line of defence behind the Polish rivers Rawka and Bzura. 

In France the Yellow Book is published, a collection of diplomatic documents about the July crisis which preceded the declarations of war.

The Russians take the Armenian towns of Sarai and Bashkal.

In the German Reichstag Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg categorically puts the blame for the war on the British.

And Belgian soldiers revolt in a Dutch internment camp, where one of the prisoners is called August de Block.

Belgian soldiers are heard to call out ‘chocolate soldiers, chocolate soldiers’ to pester their Dutch guards. It is 3 December 1914 and the tension in internment camp Amersfoort-Zeist is so great that you could cut it with a knife. A day earlier three Belgian inmates were arrested. Female relatives had smuggled civilian clothing inside, which was sufficient proof for the Dutch authorities that the three Belgians were planning to escape.

Now the fat is in the fire. The frustration about the poor facilities in the camp comes to a release. This has been built up for weeks on end. The food is like reinforced concrete. Behind the barbed wire lice and rats flourish. The canteen, where the price of one glass of beer was equal to a day’s pay, has already been demolished. The Belgians now shift their attention to the exit of the camp. A threefold warning in Dutch and French has little effect. Then the camp commander decides it is time for his men to take aim. They open fire and kill five men on site. Later another three of the twenty-one Belgians that were hit will die.

How did these Belgians end up behind bars in neutral Holland? Well, this was a result of the declaration of neutrality of 4 August 1914 which the Dutch government strictly observed throughout the war. Soldiers who were with the warring parties and entered Dutch territory were mercilessly disarmed and robbed of their freedom. So it was stipulated at the Second Hague Convention of 1907.

A considerable group of Germans, among whom quite a few deserters, suffered the fate of internment. But also British soldiers who had not been able to prevent the fall of Antwerp found themselves again in a Dutch encampment. By far the biggest group of inmates, however, were the Belgians. Over 33,000 spent the war in a Dutch internment camp. Seven thousand succeeded in escaping, mostly with the aim to stand guard with the rest of the Belgian army at the river Yser.

Amersfoort-Zeist and Harderwijk were the biggest. But also Gaasterland, Oldebroek, Kampen, Assen, Loosduinen, Nunspeet and Zwolle, all of them far away from the border, had these camps of Belgians. In the four years of the war a camp like Harderwijk developed into a complete village, with its own school, church, hospital and washing and bathing facilities. With the support of King Albert in free Belgium the Central Administrative Commission introduced a system, which enabled learned Belgians to teach their illiterate fellow countrymen in the camps. Many inmates started to fill the places in the Dutch firms which mobilized workers had left vacant. Equal pay was not at all obvious.

In 1917 there were 43 sports clubs in the camp of Harderwijk. Lots of Dutchmen came to watch races on the biggest cycling track in the Netherlands, constructed in the camp of Belgians. In due time many women and children of the interned soldiers settled in the immediate surroundings. In the beginning of 1916 villages for women arose near the three biggest internment camps.

Most Belgian inmates fared like August de Block, a workman’s son from Sint-Niklaas, who experienced the bloodbath of december 1914 in Amersfoort-Zeist at first hand. ‘This ‘fusillade’ made a deep impression on De Block’, his biographer Joris De Coninck writes. ‘It deprived him of the last bit of hope of escape.’

At the outbreak of the war August de Block’s military service has not finished yet. As Private first class he has to help defend the fort of Sint-Katelijne-Waver. But the line of defences around Antwerp cannot withstand the German howitzers. ‘When the fort was shelled, our boys realized that they were wasting their gunpowder because their artillery only carried fifteen kilometers, whereas the Germans bombarded us from a distance of twenty kilometers’, De Block has recorded.

He is facing a dilemma. Should he let himself fall into the hands of the Germans or should he flee across the Dutch border? The big group who chooses the second option just like De Block, will have to defend themselves after the war against the reproach of desertion. ‘However, as he was directly involved, August de Block interpreted the escape to the Netherlands completely differently’, his biographer writes. ‘He admitted that the commander-in-chief of the Antwerp stronghold, general Deguise, wanted to defend this bastion to his dying day. Yet on their own initiative several other officers gave their troops the order to flee to the Netherlands. A third group of military commanders abandoned the troops that were subordinate to them just like that. Each soldier from these units had to choose for himself between captivity in Germany and internment in the Netherlands. De Block chose internment, hoping to flee the Netherlands and join the Belgian army.’

Locking up the Belgian soldiers was a small job compared to containing the enormous flood of civilians who were on the run from the violence in the first few months of the war. This exodus was a huge humanitarian disaster. The journalist of the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant noted down: ‘From Antwerp to our border it was one long and sad procession of people and animals. Herds of cattle were driven along by farmers from the surroundings who were running away in mortal fear. There were young people transporting an old grandmother on a wheelbarrow. One could see all sorts of vehicles. And all these people, fleeing, kept looking back at their town, that went up in smoke and flames.’

The Netherlands has to take in no fewer than a million Belgian civilians. The small towns of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal see most of them pass by. In the beginning there is considerable willingness among the Dutch population to take care of these poor Belgians. The Dutch Committee for Support of Belgian War Victims starts a collection which in November has already yielded 300,000 guilders. In his book ‘Buiten Schot’, which is about the Netherlands in 1914-1918, the author Paul Moeyes quotes a story of a Belgian who in gratitude wants to name his daughter, born in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, after the Dutch queen.

But there will also have been scenes such as Jos Wijnant described in 2008. As a 12-year-old boy from Antwerp he arrived at the railway station of Den Bosch, Bois-le-Duc, in 1914. As a 106-year-old he still heard them chant: ‘Down with the Belgians, they eat up everything’. Wijnant was to become deputy town clerk and, still in the possession of a Belgian passport, he would eventually be declared the oldest man of the Netherlands.

For fear of contagious diseases and out of necessity to keep the roads clear for the Dutch army, the Belgian refugees are dispersed over the country as quickly as possible. The Belgians are split into two groups, the needy and the workers on one side and the affluent without possessions on the other. A private individual who provides shelter for an adult refugee from the category of the needy gets a compensation from the Dutch State of 35 cents. For a well-to-do refugee twice this rate is reimbursed.

The number of one million refugees will soon decrease. Now that the battle has abated, the Germans promise the Belgian exiles a safe return. Through burgomasters and local committees the Dutch government, too, gives the Belgians the urgent advice to go back to their own homes. The Dutch state will also pay for the single train journey. Many Belgians accept this. In December 1914 only 124,000 Belgian refugees are left, in January 1916 this number is reduced to 80,000.

The ‘Belgian villages’ that were built in Nunspeet, Epe and Uden have never fully used their capacity. The memory of the neighbouring guests would quickly fade after the war. However, especially in the past few years initiatives have been taken to revive the history of the camps of Belgians. Plans were made to rebuild barracks such as from the Refugee Camp Uden.

August de Block spent four years of his early life in Dutch captivity. His first weeks stuck in his memory as follows: ‘The barracks were not heated, were badly insulated and rain came in. Many inmates died of the consequences of pneumonia and tuberculosis. They also suffered from rheumatism and bronchitis. […] Only once every ten days a shower could be taken, open barrels were used as toilets and waste was dumped in pits.’

These miserable circumstances and the exorbitant prices in the canteens drove the defeated front soldiers to despair. Many took to drinking or gambling. Some committed suicide. Others revolted. Eight of them died in the process. The outrage in the Netherlands about 3 december 1914 was big, but an official committee of inquiry was to judge that the authorities were not to blame.

It was not until 2 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, that De Block and the other Belgians are given back their freedom by the Dutch government. Apparently they wanted to make sure. The Dutch authorities will present ruined Belgium with a bill for the internment of their soldiers: 53 million guilders. This debt was not paid off by the Belgians until 1937. On the basis of international treaties the relief of Belgian civilians, which was a humanitarian feat, came at the expense of the Netherlands itself.

After the war De Block developed into an influential socialist politician. When in the camp he had already manifested himself as the local chairman of the Union of Belgian Workers in the Netherlands. In this capacity he had come into contact with Rachel Hamel, daughter of a jewish diamond merchant from Amsterdam. In the camp there was little opportunity to meet, but the relationship held out. They got married and in the Second World War took refuge to England in time.

August de Block died in 1979. According to his biographer he never showed any bitterness or resentment about the way he was treated in the Dutch camps. In his own country the government and army command have never granted August de Block the rehabilitation he so passionately longed for.

Next week: Christiaan de Wet

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)

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