The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “Western front”

054 Lord Kitchener and the seamless sock

Download this episode (right click and save)

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.

Subscribers to The First World War in 261 Weeks receive this episode (doc + mp3) by email.

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)

033 Marie Curie and the enemy’s X-rays

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

War divides scientists

It is Sunday 7 February 1915. It is the 33rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The second Battle of the Masurian Lakes breaks out against a wintery background in an attempt of the Central Powers to capture the Russians via Galicia and East Prussia.

Heavy snowfall in the west contributes to a lasting trench front.

South African general Louis Botha prepares for the attack on Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa.

From the Black Sea warship Breslau, originally German, but now sailing under Turkish flag, bombards Jalta on the Crimean peninsula.

The Russians do the same with Trabzon on the Black Sea coast.

The British seize the cargo of SS Wilhelmina on suspicion of having Germany as its destination.

The British Foreign Office justifies flying a neutral flag at sea.

The United States warn both Great Britain and Germany: British ships should not sail under a neutral flag and German attacks on American ships in the so-called war zone will not be tolerated.

From Dunkirk the British carry out an air-raid on the Belgian seaside towns of Ostend and Zeebrugge.

And behind the West Flanders front X-ray photographs of wounded soldiers are made by Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. 

Science also has to show its true colours in the war. Marie Curie, the internationally renowned scientist who won two Nobel Prizes, hurries to the front in Flanders with her daughter already in the first year of the war. She intends to help the doctors there diagnose wounded soldiers correctly. She can do this thanks to a relatively new specialized area in medical science called radiology. With the help of electro-magnetic rays it has become possible to trace a bullet or pieces of shrapnell in the human body or map a fracture.

The X-rays, which Madame Curie so gratefully uses, also carry the name of their discoverer, Wilhelm Röntgen. Just like Marie Curie he was laureled with a Nobel Prize, in 1901. Röntgen has also taken sides in the war, but for the other party. He is one of 93 intellectuals – artists and scientists – who addressed the world in October 1914 with a manifesto. Germany had fallen into disrepute because of what was seen as barbaric actions in Belgium. Especially setting fire to the Library of the University of Leuven had given the Germans bad publicity worldwide. Their emperor was seen as a descendant of Attila the Hun, who had defeated the Europeans as the scourge of God long ago. The 93 intellectuals thought these odious lies. The world had nothing to fear. The Germans of Wilhelm II would maintain as a civilized nation the heritage of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant.

After the war Röntgen distanced himself from the manifesto. Without really thinking he had signed it, but maybe that says a great deal. Röntgen was known as an extremely thorough researcher, for whom facts were sacred. But also the conscientious Röntgen, who had spent his childhood in the Netherlands, immersed himself in the all consuming passion of patriotism.

Of course this applied to the other side as well. In the very same month The Times published the reaction of British scientists to the manifesto of the 93 Germans. But there were also some scholars who emphatically set themselves above the parties. Heart specialist Georg Friedrich Nicolai reacted to the pro-German manifesto with an ‘Appeal to the Europeans’. Albert Einstein was one of the few to sign this initiative.

Those who read the ‘appeal’ of Nicolai and Einstein realizing that it was only October 1914, will restrospectively take off his hat. Just listen to this: ‘The struggle raging today will likely produce no victor: it will leave probably only the vanquished. Therefore, it seems not only good, but rather bitterly necessary that educated men of all nations marshall their influence such that – whatever the still uncertain end of the war may be – the terms of peace shall not become the wellspring of future wars.’

In the years after also Einstein would observe that the Great War developed into a playing ground for applied science. Fritz Haber, also one of the 93 to sign the ‘Manifesto to the civilized world’, was perhaps the most telling example of this. Haber used all his knowledge for the monstrous novelty of chemical warfare. Due to science gas entered the war.

The relation is of course mutual, the war also controlled science. To put it bluntly, psychiatrists and surgeons could learn from an abundance of practical experience. However, to the Dutch writer Leo van Bergen this statement is an outright myth which enabled doctors to justify their participation in the war. Van Bergen also points out that in wartime only research which was in the interest of this particular war was given a chance. The rest had virtually come to a standstill. Those who want to consider the medical battlefield of the Great War, should read ‘Before my helpless sight – Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, by Leo van Bergen.

The beginning of the twentieth century had shown a true explosion of knowledge. Sigmund Freud had descended into the very depths of the human psyche. Karl Landsteiner had come with a system of bloodgroups. Thanks to dogs that started drooling before they got their food, Ivan Pavlov had been able to describe the conditioned reflex. Guglielmo Marconi had succeeded in telegraphing across the Atlantic Ocean wirelessly. Ernest Rutherford developed the first atom model. Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata found a cure against the dreaded venereal disease syphilis. Louis Blériot had flown a self-designed aeroplane from Calais to Dover and Willem Einthoven had invented the string galvanometer, a device that could register the heartbeat in cardiograms.

Man was well on the way towards solving all the problems of the world. Ernst Haeckel had written the bible of this scientific materialism at the end of the last century. The title of this book was Die Welträtsel, the riddles of the world. The zoologist Haeckel had reached the philosophical question of the meaning of life. He did not try to find the answer higher up, but as an atheist held the opinion that all human behaviour could be reduced to matter. A thought process was to Haeckel merely a meticulously worked out interaction of nerve clusters.

Is it coincidence that it is Haeckel who is the first to have used the term ‘First World War’? It is not until the early thirties when it is imaginable there will be another global war, that the term ‘Great War’ is beginning to give way to ‘First World War’. But already on 20 September 1914 Haeckel writes the following: ‘There is no doubt that the course and character of the feared ‘European War’ will become the first world war in the full sense of the word.’ It is the materialist who made the cold analysis of a war that was started by overheated romantics.

Marie Curie distinguishes herself from the other scientists by travelling to the front and helping out the wounded, just like Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War of the previous century. Because of the war Curie cannot continue her work as head of laboratories in both Paris and Warsaw. So she starts to serve the French army by equipping lorries with radiological machines and setting up field hospitals. She shows up behind the Flemish front in Veurne, Poperinge, De Panne and Hoogstade, where she will also meet the Belgian King Albert.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw in 1867 as Maria Skłodowska. She discovered the element polonium and called it after her native country Poland. In her childhood Polish territory is still occupied by Russia. Women are not admitted to university, which is why Marie resorts to the clandestine Flying University of Warsaw. Penniless she works like a woman possessed. The title of one of Marie Curie’s biographies is ‘Obsessive Genius’. In this book one can read that she controls her depressive nature by unrestrained activity.

In 1891 she moves to Paris. As a nanny she has earned enough money to study mathematics, physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne. She focuses on the mysterious phenomenon of radioactivity. In Paris she also meets Pierre Curie. She not only marries him, but also devotes her life with him to science. Together they are awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, according to the motivation ‘in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’. Marie Curie is the first woman to have received a Nobel Prize, but in 1911 she will be awarded another one, for a different discipline: chemistry. The ceremony , however, is overshadowed by her affair with a married family man, fellow scientist Paul Langevin. She is named and shamed by the press.

In 1911 Pierre Curie has been dead for five years. Alone with his thoughts he was run over in Paris by a horse and cart near the Pont Neuf. He and Marie had two daughters. The youngest, Ève, becomes a pianist and a writer, among other things of a biography of her mother.  Ève died in 2007 at the age of 102, after having survived her father by more than a century.

Just like her mother Irène Curie was awarded a Nobel Prize, also together with her husband. Following in the footsteps of her parents Irène Curie focused on nuclear physics. But the parallel with her mother goes further, even in death. Both died of leukaemia, probably as a result of continued exposition to radioactive radiation. Marie Curie was 66 when she died, her daughter Irène only 58. If men can  become heroes by exposing themselves to the dangers of war, mother and daughter Curie have found their fatal heroism in science.

It is cruel irony that it was the Curies who have contributed greatly to the fight against cancer cells. Marie remained indifferent to the harmful consequences of radioactivity for a long time. Even when deep cracks covered her hands and she had almost turned blind, she refused to acknowledge the dangers of radioactivity.

In 1995 the bodies of Marie Curie and her husband were placed in the Panthéon in Paris, in the presence of president François Mitterrand and his Polish counterpart Lech Walesa. Another feminist achievement is that Marie Curie is the first woman to get a place in this holy sanctum of the French dead for her own merits.

This is a tribute that was never paid to Lise Meitner. This physicist is also called the ‘German Madame Curie’, though she was from Austrian-Jewish descent. She did groundbreaking research in the field of nuclear physics, but like Marie Curie she was to be found behind the trenches during the Great War. Her field of activity was Galicia on the eastern front, where she fanatically X-rayed wounded front-line soldiers as a röntgen nurse.

Mother and daughter Curie had left for the front at an early stage to assist the medical service. We still have a beautiful photo of the then 18-year-old Irène Curie from the autumn of 1915. The picture is taken in the Flemish town of Hoogstade. Irène Curie, dressed in a nurse’s uniform, is standing on the step of a medical mobile vehicle with the words Service Radiologique written on it. She is flanked by two men with moustaches.

Eventually the French army had 140 mobile vehicles like this, which were nicknamed ‘little curies’. It is a word which is alien to the war. ‘Little curie’ sounds like tenderness and care, though it may be argued that prompt treatment of wounded soldiers on the basis of technologically advanced diagnostics served only one purpose, patching up the poor sods for battle.

Next week: Bernhard von Bülow

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)

022 Paul von Hindenburg and his march with a pure heart

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

Germany relies on Prussian values

It is Sunday 22 November 1914. It is the 22nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 The seven-century-old Cloth Hall in Ypres goes up in flames after a German bombing.

The Germans do not spare Reims cathedral either.

 A British squadron blasts the Flemish port of Zeebrugge.

 Portugese congress authorizes the government to side with the allies as soon as she thinks this expedient.

 American president Woodrow Wilson condemns the shelling of unfortified towns.

 After heavy fighting the Austrians withdraw near Krakow and south of the river Vistula.

 British warships attack the German port of Dar es Salaam in East Africa.

 Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf lets three German divisions escape at the Polish town of Lodz.

 The Russians manage to get the mountain passes in the Carpathians under control again.

 And the rank of field marshal is granted to the German hero of Tannenberg, Paul von Hindenburg 

‘What do you do in times of tension?’, Paul von Hindenburg was once asked. He answered: ‘I whistle.’ After which the enquirer remarked that he had never heard Hindenburg whistle. ‘I never have’, the latter replied.

There you are, the caricature of the Prussian hero of the First World War, Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg. Tower of German strength. Imperturbable. Self-assured. Judging by the numerous streets and squares that still bear his name in present-day Germany, his reputation has proved to be quite solid. Whatever his curriculum vitae may have shown afterwards, Hindenburg has remained the Hero of Tannenberg – the icon of German values such as Ordnung and Kampfgeist.

Hindenburg could also count on the respect of someone like David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in the second half of the Great War. When he is elected president of the Weimar Republic in the decade after the First World War, Lloyd George understands. After all, Hindenburg is a ‘very sensible old man’.

To historian and contemporary Hans Delbrück Hindenburg was rather an ‘old nobody’. Delbrück passed this destructive judgement before Hindenburg had the nerve as president to appoint Adolf Hitler Reich’s Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Initially he did not think a lot of the leader of the NSDAP. ‘Böhmischer Gefreiter’, he used to call Hitler amidst his intimate friends: ‘Bohemian corporal’. That was a historical mistake of the field marshal. He mistook Austrian Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, for Bohemian Braunau.

June 1919 does not look good for Hindenburg either. Defeated Germany is dictated its conditions of peace. President of the new republic is social democrat Friedrich Ebert, who telephones Hindenburg to ask what he thinks of it. Hindenburg leaves the answer to his Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Wilhelm Groener. ‘You know what to do. I will go for a walk’, he tells him. Groener tells Ebert that there is nothing for it but to sign, for the German army cannot permit itself to resume the war. When Hindenburg returns from his walk and hears how Groener has acted, he puts his arm on his shoulder and says: ‘You have taken a big responsibility on you.’

October 1918. Wilhelm II receives the Chief of the General Staff Hindenburg and his right-hand man Erich Ludendorff. The offensive on the western front has ended in a big disappointment. The emperor gives Ludendorff to understand that his days are numbered. But to Hindenburg he says: ‘Und Sie bleiben.’ ‘And you stay’. After which Hindenburg politely bows his head, to the dismay of Ludendorff, who had expected solidarity of his old comrade in arms. Hindenburg a tower of strength? Do you think so?


He was born in 1847 as scion of a noble East Prussian family. His father is an officer and for young Paul the only future is a military one. ‘A matter of tradition’, he will remark in his memoirs. In 1866 he is actively involved in the war of the Prussians against the Austrians. He gets by relatively unscathed with a head injury. In 1871 he is present when the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, in the heart of France. Seventeen years later he is chosen to keep watch as an officer at the dead body of Emperor Wilhelm I lying in state. And in 1911 he is 64, the right age for retirement.

But the historical life of Paul von Hindenburg has yet to begin. When in 1914 Russia puts pressure on the Germans in their very own East Prussia, an appeal is made on old general Von Hindenburg. Together with his energetic aide Erich Ludendorff he achieves a glorious victory in a clash which Hindenburg himself calls the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1410 a German army had to yield to a Polish king there. Hindenburg has now erased that disgrace.

When Hindenburg publishes his memoirs after the war, an extract from September 1914 betrays his world view. He describes how elevated thoughts come into his mind during a ride through Polish regions that German tribes have done a favour to culture here. Of course one can notice that people here live according to East Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Here live simple, faithful and cautious people. Further away in the Russian part of Poland Hindenburg especially notices the mud. People there are brimming with filth, he writes. To a man like Hindenburg civilisation corresponds with Prussia.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff will stay in the northern part of the eastern front together for a long time. They are opposites that miraculously complement each other throughout the war. Hindenburg, the composed aristocrat and Ludendorff, the tempestuous commoner general. Hindenburg, keeper of old Prussian values, Ludendorff, careerist without scruples. Together over there in the east they distrust Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who pays more attention to the western front and the more southern battlefields in the east, where the Austrians can do with support from the Germans.

In August 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff seize their opportunity. They take over the Oberste Heeresleitung from Falkenhayn. In the west they take a drastic decision. They give up territory for a front line that can be defended better. Scorched earth is left in northern France when they retreat. The German army regroups in a new system of trenches and concrete bunkers, which will be called the Hindenburg Line.

But there is more than a reshuffle of the battlefield. Politically speaking the army draws almost all power to itself. Germany is beginning to look like a dictatorial nation. Using the writer Sebastian Haffner’s words, the real emperor is Paul von Hindenburg and the real chancellor is Erich Ludendorff. The latter is the one who is really pulling the strings. Forever popular Hindenburg is above all the figure head.

In the year 1916 the Hindenburg Programm appears. It is a thorough attempt to fashion the German economy after the war. Men and women are forced to work in the war industry. Companies that do not serve the war are locked. Through a Kriegsamt which has been set up the army dictates production from now on. It is not an unqualified success. Economic practice appears to be too unmanageable to be controlled by generals.

The duo Hindenburg-Ludendorff has a hand in sending off chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who is too soft to their taste. And in 1918, when the front in the east is shut down after the revolution in Russia, the Oberste Heeresleitung launches a full attack. If they do not win this war, it is in any case important to form a good basis for the next one. After all the Romans also needed more than one Punic War to get the better of Carthage.

They get far, but 8 August 1918 will be a ‘black day for the German army’, according to Erich Ludendorff, who mentally collapses because of the military adversity. Hindenburg will record in his memoirs: ‘The depression and the disappointment, that despite all victories the war will not end for us, have also affected our brave soldiers.’

Already in 1919 he is the most prominent spreader of the Stab-in-the-back myth. Germany has not lost because the other party was stronger, but because it was stabbed in the back at home by left-wing revolutionaries.

The twenties are coming and the frail Weimar Republic urgently needs an important mediator, somebody who declares himself above the parties as a pater familias. All eyes are fixed on Paul von Hindenburg. In 1925 the people elect this old warrior their president. Gradually he will listen too carefully to what his right-wing friends have to say. He sidetracks parliament, which is dominated by social democrats. In 1932, when he is 85, Hindenburg is elected for another seven-year term. However, this appears to be overoptimistic. Hindenburg dies in 1934 in a Germany, where meanwhile someone else has become the Führer. How the hero of Tannenberg ended as Adolf Hitler’s master of ceremonies, it is a sad story anyway.


It is 1927 when Time magazine reports on a glorious event. ‘Erect and martial, President General Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg arrived at Tannenberg, East Prussia, to unveil a war memorial to the soldiers who fell in the historic battle of Tannenberg.’

Over a hundred thousand people had gathered to witness the ceremony. There was a queue of veterans six miles long to pay hommage to their old military chief. Some were dressed in field grey, others had proudly put on their plumed helmets and donned imperial uniforms set off with gold. The highest authorities had also assembled, from chancellor Wilhelm Marx and several members of his cabinet to marshal Von  Mackensen and generals Von François and Von Ludendorff. Dressed in the uniform of marshal, staff in his left hand, old Hindenburg, almost eighty years old, strode through the cheering masses, stopping now and then to speak one or two words to his former brothers in arms.

What did Hindenburg say to the old comrades that day? The following: ‘We, the German people, dismiss in every possible way the reproach that Germany should be guilty of the greatest of all wars. It was not envy, hatred or desire for conquests which forced us to take up arms. War was our last resort and making the biggest sacrifices by our entire people was the last means to keep up our prestige against a multitude of enemies. We marched with a pure heart to defend our Fatherland and we brandished the sword with clean hands. Germany will always be prepared to prove that before impartial judges.’

Whoever allows these words to sink in, will see the future come towards him. Paul von Hindenburg’s Germany was simply a bad loser. Germany was heading for new misfortune. It would eventually end like the zeppelin in 1937, which the nazis had named after Hindenburg and which would crash down in flames near New Jersey.

Next week: August de Block

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)

012 Helmuth von Moltke and the work of Ahriman

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

German high command yields under pressure

It is Sunday 13 September 1914. It is the 12th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Russian general Pawel von Rennenkampf has to withdraw in East Prussia after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee reaches Samoa with his East Asian flotilla.

At the top of the Russian army Yakov Zhilinsky is replaced by Nikolai Ruzsky.

The Belgian army takes cover in Antwerp, while American president Woodrow Wilson welcomes a Belgian delegation.

South African troops prepare for battle in the German territories of South West Africa.

In an estuary near Cameroon the German gunboat Nachtigall makes a vain attempt to sink  the British gunboat Dwarf.

Japanese land at Qingdao in China.

British and French succeed in crossing the river Marne after which their advance gets bogged down.

The British Expeditionary Force, instructed by Sir John French, starts digging trenches near the river Aisne.

And the Battle of the Marne becomes too much for German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke.

When the tragedy of the river Marne has taken place for the Germans, Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is at his wits’ end. He is at a loss. Gazes at the maps. Physically and mentally a broken man, also filled with self-pity, he has to report to the emperor that he does not expect any good to come of it. Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn, who is not very tactful, takes Von Moltke’s place at the front. Or rather behind the front, for Von Moltke has not been very close to the fire for the past month. Falkenhayn will position his headquarters a bit closer to his troops first.

Of all the characters presented by the First World War, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke is one of the most enigmatic. In various publications one can read that he had a tender soul. He played the cello, liked to paint and knew his Goethe. The emperor himself called him der Traurige Julius. But Von Moltke not only had a tender soul. He was also in delicate health. When at the end of July the leaders of Europe were approaching the abyss, 66-year-old Helmuth von Moltke was taking a cure in Carlsbad.

What surprises most is his close relationship with the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who was born in present-day Croatia. Even now Steiner is honoured as a visionary at Waldorf schools and biodynamic agricultural enterprises. Steiner is the man who advocates the merger of the individual and the cosmos. And Von Moltke is the general who buried soldiers in the earth. What in the world did these two have in common? Perhaps Mrs von Moltke. She floated first towards Steiner. After that also her husband, the highest ranking officer of the Empire, had hungrily served the interests of Rudolf Steiner’s elevated thoughts. Ten days before the Battle of the Marne the two met near headquarters at Koblenz. Steiner convinced Moltke with his observation that guided by the Spirit the people ‘bears light out of the battle into the heart of Europe for the healing of mankind’.

Whatever spiritual influence Steiner had on Von Moltke, he has not turned the general into a pacifist. On the contrary. Von Moltke is the man who works on the emperor in the years before 1914: the war, which will come anyhow, had better break out as soon as possible. Russia is a giant about to wake up from his sleep before long. When the evils of the lost war against Japan have disappeared, Russia will stand up. And then the German empire will have a major problem both in the west and the east. Before the siege is final, Germany has to break free. Behold the passionate plea of Helmuth von Moltke, a social Darwinist, for whom a people’s right to exist had to be proved on the  battlefield.

This is how to many he has become the embodiment of German aggression. Von Moltke may have thought that he could keep the war down to a single enemy, but he certainly has not avoided the risk of a blaze. Others again have pictured him as the man who squandered German opportunities by fiddling with the famous Schlieffen Plan. Especially Wilhelm Groener, who was to succeed Paul von Hindenburg after the war as chief of staff of the German Army, pinned botching the Von Schlieffen strategy on Von Moltke. Afterwards the nazis did their best to preserve the myth of the ingenious Schlieffen plan.

The fact is that Von Schlieffen saw fewer dangers than Von Moltke, who may pass for a realist because of this, though this scion of an old Mecklenburg family was most of all a fatalist. With the French walking across the Alsace and the Russians flowing over East Prussia, Von Moltke had every reason to believe the consequences for Germany completely disastrous. He anticipated a long and devastating war that had to be won on several fronts simultaneously. Already in 1905 he had warned the emperor for this: ‘Our people will be completely exhausted, even if we should triumph.’

As far as the war was concerned his pessimism also concerned the financial flexibility of the German nation. ‘Our enemies are arming more vigorously than we, because we are strapped for cash.’ That certainly had an element of truth in it. Historian Niall Ferguson shows that a possible cause of the Great War could be contained in Germany’s financial limitations. Ferguson also quotes Von Moltke on this. The latter argued in March 1913 that ‘war should be worked up to in such a way that it will be considered a release from the big armaments, the financial burdens and the political tensions.’ On close analysis war is a foreign venture for the sake of domestic peace.


He had the appropriate name. Wilhelm II absolutely wanted ‘my own Moltke’. Helmuth’s uncle of the same name had created the great German Empire alongside Bismarck in one or two glorious battles. Particularly arch-enemy France had been no match in 1870 for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who was to appoint his nephew years after that as his aide. After that Wilhelm II preferred him as his first man in the army as successor of the famous strategist Von Schlieffen.

From the very start this appointment proved to be controversial. And it must have kept Von Moltke himself awake. He had little faith in the emperor. It must have been abhorrent to a Prussian aristocrat like Von Moltke to have a commander-in-chief who blew off military exercises when rain started to fall. What was to become of Germany with such a monarch at the helm? Von Moltke preferably kept Wilhelm out of the military plans that were ready to be executed. Steiner asserted that he had asked Von Moltke why. The general must have answered that the emperor would most certainly have started to chatter about the military plans.

Von Moltke’s despair about the emperor really hits home in the days before the actual outbreak of the war. At the eleventh hour Wilhelm II does not want to mobilize in the west. He thinks and fervently hopes that, thanks to British neutrality, the battle can only be fought in the east, against the Russians. Von Moltke is desperate. He is appalled at the thought that his wonderful mobilisation machine should be put in reverse all of a sudden. He worked on Der Tag for ten years, first as Von Schlieffen’s assistant, after that as his successor.

Eventually the emperor will give Von Moltke the green light, so that the latter can stick to his mobilisation schedule in the west. Von Moltke’s planners have selected the Luxembourg town of Troisvierges – the three virgins of Faith, Hope and Love – for the first border crossing, on the first day of August 1914. Von Moltke’s Der Tag has come. ‘We have certainly advanced through Belgium with brute force’, he writes on 5 August. ‘But we are fighting for our lives, so whoever gets in our way should accept the consequences.’ He tries to direct his armies from a distance for a month. His most controversial decision is moving troops from the west to the east, where the Russians are penetrating East Prussia. That is not what Von Schlieffen had in mind.

On 14 September a new day begins for Von Moltke, the day of his nervous breakdown. Von Moltke succumbs to the heavy responsibility which he has taken in the first month of the war. Helmuth von Moltke was a defeatist type of person. In his own words: ‘I am too melancholy, too cautious, too conscientious, if you please, to be a general in a war.’

At headquarters they make him play second fiddle to keep up appearances. Both the German people and high command of the Austro-Hungarian ally are kept in the dark about the changing of the guard. The lists of losses of the battle of the Marne are not published either. Von Moltke feels his degradation, presented as a period of leave, as a big injustice. ‘Your Majesty, nobody is telling me anything!’, he cried out to the emperor. To which the latter must have answered that the same went for him.


Von Moltke will live another two years to repair the injustice done to him, but he will not be granted a role on the main podium of the First World War any more. On 18 June 1916 he goes to church in Berlin to add lustre to a memorial service for Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Von Moltke holds a speech in which he speaks highly of the deceased. He says that history has repeatedly shown that heroism and tragedy are closely linked. The congregation must feel that the speaker is not only referring to the person who has just ascended into heaven, but is also implying himself. When the Turkish ambassador is in the middle of his eulogy for Von der Goltz, Von Moltke, who has a heart condition, collapses. He dies at the age of 68.

Whatever way you look at it, this was too early for historians, for after the war Von Moltke could have explained one thing and another about the path he took with Germany towards the war. His wife published letters and his memoirs in 1922, but she appears to have made quite a mess of the contents. The diaries Von Moltke kept were burnt by his son Wilhelm in 1945, just before the Russians captured Berlin.

What can have possessed Von Moltke? How could this floating general reconcile his spiritual search for universal love with the careless moving about of cannon fodder across his topographic maps? Rudolf Steiner must have had some idea. After Von Moltke’s death the two kept in touch in the great beyond. Rudolf Steiner Press published an account of this esoteric exchange, entitled Light for the New Millennium.

Helmuth von Moltke sent the following message to the earth in December 1921: ‘The events on the Marne! Everything would have turned out differently, if I had not been accompanied by the mistrust of those around me. I traveled to the front in a cloud of mistrust.’ Eventually it had all been the work of Ahriman, the ‘Prince of Darkness’. As far as Wilhelm II is concerned, Von Moltke left us this explanation from above: ‘The Kaiser was actually quite weak due to the forces working in him from his previous life.’

Next week: Otto Weddigen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



011 Joseph Gallieni and the taxi’s that were quite something

Joseph Gallieni

Joseph Gallieni

Paris escapes the Germans

It is Sunday 6 September 1914. It is the eleventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian troops cross the river Drina and penetrate Serbia again.

A German cruiser succeeds in cutting the Pacific Cable halfway down the Pacific Ocean.

The British are hunting down the German cruiser Emden in the Indian Ocean.

The Russians in East Prussia have to run from the Germans.

The same Russians bring the Austrian armies of archduke Joseph and  count Viktor Dankl von Krasnik down to their knees in Galicia.

For the first time a British submarine eliminates an enemy ship in the North Sea: the German cruiser Hela.

Australians capture the town of Herbertshohe, part of German New Guinea.

During the first ever air fight Russian pilot Pjotr Nesterov loses his life when crashing into an Austrian reconnaissance plane. 

The Battle of the Marne claims half a million dead and wounded on both sides in barely a week.

And Paris taxi drivers transport soldiers to the front, watched approvingly by general Joseph Gallieni.

When France calls upon him to defend the capital, his wife has just died. He is already 65 years old. Three years earlier he passed up a chance to occupy the highest post in the French army. He is ill. In the two years to come he will have to undergo operations on his prostate gland twice. This will be in vain as he dies halfway through the First World War.

His name is Joseph Gallieni, the man who snatched Paris away from the clutches of the Germans in September 1914. When hearing this story you immediately think of the Paris taxi drivers who were sent out by Gallieni to transport soldiers to the front. It is a story that has assumed mythical proportions. Gallieni is supposed to have stood by the side of the road, mumbling approvingly: ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ ‘Well, well, this is quite something.’

It is not that these taxis made a huge difference in the terrible Battle of the Marne, on which also the fate of Paris depended. The railway was the vital artery of the army. Military successes or defeats could frequently be traced back to the capacity of the railway network. The German Schlieffen Plan was also grafted on the railway timetable. But Gallieni’s taxis of course appealed enormously to the imagination. Obviously the idea must have come from Gallieni himself. When the overworking of the railways was discussed, he suggested: ‘Mmm, why not use taxis?’

One greedy taxi driver is reported to have asked: ‘How much do we charge?’ Lorries, limousines and even racing cars joined the convoy. Many taxi drivers turned back at their destination Nanteuil for a second ride. A taxi could take five soldiers. A total of around 4,000 men were taken to the front by taxi. ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ to quote Gallieni once again.

One of those taxis can still be seen in the army museum of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Hundreds of these droll little cars got together on 7 September to load soldiers for the French Sixth Army. It was formed in a hurry to take away the force of general Von Kluck’s sweep which was noticed late.

Gallieni watched the taxis  through his lorgnette hanging over his stately nose and grey drooping moustache. Joseph Simon Gallieni was tall and lean. French president Raymond Poincaré provided the following profile. ‘With his straight stature, his head held high and his penetrating look he came across to us as an impressive example of human strength.’ And his curriculum vitae showed this, too. When he was 21 Gallieni fought at Sedan as a second lieutenant. To France this was the fatal battle in the Franco-Prussian war. Gallieni was carried off to Germany as a prisoner of war. There he had also mastered the German language, in the same way as he would later concentrate on learning Russian. He kept a diary in German, English and Italian with the peculiar multilingual title ‘Erinnerungen of my life di ragazzo’.

All in all Gallieni, son of an Italian immigrant, was a man of the world. His career in the French army took place outside the old country. Gallieni was a colonial soldier. His career went from the island La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, via West Africa, Martinique, the Sudan and French Indo-China finally to Madagascar. There were those in the French army who characterized the colonial service as le tourisme, but Gallieni certainly did not restrict himself to sun-worship. He proved himself to be a master at oil-slick politics, spreading the colonial sphere of influence from the centre by entering into home alliances using common sense.

Gallieni was also ruthless, especially going on a rampage on Madagascar. He did not limit himself to banning British influences on the island, but also brutally suppressed a revolt of the natives. Many people apply the term genocide to this operation. His period on Madagascar gave Gallieni the local nickname jeneraly masiaka, ‘the cruel general’.

In 1911 his reputation as warhorse can bring him promotion to the highest military post of his home country. Commander-in-chief Victor-Constant Michel has been sidetracked. The man is aware of the German danger, reason for him to draw up a defensive plan. But defence is a forbidden word in post-Sedan France. Attaquer à l’outrance, attack to the extreme, is the motto. Michel the defender has to be replaced by an attacker that does not hesitate. Gallieni, however, declines the honour. He feels too old, but is also afraid that the national army will not swallow a colonial like him.

He knows somebody, one of his officers from his days in Madagascar. Yes, let Joseph Joffre do the job. Thus Joffre becomes the man who is entrusted in 1914 with his native country in distress. He will put all his cards on the attack via Alsace-Lorraine. For a long time Joffre is blind to the muscles the German army is flexing on his right in Belgium, and not much later in the north of France. But Gallieni is well aware of the danger.

Gallieni is a confidant of Adolphe Messimy, Minister of War. At the end of August they arrive at a double conclusion. Paris is about to fall and Joffre does not realize that. Messimy asks Gallieni to take the defence of Paris as governor upon himself. A remarkable detail is that this is still the task of Michel who was earlier on sent away as commander-in-chief. Roaring with anger he is sent away a second time, after which old Gallieni positions himself on the city walls of Paris. He demands more troops of his own, which will have to be withdrawn from Joffre’s armies. The latter, however, disregards this command. When Gallieni came to alert Joffre to the danger called Von Kluck some time earlier, Joffre had only allowed Galllieni a two minute appointment. The stubborn commander-in-chief obviously did not like a superior officer from the past breathing down his neck again.

Nevertheless Gallieni will resolutely take up the defence of Paris. The capital is in the right mood for it. During the first few days of September the people of Paris had looked up at the sky in amusement to see a Taube – a small yellow-white German plane – circling overhead. The ‘pigeon’ not only dropped small bombs, but also pieces of paper for the Paris population came fluttering down. The message was that the German army was at the gates of Paris. There was no other option than surrender. One old woman was killed by a bomb from a Taube. After that, however, the small aircraft that regularly came flying over was mainly light entertainment.

The American attaché Eric Fisher Wood described how ‘all Paris’ was waiting for ‘the six o’clock Taube’ on Friday 3 September. But ‘Von Heidssen’  – as Fisher Wood erroneously called him – did not show up. Up in the sky a bullet had gone straight through his heart. The following day it was announced that ‘Von Heidssen’ was found down on the ground, strapped in his undamaged crate. Perhaps this was propaganda, for from other sources it appears that Ferdinand von Hiddessen – which was his real name – is made a prisoner of war in 1915, after being shot down above Verdun. Years later the same name crops up again on an American list of nazi bigwigs.

In the beginning of September the situation in Paris really turns awkward. A true exodus starts. The need to run from the Hun is urgent. Spurred on by Gallieni the government also takes refuge. But on the same day two staff officers in Gallieni’s headquarters are jubilant. Apparently Von Kluck had his army bear off to the east, away from Paris, towards the river Marne. Then Gallieni sees his opportunity. Joffre entrusts him with the command of the Sixth Army. At the river Ourcq Gallieni attacks Von Kluck’s unguarded right flank. It is the opening phase of the unprecedently gruesome Battle of the Marne, when the German advance is halted.

Unlike in 1871 and 1940 Paris does not fall in 1914. Gallieni gets the credit. Historian Basil Liddell Hart even attributes a ‘Napoleonic coup d’oeuil’ to him, but it is commander-in-chief Joffre who can write ‘Miracle of the Marne’ after his name. For the time being the French people believe Papa Joffre can do nothing wrong any more. Gallieni, who does not even get a Croix de Guerre for his share, certainly does not agree with this.

As governor of Paris Gallieni no longer plays a prominent role. After the return of the government he is the odd one out. On the sideline of the western front he recognizes the deadlock. Together with politician Aristide Briand and fellow-general Louis Franchet d’Espèrey he thinks that opening a second front on the Balkan Peninsula is necessary.

In October 1915 a new French government with Aristide Briand as Prime Minister appoints him Minister of War. Energetic as always he starts his work. He sees it especially as his task to raise the matter of the mistakes made by the general staff under the command of Joffre. The neglect of Verdun’s defence becomes a divisive issue. In March 1916, however, it becomes painfully clear to Gallieni that he is going to lose this battle. The government retains the far too popular Joffre.

In the month of his death he presented a memorandum to the French cabinet about the change of high command. Gallieni does not beat about the bush. The military should deal with military matters.The Minister of War has governmental responsibility. Commanding officers who support ‘anachronistic ideas and outdated procedures’ should be sidetracked, according to Gallieni.

But then Gallieni resigns and not much later he is hospitalized. He dies on 27 May 1916. No one of military command is present at the funeral. Five years later, however, Joseph Gallieni is posthumously promoted to field marshal.


Gallieni has not sunk into oblivion. In Paris there is the Gallieni Metro station, an important junction which is connected directly with Gallieni bus station. The small town of Fréjus in the Provence not only has a grammar school and tennis club named after Gallieni. There is also a museum of the maritime troops. Its showpiece is the little 19th century car Gallieni used to drive around Madagascar.

He who saves Paris, will not be labelled ‘Butcher of Madagascar’.

Next week: Helmuth von Moltke

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)
















010 Alexander von Kluck and the revolution in the castle

Alexander von Kluck

Alexander von Kluck

The war gets bogged down on the river Marne

It is Sunday 30 August 1914. It is the tenth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Outrage about the cultural barbarism of the Germans in the Flemish town of Louvain is snowballing worldwide.

The Germans move their headquarters from Koblenz to Luxembourg.

A small German Taube aircraft drops bombs on Paris and the French government leaves the capital.

The Germans in Cameroon chase a British column into the bush.

The Austrians in Galicia suffer heavy losses.

The British government decides to send Lord Kitchener to the continent.

As it sounded too German the Russians rename Saint Petersburg Petrograd.

Japanese troops land on the Shantung peninsula.

The French general Charles Lanrezac is blamed for all adversity and has to step aside for Louis Franchet d’Espérey.

Crown prince Rupprecht of Bavaria goes onto the attack of Nancy.

The Germans in East Prussia advance towards the Masurian lakes.

The French, the British and the Russians promise each other not individually to strive for peace.

And Paris sees the First Army of the Germans approach under the command of Alexander von Kluck.

‘Macht mir nur den Rechten stark.’  This must have been the final plea of count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the German plan of attack, who died a year before the war. In August 1914 the man on the right wing of the German army, the strong side, was called Alexander von Kluck. He was a general, born in Münster, who had sufficient Sturm und Drang to please Von Schlieffen posthumously. He had experienced the baptism of fire some 48 years earlier in the war that brought Prussia victory over Austria, gaining German dominance as a trophy. This Von Kluck fellow was rather a field soldier than a member of the staff.

Von Kluck’s First Army, the biggest of the seven German armies on the western front, had to make a big sweep through Belgium, ‘scouring the sleeves along The Channel’. After that he should go below Paris and then get the French army by the short hairs, together with the German troops that had first been waiting in the east to see which way the wind would blow. Von Kluck was the German hammer.

From the moment he was appointed chief of staff in 1891 Von Schlieffen had been polishing his plan, often until midnight. To relax he would like to read stories from military history to his daughters. Initially he had put his cards on the destruction of the French fortifications along the border. However, he changed his tack, when he feared that the German artillery was going to waste his energy on this. In order to gain a quick victory it was necessary to move across Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Soldier Von Schlieffen did not ponder too long on the political consequences of all this. He had a greater fear of a concentrated attack on the Central Powers by France, Russia, Great Britain and perhaps even Italy. When Russia was involved in a war with Japan in 1905, Von Schlieffen insisted in vain on attacking France as a precaution.

The war should be quick as lightning, Von Schlieffen determined. He was referring to economic interests. ‘The war with its thousands of wheels, providing a living for thousands of people, cannot stand still for a long time. It is impossible to move from one position to the other for one or two years in twelve-day battles until the warring parties are both completely exhausted, beg for peace and are willing to accept the status quo.’

The Schlieffen plan, included in his famous Grosse Denkschrift, was worked out in great detail. It was rocket science, especially when troop movements following the railway timetable were concerned. On the eve of the war The Military Itinerary made it possible to transport 2 million men and 600,000 horses by train in 312 hours’ time.

In case they had to continue on foot the infantry marched twenty kilometers a day according to Von Schlieffen’s calculations. This average would be just about right in Auguts 1914. Von Kluck would even manage 22 kilometers a day. It would take six weeks, again according to Von Schlieffen, to complete the Vernichtung of the French army on the western front. After that the German army could focus on the Russians, assuming that the latter had not succeeded in getting ready for battle on the eastern front within six weeks.

Von Schlieffen was anything but free from doubt. He expected to need an additional 200,000 men for the decisive battle in the heart of France. Two hundred thousand men for whom there was simply not enough room on the roads of Belgium and France. In any case, the expansion of the German armed forces in peacetime was lagging behind the ambitions of the Schlieffen plan. That was the fault of the conservative element within German militarism. In order to maintain the aristocratic proportion of the land army on as high as possible a level, successive war ministers had accepted that the budgets were spent on admiral Von Tirpitz’s navy.

Military historians have extensively discussed the question whether a precise carrying out of the Schlieffen plan would have led to a German victory. That was at least the general drift in German military circles immediately after the war, but later an increasing number of historians started to see the Schlieffen plan as a big gamble. Von Schlieffen had drawn up a great plan to start the war with. He had, however, neglected to provide a happy ending.

Opinions on Alexander von Kluck are equally divided. One considers Von Kluck the most devoted pupil of Von Schlieffen. Another blames the German foundering on von Kluck’s personal blunder. The English language is left with a fine insult, dumb Kluck, as a result of the failed campaign. It more or less means something like ‘silly goose’. Old Von Kluck was also called Old one o’clock by the Tommies.

It was especially chief of staff Helmut von Moltke who had been fiddling considerably at the plan of his predecessor Von Schlieffen. Already before the war Von Moltke had decided to ignore the Netherlands. Trade motives were at the bottom of this, but also the fear of an English attack in the back. Also in the beginning of the war Von Moltke quickly had to adjust his plan in East Prussia. In order to stop the Russians there many tens of thousands of soldiers were taken away from ‘Von Schlieffen’ in the west. The generals in Lorraine and the Ardennes put pressure on Von Moltke to start the attack quickly there, which Von Schlieffen had strongly advised against. Then there was the fierce resistance of the Belgians and of the small British Expeditionary Force at Mons and Le Cateau that threw a spanner in the works. The result was that Von Kluck’s right arm did not sweep through France as powerfully as Von Schlieffen had thought necessary on his deathbed.

Yet an imperturbable Von Kluck, seconded by his competent chief of staff Hermann von Kuhl, managed to approach Paris by a couple of dozens of kilometers. On his Great Trek he had succeeded in seizing the capital of Belgium, Brussels. After three days Von Kluck approached Compiègne in the north of France. Here German high command was to be presented with an armistice four long war years later. Would the Germans have been spared this humiliating experience, if Von Kluck had pushed on west of Paris in accordance with Von Schlieffen? Instead he sought to join Karl von Bülow’s Second Army in the east, who had met with more French and British opposition.


The reversal takes place in Louis XV’s castle at Compiègne, where Von Kluck has put up his headquarters on 3 September. By radio Von Moltke orders him to bear southeast. Aggressive and arrogant by nature, Von Kluck takes the liberty of going after the French general Charles Lanrezac. The renowned Great War military historian John Keegan thinks that French chief of staff Joseph Joffre has pulled Von Kluck’s leg.

Von Kluck leaves a gap, which is spotted by a French aviator. The French cleverly fill the gap. Joffre moves up men from Lorraine to assault Von Kluck’s rear guard. Provisioning his troops is already quite a problem to the German general. Things are so bad that Von Kluck has all the German dead and wounded searched for cartridges.

The troops are tired, dead tired. Listen to what happened to the 4th Reserve Corps on 5 September. ‘In big clouds of dust, raised by men and horses, now and then limping soldiers stand still and collapse in the trenches, at the end of their tether. Fuseliers, grenadiers, riflemen and artillerymen, they have all been marching from sunrise. Worse still, they have been marching for almost three weeks without a day’s rest. They have covered the whole distance from the Rhine valley to the Île de France, from Düsseldorf to Nanteuil-le-Haudoin via the Campine, Brussels, Hainaut, Artois and Picardy.’

The Battle of Ourcq River, a small stream that flows into the Marne, introduces the big clash. That First Battle of the Marne –the second was in 1918 equally important – lasts until 12 September. The mission on which Von Moltke has sent a certain lieutenant colonel Richard Hentsch from his headquarters in Luxembourg is crucial for the course of the battle. On the site Hentsch recognizes the danger of the gap between the First and Second Army. With Von Bülow he agrees upon a tactical retreat, which as subordinate officer he can also proclaim for Von Kluck’s First Army by the mandate of Von Moltke. The resentment about this and the bickering between Von Kluck and Von Bülow, who is held in higher regard by the Oberste Heeresleitung, can be read again in ‘The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne’, which Von Kluck published in 1920.

On the day Hentsch drove to First Army Headquarters, Von Kluck already expressed his growing pessimism in a letter to his wife: ‘It goes badly. The battles east of Paris will not end in our favour. And we certainly will be made to pay for all thas has been destroyed.’

The Germans have lost the initiative at the end of the First Battle of the Marne. And since the French and the British are not in a position to take over, the First World War changes from a Blitzkrieg into a Grabenkrieg, a trench war without end. Halfway through the First Battle of the Marne a young officer named Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of the Second World War, writes in his diary: ‘Our recent experiences make clear that the deep trench is the only way to limit the number of losses.’


For Alexander von Kluck the war has lasted too long. When in March 1915 he is inspecting advanced posts, Old one o’clock is hit by shrapnel near Vailly-sur-Aisne. The injuries on his leg are so serious that the general, who is then already 68 years old, will not appear on the front any more. In October 1916 he is given a send–off with the Pour le Mérite medal pinned on him. He dies at the age of 88 in Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1934.

His granddaughter Mulino von Kluck adds an insignificant footnote to Von Kluck’s story. At the end of the twenties she appears to become a filmstar. It does not really turn out that way, although TIME Magazine writes the following about her in April 1929: ‘Mulino von Kluck, 17, tall, blue eyes, blonde – has entered the world of the movies. Her first role is in ‘1813’, a film about the liberation of Germany from the hands of Napoleon. She says she will never visit Paris’. In the article TIME Magazine omits to say why. Maybe she did not get grandfather Von Kluck’s permission. Granddaughter to Paris, but no Paris for von Kluck. Now that would be quite something.

Next week: Joseph Gallieni

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Post Navigation