Applying Lessons from History
“I’m so smart” said Homer Simpson, “S-m-r-t”, spelling the word while bragging and at the same time showing the evident lack of intellect. Perhaps not the best example of multitasking. While Homer is the “star” of the popular cartoon sit-com this statement reminded me of the multitude of armchair generals surrounding us. I don’t follow sports, on any level (thereby cementing my status as a “nerd”), but I believe “Monday Morning Quarterback” is the sports equivalent to “Armchair General”. Both making calls well after the fact and with full knowledge the outcome. Most so called sports game experts at least actually watch the game in question. The history expert must draw his or her (yes these irritating people are not gender specific) from the works of others, some of which have as little formal training in the field as…well…me. Making things worse are those who “were there” and then write histories that favour their own side or in an effort to further their own career and or egos. I won’t mention any names but I believe I have covered that Churchillian practice in an earlier blog.
As many of our membership knows the battlefield can be a confusing place. Perhaps understanding exactly what is taking place at the time is impossible. Even police actions on what the public sees as a small operation can be a nightmare to organize and orchestrate. Fire scenes, even without the smoke and noise requires the highest degree of organization. Then, of course, there is most of the rest of us who would find it difficult to organize a one vehicle funeral procession. From the days of two forces meeting on the battle field, knowing when to form line to take cannon fire and the order to form square to receive cavalry, to the battle ground of the 20th Century matters only got more and more confusing. With that in mind let’s first look what was transpiring in France in May, 1940. The allies were in full retreat from the Germans and heading to Dunkirk with the hope of evacuation to England.
Enter Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt of Army Group A, one of the leaders of the German forces. As noted above the allies were in full retreat leaving what resembled a debris trail in their wake. This “debris” included vehicles, artillery pieces, heavy machineguns and everything except light arms which, to the credit of the soldiers and their training, they had retained. With the German army supported by the Luftwaffe prospects looked dim for the allies. Suddenly the German forces were ordered, by their commander Generaloberst von Rundstedt, to halt. At first history would record this as an order coming directly from Hitler but later it would be found that Hitler had merely confirmed the initial order issued by von Rundstedt. Why would the General order a halt of his forces? We may never know so let’s speculate; as that’s what armchair generals do best. History may have taught the General that outstripping one’s supply lines plus your supporting infantry, thereby leaving the possibility of the enemy exercising a flanking maneuver, was a real threat. We, here in the future, know that allies were devoid of any heavy equipment and armament, however that may not have been as obvious to the German leader back in the day. I do think it safe to make the assumption that had the Germans not halted when they did the allies would not have had time to evacuate. This assumption is made completely ignoring the sacrifice of the brave French soldiers who fought a rear guard action against the Germans further slowing their advance. That action and any other stalling actions by the allies, had the events unfolded in any manner as they did, may have indeed resulted in the evacuation taking place to one degree or another.
Stepping back in time, yet staying with the French, let’s look at some of the military decisions made by them based on of centuries of warfare. The French are an intellectual lot and have, through history been at the leading edge in the areas of art, science and military, to name a few. Since the dawn of the medieval times, and even before then, the French have won and lost battles and even wars using massed armies. The Hundred Years War, Franco Prussian War and the Napoleonic Wars, all employed massed armies, whether France was the victor or the defeated the lesson that massed armies was the “answer” to successful military tactics was driven home. This being the case it is no surprise that the response to The German Schlieffen Plan, a plan to encircle Paris at the outbreak of a war in the early part of the twentieth century was France’s Plan Seventeen. Plan Seventeen was a plan where the French would attack, with a massed army, due east straight toward Berlin. Due to the resistance by the Low Countries to the German advance and the failure of the Germans to implement the Schlieffen Plan with the suggested number of regiments the advance was turned well short of Paris. This left the familiar two massed armies facing one another but this time with advanced weapons of war, i.e. long range rifles and not smooth bore muskets and rapid firing machineguns. The result, the trenches of the First World War. After centuries of massed armies meeting on the field battle something relatively new. Sadly the practice of employing massed armies lingered on in the tactics supported by the leaders of the German and the allied militaries. Even though the static form of trench warfare was broken and the war ended in fluid tactics the French noted that the massed army of the Germans was stopped in its tracks by trenches, a form of fortification, so-to-speak. Between the wars the French dug in along their frontier with the development of the Maginot Line. Once again it would appear that an attempt was made, in this case by the French, to learn from the past. Germany did, however, take lessons from the tactics used at the end of the War and developed the Blitzkrieg to great success. We know how well the Maginot line held up to the fluidity of “lighting war”.
At this point, in wrapping up, I allude to the original theme of this series, “Can we learn from history?” Looks like a rather hit and miss proposition at best, relying, like in so many campaigns through the millenniums, on luck.
Can we learn from history?
In my last blog we looked at the battle of Kadesh (1274 BCE) where classic errors were made and perhaps the first opportunity for those following after to learn. The Egyptians left large gaps between their divisions allowing the Hittites to exploit those gaps and move on the command HQ. There were, of course, perfectly good reasons for the gaps between Egyptian divisions, all of which were covered in my last blog. What may have not been as clear was the first recorded tactical error by the Hittites. Their exuberance to exploit the gap between the Egyptian divisions resulted in their chariots out-pacing the infantry and therefore supporting troops. With the Hittites slower chariots surrounded by the Egyptian infantry and their faster deadlier chariots they were destroyed.
Jumping ahead 1,300 years (give or take a few decades) to 9 CE we look at the three Roman Legions, the 17, 18 and 19th, under Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest of Germany for our next example. Following earlier victories over the Germanic tribes a young man named Arminus was sent to Rome as tribute. He was educated as a Roman and became a trusted confidante of Varus. If this were a plot of a movie we would think the outcome of this alliance between Varus and Arminus was obvious. Too bad Russel Crowe wasn’t there to advise Varus, but history didn’t have two millennium to wait for benefit or Mr. Crowe’s wisdom.
As a little background information we should note that the brilliance of the Roman military machine was firmly rooted in maneuvers involving two armies meeting in open fields, a luxury not afforded in the close confines of the dense forests of Germania.
We now find Varus leading his legions in a column miles long weighted down by equipment and baggage trains along with the usual camp-followers. The Romans were confined on both sides by forest and forced to trudge along mile after agonizing mile of seemingly endless wilderness. Even the most inept armchair general will tell you this is a classic example of a need for advanced as well as flanking scouts. Varus was not a complete fool (at least not a “total” fool that is) and indeed did employ both advanced and flanking scouts. The error was that these scouts were from “loyal” German troops recommended by the equally loyal Arminus. Those “loyal” Germanic flanking scouts quickly disappeared, moving ahead to join their tribesmen in the ambush ahead, as did the advanced scouts.
The location for the German ambush was carefully planned with the area being even more restrictive than had been the case prior to this. On one side there was a steep incline while the other side of the trail was an impassible swamp. This allowed the Germans to fire on the Romans from both flanks while the different elevations assured that one side was not in direct line of fire from the other. Added to this a severe weather front moved in soaking the Romans and their equipment increasing the weight each Roman was carrying by more than double. The Romans couldn’t advance up the incline which was also fortified, they couldn’t attack the swampy ground as doing so would find them mired in the soft ground and easy targets for the Germans. Retreat was blocked by their own baggage train and transport so continuing along the trail was the only option. An option that proved even more disastrous than holding their ground. Due to the rough ground and a continuous rain of missiles the Roman column was not all moving at the same speed. This left gaps in the column which the Germans were quick to exploit. In the end this led to the ambush by the German tribesmen crushing the three legions. Many books, the internet and even recent documentaries have stated that the Romans were lost to a man. Research into original documents from that time by real historians has found that several Romans did survive the massacre and found their way back to Roman territory.
The Emperor Augustus has been said to have uttered in frustration, “Quintili Vare legions redde!” (Quinctilus Varus give me back my legions!). Looks like not even the most powerful man in the world of the time could command the dead. Documentaries have also stated that the Legions Eagle standards were lost forever, however there is evidence that some if not all of the lost eagles were recovered. The series “I Claudius” states that the Germans were eventually conquered, however even though there were some punitive actions taken against the Germans, probably the reason for the recovered eagles, the German territory east of the Rein was never conquered.
Before The National Enquirer, the yellow journalism of the tabloids and television documentaries perverted historical facts and research in favour of sensationalism and profits history was researched by serious historians. Military leaders have been schooled in tactics of the past and cautioned about the errors of those who came before. Leaving gaps in your columns to be exploited by the enemy was to be avoided while watching for and exploiting the same errors by your opponents was of paramount importance. So, don’t leave gaps in your column and don’t out-pace your supply and support troops…sound advice…right?
There are many examples of military errors, far too many for a blog. As well there are good examples of military leaders learning from history, applying what they have learned, only to find things didn’t go as planned. In my next blog we’ll look at a couple of examples of this from the 20th century.
Thanks for reading my blogs.
The Middle East and Propaganda
I’ve often heard the statement that man (mankind) is unable to learn from history. As a general statement this is, of course, ridiculous. As an example we tend to no longer defecate in our drinking water; with the exception of the City of Victoria, British Columbia that still dumps their raw sewage into the ocean. To be fair it is not actually drinking water and it does serve to give people like me something to be smug about while committing some other violation against the environment; so thumbs up Victoria. What the statement regarding learning from history usually refers to is the history of human conflict. On an individual human level it would seem to be true as far as abusive marriages as can be attested by any police officer. People in abusive relationships, when and if they “escape”, will often find another abusive partner. On a national level involving military engagements we may not actually be able to learn from history due to several reasons.
The fact that the histories of wars are usually written by the victors and often by those who shape their books to favor themselves and or their careers flooding the shelves of libraries and book stores. Another nemesis of accurate histories is propaganda; in order to learn from history we must know what the truth is and identify the perversions of the truth. I suppose this should not be a total surprise as US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson said in 1918, “The first casualty of war is truth”, so why would there be an incentive to set the record straight post war, especially for the victors? Propaganda certainly has its uses and after all we need to know that we are ethical while the enemy are evil agents of Satan; “Gott mit uns” leaps to mind. Propaganda can be a most useful tool especially in time of war and actually amounts to misinformation and out and out lies, usually directed at the very people the government is meant to be protecting. It’s a little like being caught by your wife with your mistress and having the presence of mind to introduce her as your long lost niece; it might work, as long as you actually have a brother or sister. If not….plan “B”. Plan “B” works every time and I would share it with you but I know you want me to get back to the subject at hand. Propaganda can take different forms and intensities. For example in an effort by the British to conceal the reason for an increase in RAF night mission successes against Luftwaffe bombers the rumor was started that the pilots had been consuming vast quantities of carrots which accounted for their superior night vision. The success of this propaganda had lasting effects well after the war, and managed to keep the use of radar a secret for a lot longer than a policy of silence would have accomplished. An example “from the other side” involves the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich after the D-Day invasion when they were taking a pounding by the allies. The movie going public in Germany were informed through the news reels that Das Reich was making significant advances and the allies were reeling from the might of the Division as well as other German troops. The truth was that while the division and the German military in general was a force to be reckoned with Germany fought mainly a war of defense and tactical withdraw until the allied victory.
This brings me to an example, perhaps the first example, of an incident in the Middle East involving a world super power, weapons of mass destruction and the cover-up propaganda that many still hold as the truth today.
Cover-up in the Middle East
Near the border of modern Syria and Lebanon was situated the city of Kadesh, on the Orontes River. Kadesh itself controlled the trading routs between to great areas and the control of Kadesh was paramount. Over the centuries the Egyptian and Hittite Empires had been at odds. Egypt had been in one war after another in an attempt to reclaim their empire and in 1274 BCE the Hittites under Muwatalli II threatened to conquer the city of Kadesh. The Hittites greatly out-numbered the Egyptians by over two to one especially in infantry; the interesting fact about the battle is that the Hittites never had the chance to employ their infantry and while they out-numbered the Egyptian in chariots the Egyptians were far superior. Think of comparing a modern fighter jet (Egyptian chariot) to a propeller driven transport plane (Hittites).
Kadesh was in relative close proximity to the Hittite Empire while the Egyptians faced a two month march to the city. The Egyptian Army was led by Pharaoh Ramesses II at the head of the Amun Division. Three other divisions joined this force, the Re, Ptah and Seth divisions named for the areas from which they were raised. Each area or the prominent city of the area had a particular God and these divisions were named in honour of those Gods. While crossing this huge expanse of desert area each division took its own course rather than as a single army. This would lead to a tactical error by Ramesses as we will see later on. While to the modern Armchair General this splitting of the divisions may seem an obvious error, however, there are other factors at play. For the most part wars were won or lost in one decisive battle and usually by only one Egyptian division which was the division of that particular area. This makes the Kadesh campaign a rather unprecedented undertaking. The second factor and perhaps the most important one is that living off the land during a two month trek is a lot easier for one division rather than an army of four times that size. Therefore each division taking its own path to Kadesh made perfect sense.
Upon arriving just south of Kadesh Ramesses formed up his divisions but rather than combining the divisions into one large force he left a great deal of space between them. A tactical error that almost cost him the war. This seems to be an error that has plagued the military for centuries and I’d like to explore this in more detail at another time. Acting on intelligence that the Hittites were almost 200 miles away and were afraid of the Egyptian army Ramesses decided to cover the 11 miles between his army and the city of Kadesh as quickly as possible. The advance was made with the vast distances between the divisions remaining in place. The intelligence proved to be a trap and the Hittites were upon the Re Division with their chariots catching the Egyptians unprepared. The Re Division broke and some headed for the nearby Amun Division commanded by Ramesses while others turned their route around to the rear of the Hittites who were now closing on the Amun Division. One might say that the day was the Hittites to lose as the future looked bleak for the Amun Division and the whole of the Egyptian army.
At this point several factors came into play, which is often the case in warfare, which saved the day for Ramesses. Along with the defenders of the Amun Division the Hittite chariots encountered the materials that often surround an encampment along with tents and abandoned Egyptian chariots. This slowed the leading Hittite chariots and the next waves started to “jam up” as progress slowed to a stop. This made the Hittite chariots easy targets for the Egyptian archers. Remember those Re Division chariots that had turned their route and headed towards the Hittite rear and flanks? One of the advantages of being a God-King when your solders see that you are in peril they come to your aid with an unmatched fanaticism. Added to this the Path and Seth Divisions closed on the Hittite flanks. The Hittite Emperor, Muwatalli II had also made a tactical error in allowing his chariots to advance too quickly and without the support of his archers and infantry; both of which played no part in the battle. It would seem that front line troops out pacing support and supply has been a problem for a long time.
The aftermath saw both sides claiming victory over the other and I suppose in an odd way they were correct as neither side actually lost so it could be said that a draw is when both sides, in a manner, win. Ramesses II had his “claimed” victory commemorated on the walls of the temple at Karnak, showing how he, almost alone, crushed the Hittite foe. Ah, propaganda at its best! Propaganda that may be still seen today, over 3,000 years after it was carved.
The positive aspect of this conflict, regardless of the victor, was that not only was this the first documented military action it resulted in the first known peace treaty in history. Who knows, perhaps in another 3,000 years we’ll see peace in the Middle East; I’ll keep you posted.
What’s The Use?
At times I wonder of what use there is in researching then writing articles for the membership here at GMIC. Now I read that over I realize how nasty that sounds therefore let me explain. For the most part we all have an interest in history, especially military history; therefore we also possess a more than average knowledge in that field. It is rather like preaching to the choir, so-to-speak. Those only interested in accumulating collectables for the ownership of said items probably hold only a slight passing interest in the subject. This means they will most likely simply pass by such articles while those with the interest will soon see that they have about the same degree of knowledge as I.
As an example, a recent reply to a post posing a question about a certain medal of Independent India made me want to go on and on about the history between India and Pakistan and the subsequent conflicts. Rather than doing so I suggested that if the reader was interested in this history they should refer to the internet which is filled with information on the subject. I’m not too lazy to compose a condensed article on any historical subject it is just a matter that I have more to do with my time, limited as it is becoming, than take on what is often a redundant exercise.
So what is it I’m saying, or trying to say? I’m saying, for me at least, my time and efforts may be better used in passing along information that may be of help in research, preservation, restoration etc. If you have read this far and are bored then please scan to the last paragraph for a possible helpful tip for research.
Another example of what I am getting at is from a resent discussion regarding learning from history, which I still plan on using for a future blog, where the topic of WWII fortifications was broached. I said that one of the best examples of a fortified line, that failed of course, was France’s Maginot Line. I further used the example of Finland’s so-called Mannerheim Line. One of the participants expressed puzzlement at the mention of these defences while another forcefully exclaimed that he was not aware Finland was even involved in WWII, as if trying to instigate an argument. Well, there went my encouragement to continue any discussion with the group and with it the possibility of enlightening them regarding the use of the tactic called, “Motti”, against the Soviet troops. I did suggest that if they were interested they could always Google the topic. That doesn’t mean there are no topics to discuss as there is a plethora (I was wondering where I could fit that word in) of topics and perhaps many that would encourage intelligent debate or at least discussion.
In one of my planned upcoming blogs I want to discuss an issue in the Middle East involving a major world power, weapons of mass destruction and the propaganda and political cover up that followed, one that has been accepted by the population at the time and by many to this very day; but that is for the future.
Last Paragraph (as promised)
My brother-in-law, a computer genius in reality, told me of something that might help some members in their research. I have a very tough time with facial recognition, unless I actually meet someone face to face. Photos of a group of soldiers and separate photos of individual soldiers, even in the case of brothers, prove very difficult to impossible for me to identify. I usually refer to my wife, Linda, who has an uncanny talent for facial recognition. This “tool” involves Google Photos (I think that is the correct name) and the saving of photos to something called the Cloud. This program has a facial recognition option and it can and does recognize people in different photos and point them out. The program can also “look” at a photo of an adult and pick out their baby pictures! I was thinking that perhaps some of the membership might be able to use this to assist in finding a certain soldier within a group etc.
I do hope this helps someone; my wife would not appreciate emails from the membership for help in facial recognition.
Learning From History – A Rant
One of the aspects of the New Year’s season that I dislike the most, aside from the obligation to congregate in herds at parties, is being expected to converse pleasantly with the attendees. I don’t mind parties at our house as I can simply remove myself either to the office downstairs (aka the Home Office) or the shop and work on a project...and I have been known to do so. Yes I am a solitary rather anti-social type who has been lucky to have found a wife who can tolerate my rather, at times, rude behaviour. I don’t blame myself for my attitude; people like me seldom do, the problem is with those who refuse to stick to conversations and opinions well within their own knowledge and comfort parameters. For example I don’t attempt to converse about sports, entertainment, automobiles or motorcycles and or their repair. I don’t know about these topics and quite frankly don’t care. In my defence I will stand by and listen with feigned interest, a glass of cola in my hand to provide the visual mistaken assumption that partial impairment is the reason for my glazed over eyes and not mind-numbing boredom. Inevitably at sometime during this personal purgatory someone will wander into my areas of interest, one being history and its associated politics.
In such rare moments the dragon awakes! The mind sparks to life, eyes glisten with interest and the senses near salvation at the prospect of fresh meat in the form of an intellectual discussion. The first comment has been answered with the disappointing, “No one wants war” and then “If you don’t learn from history you’re doomed to repeat it”. It looks like their arsenal of knowledge on the subject has been spent and now they are starting to withdraw to a safer topic. But no! They have wandered into the sanctum sanctorum of my mind, my lair; like innocent lambs and they will not suffer me to allow them leave unscathed. To the statement “No one wants war” I reply that someone must want it as we sure as hell are engaged in them often enough. In regard to learning from history I throw out the challenge for the fellow to support his statement. I can see the fright in their eyes, smell the fear; they are mine, mine I tells you, and now I intend to destroy them utterly and completely.
It’s about now my wife swoops down like an angle from the heavens and brings with her a sense of peace and calm, changing the subject to the relief of all but yours truly. They have no idea just how lucky they were, unfortunately you dear fellow member know all too well, based on my other blogs over the past year. I do feel a twinge of remorse for you having to read these pieces, but then upon contemplation, it could simply be a touch of heart burn.
I’ll close off this tongue-in-cheek blog now and let it stand as an introduction to more serious discussions within the next few weeks on the topic of learning from history, or the inability to learn from it.
Happy Year to all, from the Home Office, deep beneath the ground in New Hamburg, Ontario Canada
‘Tis the Season
Ho, ho, ho, here we go again with the annual season seemingly created to make a cynic’s life nearly effortless. It’s a little over a week before Christmas and the orders placed with my cabinet shop with expectations of them being completed before that day of gift giving nearly realized. Which brings me to my first observation; I call them “observations” in a desperate attempt to avoid the term “cynicisms”.
Approximately a month ago the rock music station I have tuned into in the shop announced that they would be playing Christmas tunes 24/7 until Christmas Day. Strange that the disc jockey was able to reveal that information with an apparent air of pride. True I will be deprived of the songs by that delightful Meghan Trainor constantly telling the world that “It’s All About the Bass (no treble)” and Elle King bragging about her “Ex’s & Oh’s”. They prove that slightly plus sized blonde white girls can make gimmicky music as well as any skinny inner city inked gang banger/biker babe type. I first heard about these two particular tunes when our daughter related a story that our six and eight year old grand-daughters took their i-pods to Sunday school and suggested that these would be great song to perform at the annual Christmas concert. Apparently the most disturbing aspect, at least for their pastor, was when our six year old grand-daughter taught the words and dance moves to “All about the Base” to the other little girls of the class. Check out the video on the internet. Another thing I discovered was that this story was NOT FUNNY and my apparent amusement upon hearing the story was a bad influence on our grand-daughters. To think, last year the songs and dance numbers were all from the cartoon “Frozen” now even their five year old is “All about the Base”.
Back to the radio music. Over a month of Christmas music? Really? Ok, I like Christmas music at least as much as the next Ebenezer but surely even the most accepting Who in Whoville has his or her limits. One more version of “Baby Its Cold Outside” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and I’m going to lose my egg nog. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Cumin’ To Town”, where he comes out with his condescending monologue asking if the band and audience has been good this year. I’ve been a musician and the chances of that or any band being “good” all year is about as high as Frosty the Snowman tending a blast furnace located in the Amazon Basin. Perhaps the worst of the lot is John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas” (War is Over). Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful song written by one of the greatest musicians of our time. But listen to the lyrics, if you dare. The words can make the most charitable person in the world feel like he or she has burned down the orphanage and sent the children to a Siberian gulag in order to construct a bordello on the former shelter’s site.
Last week I took my musically inclined if not slightly inappropriate grand-daughters to the mall to visit the patron saint of retail sales, the one and only Santa Clause. He happens to be appearing there in person for the next couple of weeks, so don’t forget to tip your waitress. Photos with the old gent from the North Pole cost $10.00 each but he certainly earned it when the youngest (five year old) grand-daughter, after asking for a sleigh for her American Doll, said that “mommy says she would like anything this year as long as it comes from La Senza. So apparently Santa’s face can get as red as Rudolph’s nose. Actually our daughter’s face was a glowing shade of red as well when her little angle pointed her out to be sure Saint Nick knew who to deliver the “delicates” to, along with a proud thumbs up with her other hand. To be honest that’s not the worse gesture she can make with one of her digits, but that’s another story. It’s our daughter’s own fault in teaching the girls to think of others. There was a fellow set up in the aisle selling crafts at the mall. One of the items was “repurposed” light bulbs painted green, with a Santa’s cap and the face of the cartoon character the Grinch pained on them. He said that children really liked these and they would make great gifts for our grand-daughters. Who, besides Sweeny Todd, would give any little child a glass light bulb as a gift, let alone the three Chaos Sisters? I call them “the Chaos Sisters” for several reasons but at the moment I recall the time when, a few years ago, the then youngest middle grand-daughter accidently pressed 9-1-1 on her mother’s phone. The police arrived and because our son-in-law, their father, is a fire fighter for the city the police would not leave until the house was “cleared” of any potentially dangerous suspects. I could write a book...
So with that small glimpse into my world I wish you a very Merry Christmas (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other celebration) and the Happiest of New Years. At least most of can agree on the New Year... unless you follow the Lunar New Year. This political correctness thing is tougher than one might think. Well, be happy whoever or whatever you might be, just remember what the Chaos Sisters told their Sunday school class and Pastor, “It’s All About the Base”.
Fallen but Not Forgotten
Sitting in the auditorium with some fifty or so other students I opened my history exam paper upon the announcement to commence by the teacher in charge of security and started ticking off the boxes of the multiple choice section. I always found this section rather annoying with ridiculous choices such as, “When was the date of the Battle of Hastings?” Choices ranged from 1066 to 1466, never anything more difficult than remembering the correct century in which the battle took place; though some of my friends were frustrated that there was never the choice “Some of the above”, or even “All of the above” to check off. Many, no doubt, would have been stumped by such multiple choice questions as, “When did the War of 1812 occur” or “Who fought the Franco-Prussian War”.
My favorite part of the History Examination was always the essay section. You had to choose two of five topics and write an essay of between 500 and 1,000 words with penalty points for exceeding the draconian restriction of such a meager limitation. If you are wondering why keeping an essay under 1,000 words gave that young scholar an anxiety attack you must not have been reading my blogs and articles here on the GMIC. Yes, I have always been an obsessive pain in the lower extremities. A secondary, though just as stressful, aspect of the essay section was being limited to only two out of five topics. It seemed and still seems rather a cruel trick to play on a student and I really should broach this topic with our respected fellow GMIC member and educator Megan sometime. To be fair educators only have so much time to check the exams and besides most students would rather have to choose one out of five, or better yet do a “Word Search” of historical names and places or “Connect the Dots” to reveal the letter “I”.
Over the years we have reduced history to dates and places, at times the casi belli (causes for war) is thrown in for good measure. Unless you have had an ancestor who fell in a certain war or battle the names and stories of those who served and fell seldom surface. Most of the time we are not aware of any of our ancestors unless such research has been done into our past family. In my case I know an ancestor of mine fell in the Battle of Isandlawana only because my dear wife is an avid researcher into ancestry.
I applaud some of the resent documentaries dealing with the past two World Wars in bringing the stories of some of those who fell back to life. While it could be argued that history can indeed be reduced to dates and places with an overview of the root causes and the outcome, however, the personal sacrifices must not be allowed to fade away into the mists of the past. There are several excellent books which detail individual sacrifices and one of them is Paul C”s book “Small Town, Large Sacrifice”. Paul has written one book and is now in the process of writing a second dealing with fallen heroes from the American towns of Hawthorne and North Haledon, New Jersey, which I have the honor of being asked to edit. One aspect of Paul’s book is that it tells the stories of those killed in action and in addition those who died in training while still in their home country. We seldom think of those unfortunate people who never got the chance to go overseas to serve their country, which had been their intention.
This may seem like a shameless promotion of Paul’s past book as well as his upcoming one and if it does so be it. Paul is a fellow member here at GMIC and I think he needs to be applauded for taking on this task. My point is not so much, “buy Paul’s books” as it is that such works need to be made required reading in schools so that future generations can get a good idea of the true sacrifices the service people and indeed their families and loved ones made during our shared conflicts.
I would suggest that anyone interested in the full history and the impact the wars have had check out Paul’s book or at the least one with the same theme. We all need to stop simply “checking off” one choice from a list or taking the easiest essay question on a test style of thinking and get the full picture, if we want to call ourselves history buffs or dare I use the term Historians.
Myth Busting Part 2
Without going to the dictionary, what is a myth? A myth is a commonly held misconception often based on a fact or event. The causes of a myth can be quite varied, ranging from a misinterpretation brought on by sloppy research and or erroneous reporting of the sound research by another party or even propaganda. An example of propaganda would be during the Second World War when soldiers were told that the new German MG 42’s “bark” was greater than its “bite”. The nick name for the MG 42 was “Hitler’s buzz saw” which described the sound that the machine gun’s 1,200 rounds per minute rate of fire produced. This lie was perpetrated in the hope of alleviating the reputation that this new deadly weapon had among the allied troops. Of course it didn’t take long for a new recruit to realize the bite was indeed as wicked as its reputation indicated: that is if the new replacement survived his first encounter.
I would like to take a moment or two to talk about some of the current “offenders” engaged in questionable experiments and coming to conclusions based on their so-called trials of weapons ranging from the ancient up and including the Second World War. Unfortunately many of the pseudo-experts are ex-military personnel who, while perhaps being experts in weapons and their use in the modern world, lack the knowledge and needed expertise to tackle older, now defunct, weapons. I will bow to the concept that military colleges and institutions cover the battle tactics of the famous generals of ancient times, however, I was not aware that modern military training spends a great deal of time training Marines, as an example, to use a broadsword or battle axe. I do stand to be corrected on this view.
One of the common errors made by both civilian and past military men presenting experiments with weaponry on documentaries, which seem to be in overwhelming number on television, is the watermelon/human head example. When presented in the light of, “we’ll use this watermelon as a stand in for a human head” I have no problems at all with the concept. However, most of the time the presenter will state, “This watermelon is a good substitute for the human head and has as close as possible the same resistance as a human skull”. This is when I get my “back up” and the old blood pressure starts to rise. Surely they can’t be serious! I know I can put my fist through the side of a watermelon and know for a fact that I cannot do the same with a human head, nor could anyone in my past who has carried out that experiment on my cranium. Drop a watermelon off a one storey building and see what happens. Most people can survive a fall of that distance, depending on the type of surface that eventually breaks their fall; try the same with a watermelon and you will have the beginnings of a great fruit salad. “Please do not try this at home, we are trained professionals”, say the “experts”. I’ve watched these so-called experts and what they should say is, “Don’t try this at home, we are paid to take stupid risks; and we are basically morons enough to attempt this”. I will give them this, and I will bet you are of the same mind, who doesn’t like seeing a watermelon explode in slow-motion photography? Will that ever get old, I doubt it.
This is where I say, “Long story short” and you think, “Too late”.
There is a fellow on some of the weapons documentaries, a past Special Forces or Army Ranger who likes to attempt to bring the tactic or weapon into the realm of today’s thinking by saying, “Just like today’s Special Forces…” One example was dealing with the medieval battle axe and he boldly said, “Just like today’s Special Forces who are trained to use whatever weapon is at hand to suit the situation...” Funny, I was under the impression that today’s military was not in the habit of carrying a medieval battle axe. The battle axe, in this example, was the weapon supposedly carried by the medieval warrior; much as a modern firearm is carried by today’s warriors. I would hazard a guess that a medieval battle axe is never at hand to be used as a “weapon of opportunity”, as we used to refer to such objects that stand in for real weapons, in a modern situation. A tree branch, rock or bar stool, depending on the location and situation are weapons of opportunity; never a battle axe. In another example, and this is one of my “buttons” (now you know for sure), was when he was hosting a show on the ancient Japanese Ninjas. After going over some of the mythical (note that word) skills of the Ninja he said, “Much like the ancient Japanese Ninja today’s Special Forces use stealth tactics to infiltrate an enemy position”. I truly hope they don’t as the so-called Japanese Ninja is the stuff of movies, comic books and video games. Oh, oh, do I detect yet another topic for this myth busting series? The presenter might as well have said that today’s Special Forces use tactics just like those of the soldiers of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings books and movies. Oh yes, he would have had to leave out the reference to books and movies as he left out the word “mythical” when comparing true modern heroes with those killers taken from the pages of fiction. I personally think it diminishes today’s service man or woman to be compared to figments of an author’s imagination, no matter how long ago the character or characters were invented.
Before I go on I must share with you a suspicion I have about television net-works such as the AHC (American Heroes Channel). To be sure I watch a lot of programs, documentaries etc. on AHC and the History Channel but I am getting the feeling that AHC has a lot of financing from the military establishment. The quality of their documentaries is questionable yet they never cease to attempt to bring their point around to today’s military. I can’t help but wonder in the far future if there won’t be someone writing a blog suggesting that such programs were, in actuality, propaganda, or at the very least aimed at recruitment. This is just a thought and not meant to be a condemnation or praise, I leave that to history. So if I have hit a nerve in you, my good reader, I apologize as that was not the purpose of my musing.
A civilian presenter, a respected man from the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) was presenting a documentary as part of the series “Museum Secrets” where he demonstrated the crossbow and the musket in comparison. Never failing to amuse the audience he used the ever infamous watermelon and shot it through with a crossbow quarrel (arrow) after a couple of tries and then with the musket on the first try, which produced my ever favorite slow motion explosion of red watermelon brains. Next they decided to attempt to pierce plate armour. The crossbow quarrel dented the plate armour while when the musket ball was fired it went through the armour leaving a sizable hole. At this point he uttered the revelation that it was obvious why the musket became favored over the crossbow and to this end he declared that this proved two things. First was that the musket had a greater killing potential and that the musket was easier to use, sighting that he hit the watermelon on his first try with the musket yet needed several tries with the crossbow. The penetration against plate armour was another victory for the musket. I see this as silly exhibitionism thrown together for the program at the cost of any real scientific experimentation. First of all whether you shoot a quarrel through the head of a watermelon soldier or explode his head with a musket ball (which I still like watching in slow motion) a dead watermelon soldier is a dead watermelon soldier. That wound, or a death blow of any kind, cannot be determined to be any worse than any other death dealing strike. You can’t get deader than dead! I know that is nit-picking so let’s look at the more scientific aspect of this so-called experiment.
First of all the crossbow they were using was indeed much like to originals with, I believe, a 150 pound pull; this I have little problem with. Indeed the range at which they fired both weapons was identical tough not at a realistic likely battle range of the day, of say around 60 yards. We need to be able to hit the target after all and indeed the closer range should favor the crossbow, so I’ll accept this as well. This is where the whole experiment starts to unravel. Yes the crossbow and the musket went through watermelon soldier’s chainmail protected head, however for the most part the head of a soldier in the medieval era also would have been wearing a thick quilted cloth head protection and possibly a steel helmet of sorts. I believe the results of the experiment would still have been the same, however, it is not up to me to make assumptions about what another researcher has failed to prove or even test correctly. The issue I have is that the musket fired by the ROM representative was not the matchlock that another participant had originally shot. The amount of powder in a musket may well be greater than that of the matchlock. The musket that was fired in the experiment against the plate armour was a copy of the “Brown Bess” flintlock which would put that weapon between around 1750 to 1850 (the example was one of the later models) and not the 1300s which would have been represented by the crossbow. That’s a 400 year spread between the matchlock and the flintlock therefore this alone brings the experiment’s results into question. Next let’s look into the claim that the musket pierced the plate armour while the crossbow failed. True the crossbow failed however the bow used was what would have been considered a light to medium crossbow with much larger and therefore extremely more powerful bows available during the time period in question. As already pointed out the firearm used for the experiment was not available for another 400 years, give or take a fortnight. Another problem with the experiment was the fact that no one went into battle with only their knickers on under the plate armour. The heavily armoured knight of the time period first dawned a thick quilted garment called a gambeson, which it has been sufficiently documented and shown in trials to be proof against the arrows from a light to medium crossbow. Next he would wear a coat of chain mail, followed by the plate armour. In essence he was the battle tank of his era. All of these layers would have provided a cushioning effect on the impact of the musket ball, not to mention the “give” of the human body under the impact. This would have had the effect similar to the present day ballistic resistant vests (wrongly termed “bullet proof vests”) worn by law enforcement and military personnel. Another clue, and the fellow from ROM should have known this as he was head of the ancient arms and armour section of the museum, is that there are several examples or thirteenth and fourteenth century armour breast plates in the ROM collections showing deep dents in the lower right side of the armour. These are the results of a musket ball being fired to prove, or proof, the suit of armour as being musket ball resistant, which left the telltale dent as proof to the purchaser. As to the ease of hitting the target with the musket as opposed to the crossbow I can easily suggest that this first time using a musket and with his first shot there was a good deal of “beginner’s luck” involved. He may even have had the luxury of fixed sights on the musket he was using, though an original Brown Bess would have lacked sights and certainly the early matchlock firearms may have lacked these aiming devices. I would have to say that the whole experiment failed to actually prove a thing as the results were predetermined based on currently held beliefs or in actuality myths. The experiment completely failed to prove anything conclusively except that exploding watermelons look cool when shown in slow motion.
I will explore crossbows and the English Long Bow in a future article, perhaps in Myth Busting Part Three. I closing off this installment I would like to point out that the little things matter. It matters how experiments are carried out and there is a need for strict controls. Even a miss-placed word runs the risk of polluting the way events and dates are perceived. An example of such sloppy wording can be found in the documentary series “The Evolution of Evil” shown on the History Channel. The particular episode dealt with Hideki Tojo, Japan’s infamous World War Two Prime Minister and Minister of War. The documentary was attempting to set the stage for the political atmosphere of the 1930s and stated that Japan and the Soviet Union had been at war for a period of 200 years. This statement would imply that the Soviet Union had been in existence since the 1730s. They should have just said “Russia” or more accurately, “Russia and later on the Soviet Union”. Small point? Yes. Sloppy writing, definitely.
Please stay tuned for Part 3, if you are still awake.
Seriously? No, really...seriously?
A dry dusty street in the Middle East, a group of soldiers is milling around and suddenly one soldier shouts, “RPG! Take cover!” Just then a rocket propelled grenade steaks past, leaving a smoke trail behind, to explode on a vehicle completely destroying it. Typical movie scene and total garbage. From what I can tell a fired RPG travels at around 15 feet every 1/10 of a second, which makes the 3 some odd seconds for the soldier (actor) to deliver his line more than a little ridiculous. Not being a military man I can only go by videos of the firing of a live RPG and in my eyes it would seem the weapon’s trigger is depressed and seemingly instantaneously the target explodes. The other thing most movies and documentaries miss the mark with it the smoke trail. Movie rockets are fired, many times, attached to a wire, strung from the supposed location of the shooter to the target. The weight of the rocket deflects the wire and the resulting, so very important, smoke trail dips toward the ground then rises up just prior to striking the target. Details such as these, or rather the lack of attention to details drives me insane (I know, it was a short trip).
Another thing that really gets my goat (ok, I don’t have a goat, possibly because something already “got it”) is the need for documentaries to explain the length or weight in relation to other objects. “The rocket was as tall as three Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of the other”; quite a common comparison. I really doesn’t do much for me, not having ever visited the Empire State Building. Besides, the Empire State Building is 381 M tall; or is it? Yes, it could be said that it is 381 m tall unless you are measuring to the very tallest tip then it is 443 m tall; a difference of 61m. And if the rocket in question is as tall as three Empire State Buildings then which measurement were they referring to; it could vary by 183m.!
You could argue that the documentary was written for American audiences and that all American know how tall the Empire State Building is. However, if it were written for a Canadian audience and they said the rocket was a tall as three CN Towers (located in Toronto) then that would make all the difference. No, not really as I don’t know how tall the CN Tower is while I sit on my couch avoiding any form of exercise other than having yet another coffee. The CN Tower by the way is 553m tall, and if you were to have enough coffees then your heart rate would increase giving you a cardio vascular workout without ever finding the need to travel to Toronto to check out the tower; I’m just saying...
Supposing I am standing at either the Empire State Building or the CN Tower, or even the Eiffel Tower (at 301m. tall) the idea of two additional structures one on top of the other is pretty well unimaginable. I don’t even think you could see the top of a “pile” of Empire State Building as it would be 1,143m. In height... or would that be 1,329m.? Either of which would give King Kong a nose bleed.
Another ridiculous measurement is those given in the number of elephants. What the hell does that even mean? African elephants or Asian elephants? African elephants weight an average of 1,048kg. more than Asia elephants. If ten elephants of weight can vary by 10,048kg. this means the weight measurement could vary by two extra elephants! I mean, it is difficult enough to locate and get ten elephants together on some giant weigh scale and now, according to the potential for variance, I will need an extra two elephants standing by just in case I need them? This is as mindless as simply saying, “Gee Jimmy that (object) is really, really heavy; a lot more than your Daddy can lift, that’s for sure”. Just give the height or the weight, any other means of description is pointless and makes me wonder if the documentary producers even know the correct measurement in the first place; unlike me I guess they don’t have the internet.
I was watching a documentary about an American air craft carrier the other evening and the commentator said that the ship was so many football fields in length. Yep, here we go again. American football fields are 91.4m long and Canadian ones are 100m. Wait a minute, what about those who will confuse “real” football with soccer. The length of a football pitch according to FIFA is 100-110m. Just to be clear the documentary was about the Nimitz-class carrier which is 333m long (1,092 feet). Just how many elephants it weights I don’t know.
Myth Busting, Part 1
I do hope no one will feel like I am being condescending with the way I have written this blog. My intention was to treat the reader like a fellow GMIC member and therefore more like a friend than a stranger. With this in mind treat the following in the manner in which it is intended and that is as a conversation between friends.
Myth Busters, a popular television program takes popular myths and “puts them to the test” and awards a rating of “Confirmed”, “Plausible” or “Busted”. The show often concludes with something from the episode being blown to oblivion. This is NOT one of those blogs. We are prohibited from the use of explosive devices here in cyberspace as the resulting shock wave may cause damage to sensitive computer components. Besides, you know if we started with lower grade controlled explosives it would only be a matter of time when someone from here at the Home Office would ramp it up to a thermo nuclear device and the magnetic pulse would undo all of Nick’s hard work getting the new server up and running smoothly.
What I thought we’d take a look at is some of the commonly or uncommonly held beliefs, or myths, in the fields of collecting and within history itself. Let’s start with collecting and specifically the myth that collecting anything, short of precious metals, is an investment. First let me state that I am not economist or investment banker and my opinions are based on a good number of years of experience and observation. Further, unlike many who will wax prophetic, I base my observations and resulting conclusions not on my mistakes in life but mainly on a few successes. That should be somewhat of a refreshing change from, “don’t do what I’ve done”, (break into the music and lyrics from “The House of the Rising Sun”), to here’s what I found works and the mistakes of others.
Collecting, and we will stick to militaria, should only involve disposable income. Disposable income is the money you have left over after all the bills are paid and an appropriate amount has been invested (at least 10% of your income) into non-collectables investments. For most people the concept of personal disposable income is more myth than reality. If you have a mortgage, or more than one, or if you owe money for a vehicle or two, and after the bills are paid you have little to no money left over I can pretty well tell you that you DO NOT (yes I am shouting here) you DO NOT have disposable income. If you are working two or more jobs to make ends meet... you may have guessed it...you don’t have true disposable income. Working yourself to death just so you can collect is a whole new set of problems – seek help. The credit card is not a form of disposable income either and certainly should never be used to finance a collection.
I’ve often read or even heard first hand that a person is collecting as an investment. An investment? Perhaps that person should look up the definition of an investment. The last time I checked our investment portfolio and spoke with our investments banker there were no options for investing in collectables. Hmm, should that perhaps be telling us something? It’s a little like the myth of the ninja; if there had been ninjas as portrayed in films and books wouldn’t there be authentic ninja swords being offered for sale. Ninja swords NOT made in China that is. The clues are there just look for them...oh yes; they’re ninjas so I suppose their artifacts would also be invisible. I knew I should have used zombies as an example!
It is a really a stupid thing to tell your wife that the purchase of the latest sword, firearm or medal etc. is a good investment. She’s really not that dumb, or at least there will be a day of awakening when she realizes that the so called investment won’t bring in much more the 25 cents on the dollar of “investment”. Think I’m mistaken? Seriously, speak with an established dealer and see what he or she is willing to pay for your collection. You will be most unpleasantly surprised; likely as not the offer will fall between 15 to 20 cents on the dollar. That doesn’t mean you will realize $1.20 for every dollar “invested” but rather 20 cents, period.
I recently sold a geological collection that took fifty years to amass, though I have not been seriously collecting for the past decade. I offered it to a dealer at 25 cents on the dollar and at first he was hesitant, until he actually viewed what I had. He usually pays the 15 to 20 cents on the dollar for collections but much of my collection was no longer available on the market due to many countries deeming the specimens as national treasures. They are illegal to collect at the source now but previously collected specimens may be bought and sold. I did manage to break even on some of the specimens I collected decades ago but for the most part I let them go “cheaply”. Could I have sold them one piece at a time and realized more in the long run? Sure, however, considering it took three trips with his van, packed floor to ceiling and wall to wall, in order to ship them to his warehouse, I would have to live to be 175 years old in order to sell the collection off piece meal. Most large militaria collections fall under the same category.
I’ve heard of collectors claiming to keep their collection in a safety deposit box in the bank due to the value. Ok, so you have purchased, as a source of investment, and rather than enjoying the collection it is hidden away in the bank. What do you have, $20,000 tucked away in the bank vault, on which you need to pay a fee? So in the end you might realize $4,000 to $5.000 dollars in total when you sell? If that was going to put your child through university, I think little “bonzo” will be out looking for a job to foot the costs of schooling. Here’s a tip. Let the kid work his (or her) way through university; this will accomplish a couple of things. It will keep them focused on the goal and not on the parties. Plus they will have a better chance of a useful degree rather than a Masters in Norse Mythology and Interpretive Ancient Babylonian Folk Dancing if they are working to pay for their own education. Yep, I’m a cold hearted bastard.
Here’s a thought. Once the last child has graduated you can give them all cheques for the amount of their initial student loan, provided you can afford it, and haven’t “invested” in cornering the market on WWI Polish Victory Medals.
I hope that those reading this blog are indeed in a position that they have their youth and have true disposable income now. It took me a long time and a lot of work. I also hope that you are collecting because it makes you happy and you have kept the investing myths out of the hobby.
Next time I won’t be so preachy and we’ll discuss some of the myths attached to history and the artifacts themselves.
Winston Churchill, Desert Warrior
Part Four: The North African Campaign.
There was so little time to rejoice at his appointment as Prime Minister on 10 May, 1940 with that same day being the fall of France to the Germans, a month later on 10 June Italy declaring war on Britain followed by the Battle of Britain on10 July. It must have seemed that the world was celebrating his appointment by promptly falling apart; it makes one wonder if Churchill was starting the dread the 10th of each month. Unlike so many other politicians of his day and especially those of our modern era Churchill was not simply a man of rhetoric but a man of action, more than capable of cashing the cheques his mouth had written in the pre-war era. At times his hubris may have led him to make decisions that would later be condemned by his critics but the time for hesitation was over. I am reminded of the old saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Hitler was to find out, in time, that Churchill was the man to light that candle and when he did it was with a flame thrower.
I covered the Battle of Britain in last month’s entry of this series even though chronologically the North Africa Campaign started a full month earlier. This was done in an attempt to avoid appearing as if we were jumping around from one place to another and giving the story a bit better flow albeit at the risk of anachronism.
In earlier installments of this series we talked about Churchill’s fear of creating a static war like that of the Great War by attacking the Germans head to head somewhere in Europe. To use the word “fear” when speaking of Winston Churchill is unfair and, I believe, quite inaccurate. To decide that driving up a mountain road in winter may be too dangerous then waiting until spring, taking a safer route to achieve the same goal is not the action of a coward but the actions of a sane and calculating person. Churchill would later write of his feelings during the war as his only true fear was that of the U-boat menace. Churchill much preferred the re-invasion of Norway over the direct confrontation in Europe and held onto this argument even as the preparations of D-day were being prepared.
Of all the campaigns of the War perhaps the actions in the deserts of North Africa brought into the spot light of history the most notable and near-mythic personalities of the century. The names, Alexander, Auchinleck, Eisenhower, Patton, Rommel and Kesselring, to name just a few, would become household words from one end of the glob to another. The North Africa Campaign would perhaps be the beginning of Churchill being seen as one of the many rather than the main player in the war.
The declaration of war by Italy upon both France and Britain was not any great surprise considering her alliance with Germany and the German declaration or war. This was not the first aggressive act by Italy against a target in Africa as they had attacked Abyssinia (Ethiopia) on 3 October 1935. If you recall, earlier in this series, the League of Nations did nothing to assist Abyssinia and by May of 1936 Italy had virtually defeated the forces of Abyssinia and Emperor Haile Selassie went into exile, living at Fairfield House in Bath, England. He returned to the capital, Addis Ababa, as Emperor on 5 May, 1941 after the withdrawal of the Italian forces from Abyssinia.
Churchill was facing a great deal of pressure from the Soviets to undertake a second front in Europe at this time; a proposition that Churchill did not favour as we have made mention numerous times. He preferred smaller confrontations that brought much needed victories to bolster the British peoples’ resolve. Time and time again he fought against a second front in France, even after the entry of America into the war. His arguments ranged from not having enough landing craft to the lack of training of the allied troops in attacking a well defended “Fortress Europe”. Statistics show that there was more than enough landing craft in England at this time to support an invasion. While the argument of the allied troops being unprepared may be debatable the fact that by D-Day the German defences were much stronger is an undeniable reality. Churchill’s reluctance to launch an invasion against the Germans in Europe held D-day up for at least a year. One cannot but speculate the additional cost in life this hesitation cost the allies. In the resent past, here in the West, historians would have us think that Britain was alone against Germany at this time. I have somewhat even suggested this earlier in this series. The fact is that Britain had a potentially very powerful ally in the form of the Soviet Union. Churchill distrusted the Soviets and was in no hurry to commit troops to a second front, which did nothing to endure the West to Stalin. One of the tactics Churchill did support whole heartedly was the use of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in clandestine raids within Europe. His idea was, to use his words, “set Europe ablaze”. Churchill was a proponent of learning from history and drew his ideas from his time spend fighting the Boers in South Africa. He noted the success of the Boer commando raids and wanted to employ the same tactics in Europe to disrupt the Germans and deny as much materials of war as possible through sabotage. While these operations did achieve in bringing in valuable intelligence as well as causing a good deal of mayhem critics have pointed out that the cost in lives through German reprisals was appalling. One of the greatest examples of the costs of these operations is the assignation of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhardt Heydrich on 27 May 1942 by Czech SOE operatives. The assignation resulted in the extermination of 192 men, 50 women and 88 children from the Czech town of Lidice. Even given the balance sheets of war one has to ask whether the removal of one high ranking Nazi official was worth the cost; our generation is fortunate to have the luxury of such debates.
Another criticism of the SOE was that it kept competent military leaders from leading their troops in the field due to their preoccupation with sabotage. While the above two examples may be fuel for debate as they are based on personal observation and conclusions the one cold hard fact is that not one of the sixty-six German divisions stationed in France on D-Day was committed to internal security. [John Keegan, Churchill (London: Weidenfeld and Nicoloson), 2002 pg. 128]. Keegan goes on to state that things in Southern Europe were much worse. “Greece and Yugoslavia were ravaged by reprisals and by the civil wars that resistance provoked ...The consequences of encouraging resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece were socially and politically disastrous; they persist to this day.” [Ibid.]
Another discussion that was directly linked to the North Africa Campaign was the disastrous Dieppe raid, 19 August 1942. For over half a century the facts about the raid on Dieppe were kept from the public. Speculation as to the purpose ranged from the reasonable to the realm of those who find conspiracy in everything from the cause of the death of Tutankhamen to the truth about the Moon Landing. Resent evidence has shown that this was a “pinch raid”, that is to say a raid to steal something, in this case the German Enigma machine. The British had been making some progress in breaking the enemy code when the Germans decided to add an additional rotor wheel which made all of the work by British decoders nearly useless.
Captured intelligence revealed that the German U-boats were poised to enter into the Mediterranean. Rommel was about to begin his second offensive (21 January 1942) and the threat of the U-boats was considerable to the supply of the Allied troops in North Africa. While the raid was unsuccessful it would seem that the true nature of the “pinch raid” was as unclear to the Germans as it was to the British and Canadians who took part in it; at least this allowed the British code breakers to continue on deciphering the Enigma machine, working in secret.
We are getting ahead of the story so we’ll back up a bit. The war in North Africa went quite well for the British troops and the Italians soon found that taking on the British Empire was going to be no where as easy as their Abyssinian Campaign of 1935. The North Africa Campaign started on 10 June 1940 and nine months later, by 7 February 1941, what was left of the Italian 10th Army had surrendered. Churchill favoured smaller campaigns that would return positive results and, as we have discussed, took the attention away from a landing on the European continent. Campaigns, even successful ones, all have one thing in common; men and materiel wear out and need replacing. Even though this was not taking place the British were on the verge of victory. A victory in North Africa at this time would have prevented the commander of the newly formed German Afrika Korps, Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel, from even landing. Unfortunately Churchill snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by his next tactical decision based on political obligation to Greece.
Italy and Greece were at war with one another since Italy invaded Greece on 28 October 1940. At first the Greek Army held the Italians at bay; that is until Italy requested assistance from her ally Germany. Churchill has been criticized for his decision of 9 February, 1941, to pull experienced troops out of North Africa in order to strengthen the Greek defence of their country from the combined forces of Italy and Germany. This decision greatly weakened the British presence in North Africa and while the men transferred to Greece were replaced by fresh troops, these new troops were not battle hardened such as were the men they were replacing. This decision on the part of Churchill, despite his generals’ protests, not only allowed the Italians to receive much needed reinforcements set the victory in North Africa back by two years; with the loss of countless more lives. In addition to this the number of troops transferred to the Greek conflict was insufficient to prevent the inevitable defeat of Greece and then Crete.
Was this an unforgivable blunder on the part of Churchill, or was there more to the decision than whim, which seems to be the suggestion by many historians less supportive of Churchill than this author. What is conveniently overlooked by Churchill’s critics is the Declaration of 1939 that in the event of a threat to the independence of Greece or Romania that the British would take all actions possible to come to their defence. It must be remembered that at this time America was being “romanced” by Churchill to enter the war on the allied side. Even though it was a moral decision that had to be made to defend Romania and Greece it would not have bode well in the view of the United States had Britain simply turned her back on these allies in need. It may have also led the public to believe that Britain had returned to the Chamberlain era of looking only to her own immediate needs (the avoidance of another war) at the expense of those with whom she had claimed alliance. The failure of Italy to take Greece in a timely manner and the need for German intervention may have had far reaching consequences in the German plans for the invasion of Russia. Hitler blamed the failure of Operation Barbarossa on the delays for that campaign due to Italy’s failure to conquer Greece without the aid of German troops. [Kershaw, Ian, 2007, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-1941, pg. 178]
With Greece and Romania now firmly in German hands one would assume the writing on the wall of history would be a portent of doom for the British in North Africa. However like most graffiti on any wall promising, “For a good time call Betty”, often proves erroneous, history would once again record that famous Churchillian luck that I am so fond of mentioning. Code breaking of the German transmissions had experienced a breakthrough and now the Allies could monitor the movements of supply transport in the Mediterranean. It has been estimated that up to 60% of Axis shipping was destroyed due to the breaking of their code. [Kingsly, Sir Harry “The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War”]
To make things worse for the Germans the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, landed in Morocco and Algeria on 8 November 1942. This opened up what the Germans have been taught to be avoided at all costs, a second front.
The lack of supply, the strengthened allied forces, new materiel plus the requirement of fighting on two fronts spelled doom for the Afrika Korps and victory for the allies, and Churchill, of course. It should be mentioned that as of 22 June 1941 (almost a year and a half before the fall of North Africa) German military planning had turned its attention from North Africa to Russia.
I think we need to take a minute to look at the decision by Hitler to commence operation Barbarossa even though history books point out that his generals advised against it, much as Churchill’s generals advised against the British involvement in Greece at the possible expense of North Africa. Churchill based his decision on ethics, but what about Hitler and his decision to invade Russia and open up that dreaded second front. Part of the problem stems for history written just after the Second World War where any suggestion to the contrary regarding Hitler being a megalomaniac, a raving monster incapable of making sound decisions was frowned upon. This would be much like making a statement, soon after 911, that the attack on the World Trade Centre involved incredible planning and co-ordination. This type of statement, no matter how little actual praise was intended toward the instigators would be met with distain by a shocked and disillusioned public; much as is any suggestion of intellect being involved in the decision to invade Russia in 1941.
In 1940 a war broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union called the Winter War (a subject for a later article) in which it appeared that small Finland had held out against the Goliath, Russia. While basically true in the beginning the exploits of the Finnish military certainly were partially a matter of myth generated by the media and the free world’s need to believe it was so. The free world was not the only ones watching what was unfolding in Finland; Hitler was also following this conflict with great interest. He came to the conclusion that Russia was so ill prepared that a small well armed, trained and dedicated army could stop the Russian juggernaut in its tracks. If Finland could do this then Russia had no chance against Germany’s war machine. [Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich, New York, 1970, pg. 169]
While it was true that Hitler’s generals advised against a second front and cited Napoleon’s mistake, however, they were basing their advice on information that was 130 years old while Hitler was basing his decisions on information (albeit erroneous) that was most current.
It wasn’t just Hitler who noticed the Finnish/Soviet war of 1940; Joseph Stalin also showed interest in it and the reasons his troops faired so poorly, at least at the onset of the war. His analysis of the conflict led him to revamp the strategy and reporting structure of the Red Army. Lessons from the Winter War may have attributed to later Soviet successes that assured their victories from Stalingrad to Berlin.
Now with North Africa in Allied hands Churchill convinced the political and military leaders to invade Sicily and then Italy, the “soft under belly of Europe”. The one thing I quickly found out as a young man interviewing Italian Campaign veterans, for my own interest, was that you never mentioned the “soft under belly of Europe” to them, lest you were assaulted with a long lecture filled with colourful and abusive metaphors. The implications of that phrase was, to the veterans’ point of view, that the Italian Campaign was something much easier than it actually was.
This is the last installment in this series on Winston Churchill and I do hope that I presented his story during these troubled times in a fair manner. It is my opinion that the Italian Campaign, D-Day Invasion, the Conquest of Europe and the Japanese conflict are all too large to deal with within an article about one particular leader. I also feel that from the onset of WWII until the entrance of the Americans the war was mainly a British and Commonwealth show with Winston Churchill at the forefront of events. After North Africa it became an international affair with Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union all making decisions rather than everything being in the hands on one leader.
We’ve taken a look at the man, Winston Churchill, and his decisions from the years leading up to the Second World War and through to the North African Campaign and made mention of his less than successful Balkans Campaign of World War One. All in all I find it difficult to hang the blame entirely on Churchill for the Gallipoli disaster simply because a decision was made and executed, then found lacking. This is a matter of record. Also a matter of record is that the British and colonial Generals and leaders involved continued with the campaign for an additional eight months after Churchill was removed from his position of Lord of the Admiralty. Some blame must be attributed to those who continued with the disaster once it had been deemed that success was impossible. True, Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty during the plan to “force the Straights” of the Dardanelles, however the plan was devised by Churchill AND Kitchener. This was to be a naval action as no land forces were available for a landing. The attack on 15 February, 1915 failed, as we all know. As to the landings at Gallipoli are concerned, the plan was devised by General Sir Ivan Hamilton and Vice Admiral Sir John de’Robeck in March, 1915 and approved by Kitchener. Churchill offered his support. It should be noted that no one in authority objected to this plan. It could very well be argued that Churchill was in favour of the plan based the approval by that military genius, Kitchener. To criticize Churchill for making decisions of a military nature against the advice of his generals then turn around and criticize him when he did take their advice, albeit a mistake, shows a certain degree of obscurantism on the part of his critics.
We’ve read where Churchill’s actions actually delayed the D-Day invasion at least for a year. The result being that the Germans were better prepared by the time of the invasion than they would have been a year earlier. Well, to that I would say, “Bravo for perfect hindsight’, which is a wonderful tool for criticising those who had an impossible job to do in a world gone mad. In the interpretation of history we need to be mindful not to fall into the trap of “presentism”; that is to say looking at events from the past through the eyes of the present and judging those events by today’s values and concepts.
We can lay blame for the bombing of German cities, for whatever purpose, on “Bomber” Harris or Winston Churchill. However, true to western propaganda, we are left with the impression that Britain was completely alone at the beginning of the war; which is not completely true. The first bombing raid on Berlin by the British was 25 August 1940; however by 8 August 1941 the Soviet Union had also joined in the bombing of Berlin. Regardless of one’s opinion of the bombing of German cities it was not Britain alone involved in these attacks. As many veterans have reminded me, “It was war!”
The one point I would like to leave you with is this. After the fall of France and in spite of many of the British public and political leaders, who were suggesting capitulation, it was Winton Churchill who rallied England to stand and fight. Had Hitler not been stopped at the English Channel what was to be the combined military might of the British, her Commonwealth and the United States would not have had the staging point provided by the United Kingdom to launch the D-Day invasion. With no second front to worry him Hitler would have been free to attack Russia with the full might of the German armed forces. The prospect of such a scenario is most sobering indeed. Churchill stopped Hitler at the channel and that fact alone may have saved the world.
Thank you for bearing with me over the past few months and thank you for all of your constructive comments, they are always greatly appreciated.
â€œThe Battle of France is over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.â€ â€“ Winston Churchill, 18 June, 1940.
In writing about Winston Churchill I often have found myself writing about the history of the Second World War itself rather than just about the man. In a way, I suppose, that is unavoidable as the story of Winston Churchill from 1939 to 1945 is about the War and the War about Winston Churchill. It would not be a stretch to even suggest that Winston Churchill was the personification of Britain itself for much of the world during this time period.
A most interesting point is that Churchill actually named the Battle of Britain a little less than a month before the battle actually took place, starting on 10 July, 1940. One should probably not be surprised that of all leaders throughout the history of warfare it would be Winston Churchill to name the battle beforehand. Was this due to intuition or that Churchillian Luck again? I would put it at 80% intuition; however that is open to opinion and debate. Historians tend to compartmentalise history into neat linear easy to follow stories due to the complexity of the events of the Second World War. I believe this has been done so often that most people tend to think that one event takes place and then by some convenient coincidence the next follows comfortably on the heels of the other. As we know this is seldom the case and the Second World War was no exception to the general rule. The North African Campaign, as an example, started on 10 June, 1940, one month before the Battle of Britain. The Russians entered Romania in June of 1940 to take back the province of Bessarabia which put the Soviet forces alarmingly close to the Romanian oil fields so important to Germany. This triggered an action on the part of Germany in 1941 that had a profound effect on the North African Campaign as we will see later.
As we have read Churchill wanted to avoid a head to head clash with the German Army on the continent. This was now a moot point as there were more Germans in France at this time than at a Bavarian Oktoberfest. To recap, Churchill, and Chamberlain, agreed that a naval blockage and aerial bombardment by the RAF would bring Hitler and his army to their knees. This would serve to avoid the war of attrition brought about by the trench warfare of the Great War. Both Britain and France thought any future wars would be static and fought from fixed positions and not the fluid warfare of the Blitzkrieg that they had just experienced. The Maginot Line was perhaps the best example of this common held, though erroneous, belief. What is not generally known is that Churchill actually lacked confidence in the British Armyâ€™s ability to meet and even hold their own against the German Army. While this sounds scandalous and perhaps even impertinent of me to say I think we need to realize that the size of the British Army was greatly reduced after World War One in favour of a large navy and air force. Added to this the material was not very modern compared with Germanyâ€™s and what they did have was, to a great degree, left behind on the beaches of Dunkirk. The situation in the aftermath of Dunkirk was that the British Army as a whole was not up to the task of an invasion. However, this is and was not to say that the individual British soldier was less than willing and capable of any challenge put before them; it was a matter of numbers and material.
In order for Germany to invade England (Operation Sea Lion) they first needed control of the skies over Britain requiring the elimination of the Royal Air Force. An attempted amphibious invasion of England without the elimination of the RAF would mean that the Germans would be attempting the crossing while being attacked by the RAF and the Royal Navy, not to mention the shore batteries of costal artillery. Two factors were against the Germans using their navy as support for Operation Sea Lion, one known and one still to be realized. The first, and known, factor was that the loss of so many ships during the British invasion of Norway left the Germans short of necessary naval support. The second point was that larger battle ships are fairly easy targets for bombers. While both sides were aware of this the magnitude of this fact was not brought to the forefront of military thinking until the great sea battles in the Pacific Theater between the American and Imperial Japanese Navies, much later in the War.
The Battle of Britain was to turn out to be the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces and involved the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date. The initial targets of the Luftwaffe were coastal shipping convoys and shipping centers such as Portsmouth. It was later that the Luftwaffe shifted their concentration on RAF airfields then aircraft factories and other such infrastructure. Much late, as we will see, the German bombing targeted areas of political significance including the employment of terror bombing strategies, (as an example, the London Blitz). As stated earlier, the British put emphasis on bombers, (due to the naval blockade and bombing strategies before the War); therefore the German concentration on bombing the airfields and aircraft factories put a great strain on fighter command. Up until this time Fighter Command was operating at full capacity and without any reserve fighters to replace those lost through battle and wear and tear.
Things were looking bad for Fighter Command and Britain in general at this time. It was desperate enough that a significant number of the British population and politicians favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler. Churchill and a majority of his cabinet refused to even consider negotiations with the Germans. Churchill gave the following speech on 4 June 1940; I think it is appropriate that we review it here to give some insight into his determination and resolve.
â€œWe shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in Godâ€™s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.â€
On 24 August, 1940 Churchillâ€™s luck would once again serve him well when a German bomber accidently dropped bombs on London. Churchill grasped the opportunity handed him and ordered the bombing of Berlin. He calculated, correctly it turns out, that the bombing of the German capital would enrage Hitler and he would order his bombers away from RAF targets to the cities of England. A terrible choice had to be made but the saving of the RAF form destruction would mean the salvation of the Nation itself. It was from this point on that the Germans were at a disadvantage in the battle. The Luftwaffe was at a disadvantage from the start which was offset by the British lack of reserve fighters. The disadvantage was in the German strategic use of their bombers. Up until the Battle of Britain bombers were used to support ground troops and this worked very well. The whole â€œmachineâ€ was run on the theory of fighter/bomber/ground forces supporting one another. During the Battle of Britain they were faced with the use of radar giving their position away to the RAF, this included their fighter escorts. With no ground support to take out the radar stations the German fliers were in a very vulnerable position. While the London Blitz continued until May 1941 the failure of the Luftwaffe to break the RAF led to the postponement and finally the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion.
The London Blitz was the one event, perhaps above all others, was the making of the image of Churchill. His tours through the bombed out areas of the City, famous hat and coat, cigar in one hand and the two fingers held up in the form of the â€œV for victory and numerous photo opportunities catapulted him to world celebrity. The Battle of Britain itself was the turning point of the whole war, though this was not recognized at the time. Up until Hitler lost the Battle of Britain he had not suffered a significant defeat. This is not to come as much of a surprise as the vast majority of his victories, up to this point, had almost been gifts; in some cases bloodless campaigns. This is where the Germans were stopped and from this point forward, with exceptions, the course of the war would go against the Nazis. Even the great battles such as Stalingrad, which has been held up as breaking the German military might, it was the Battle of Britain that showed both the world and the Germans themselves that Hitler was not invincible and a determined nation could indeed make a difference.
Winston Churchill summed it up well in his Battle of Britain speech, â€œIf the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts a thousand years, men will say, â€˜This was their finest hourâ€™â€.
Why canâ€™t we discuss politics on the GMIC? It all has to do with ketchup.
Today my dear wife, Linda, wanted me to go into the City to exchange something or other; I wasnâ€™t listening because I didnâ€™t really want to go. Knowing this she suggested that we stop for breakfast in our small town first. She is a wise woman as she knows my fondness for breakfast meat, not to mention over-easy eggs. This would make me both cheap and easy. I would have been the most popular girl in school had I been born a female.
During breakfast I decided I required a small bit of ketchup for the sausages and in picking up the full bottle I realized that talking politics on the forum was just like what was about to take place. To be clear I am not clairvoyant, just a creature of habit and one who will repeat mistakes with an alarming regularity. The ketchup (or catsup if you prefer) bottles are always full at our local restaurant, the â€œOld Country Restaurantâ€ or O.C. as we locals refer to it. We live in New Hamburg so we often meet up with friends at the O.C in N.H. Itâ€™s a small town thing.
Now for the political discussion comparison; one starts out gently patting the bottom of the bottle in an exercise in futility hopping that by some miracle the contents will flow out easily. When that doesnâ€™t happen we all do the same thing, hit the bottle harder. Perhaps you bounce the neck of the bottle on your finger but the next step is always the same â€“ apply more force. You might see if there is a knife by your plate, which has yet to be used and therefore clean, in order to insert in into the bottle. Thus producing an air space allowing the ketchupâ€™s release from the effects of the bottleâ€™s vacuum. Once in a while this works but most of the time all you end up with for your efforts is a knife covered with the red sauce all the way up the blade and well onto the handle. Now youâ€™re getting a little hot under the collar, but still in control of your inner rage against the physics of a vacuum and Mother Nature herself fort having invented the dammed tomato in the first place. The bottle is now firmly grasped in your left hand and you start to strike the bottom of the bottle with the heel of your clenched right hand. Still nothing! At this point with your spouse showing signs of somewhere between embarrassment and disgust you lose all control. Beating the hell out of the bottle, uttering muffled statements that may or may not cross the line into blasphemy, while everyone in the restaurant looks on wide eyed. â€œYes lady you heard me correctly now get over it and piss off!â€ you think as you notice that kindly eighty year old lady looking your way in shock. Youâ€™ve come to the point where you are committed, you will be the master of this bottle and its contents; this is the hill upon which you are will to die! You committed all of your resources and now it is you or the bottle, â€œNo quarter, youâ€™re going down you glass vessel from the lowest bowels of Hell itself!!!!!â€ RAGE, unadulterated rage!
Then without warning it happens, like some sort of demonic orgasm or an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the red thick sauce finally burst forward covering the largest area of your plate with half an inch of ketchup. The whole place is looking on witnessing your triumph yet missing the point entirely that you were victorious and your manhood is once again verified. Needless to say the trip, to the city and back, was very quiet indeed. Oh yes, hereâ€™s tip. If you find yourself in one of these situations where the silence emulating from your significant other is almost â€œdeafeningâ€ do not; I repeat, do not, turn on the radio.
And this, my friends, is why we canâ€™t discuss politics on the forum.
Most of my points and comments are easily confirmed by the reader, either from books or from the internet, therefore I have not bothered to make a lot of citations regarding them. Some points, I feel, are not that well known so in those cases I have included references within square brackets.
For Winston Churchill the year 1939 could arguably be seen as the lowest point in his political career. However, with Germany marching into Austria and then Czechoslovakia, the British Nation started to wake up to the harsh reality of the situation in Europe; a situation Churchill had been warning about for years. It would seem that prior to this time everyone was almost going out of their way to ignore him. As a case in point, when Chamberlain took office as Prime Minister he refused to take Churchill with him because he feared that Churchill would dominate the House and make speeches supporting his ideas resulting in no one else having the chance to speak at all. In another incident Churchill proposed that the RAF should engage in “shuttle bombing”, which involved taking off from Britain, bombing German targets and then landing in Poland. Groups of bombers that would be then stationed in Poland would reverse the process so that there would be on going bombing of Germany from both the east and the west. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would have nothing to do with this proposal. The newspapers said that he (Chamberlain) should bring the First Lord of the Admiralty (Churchill) into his cabinet. Churchill was a warrior who knew about aerial bombardment – bring him in. Chamberlain didn’t want Churchill in. [Human Smoke, Nicholas Baker, pg. 127, as reported in the New York Times, August 23, 1939]. Before the year was out Germany would invade Poland and Britain and France would declare war on Germany, bringing about the fall of Chamberlain and launching Churchill into the lime light.
This was a time in the history of the Second World War were nothing seems to have been taking place if you go by what is presented by most television documentaries. True, there was a time when all of Europe was holding its breath “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, but in reality the nations involved were a beehive of activity.
Norway, a neutral nation, was being watched by Germany with envious eyes for her ice-free port of Narvik. Germany relied on iron ore from Sweden for steel production and the only prime winter (ice-free) port for them to ship the iron ore to Germany was in Norway. As early as 8 April, 1939 Churchill instructed the Royal Navy to mine the Norwegian waters. This was planned provoke the German Navy into engaging the British and thereby allow the Royal Navy to destroy the German Navy.
Here we need to back up just a little to the time when Germany invaded Poland and the British and French declared war. Both sides were now poised for combat not unlike two heavy weight prize fighters waiting for the bell to ring announcing the start of the conflict. Waiting, waiting but nothing happened; no bell was rung no shell was fired. Instead the RAF dropped leaflets containing propaganda over the German lines. The Germans set up loud speakers, sometimes within sight of the allied forces, and broadcast their rendition of “The Capitulation Waltz” (aka propaganda). Churchill termed this the “Twilight War”; we know it better, at least here in North America, as the “Phony War”. This “Twilight War” was waged, or more accurately “not” waged, from September 1939 until May 1940. In a speech on January 27, 1940, Churchill would remark that what he often wondered was why England had as yet not been bombed from the air. Also during this speech he asked, “Ought we, instead of demonstrating the power of our Air Force by dropping leaflets all over Germany, to having dropped bombs?” [Churchill, Complete Speeches, vol. 6, pg.6187-88]. It is interesting that Churchill’s opinion that the correct option was that Britain should have taken the offensive was later supported by German General Siegfried Westphal. He said, “If the French had attacked in force in September 1939 the German Army could have only held out for one to two weeks.” At the time Britain and France had 110 Divisions in the field while Germany had only 23 Divisions. As a side note, the first Canadian troops arrived in England during this time period; Britain’s forces were on the increase.
It is here that I would like to remind the reader that both Chamberlain and Churchill wanted to avoid a land war in Europe as the memories of the First World War and its horrors were still fresh in the minds of their citizens. A clash, somewhere in France would quite possibly end up in a trench warfare stalemate similar to1914-18. This being the established facts I find it interesting indeed that Churchill should say later that Britain and France should have undertaken an action that was completely against what he, and France, believed in and, in fact enforced, at the time. Perhaps this was Churchill’s way of admitting that he had been wrong about avoiding a head on clash with the German Army on the continent in 1939.
One of the areas that Churchill thought as an alternative to Europe in which to engage the Germans was in the north, in particular, Norway. The British realized earlier that Norway and especially the port of Narvik was important to Germany due to the year around ice-free waters. This was necessary, as has been mentioned for the shipment of Swedish iron ore to Germany. Britain had already sewn the waters with mines and now it seemed appropriate, to Churchill, to actually invade and secure the country itself. Chamberlain opposed this plan as he feared it would widen the war and in essence it was illegal. Churchill countered this opposition with the reasoning that if they succeeded it would deprive the Germans of the much needed iron ore and perhaps provoke them into making a rash move that would spell disaster for the Germans. The German admirals had debated the consequences of the loss of Norway. They felt that the war could very well be lost if the British were to seize Norway and in particular the port of Narvik.
As many secrets are prone to do the Churchill proposal leaked to the press; not in any great detail but enough to alert the German government to the, now, real threat. The Norwegian Government protested strongly to what amounted to a breach of international law by the British. It was March 1940 when Vidkun Quisling, the former War Minister for Norway, approached Hitler in regard to setting up a puppet government under the Germans. Up until this point there were no plans by Germany to invade Norway, of course this now changed.
I have read several accounts of this action over the years. Modern supporters of Churchill write that Britain had decided to come to the rescue of “poor little Norway” in peril of being over-run by German forces. Those who tend to be less enthusiastic about the man will write something to the effect, “despite Norway’s status as a neutral nation Churchill ignored that and planed an invasion”. I have also read that the British intercepted a German communiqué which informed them that the Germans were planning to invade Denmark and Norway. This is one of those times where I tend to believe all of the above, as in a sense they are all one and the same. The only difference is in the method the writer would like to use in order to lead you into thinking along the same lines as him or her. The one point that is clear, at least to me, is that Norway did indeed protest the laying of the mines in Norwegian waters [as reported in the New York Times, April 9, 1940]. The invasion of 11 April, 1940, on the other hand took place much too quickly to have offered the luxury of a diplomatic protest. The small British and French force landed around midnight but were totally unprepared to carry on the fight, lacking such things as mules for transport and even snowshoes necessary for moving through deep snow. The German air force hammered the allied invasion forcing them to retreat. As far as the ground troop actions were concerned this was a complete disaster; however the Royal Navy managed to inflict a crippling blow to the German Navy. The result was that Germany captured Norway, which lasted until 8 May, 1945; however they lost control of the Atlantic.
The plan was completely Churchill’s yet true to “Churchillian luck” the blame fell squarely on Chamberlain. Perhaps this lack of blame was the cause of Churchill’s obsession to recapture the port of Narvik. “Here it is we must fight and preserve on the largest scale possible”, he wrote to one of his naval commanders on 28 April, 1940. “He wanted to divert troops there from all over the place”, General Ironside noted in his diary. “He is so like a child in many ways. He tires of a thing, and then wants to hear no more of it. It is most extraordinary how mercurial he is.” [Edmond Ironside, Time Unguarded pg.278]
On 10 May, 1940 Churchill becomes Prime Minster with little time to celebrate as on that same day, eight months after Britain and France declared war on Germany, Hitler ordered his troops into Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and France, ending the “Twilight War”. France soon surrenders and Hitler turned his thoughts toward an invasion of Russia, which may have been one of the saving graces for the British and surviving French forces in France concerning what was about to unfold at the coastal towns of Calais and Dunkirk.
I think it worthy to note that the German advance was not without stiff resistance from the French troops stationed in the fortresses of the Maginot Line. This line of fortresses was built to stop the advance of any future German attack and we often hear that the Germans quickly destroyed these and moved on toward Dunkirk. I suppose this has been done to get back to the British story of the evacuation rather than an attempted to make the French Army’s resistance appear weak or half-hearted. Many French soldiers fought to the death attempting to hold back the German onslaught. It is true that some French strong points were knocked out more or less easily, however some proved impossible to destroy, at least in the timely fashion needed and were by-passed.
The Germans defeated the Maginot Line due to the lack of coordination between the French troops in the fortresses and those in the field. For the most part the individual fortresses fought in isolation against overwhelming odds. Another weakness was the lack of French anti-aircraft artillery. The one saving grace for the French was that the German dive bombers had a 60% rate in missing the fortresses completely. While the French were overwhelmed and surrendered many of the main fortresses remained intact and capable of continuing to fight. These were only surrendered after being ordered to do so by French General Georges one week after the French Army surrendered; and then only under protest by the officers commanding these fortresses. [“Maginot Line 1940” –M. Romanych & M. Rupp]
The relentless drive by the German troops through France left the British and French allies bottled up in a corridor to the sea by German Army Group B, to the east and Army Group A to the west. The allies fought a withdrawing action to the coastal town of Dunkirk while to the west the mainly British Garrison in Calais was under siege by the German forces. The garrison at Calais was to be sacrificed in order to buy time for the forces at Dunkirk to be evacuated. Churchill had written to the garrison commander, “Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not, repeat not, take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover.” [Churchill, Their Finest Hour, pg. 79-82]. Churchill’s critics have called him a “killer of men”; however any wartime leader must make decisions that are less than desirable. Even the greatest of generals throughout history were “killers of men”, including their own men, due to the choices that the times dictated that they must make.
Meanwhile the German forces outside Dunkirk were given an order to “stand down” for three days. It is unclear as to where this order originated; however, it is usually assumed it came from Hitler himself, the reasons have never been clear. Regardless of where the order came from, or even why, what it provided was time for the allied troops to prepare for evacuation. It has also been debated as to whether the sacrifice of the troops at Calais had any positive bearing on the evacuation of Dunkirk. The one thing that cannot be debated is that the holding action at Calais tied up a whole Panzer Division that otherwise may have been deployed at Dunkirk.
Another aspect that is missing in the documentaries and in most books on the subject is in regard to the German Navy. We know that the German Army and Air Force were employed in this action but where was the German Navy. One would think that this arm of the German forces would have or should have played a decisive role in preventing the evacuation of 192,000 allied personnel, 144,000 being British, by 4 June 1940. The answer is actually pretty clear; remember Narvik and the Battle of Norway? Churchill’s failure on land was a success on the seas with the German Navy in no shape to interfere with the Dunkirk evacuation. In addition to this 250,000 German troops were stationed in Norway for the duration of the war to assure there would be no further attempts to invade. A quarter of a million German troops taken out of the equation by Churchill’s fortunate blunder (Churchillian luck).
On 18 June, 1940 Churchill said, “The Battle of France is over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” It did, less than a month later on 10 July, 1940.
History, especially military history, is ripe with myth and legend in regard to politics, battles and war leaders. Myths such as “Germany almost won the Second World War”, which is pure nonsense and a topic for another blog at a later date, or the myth that Winston Churchill alone won the War abound, especially in the post War era. Most of the Churchill myth was generated by his own six volume “History of the Second World War” which did little to dissuade readers such as myself from including him from our personal list of the ten greatest people in modern history. So why, considering that I hold him is such high esteem, would I suggest such a thing? Or better yet why, if I am correct, would he shape his historical account to reflect anything but the bare, and therefore true, facts? As I have been harping on about for quite some time, you need to consider the times when events took place, or in this case when he wrote his accounts. Many of the war leaders of that time were still alive, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then President of the United States; Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union; Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC; Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, DM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS to name but a few. Being the consummate politician it would behove Churchill to keep in mind the reputations of these powerful men and leaders of their nations; men whom Churchill would continue to interact with during the Cold War period. In perhaps guarding the good names of his fellow post War leaders he may have inadvertently left himself in a more positive light than he might have otherwise intended. Regardless of this being the case or not let’s look at the Winston Churchill of the 1938 to 1941 period and see what conclusions can be reached.
I have chosen these dates for the main reason that often we, who are influenced by British history, tend to view history from that perspective. As an example we tend to see the Second World War as being won by Britain and her allies, rather than looking at it in view of the deciding factors from 1942 to 1945 and the countries that were able to contribute the men and material to assure victory. This would place the “tipping of the scales factor” in the favour of the United States and the Soviet Union as to who actually won the Second World War. This is not to belittle Britain and her Empire and their contributions; however, victory over Germany, Italy and Imperial Japan would hardly have been possible without the Americans and Soviets. Again this is a topic onto itself and needs to be debated another time.
Up until the entrance of the United States into the War after the attack on Pearl Harbor (or “Harbour” for the correct English spelling), 7 December, 1941the only thing between Hitler and his complete dominance of the whole of Europe was the tenacity and defiance of the British people and their war-time leader Winston Churchill.
As a young man of twenty five years of age he was engaged as a reporter for the London Morning Post covering the Boer War, in 1899. An armoured train that he was a passenger on was derailed by a contingent of one the Boer commandos and because he was considered to have taken too great a role in the engagement he was taken prisoner. He was not a prisoner for very long before he managed to escape and lead the Boers on quite a chase before reaching safety in British held territory. The reward offered by the Boer government, for his capture, amounted to less than the cost of a bottle of Scotch; after all he was just a newspaper reporter, however the whole adventure was stuff of legend. Churchill always held the Boers and their armies, known as commandos, in the highest esteem and their lightening fast, hit and run tactics would leave a lasting impression on him, as we will see later.
During the Great War Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty which was a governmental appointment. During this time he devised a plan to basically take the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, out of the War in 1915 by “Forcing the Straights” in the Dardanelles. This turned out to be a British naval disaster as the Turks had the straights set with underwater mines and the passage well defended by shore batteries. A land operation at Gallipoli was also coordinated at this time and met with equal or greater disastrous results with horrendous losses by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). The blame for this failure was set squarely on Churchill’s shoulders even though he was not alone in the planning of the action. Much as Chamberlain, in the early years leading up to the Second World War, Churchill became the scapegoat for the actions of those who were complicit in the “crime”. The generals involved in the fiasco, caused by their hesitation during the action and their lack of planning beforehand, were left almost blame free. Churchill was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty and took leave of the government and accepted an appointment as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. His service at the front was a significant factor in many of his attitudes toward waging war affecting his decisions concerning the German threat during the 1930s as we will discuss a little later.
It is interesting that as First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill supported the idea of using aircraft in the attack on the Dardanelles; planning to have aircraft launched from Arc Royal to bomb land based defences. This planned coordinated attack by naval, air and land forces never took place, however it is interesting that he saw the value of air support as early as 1915. While we are on the topic of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty it should be mentioned that he was also quite instrumental in the development of the tank. Both of these weapons, ship launched air support and army tanks, were to see wide spread use in the next great conflict of 1939/45.
During the inter-war years Churchill once again entered politics winning a seat in Parliament, placing him and Chamberlain in the same political arena. Chamberlain was met with applause when he took his seat in Parliament while Churchill was met with near silence in the House upon his arrival. The blame for the catastrophe of the Dardanelles had followed him like a spectre into his post war political career. It is interesting that both Churchill and Chamberlain held many of the same views at this time. Both men harboured a hatred of Communism and therefore the Soviet Union. This hatred, on the part of Churchill, would delay any diplomatic ties leading to an alliance with the Soviets and causing distrust between the two which would last well past the end of the Second World War. Stalin, fearing he had no potential ally in British, formed a non aggression pact with Hitler which resulted in the two nations attacking Poland later on in 1939 and dividing the Polish Nation between them.
Both Churchill and Chamberlain believed that the answer to any military aggression on the part of Germany could be dealt with by maintaining a very strong navy. With the use of a naval blockage along with air support (bombing) Germany would not be able to sustain any prolonged aggression, therefore a large and well armed army was not seen as necessary. One of the aspects of a naval blockade, that seems to have missed their consideration, is that large battleships make great targets for bombers.
Both men also remembered the horrors of the Great War, Churchill having experienced the War firsthand, and wanted to avoid the repeat of trench warfare. The idea of a blockade supported by extensive bombing seemed to be the logical and most sensible alternative. This belief of bombing the enemy into submission would lead the allies into a program of aggressive bombing against German cities during World War Two, led by Sir Arthur Harris, GCB, OBE, AFC. Sir Arthur Harris was known to the press as “Bomber Harris” and to the RAF as “Butcher Harris” for his aggressive campaign. It is questionable whether the bombing of German cities had the desired effect as the German bombing of London, as we know, only served to toughen the resolve of the British people; a nation already determined to hold out and win at all costs.
Not to get ahead of ourselves in this discussion we should back up a bit to the “era of appeasement” for which Neville Chamberlain was to become best known in the history books. Prior to the attack on Poland in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union there was the “gift” of Czechoslovakia in 1938 by Britain in an attempt to avoid what was soon to turn out to be the unavoidable. Czechoslovakia, at the time, was a well defended country with natural barriers, fortresses, a well disciplined army along with tanks and a formidable air force. It is interesting that one of the best light machine guns of the Second World War, the .303 Cal. British Bren Gun, was developed from the 7.9mm Czech ZB26 LMG. It has been argued, and I believe successfully, that had Czechoslovakia not been conceded to Hitler and allowed to resist the German invasion and the combined forces of Britain and France been employed on what would be a second front that the war could have been ended in 1938. While the British army was not large nor especially well armed, at the time, the combination of the Czechs on a German Eastern Front and the Anglo-Franco forces forming a combined force on their Western Front Hitler would have been forced to at least back off. Certainly Stalin would not have allied with Germany as he had already taken half of Poland the previous year and would have seen the democratic countries of what would have been a triple alliance against Germany as the lesser of two evils. Hitler had been riding a political and popularity high in Germany due mainly to his ability to gain territory for Germany without the need for another large war. If a humiliation such as would have occurred by his backing down or worse, for him, a military defeat may have ended his career then and there. Even if there had been a stalemate, which was the fear if any land based actions were undertaken, a soft landing on the coast of France to supply the front would have been a lot less costly than the hard landing provided by “Fortress Europe” on D-Day.
We can speculate all we would like; the historical facts are that there was no military intervention by the British or the French. The French had a false sense of security behind their Maginot Line of “impregnable” fortresses and the British held onto the idea of the naval blockade scenario. I often wonder if the French or the British for that matter, upon seeing the news reels showing the empty fortresses of Czechoslovakia being viewed by their new German owners thought about the possibility of the Maginot Line suffering a similar fate.
Regardless of how the French viewed the possible fate of their own fortresses one thing was certain, that the British people cheered Chamberlain in the streets for his placation of Hitler. A lone voice of protest went almost unheard in the sea of enthusiasm over avoiding war at such a low cost, to the British at least. Winston Churchill was appalled, once again, at the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government and possibly even more appalled at the general public acceptance of these acts. It would seem that protest was about all that Churchill was offering, as no alternate action plan was ever brought forward. The reliance upon a naval blockade and the bombing of the enemy by the air force almost precludes that Germany would almost have to reach the coast before any blockade and bombing could take place. By this scenario it would seem that Churchill counted on Hitler to invade France, proving Chamberlain wrong and, putting him in a position of being the only person to have seen the truth. As I have mentioned before, Churchill was not the only person in all of Britain who was opposed to the Appeasement Policy, however, he was the only person to be openly against these acts. Had Hitler not invaded Poland in 1939, which resulted in Britain and France declaring war on Germany, Churchill may well have gone down in history as the most ignored man of his time.
In Part two we’ll take a look at Churchill from 1939 until the American entrance into the War in 1941.
Not too long ago a close friend, a man I both respect and admire, offered the suggestion that politeness was the most acceptable hypocrisy. Following our friendly debate on this point of view I thanked him for providing such a provocative subject upon which to ponder; later that evening I removed him from my Christmas card list.
It occurred to me, as I later revisited the subject of politeness and hypocrisy in my mind, that politeness and diplomacy are conjoined twins of the same philosophy, interchangeable and indistinguishable one from the other. Not to digress too far; I do believe that if I were to be able to choose any profession in another time period it would be the Diplomatic Corps in the Victorian era as I am not unfamiliar with diplomacy (a.k.a. hypocrisy). As is often the case one line of thought triggers another and this was no different as I soon started to consider the subject of how popular history has treated Neville Chamberlain and his attempts to avoid what turned out to be the unavoidable Second World War. I have used the term popular history to indicate that history can be divided into several categories. These being, propaganda; history manipulated for the masses in order to shape their opinions to match the current powers, popular history; history that may or may not be accurate but is held as true due to past propaganda (see the first example) and remains accepted until someone delves into the facts and reports them, and lastly, the true historical facts.
This following recitation is both opinionated and derivative and therefore freely open to debate, so, as they say, lets have at it. I wont bother to reference the work of others in regard to quotes with a citation because these are easily found in biographies and on the internet.
I think it best to look first, not at the times when Mr. Chamberlain has undeservingly gained his negative reputation but rather take a moment to review the powers of a Prime Minister. To think that the Prime Minister on his own has the sole power to declare war on another sovereign nation and thereby commit his countrys population to invade another nation is naive, to say the least.
While the Prime Minister is the leader of the political party in power he is still bound by procedure. If the PM were to table a motion so outrageous as to be against the will of his party and the motion was defeated then the opposition party could, and probably would, demand a vote of no-confidence. If the vote passed in favour of the opposition the government would fall and an election would be held. I must assume, due to lack of knowledge, that the American Government is structured in much the same way. I do stand to be corrected on this or any point of view I hold. This fact of Parliamentary procedure alone dictates that a PM should not be held solely responsible for the actions of the governing party or majority of the publics will and wishes.
Next we need to look at the time period itself. Much has been written about the economic and personal devastation brought on by the Great War. The desire for peace at any cost was a commonly held desire, even for the vast majority of the German people during the early years of the Nazi Party and I would hazard to say even through the build up to the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and what would become known as the allies. Certainly there was a feeling of euphoria in Germany as Hitler regained lost territories, rejuvenated the economy and generated a fanatical level of national pride. In other words the majority of the population on either side was not prepared to enter into another worldwide conflict as had been experienced a mere twenty five years prior. Into this atmosphere of avoidance of conflict Mr. Chamberlain was tasked to carry out the will of the people.
Following the will of the people in those times Mr. Chamberlain was driven to assure that the youth of Britain and her Empire would never again be led like sheep to the slaughter of the battlefield. I would challenge anyone, without the benefit of hindsight, to find fault in that conviction. If we are to hold Mr. Chamberlain solely responsible for the failure of diplomacy and therefore the outbreak of WWII then we need to look at other examples from the same time period.
On February 24, 1933 the League of Nations adopted a report blaming the Government of Imperial Japan for events in Manchuria (Manchukuo). In response to this action the Japanese representative, Yosuke Matsuoka, delivered a speech claiming that Manchuria belonged to Japan and they would not entertain any motion that they withdraw from what was, in their view, territory that was theirs by right; then walked out never to return. What was the action taken by the League of Nations to Mr. Matsuokas rejection of the report? Virtually nothing. Their lack of action, possibly a result of their failure to foresee any such actions by a fellow member nation and insufficient plans for a military intervention, caused hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women and childrens death. Perhaps it was felt by the Western delegates that it was on the other side of the world and it didnt really affect their own people. However, there were British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, Indian and Americans who would be caught up in the onslaught of Imperial Japanese aggression. A good number, far too many, would lose their lives both in the battles and afterwards during their imprisonment as Prisoners of War.
January 3, 1935, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) appealed to the League of Nations to intervene between Abyssinia and Italy, who had invaded Abyssinia. Article X of the Leagues charter forbids any member nation from invading the territories of another member. The Leagues response was to place an arms trade embargo on both countries. Italy had built up her armed forces in the years leading up to this crises and therefore was unaffected by the embargo. Abyssinia, on the other hand, was ill equipped to carry on a modern armed conflict and was therefore greatly handicapped by the Leagues actions. On May 2 1936 Haile Selassie was forced into exile and on May 5, after the capture of the capital of Addis Ababa by Italy, the sanctions placed on the two countries were withdrawn. Emperor Haile Selassie himself appeared before the League to plead their nations case on June 7, 1937, after Italy defeated the forces of Abyssinia. Even without the Leagues help Italy was only able to control three quarters of Abyssinia due to the continued guerrilla campaign carried on against the invaders.
These are two examples of the avoidance of war at any costs that permeated the thinking of the time. Yet the image that is often portrayed is that of Mr. Chamberlain holding up a white piece of paper and assuring the people of England that I believe it is peace for our time is the one used to express his and only his failure and ineptitude at preventing war.
If we look at the failure of the League of Nations in the two examples noted as compared to Mr. Chamberlains attempts to prevent war it reveals an interesting statistic. Very few people had lost their lives in Europe up to the time of the outbreak of WWII. True people had died, there is no doubt about that, however, the real cost in lives of civilians up to that time was unknown. The impending horrors of the extermination camps was still not a known fact, though in hindsight we can say that it should have , and perhaps was, suspected by all of the leaders of free Europe. What was known to the League of Nations was the murder of thousands of Chinese civilians as well as the slaughter of the Abyssinian troops using primitive weapons to combat modern military hardware and a nation, Italy, equipped with an effective air force, Abyssinia having none. Yet time and time again we are shown that photo of Mr. Chamberlain and the white sheet of paper as an example of failed diplomacy. I would put it to you, the reader, that 63 members of the League of Nations (42 nations founded the League in 1920) plus the number of human casualties caused by their failure to maintain peace is miniscule when compared to the one man blamed for the failure to placate Germany.
It is much easier to cheer on and lead a dedicated and enraged crowd bound and bent on wreaking havoc on an enemy than it is to stand up in front of a potential protagonist and attempt to calm the situation and work toward for peace. This is not to diminish the achievements of Mr. Winston Churchill in any way as he was a great war leader and was and is respected throughout the whole world, and well he should be. Having said that it is a lot easier to wave the flag, make stirring speeches to a nation, and even to the world as a whole when your audience is on the same page as you. I doubt Mr. Churchill ever missed a photo opportunity in his life (carefully staged as they may have been), while Mr. Chamberlain will forever be remembered for holding up that white piece of paper not unlike a flag of surrender.
In one of his last addresses to Parliament Mr. Chamberlain said,
Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is to devote what strength and power I have to forward the victory of the cause for which we have sacrificed so much.
Neville Chamberlain passed away on the 9th of November, 1940 never to know whether the evil he had attempted to protect his nation from would ultimately be stopped or not. On November 12th Mr. Winston Churchill stated in his eulogy of Mr. Chamberlain,
Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capability and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.
March 18, 1869
November 9, 1940
1 Other than quotes this blog consists of my opinions
2 Quotations have been freely borrowed from different sources easily verified by the reader.
3 Citation = a clever way to make my article appear to be much more scholarly than it warrants on its
own merits. Besides a citation is only a reference to someone elses work which may or may not be either original or accurate.
4 The term his is to be taken as meaning either male or female and is not meant to be gender specific.
5 There are exceptions to this and an election is not necessarily a foregone conclusion
6 I use the term Great War as at that time we had not yet started numbering our World Wars, fortunately after number 2 it was decided that perhaps world wars were not that great an idea after all and dropped the numbering system.
After a year of retirement and after more landscaping projects completed than any one person of any age could expect to be done in one summer I am ready for a rest. I’m looking forward to the first frost and then the first heavy snowfall. With my snow blower back from the maintenance shop and binoculars in hand I await that first snowflake’s appearance like a cat ready to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse, or a WWII British Costal Defense Watcher scanning the skies for enemy planes. One task, now taken care of, was the packing up of the patio umbrella back into its case in which it was stored when we purchased it. The case is made of a very tough Nylon mesh with a large reinforced loop from which it can be hung up for storage in the garage or shed. Taking into account the price we paid for this giant bumbershoot we should proudly display it on the living room wall. Considering how my dear wife vetoed my plans for a rather large moose head in that same area I don’t suppose there is much chance of the umbrella being displayed there either. That was not really the perplexing issue with the umbrella as it turned out. The problem was one of displacement, or that is how I saw it. The case was a lot smaller than the umbrella, for some reason. It came out of this mesh “sock” so it seemed a matter of simple physics that it should be able to be returned as the volume of both the space and the object had not changed since we made the purchase in the spring. Having come to the end of my patience I decided to apply the following formula for displacement as a function of velocity and time:
The above is just another way to say I lost my temper and tried to give the umbrella the “bum’s rush” into the bag. It didn’t work. Starting over again and more slowly and calmly working the bag over the umbrella an inch at a time I managed to learn two things. First that slow and steady usually prevails over the Attila the Hun approach. Secondly I have learned to appreciate the dining difficulties of the Giant Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) especially if it were attempting to ingest a Volks Wagon Beetle (Das Auto insectus).
Perhaps the one activity that I look forward most to, when the weather places me on virtual “house arrest”, is returning to writing more informative articles and posts for the forum. Over the spring/summer season I have managed to acquire several nice additions to the collection some with a good deal of rarity associated to them. Writing blogs is an enjoyable pastime that I fit into my day piecemeal, as time permits, but they tend to lack much in the way of informative material. My series, “Collecting the Periphery” , which I intend to continue with, was an attempt to inform and educate the reader in regard to items that were associated to the military aspect of collecting, yet slightly on the fringe. Other blogs were simply my observations and peculiar slant on the world in which I live both in reality and in my imagination (such as News from the Home Office). Therefore in an attempt to both inform and educate the reader and at the same time keep this issue of the “News from the Home Office” as trivial as possible I’ll now discuss the title of this blog.
The Perfect Darth Vader Voice
James Earl Jones made the voice of the Star Wars antagonist, Darth Vader, iconic not only to the movie itself but to the very essence of Sci-Fi villainy. As a bit of Star War trivia, “Luke, I am your father”, was never in any of the movies, but has become acceptable as such by many of the uninitiated into the world of the science fiction aficionado. You may lack the deep voice of Mr. Jones but here are a few tricks that may amuse some, ok, maybe one of your friends or at least get puzzled looks from your grand daughters if they are under 8 years old such as mine. Find a Pringles Potato Chip tube or a mailing tube with one end, or bottom, still on. Place the open end over the open end, and breathe heavily through your mouth into the tube. Don’t forget that the inhale and exhale are equally as important here. Exhale forcefully and inhale more forcefully but not as long in duration as you exhale. Now in your deepest voice say the erroneous phrase, “Luke I am your father” into the tube. Use this phrase as it is the most recognized and will also irritate the die-hard Star Wars fans within ear-shot. Here’s the most important part, a trade secret of the annoying nerds who love to imitate Darth Vader. Pronounce each word as if the individual word was on a pedestal. Also emphasize the vowels. For example (note the letters in bold), “Luke...I...am...your...father”.
Note: If you are a single male this probably won’t help you find a woman. If on the other hand it does...marry that gal; she’s perfect.
Never let it be said that you can’t learn something and get dating advice at the same time on the GMIC.
Originally I was going to write a blog titled “What I know About Women”; forty five minutes passed and the screen was just as vacant as my sixth-coffee-caffeine-induced-comatose stare. It was at this time that I realized I had exhausted the full extent of my knowledge in that field of research. True, a title such as “What I Know About Women” followed by a blank page would not only be quite humorous but at the same time sadly accurate. Lesser men would have been deterred by this revelation from continuing along these lines of exploration into the human condition but not yours truly. No, I simply decided to write about “What Women Know About Men”. Ha! Much easier I said to myself and poured yet another cup of coffee. By this time I had the shakes from a little too much caffeine so after wiping up the spilled coffee and the bottom of the wet cup (see, men can be trained my wife would love to interject here) thereby eliminating the coffee ring on the desk, I continued. The subject, what women know about men, would have to withstand the scrutiny of any scientific paper in order to be taken seriously. Under that condition I would, of course, have discount what women “think” they know about men as we all know that they almost always miss the point, well a man’s point; which would be the subject of this thesis after all. Let me ponder this for a moment...
More blank screen, more coffee, can no long see straight, bright spots of light in front of my eyes. Brain stuck on “I Got You Babe” over and over. Oh, my God I’m in the movie “Ground Hog Day”. Need sleep, mind clearer in the morning.
Ah, the next morning and a revelation.
I poured myself the first coffee of the day, no I learned nothing from the previously evening, and sat down in front of my computer and typed the title of this month’s blog, What Women Don’t Understand (About Men) .
Even in my youth I realized that women were incapable, for the most part, of understanding men. For example most women don’t “get” the Three Stooges”. Understanding the Three Stooges is much like understanding the principals of Zen Buddhism. To understand either concept one must stop looking and allow Zen or Stoogeness to wash over you and then you can become one with the Stoogeness. Simple? Right? Obviously not according to any women I’ve known and the few unwary enough to accept my proposal of marriage. The other area of entertainment seemingly beyond the acceptance of their gender is Dr. Who. What’s there not to get about Dr. Who? I’ve been a Whoist, as they now call the fans of the good time lord, for decades and “getting it” has never really entered into my mind. The greatest part about Dr. Who is the exchange between a male Dr. Who fan and his girlfriend, or his wife. It’s usually best to have either one or the other. If that is not your situation then it is definitely best the two don’t ever meet. She asks, “What do you see in Dr. Who? To which you reply, “What?” She repeats “Who”. You say, “What are you talking about?” “Who” she replies, to which you say “You; I said what are you talking about”. Usually this results in her telling you to never mind, it no longer matters, knowing this could go on all night... with luck.
When it comes to attending gun and militaria shows they seem to be completely lost. Women can’t understand why men will get up at 04:30 on a Sunday morning, drive to their buddy’s house and then travel several hours to stand in line in order to be the first through the door of the show all in a blinding snow storm. Especially when she can’t get you out of bed in time to drive to her mother’s, on Mother’s Day, for dinner with her family. Ok, that one should be self-evident.
Most of this month’s blog was arrived at due to the renovations to my new office. Women seem to think that you should sweep and wash the floor and dust down the walls of an empty room before you start to bring in large cabinets. What’s with that? The cabinets are going to cover much of the floor and even the walls so who’s going to see if the floor was dusty before the cabinets went in? Then there’s the crazy idea that you should repair all of the nail holes and small damages to the walls and repaint. Don’t they realize that’s why you frame all of those huge photos, prints and documents? They’re great for covering up these so called defects. You can choose the correct width of framed picture in accordance to the spacing of the damage to the wall. It’s brilliant!
I’ll wrap this blog up with the one question that no man would seldom dignify with an answer, though I shall not shy away from doing so here. Question: “Why would you need a beer fridge in your office”?
On the eve of the beginning of the First World War we are blessed, or cursed depending on your point of view, with many new and old documentaries dealing with the Great War. Of course originally it was referred to as the “Great War” because we had not yet realized that we enjoyed the carnage so much that we started to number them. Finally after years of waiting and countless boring and pointless Olympics, FIFA, NFL, NHL, baseball, basket ball games etc. wasting good research time filling up the television we will have our moment of glory as these documentaries and discussions about the First World War are presented. Before someone inevitably does a spit take spraying their favourite beer all over their computer screens I shall offer an apology regarding my comment about sports games being pointless. Of course there is a point. As far back as the days of ancient Rome it was recognized that presenting sports games not only entertained but distracted the unwashed masses, the plebeians as it were, from seeing what was actually taking place around them. So for those who may have the attention span of a squirrel, that is to say easily distracted, I have apologized for my rudeness in pointing it out. Oh, look, something shiny!
Now that I’ve had my fun, I’ll move on to the topic for discussion which is, as the title suggests, whether the Great War was indeed avoidable, as many contest, or an unavoidable consequence resulting from a complex and perhaps naive culture of the times.
Often, over the years, I’ve either read or heard it said that the First World War was totally avoidable. The only war that is avoidable is the one we have yet to have. You can’t avoid something that has already happened; it’s like saying that a vehicle accident could have been avoided. How we often have heard that one; though it does seems to make sense unless you take into account everything that occurred from the start of the day up to and including the point of impact. Position of the sun, time of the day, speed and...was that a squirrel? We can take precautions to avoid an accident or steps not to repeat another mishap and with a little luck prevent the accident that we haven’t had but the one we have experienced, as they say, is history.
If we could travel back in time to the turn of the twentieth century what would we find? What was the political and social atmosphere of the day? France was still stinging over the loss of territory to Germany as a result of the Franco Prussian War and still in distrust of Britain, Germany and Russia due to their alliance against Napoleon. The British were embroiled in a very unpopular war in South Africa and was being criticised for their involvement by just about everyone outside of their own Empire. The Russians had been a pain in the behind of the British and the French in the Crimea and through their involvement in adding to the hatred of the British Raj in India through Afghanistan resulting in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (First War of Indian Independence?). Fear and distrust were the watch words of the day. It would be quite accurate to suggest that this period in history was not unlike the Cold War of post WW II times, which was experienced by many of the older members here at GMIC.
Add to this atmosphere of international paranoia an arms race and we have what modern man would recognize as the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. The biggest difference being that no one had the common sense to back down. Not to get too side tracked, but I often wonder who the real hero of the Cuban Missile Crises really was. While President Kennedy rightfully prevented the installation of missiles by potentially hostile parties in the very back yard of the U.S.A. it was the Soviet withdrawal that actually prevented an all out war. It really hurts to have to say that and it flies in the face of everything we have learned through decades of James Bond movies.
Back to the topic at hand...darn squirrels. The British had the greatest navy which bothered the Germans considerably and especially the Kaiser, who was the head of the German navy. It would seem that the German government controlled many things in the country but it was the Kaiser who held sway over things military and in particular the German navy. To be fair, the British naturally had the largest navy, after all when you have an empire upon which the sun never sets it only stands to reason that you need a large navy to hold it. The Kaiser feared that the British would use their large navy to control German commerce on the high seas and could threaten the German Naval ports in Europe as well. So the best way to prevent this from happening was to not only match the British but do them one better or even two or three better. Naturally the British couldn’t let the Germans maintain a large navy right in their back yard (see Cuban Missile Crisis) so it was a situation of naval one-ups- man-ship.
While the boys were busy building bigger and better boats, not to mention a lot of them, the diplomats were doing what they do best, diplomacy. Early in the new century (1905) Japan had defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, destroying most of Russia’s Pacific fleet and wiping out the Baltic fleet as they steamed to the aid of the Pacific fleet. The Japanese had made an unannounced pre-emptive strike on Port Arthur destroying the Russian Navy stationed there (can anyone say Pearl Harbour). This left Russia looking for an ally and since Britain had allied herself with Japan Russia turned to France for an alliance. France needed the large military might of Russia in order to offer two fronts to Germany in the chance Germany was to attack France. France also distrusted the British who had been their mortal enemies far back in time to the day when the British had captured Joan of Arc and some cleaver lad decided to burn her at the stake as a witch, rather than imprisoning her as the solidifying or rallying point of the French army. Smart move, now you’ve created a martyr! Then there was the little matter of the Seven Years War and the loss to Britain of Canada and that little matter of the Battle of Waterloo.
German diplomats couldn’t just let things alone either and attempted, as did the British to ally themselves to anyone who would consider it. Even a British/German alliance had been tossed about for a while. In the end Germany allied with Austria Hungary, France with Russia and Russia with Serbia. The British made up with France and formed an alliance and in the end the public must have been quite confused. Just when the comedians in the British music halls had developed ripping racist jokes about the French, their cheese and wine and they had to change their material to include poor imitations of German accents and making jokes about bratwurst sausages und beer.
Europe was poised on the brink of disaster and not unlike a row of dominos was just waiting for the first domino to be tipped over. Who at that time would have thought that the whole thing would be set in motion by a single pistol shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian youth on 28 July 1914?
Was the whole war avoidable? When looking back and knowing what we know now one would be tempted to answer in the affirmative. However, as we today are blind about what is just about to happen and the effects of our actions on the future so were those people at the turn of the twentieth century. I submit that the First World War was, due to the times, unavoidable. It’s much like this. What are you going to do right after that giant meteor that’s heading towards earth strikes us early next month?
Oh, sorry I wasn’t supposed to tell you that...look, over there...a squirrel.
In February 2012 I started on a series of blogs dealing with the collecting of items that didn’t really fall within the usual collecting parameters of military yet where on the fringe, or periphery, of that field. Originally I thought to begin with The London County Council (LCC) School Attendance Medals. I will admit that this was the only topic that came to mind that fit the category for which I was aiming and therefore was intended to be somewhat of a “one off” entry. After looking through the collection, in drawers long forgotten, I found several examples that fit into the area of collecting the periphery. So I decided to begin with some of those confident that I would soon exhaust the subject and armed with the LCC School Attendance Medals as my back up I waded in.
Some of the topics touched on in past blogs were, Japanese Red Cross Medals, Women’s Voluntary Service Medals, Life Saving Medals and Germany’s Mother’s Crosses, to name a few. It seemed that the more I dug around in the collection the more topics I found, always shoving the School Attendance Medals to the back of the class, so-to-speak; which coincidently is where I found myself for most of my formal education. So almost two and a half years later I am finally getting around to my original subject;
“The London County Council School Attendance Medals”.
A standardized education system was introduced to Britain in 1870 in the form of an official Education Act. With this came the requirements for the creation of School Boards. Prior to this time the education of British children was pretty much a hit and miss proposition with attendance being non-compulsory. With the use of child labour and the need for families to bring as much funding into the home as possible the value of an education, any formal education, was seen as an unnecessary luxury. The government of the day saw a good basic education for all children would produce citizens who could read, write, and understand the history, geography and, to a point, politics of the country. Then, as today, it was recognized that an educated population was more beneficial to the country than merely an uneducated population mainly suited to manual labour. Though this was to prove to be somewhat a double edged sword as better educated workers began to form trade unions and demands for better work conditions and higher wages were put forward, sometimes violently so. I will be posting a short article on the General Strike of 1926 in the main section of the forum under the British Police section at a later date.
Some of the regulations set out by the Education Act of 1870 besides the standardization of the education system were, mandatory attendance with non-attendance being punishable by law and a grant system for the running of the schools based on daily attendance.
I believe that here in Ontario Canada the grants were still based on daily attendance at least until the 1950s and possibly the 1960s, when this was replaced by an “enrolment system” whereby as long as you could drag your little monster to school and enroll him or her the government would fund the school. Attendance was still mandatory though there was the option of “Home Schooling”.
Returning to the 1870’s; it was decided that there needed to be a reward system aimed at the children to encourage daily attendance. Many school boards implemented a reward system where the child would earn picture cards for perfect attendance as well as medals for regular attendance for a whole school year.
The London County Council school board did not implement their award system as early as many other school boards and commenced their program in 1886. In order to qualify for the medal the child needed 100% attendance with even an unavoidable absence due to illness being sufficient enough for the child to be disqualified. The system was so strict that even the headmaster’s word that the child had perfect attendance was not acceptable; it required a certificate signed by the school managers. I would suspect that the school managers depended greatly on the honesty of the headmaster to supply accurate data, rather than the managers actually verifying, on a daily basis, that the child was actually in attendance. Even with these stringent regulations there were a great number of medals awarded every year.
The first of the LCC medals featured the bust of Queen Victoria and were struck in white metal which was suspended from a bronze plaque displaying the date. The pupil’s name was engraved on the back. In 1890 it was decided to offer medals stuck in different metals to signify those whose attendance went unbroken for longer periods of time. For years 1 to 3 it was white metal, 4 and 5 was in bonze and 6 through 9 years of perfect attendance the medal was gilt. Later on a 10th and even 11th year medal was offered in silver but according to some reports the only sliver 11th year medal struck was a specimen from Spink in competition for the contract; no pupils were ever awarded the 11th year medal.
Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 a new medal was struck featuring the bust of King Edward VII. There were some changes to the reverse of this medal but basically the design remained the same as the previous design. The obverse changed in 1910 as far as the wording and this can be seen in the photos below.
As time went on the regulations, as they applied to medal qualifications, were lightened somewhat and up to two days absence due to illness was allowed, with a note from the parents verifying the reason for the absence. Later, it was decided that the school board needed to recognize that children who were ill were best kept home in order to lessen the chances of a class-wide infection. Therefore, children who were ill for an extended period of time were not disqualified from receiving the medal.
1911 brought with it a new monarch, King George V, following the passing of his father King Edward VII. The first pattern of medal was similar to those from past monarchs. Up to this time the medals had been 1½ inches but a new design was proposed and past that completely changed the look of the medal.
The new medal was struck in bronze, suspended from a red, white and black ribbon in the military style, with the suspension bar reading LCC and the qualifying year shown on a clasp on the ribbon. For each additional qualifying year there would be a clasp added to the medal. From what I have found these “additional” clasps did not have the date specified and used a laurel branch design. The recipient’s name was shown on the medals edge rather than on the reverse and the size was reduced to 1¼ inches. There was a large medal also offered in 1912 for those who qualified under the old system, however these are very scarce with only 200 ever being awarded. The new smaller medals were issued throughout the “war years” and the last year this was offered was 1920.
In the end the LCC had the longest “run” of any of the other participating school boards having used the medals system for thirty years. One of the exciting parts of collecting these medals is that at times you can also pick up the original boxes and better yet sometimes you can get a series that was awarded to one student (see photo below).
In the above set you can see the change of design between 1909 and 1910 (Edward VII) and the George V large version of the 1911 as well as small version of the 1911/1912 medals. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to collect groups of medals that span monarchs as well as including design changes involving the same monarch, so this set really “spoke” to me.
I hope you found this blog interesting and it will encourage you to look outside of collecting only military medals, or at least consider looking into it.
For the vast majority of collectors collecting is a passion, an obsession; some would even call it a sickness, however, those are the people whose opinions are completely unworthy of consideration. They are like vegans at a BBQ telling me that if I knew where that steak came from I would not eat it. First of all Ive been a butcher in one of my varied past work experiences so I know where meat comes from and second I tell them that I see myself as a non-practising vegetarian, I support their views in principal but shut up and pass me another hamburger...please (I always like to be civil if not completely supportive). Im also a supporter of PETA as long as that stands for People Eating Tasty Animals. My perfect meal would be steak and shrimp with BBQ chicken as a chaser just to be fair to the animal kingdom in covering all of the bases of earth, sky and water. Im nothing if not fair...oh yes, and civil. By the way I do know that chickens dont fly, or at least not very well.
Now that we have eliminated the opinions of those annoying people who fail to understand us, be they friends or spouses, we can move on, even though, for some unexplained reason I am getting hungry.
When we start out collecting there seems to be a never ending supply of whatever it is that we have decided to base our collection on. Take medals for example, British medals for the sake of this discussion. You go along building a collection until you have almost all of the common specimens then you realize that unless you are collecting to a particular regiment and want to continue adding to your collection the next level is going to be quite expensive. Going from a WWI Trio at around $195.00 to a Crimea 1854 Sebastopol and Turkish Crimea 1855 pair at $795.00 can take ones breath away. (Current prices provided by Tanya Ursual of Medals of War)
So there you are at the proverbial crossroads of collecting (and the theme of this blog) with decisions to make. Do you take the jump to the higher level of collecting, continue on adding the same old/ same old or change collecting direction completely. Ive managed to come to this crossroads many times. Which way to go? Spend more money or change direction? Decisions, decisions, what to do? Lucky for me I can make such decisions easily as I almost always do both. Unfortunately Ive hit quite a bump in the road in that is as disastrous as the feared crossroads. No its not the advancing years of old age because I shall collect until my children pull the plug, pry the keyboard (eBay) from my cold dead fingers and nail the lid on the coffin. Actually my dear wife, Linda, said that one cannot let age determine how much we do or even what we do, within physical limits of course. Mixed Martial Arts is probably not in my future, nor Olympic javelin catching, but as to collecting its full steam ahead and the devil take the hind most.
Im actually out of room in the study for any additions to the collection that take up much space. So I am left with a decision to make, sell some items (like thats going to happen), stop collecting (seriously?), take over a second room (a possibility, one is available) or mainly collect smaller items such as medals. I do have a good deal of drawer space left for medals in the units I have built for that purpose. On the other hand that other room is looking more and more inviting all of the time. As you can see even collectors who have been collecting for a good number of years still find that they are standing at the crossroads from time to time.
I do have some advice for younger collectors, those who may still not be too deeply in debt to the dark side of collecting, to the point where their collection is no longer referred to as eclectic but rather just a jumble and bits of odds and ends.
Always set goals.
Ive always done this, however once a goal has been met and new ones started your collection will still become eclectic but at least not a hoard as might be expected of a hermit living next to the city dump. I set my goal for the British black powder firearms section of the collection starting with the Brown Bess and ending with the pre .303 cal. Martini Henrys. True somewhere along the line I did add a Bren gun and then an A1L1 FN, which still has Linda wondering how those last two fit into the collection. My only argument was that this section of the collection was a Brown Bess to Bren collection which was a great argument (to my way of thinking) until I purchased the FN then that hastily fabricated rational fell apart rather rapidly. Setting goals will assist you in staying on course and will end up costing less than collecting whatever comes along because you can afford it at the time. Its perfectly alright to have more than one goal at any given time within reason. For example you can be collecting British medals, German medals and cavalry swords at the same time but not also antique clown noses, left handed salt and pepper shakers and high compression muffler bearings. Its just too much. Keep it simple and focus.
Costs should not set the goal of a collection.
Dont let costs be the determining factor in the area you are collecting. By this I mean dont get to a point where there are still a good number of specimens left to collect but the price is getting too high. Still collect but not as much; were looking at quality/rarity verses quantity. Just because a Military Cross is a lot more money than a BWM should not be the only reason for changing direction. Sure if you are ready for a change then do so but if it is based on the cost then you need to slow down and add a new specimen when you can afford it and dont purchase other material at the same time.
Research, research, research.
Part of your collecting activities should be researching and studying the subject of your chosen field of collecting. There is a wealth of information out there in the form of books and on the internet. Take full advantage of them. Nothing is worse than a fellow with a large collection yet lacking in the knowledge of the history of the items themselves. Studying the background of the item in question will not only build a more interesting collection and a more interesting you but will help to ease the temptation to add more and more lower end items which prevents you from adding the more expensive and crucial items. Soon the addition of knowledge will become as crucial to your collection as the items themselves. Warning: While I said you will become more interesting it will probably only be so to fellow collectors. Dont expect the plebeians to understand.
Beware the Card.
Never and I mean never collect on the card. Credit cards are great and as long as you pay them off monthly everything will be alright. The pit fall is (and the banks are counting on this) if you purchase an item on the credit card then make the minimum payment at months end because there is something else you want you are dancing on a mine field and chances are that you will end up with the nick-name stumpy; a fellow who is always just short of being able to pay the credit card bill.
This is a tough one and ties into the next and last bit of advice. What is disposable income? Thats the money you have left over after EVERYTHING ELSE in your life has been paid off for the month. Its money you can afford to tie up, perhaps for the rest of your life. True you can always liquidate your collection when the need arrives, if it arrives, but at what loss. Youre probably making most of your purchases at market so when it comes to selling you will most likely be looking at wholesale values. If you need to dump the lot as soon as possible you will not likely get much more than twenty-five cents on the dollar invested. Only a fool thinks that everything he or she touches turns to gold, most of the time when you need to sacrifice a collection what you will realize out of it will be more akin to something you would spread on a garden. A sad but true fact of life.
Theres more to life than your collection.
I do not want to sound like one of, or both of, your parents but far too many collectors end up spending their limited free time on the collection rather than on family and friends. Collections come and go and so will family and friends if you ignore them long enough. This is getting preachy but better you hear it from me than a divorce lawyer.
Set some goals, stay the course and remember that there will always be more material out there to collect than there is money to purchase it. Most of all dont forget what is really important in life.
Eight years ago my friend in India, and fellow GMIC member, Samir, strongly suggested that I look into this forum with the intention of possibly joining. It hardly seems like eight years have passed by since I joined, but the numbers don’t lie; eight years and not one regret. True there have been times when I have found myself biting my lip for want of making a curt reply to someone’s remarks but calmer emotions took over and I refrained from adding fuel to the fire. This calming down process has taken several days in some cases but it is a matter of the ends justifying the means (in this case time).
I’m not one to belong to very many forums, finding my “free” time limited; a phenomenon that has only increased since my retirement from public life last autumn. I have, on the other hand visited several other forums and researched material on some of my collectables found there. What I have found on some of these forums, not all being military orientated, was rather an eye opener. Compared with the GMIC some forums have an over abundance of rude, crude and lewd members, sort of “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” of the internet. Some forums seem to have no set rules while others are quite draconian in there enforcement.
That’s not to say there are no rules here, as there are and somewhat restrictive if one was to enforce them to the extreme. However that holds true with any law or legislation anywhere in the free world. What I have observed in the past and present is an overwhelming sense of gentlemanly conduct demonstrated by the membership. Only on rare occasions has it been necessary that the rule book be taken off the shelf, the thick layer of dust blown from the cover and the “Riot Act” read.
The atmosphere generated, in my opinion, by our Chairman, Nick and the rest of the founding members have galvanized this group of collectors into what can only be described as a true internet “community”. It has been said that it takes a community to raise a child and this holds true here. It takes the whole community working together to foster this feeling of cohesiveness and desire to help one another to enjoy our hobby.
In closing, I would like to wish the Gentleman’s Military Interest Club a happy 10th Anniversary and the hope for many more to come. Further to this I would like to thank our Chairman, Nick, for following through with his brain-child and developing what can only be seen as one of the top military interest forums on the internet today. Congratulations, Nick, on the 10th Anniversary of your successful creation.
I might be famous as the one person to start a phobia all by myself and I have deemed it to be Femoraliaphobia.
For years one of my many obsessions which includes a need to check the weather forecast, always knowing what time it is and the need to have everything in neat rows has been to create drawers in everything I build in the shop. This coming year I plan to build another kitchen table, this time longer than the eight foot one we presently have, at least a twelve footer, and I’ve included drawers in the drawing. Years ago my Amish ancestors always included a drawer in the end of the table, where the elder sat this, I have been told, was a Bible drawer. I’m thinking silver ware etc. but still a functional and quite practical application, even if I do say so myself.
While on the topic of the Bible, it says in the Good Book “...go forth and multiply...”. We had five children, all married and in the process of adding to the population of the world. One would think that an eight foot long table should suffice but at times I think the kids are taking the Bible a bit too literally; this has caused the need for a longer, twelve foot table. Of course not only do I digress from the subject of this blog but I do so in jest.
Yes, I’ll put drawers in anything and everywhere I can. I once built a table for one of the washrooms that fit in between the wall and the bathroom vanity. My wife was less than impressed to find that not only was there a drawer in the front of the table there was one in each end as well, even though they could never be pulled out due to the wall on one side and the vanity on the other. She of course needed to know why; she is a bit of a “needy” woman, always needing to know why, in her words, “would anyone in any imaginable universe even think of doing ...(fill in the blank)?” My answer is always to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary in that I did it because I could. This makes me once again digress with the thoughts of Sir Edmund Hillary at the summit of Everest and never having his photo taken to commemorate the event. He took a photo of his Sherpa holding his ice axe but never had his own photo taken. Did he have fears that Tenzing Norgay would take off with the camera and run to the nearest pawn shop? I suppose one could argue that there may have been a pawn shop as close as 29,029 feet away, albeit straight down. You really need to work on those trust issues Sir Edmund.
Sorry for the side tracking, I’m back now. I believe that most of the world’s problems revolves around drawers, either the over abundance of them or the lack of drawers in some cases. In the past some countries obviously had too many drawers and found most were empty. Hannibal is a good example, too many drawers and not enough to fill them, so he went to Rome because they had more things than drawers to put them in and brought stuff back for the drawers of Carthage. Everyone was happy until the cabinet makers of Rome made more drawers and Rome wanted their things back and therefore went to Carthage to get their stuff back to fill their new drawers. They liked Carthage so much they stayed in the area after they applied salt to the lands where the city used to exist, as a biodegradable weed control, or so I surmise.
Almost everything should be kept or could be kept in drawers. Socks, in drawers; silverware, in drawers; handguns, in drawers; cats, well perhaps not everything. I like to keep most of my collection in drawers as to display all of it in display cases would take up the whole house, seriously. So as I finished up the second drawer cabinet of the year my dear wife expressed a deep concern about my obsessive behaviour. She thinks I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which is sheer madness because first of all it should be CDO because that is the correct order the letters should be in, and secondly, ... alright I don’t really have an argument. I think she is the one with physiological problems and I have even come up with a clinical term for it, Femoraliaphobia; a fear of drawers. Her argument is that as soon as I build more drawer cabinets I can’t stand not filling them and that starts the collecting mania once again. Yah, like collecting could ever be considered a mania; sometime I wonder why I even try to have a conversation with her. Women! They’re always bringing reason and common sense into every discussion.
Just to prove her wrong I went into the study, at her request, and counted the number of drawers holding my collection. I only have 199 drawers, all in beautiful neat rows. It’s not like I have 200 drawers or anything, now that might be considered obsessive. Not by me mind, but by some.
So there you have it. I may have accidently caused my wife to develop Femoraliaphobia. If she decides to seek help I can build her some drawers to keep the files in, after all most things should be kept in drawers.
I’m off to surf eBay now as I noticed there were some empty drawers in one cabinet.
There are times as I sit in my study, usually later in the evening, I feel a bit like the narrator in Poe’s “The Raven”
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
''Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more.'
The exception being that the raven in my case is a Nazi eagle desk ornament and the “forgotten lore” attestation papers of Canadian and British servicemen of the First World War. Perhaps it is advancing age that makes me more pensive, or simply maudlin, but I start to think about these people listed on the official documents more deeply than simply an addition to the seemingly ever-growing collection. I look at the drawers and drawers (literally drawers and drawers) of medals and the filing cabinet of documents, some supporting the medals collection and some standing as the only record of passed souls and think how much this is like a morgue. The last repository of the earthly remains of soldiers long past. Walls festooned with weapons, the tools of war wielded by men much braver than me and think that it is a shame that this may be all there is left of these heroes.
In some rare cases I have been put in the position of being the custodian of almost all of the family history of a soldier; past into my keeping by people who no longer care about their own roots. A sad comment on humanity as a person without knowledge of their roots is like a ship without a rudder. Still, this lack of concern on their part has allowed me to get to know some of the soldiers on a much deeper level than a simple engraved medal or statistics on an attestation document.
One case involves two brothers who both went to war; one married the other a single man. As fate would have it the married brother never returned. The unmarried brother returned and took over the duties of his brother raising the children and looking after his brother’s wife until the end of their years well into their eighties. One may look upon this today as being a bit odd but it was a different time and responsibility for others seen in a different light. If you were to see the photo of them sitting by the seaside well into their eighties, a true loving couple, you would not criticize their decision. In fact what right do any of us have to pass judgement on those who went through the horrors of the Great War and suffered the grief and losses they experienced?
Another case deals with brothers-in-law, one starting in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1914 and then being killed in 1918 while serving with the Bedfordshire Regiment. The other, a younger man, earned his Aviation Certificate as a Lieutenant in 1918 and flew as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. After the War he became an aviation engineer designing and developing aircraft through World War Two and well beyond.
The last I will mention in this article concerns a gentleman whose failing marriage found him living in a hotel when he enlisted. Some of the first photos of him, in the collection, show him at work as a mason. Later on we see him just as he arrives in England. In later photos one can see the effect the war is having on him. He is no longer the healthy-looking young man but a gaunt worn out old chap who will die shortly after the last photo that was taken in 1917. Letters to his son and beloved daughter bear no mention of their mother, his estranged wife, a harbinger of the resentment and hatred that was festering in her that would later be spread to the children resulting in their rejection of his very memory. She may have held a great deal of animosity toward her husband however it is evident by the government documentation that this did not extend to her acceptance of the war widows pension. As the years past and the children aged the amount of the pension decreased as did any feelings of good will toward our poor soldier even from his children and eventually his grand children. I purchased his Memorial Cross and BWM from his grand-daughter and then received boxes and boxes of photos and documents dating back well into the mid 1800’s, at no extra cost. The choice I had was to either accept the material or it was going to the land fill (garbage).
In some cases my study has become the repository of the only memories left of these lost souls with me being its curator. Stories cut short by war, others prevented from the opportunity to correct their mistakes in life and other paths changed forever. Stories once investigated, beyond the veneer of the serving soldier, into the deeper aspect of these real people and their personal trials and tribulations begins to forge a bond between researcher and subject. They become a true part of your life and to write their stories brings up a conflict somewhere between the desires to honour their memory and betrayal of a confidence shared.
Looking back at the German eagle stand-in for Poe’s Raven I can’t help but hope its famous statement is a prophecy regarding war - “Nevermore”.
A few days ago, over in the Japan Section, a discussion was started regarding the use of “shills”. If you have never visited the Japan Section you should do so, it is quite interesting and quickly becoming the place to go for researching Japanese medals and decorations.
A “shill”, in case you didn’t know, is a person who is employed by an auctioneer to drive up the bids so that the item sells for more than it normally would have.
Years ago and before the internet I used to dabble in antiques, buying, repairing and reselling them. This involved a lot of evenings spent in auction houses and estate sales. One auctioneer in particular kept several burly rotund fellows employed to move the items onto the stage and off again after the item had been auctioned off. When not engaged in this activity they would sit in large armchairs which were perched on folding tables like well fed yet dishevelled scavengers, at the rear of the bidder’s area. If you watched them closely one would always make an indiscrete bid if the item was not reaching the bid that the auctioneer was trying to reach. Remember, the higher the final bid the more the auction house profits in their “cut”. Now, with the advent of the internet and the auction sites available, more people than ever are placing bids and “attending” auctions from the comfort of their own homes. With this new venue comes the return of the old practise of employing shills, though in a slightly different way.
Today, regardless of the rules set out by the online auction sites, people are able to cheat through several means if they are inclined to do so. Spouses can each have an account and bid on the other partner’s items to run the bid higher. Other adult family members and friends can also perform these duties not even to mention the person who will set up two separate memberships and bid on their own items. I’m not sure if this is still the case but eBay used to charge extra to place a reserve bid on an item assuring the seller would get a minimum amount for the item that would be acceptable to the seller. Using one of these underhanded means circumvents this “legal” reserve bid option and at no extra cost; which finally brings me to the meat of my story.
There is a local collector that I was acquainted with through our wives who worked together. This fellow used to spend each and every day on eBay and bought and sold with a passion that surpassed the border between fanaticism and a sick obsession straight to the lunatic fringe. He had taken an early retirement for the armed forces and had a small pension so this allowed him the luxury, if not the funds, to sit in front of the computer screen all day long.
He had approached me several times to place bids on his items at what he considered a reserve bid, without having to pay eBay for their service. Each time he asked I declined.
As a bit more background information, he collected WWI medals named to members of his old regiment. One of the arrangements he made with me, that I agreed to, was that if he were away and not near a computer I would bid on items he was interested in so that he would not miss out on them. While he was away one time there was a BWM named to a Sergeant from his regiment offered for sale. I waited until near the end and not seeing his eBay name as a bidder placed a maximum bid high enough to assure I would “win” it for him. Unknown to me he had access to a computer and had been watching the medal himself. Being a paranoid and rather untrusting person he placed a very high maximum bid just before the auction closed (sniped) and won the item. He then wanted me to plead with the seller, a well known dealer here in Ontario, Canada, that he should only have to pay the price that my first bid would have come to and not the final bid. He even had the nerve to ask that I pose as his wife bidding on the item as his birthday gift. Talk about one sick individual! I flatly refused to do this. A day or two later I was contacted by the seller (remember we, my wife and I, are quite well known to this dealer) and asked for the facts as he had spun her several odd stories. I told her that she should ignore them and that I would purchase the medal if he didn’t want to pay the amount he had bid. Needless to say this fellow was enraged at my decision. He paid the deal the agreed upon price of his final bid. I didn’t tell him but I would have let him have the medal for what I paid if he hadn’t purchased it. The difference between the two bids was only twenty dollars. Actually I still considered him a friend at that time, (talk about gullible), and would have gifted the medal to him, had he not been such an ass.
Shortly after this he asked me once again to act as a shill on a couple of auctions he had going. One was an individual medal and the other was a small South African War group. By this time I had had it with him so I said I would do it under these conditions. He would tell me his “reserve” bid that he wanted me to assure and I would place a maximum bid higher than that. Then if my bid was the winning bid he would have to actually follow through and sell the item or items to me. In the end I did indeed win both auctions and I had placed my maximum well above what he wanted as I really did want these in my collection. I made the payment through Pay Pal and then, he went ballistic. He didn’t want to let me have the items and said he would refund my Pay Pal costs. I gave him a choice, either hand over the medals or explain to eBay why he had broken the rules regarding following through with the conditions set out by eBay and also why he was trying to use shills in his auction. I knew the names and eBay user names of two of his friends who were actively acting as shills for him and was ready to burn him. Yes, I am the type of person who, if you piss me off bad enough, will hug you as I pull the pin on the grenade!
In the end he acquiesced and let me have the medals after telling me what I could do with them. I didn’t follow his suggestion, of course, opting instead to place them in my collection. We haven’t spoken since and that’s alright by me as this is one time revenge, if not justice, was levied on a seller who was using shills.