Saturday, 28 December 2013

New Year 1914: a snapshot of world events

Since most people have the conception that no one in Britain anticipated the outbreak of war in 1914, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back in time to the start of that year - from a century later - and find out what was happening in the world.  Although the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo did not occur until June, signs of the conflict to come had been recognised by politicians for at least two years prior to the events that sparked the actual outbreak of war.

The fact that I couldn't find very much at all to help me indicates that most people's conception is probably correct.  The UK on 1st January 1914 seems to have been rather a quiet place.  One of the most exciting things happening in Europe was the international rugby match between France and Ireland in Paris, kicking off a new season of the Five Nations Championship.  Ireland scored two tries to defeat the home XV in a closely-fought but low-scoring match.  However, it would be England who emerged victorious at the end of the championship, beating off all-comers, a fact that the sports-loving Siegfried Sassoon no doubt noted.

Siegfried would have been even more interested in the third Test match played by the touring England cricket team in South Africa, which also began on 1st January.  England won the toss and chose to bat.  Their opener, the great Jack Hobbs, scored 92 to help them to an almost unassailable first innings lead; their victory gave them a 3-0 lead in the series overall.

Elsewhere in the British Empire, the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria were merged into one colony - still, of course, under British rule.  The name "Nigeria" seems to have been coined by Lady Lugard, the former ''Times'' journalist Flora Shaw.  Unusually for a woman, she had travelled widely in the course of her career and had been the paper's Colonial Editor; she came up with the name some years before she married Sir Frederick Lugard, who would go on to be the Governor-General of the new merged colony.

At 8am on 1st January 1914, a crowd of about three thousand people began to gather on the jetty at St Petersburg, Florida, USA, to watch the take-off of the first commercial flight in the history of aviation. The pilot was the memorably-named Antony Habersack Jannus; his sole passenger was Abram C Phiel, the town's former mayor, who had paid $400 for a 23-minute flight to Tampa, which would normally take three hours by train.  Pilot and passenger arrived safely at their destination, and thus began a regular passenger service.

Of more interest to those with an artistic bent, perhaps, is the expiry of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which had been in operation since 1886 (coincidentally the year of Siegfried's birth).  Neither the UK nor the USA had fully signed up to the agreement, but the Liceu in Barcelona did not miss the trick.  Five minutes after the convention expired at midnight, the theatre launched its new production of Wagner's opera Parsifal, previously the exclusive preserve of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Gustav Holst, a British composer of German and Eastern European ancestry, began composing his orchestral suite The Planets, which remains his best-known work, around this time.  Holst later denied any link between the "Mars" movement and the outbreak of war, claiming that it had been completed well before the summer's catastrophic chain of events.  The German composer Richard Strauss was simultaneously working on his score for the ballet Josephslegende, based on the Biblical story of Joseph.  It had not gone well, with Strauss remarking to a correspondent that he did not like the subject matter and composing it had been "a hell of an effort".  The work would, however, be ready by May 1914 when it was premiered at the Paris Opera. Thereafter, the choreographer Serge Diaghilev would restrict himself to working with French and Russian composers until the end of the war.

The New Year celebrations were muted for one community in South Wales.  At the Corymynydd Colliery in Cwmavon, David Howell, a widower aged 44, was crushed by a falling rock and killed instantly.  It was less than three months since the explosion at Senghenydd Colliery near Caerphilly had claimed 440 lives, the worst mining disaster in British history.  Life was hard for many in the industrial valleys, as Siegfried would witness at first hand in the post-war years when he went to Merthyr to report on the plight of striking miners.

At Christmas 1913, Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had visited his home area of Criccieth in North Wales, where a reporter from the Daily Chronicle interviewed him to find out his views on the amount the nation was spending on armaments.  "I cannot think of any advantage," said the Chancellor, "which has been reaped by any country in the world from this increase of military and naval expenditure." With a curious lack of foresight (or perhaps a desire to keep the truth from the public), he went on to comment that "our relations with Germany are infinitely more friendly now than they have been for years".

Striking miners were not a peculiarity of the British Isles.  Following a disaster when over seventy people were crushed to death at a Christmas party in Calumet, Michigan, USA, resentment against the local copper mining company remained strong and a strike that had already been going on for five months continued until April 1914; the men involved had no idea that they were likely to find themselves in an even more dangerous situation if and when the USA was dragged into the war that threatened Europe.  Their president, Woodrow Wilson, was preoccupied with the national economy, and would spend the next three years doing his best to keep his country out of the war.  He had recently made the statement (often misreported in later years)  that "the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest".

The Americans had plenty to be optimistic about.  The Woolworth Building, New York's first skyscraper, had opened in May, the Lincoln Highway in October, and in December Ford had introduced the world's first moving assembly line.  The USA had little to gain by supporting Britain and her allies.  Thus there was plenty of popular support for Wilson's strategy, and only the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 would turn the tide of opinion against him.

On the other side of the globe, Australians had no thought of being drawn into a European war.  The progressive young country had its own problems, but the future looked bright.  Australia was even advertising for "healthy British lads of good character" to work and live there; they wanted to get away from the idea that theirs was a nation descended from convicts.  As if to demonstrate how civilised they were, they would be quick to respond to the call to arms, when it came, from their mother country.

Italy and France were at least back on friendly terms.  On 30th December 1913, the Italian government returned the Mona Lisa to its neighbours.  The painting had been stolen from the Louvre in 1911; Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were among the suspects, but the real culprit was an Italian employee who believed that Leonardo's masterpiece belonged in its homeland.  The thief was apprehended when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence on 12th December, but the authorities took advantage of their temporary possession to ensure the Italian public had a chance to view it before handing it back to the French as a kind of New Year present.

What about the enemy?  In October, Arthur Zimmerman, Germany's deputy Foreign Minister, told Edward Goschen, Britain's ambassador in Berlin, that Austria's recent ultimatum to Serbia "might lead to serious consequences".  The Second Balkan War had concluded in the summer of 1913, with the Treaty of Bucharest.  In Serbia, the country that had gained most from that treaty, the Black Hand, effectively a terrorist organisation, was on the rise, numbering Crown Prince Alexander among its supporters.  Alexander would soon become regent, when his father, the ageing King Peter I, decided to "retire" early in 1914.

In November 1913, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the couple whose assassination seven months later would spark off the war, had been entertained at Windsor Castle by King George V and Queen Mary. Many European courts still declined to welcome the couple because the Archduke's wife, Sophie, had begun life as a commoner; theirs was a morganatic marriage.  In the same month, the elderly King Otto of Bavaria, who had for some years been confined under medical supervision at a palace in Munich, was deposed and replaced by a cousin, Ludwig III, who was stolidly pro-German.  He would be Bavaria's last king.  Among the volunteers who joined his army in early 1914 was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler.

Karl Barth, an eminent theologian born in Switzerland just a few months before Siegfried Sassoon was born at Weirleigh, had recently married and was serving as a pastor in the Reformed church.  Barth would quickly reject German Protestant liberal thinking when its proponents, such as Adolf Harnack and Wilhelm Hermann, came out in open support of the war.  His own country would remain neutral with difficulty, being forced to deploy troops the length of its border to maintain this position.

King Constantine I of Greece, who had become king following the assassination of his Danish-born father, King George I, in 1913, would have an equally difficult task in maintaining his country's neutrality. Considered a German sympathiser by the Allies, he would be forced to abdicate in 1917.  By 1939, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Germany, Turkey, and of course Russia, would all have done away permanently with their monarchies.

How the world has changed in a century!  To me, most of the events I have recounted above seem so remote as to be almost unbelievable; and yet, when leafing through The Weald of Youth, I always find myself marvelling at Siegfried Sassoon's astute observations of human nature, as relevant today as they ever were.  If only things had changed enough in the past hundred years to reassure us that World War III will never take place.

Friday, 20 December 2013

A Christmas Truce

The latest edition of the IWM's First World War Centenary newsletter highlights the topic of "Christmas at War", which is a coincidence as that's what I was just going to write about.  Not really a coincidence, of course, since it's only five days until the big day is upon us, but certainly fortuitous from my point of view as it has given me a few thoughts beyond the obvious - the obvious being the well-worn story of the Christmas Truce of 1914.  For some reason, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear the story is an episode of Steptoe and Son, in which evil old Albert Steptoe became sentimental when recollecting his experiences in the trenches.  "And then," he recounts to his son Harold, "he went back to his trench and I went back to mine."  "And then," adds Harold, "you shot him."  

It's the kind of dialogue Siegfried Sassoon could have written if he'd ever become a TV scriptwriter.  Wilfrid Brambell, who played Steptoe senior, never served in the war, having been too young at the time (and Irish to boot), but he would certainly have remembered it, and it always surprised me that jokes about the war were allowed, especially on the BBC, at a time when many viewers would have had clear memories of those terrible years.  Perhaps there were complaints.  There were certainly complaints about a later sitcom, Dad's Army, when it first appeared on screen in 1968, yet it went on to become one of the all-time jewels in the BBC's crown.

Dad's Army was based on the true experiences of writer Jimmy Perry, who had served in the Home Guard at the age of seventeen and modelled many of the characters on people he remembered, in much the same way as Sassoon fictionalised his own experiences in the Sherston trilogy.  It would not have done for those not personally involved in the war to have made light of it, but for soldiers to do so was almost de rigueur; how otherwise would they have kept their spirits up?

It has been estimated that over 100,000 men participated in unofficial truces up and down the front line at Christmas 1914.  It seems to have been the Germans who started it - the truce, that is - by decorating parts of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees, and proceeding to sing carols.  But there was so much more to Christmas 1914 than games of football in No Man's Land and the exchange of cigarettes.  In December, the women of Germany wrote an open letter to the "women of all nations", urging them not to let "the thunder of guns and the shouts of the jingoes" cause them to forget their humanity.  The letter was printed in a British magazine, and an Open Christmas Letter was issued in response by a group of prominent women led by Emily Hobhouse; the signatories included Margaret Bondfield and Eva Gore-Booth.  This letter had to be sent to the neutral USA for publication.

The restrictions on the French press were far worse; they were not allowed to report that French soldiers had participated in a truce with the enemy, and this led to the impression that the truce had happened only in British-held sectors of the Western Front and helped give it the status of a legend, resulting in the fact that many people in later years did not believe it had actually happened.

Thus we see that, long before Siegfried Sassoon began making his outspoken criticisms of the way the war was being handled, there were many people throughout Europe who did not approve of it and would gladly have ended it immediately if they had been able.  Most importantly, such people existed on both sides. However, just as Sylvia Pankhurst, who was speaking out against the war as early as October 1914, took the decision to support the British war effort by providing work and food for servicemen's wives, so the German Social Democratic Party went from protesting against the declaration of war to supporting their government, and the French socialists behaved in similar fashion; the assassination of the pacifist Jean Jaurรจs on 31 July 1914 was a major blow to their hopes of pulling back from the brink.

Could the war have been stopped at this stage?  I am no expert on either the politics of the time or the military strategies of the countries involved, but it seems to me that what caused it to continue, despite the sincere wishes of the common people, was an unwillingness on the part of their respective governments to give way, to be seen to "fail" or "lose" the war they had started.  Let us not dwell on that thought as we head towards the season of goodwill.  Let us just be grateful that there were men like Sassoon and Owen among the troops, to tell it like it was; if it were not for them, we might have forgotten.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Stand To!

No, I'm not referring to the Sassoon poem ("I'd been on duty from two till four", etc) but to the title of the Western Front Association's regular publication.  Right from the start of the SSF, we've had many shared members, but in recent years our collaboration with the WFA has reached new levels and, I trust, will continue for many years into the future.  "Stand To!" comes out three times a year, alternating with the equally excellent "Bulletin".  Both provide many potential hours of happy reading.

Needless to say, although we in the Fellowship have much common ground with the WFA, their focus is different.  One of our committee came close to offending a member, a little while ago, by referring to him as a "First World War enthusiast" - it goes without saying that he didn't mean it in the literal sense.  I don't think there can be anyone in the SSF who feels enthusiastic either about the fact that the war was fought or about the way that it was fought.  What our organisation celebrates is the resilience, courage and determination of those who fought it, and most of all the creative work that emerged as a result.  

The Western Front Association tends to have a more military focus.  Many of its members are ex-service people, and are naturally interested in the strategy and tactics, the technology and the terrain, but that does not make them war "enthusiasts" either.  Like us, they have a very broad range of interests.  On page 25 of the latest bulletin, which I received this week, is a beautiful reproduction of a painting entitled "In Flanders Fields", which was done by an American lady in the 1920s and uses the words of MacCrae's poem as the central feature of an Art Nouveau illustration in stunning colours.  Two types of inspiration - an outstanding piece of literature and an outstanding work of art - both born out of one of the most destructive and unhappy episodes in world history.

Reading the WFA's publications, however, it is clear that many of its members agree with Gary Sheffield that the war was neither pointless nor ill-conceived - a view I suspect few SSF members would share.  "We shouldn't rely on Wilfred Owen's version of events," wrote Professor Sheffield in The Guardian last June.  (I would like to think that he decided to lay off Siegfried after I gave him an SSF pen at an event in 2012.)  He described the war as "an existential struggle", which seems a fair description if you look at it from the point of view of the individual soldier.  

An alternative view, quoted by the editor of the Bulletin, is that of Professor Jay Winter: Speaking of the outbreak of war in 1914, Winter wrote: "what a disaster that moment was, a moment when the population of Europe was frogmarched in to an unnecessary war, and learned that the only way to win it was with hatred and violence".  When he had the leisure, Sassoon certainly recognised an unpleasant side of himself brought out by the war, a side that was capable of hating and killing Germans whom he would ordinarily have preferred to have as friends.  Yet when it came down to making his stand, he placed the blame squarely on the politicians, not on the military commanders.

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has caused many of us to reflect on what might have happened, on how world leaders might have pursued a different course of action had they been capable of foreseeing how the war would turn out.  Perhaps only a reformed terrorist like Mandela can be expected to recognise how much more can be achieved by peaceful negotiation and settlement than by fighting.  Sadly, history has a tendency to repeat itself and we already know that, whatever the moral rights and wrongs of the situation, the lesson of the First World War is likely to have little impact on future events, or at least none for the better.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Children at War

Among many First World War-related items in the latest edition of BBC History magazine was a snippet about Sidney Lewis.  The name will be unfamiliar to many of those reading this blog.  Sidney Lewis has recently been confirmed as the war's youngest authenticated combatant, having joined up in August 1915 at the age of twelve, fooling officialdom into believing him some years older.

Lewis was one of the lucky ones.  Having run away from his home in Tooting, he spent several months in training before seeing active service with the 106th Machine Gun Company.  A year after joining up, his location became known to his mother, who duly sent off a copy of his birth certificate to the War Office, and received a response stating that "the lad will be discharged with all possible speed" (perhaps a rather unfortunate way of putting it). 

The story inevitably put me in mind of Dannie Abse's memorable poem "Cousin Sidney", even though the setting for the latter is the Second World War.  Unlike his namesake, Sidney Lewis survived his war experiences and was awarded a Victory Medal in 1920, by which time the teenager had attained the rank of Lance Sergeant (having re-enlisted in 1918).  When, in later years, he told his son Colin that he had fought on the Somme, Colin simply did not believe him; this must have been rather galling after the lengths he had gone to in order to enlist.

This may be rather a controversial statement, but it strikes me that war relies for its continuation on the fearlessness and inexperience of very young men.  When I asked my late uncle about his feelings on hearing of the declaration of war in 1939, a few weeks after he had joined the embryonic Fleet Air Arm at the age of fifteen, he said "we felt exhilarated, we weren't scared at all".  He was even luckier than Sidney Lewis, since he spent most of the war repairing aeroplanes in India, but he was not to know this at the time; if he had been able to foresee the form his military experience would take, the fifteen-year-old in him might have been disappointed.

In more recent years we have witnessed the horrific sight of children in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and other African countries being armed with rifles and trained to go into battle,  and the use of conscripted children by the Khmer Rouge in the Far East is legendary.  These children are forced into fighting; they may feel fear but it makes no difference to those who would use them for their own ends.  This is, of course, different from the military use of children by most of the countries who participated in the Second World War.  Jewish children participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, Yugoslav children formed a "Partisan Artillery", and in the UK the minimum age for Home Guard participation was lowered to sixteen in 1942.  The Germans formed an entire SS Panzer Tank Division from teenage members of the Hitler Youth. 

Today we have a more tender view of young people.  We believe in nurturing and protecting them.  Yet the minimum age for joining the British army is still sixteen; Christian and pacifist groups have recently been campaigning to have it raised to eighteen, so far without success.  Among their number are ex-soldiers, one of whom commented: "You're still a child.  At eighteen, you're going through massive life changes."

War can, as Siegfried Sassoon saw, make one grow up very quickly.