The Guns of August

August has always been a good month to start a war. The reasons are simple: the harvest is ripening; the men are fit and ready; the long days are perfect for campaigning without worrying about the weather; and the summer heat seems to encourage rash decisions. In the Foreign Legion they call it le cafard – the depression or madness brought on by a hot summer.

We don’t have to look far for examples. Hitler decided to unleash his legions against Poland in August 1939; Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008; on 14 August 1974, Turkey launched its ‘Second Peace Operation’, which resulted eventually in the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus; and, most notorious of all, what started out as a European conflict went global in August 1914 when Britain declared war.

Well might Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, muse as he watched the lights going out on 4 August: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

If ever there was a war that changed the world it was World War I. Many of our international problems today stem from that disastrous August of 1914 and the conflict it spawned: Communism, Stalin, the USSR, Hitler and his Nazis, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Islamic fundamentalism were all offspring of World War I. Most damaging of all were World War II and the long Cold War that followed. All have their origins in what was nothing more than a ruinous four-year civil war in Europe.

The irony is that it all went wrong from the start and could have been avoided with a little adroit diplomacy. If there is a villain of the story in 1914 it was the German General Staff, who had been planning for years how to deal with a war on two fronts. Under the eye of a workaholic general (he even went to work on Christmas day, according to his family), Generaloberst Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan. Blackadder would probably have it called it ‘a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.’

Unfortunately it wasn’t. The great Schlieffen plan was a deadly political and diplomatic trap. Even some Germans realised it at the time.

Late in the afternoon of 1 August 1914, Colonel General Helmuth von Möltke was driving back to the Army HQ in the Königsplatz when his car was stopped and he was commanded to return to the Royal Palace immediately. Back at the Berliner Schloss, a jubilant Kaiser told the head of the German armies that he had received a telegram from London assuring him that Britain would guarantee that, if Germany refrained from going to war with France, then London would ask the French not to attack Germany.

The Kaiser was ecstatic and ordered champagne; ‘Now we need only wage war against Russia! So we simply advance with the whole army in the east.’

Von Möltke was appalled. ‘But it is too late, Highness. All the planning, the stores and the armies are already moving west. The 16th infantry division is even now securing the railway junctions at Trier and in Luxembourg. It has been planned for years… we will just have a disorganised rabble without supplies. It cannot be done.’

A shocked Kaiser responded coldly, ‘Your uncle would have given me a different answer.’ Thrown out by a balked Kaiser, von Möltke went back to his office and wept.

He might have cried some more if he realised that the great Schlieffen plan was not just a rigid diplomatic and political cage: it had some serious flaws. Any decent general staff planner can spot them immediately. First, it relied on invading Belgium to outflank the French from the north. That would almost certainly drag the British into any war, as they were a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Not a clever political move?

Second, it relied on Russia taking weeks to mobilise, thereby allowing the Germans to knock the French out of the war before Russia could attack in the east.

Unfortunately the German planners had forgotten their own rule: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ The Russians were disobliging enough to mobilise quickly and invade East Prussia and Poland, which caused something like panic in Berlin. Stories of sad German refugees streaming west from the marauding Cossack hordes forced the Kaiser to send his priceless reinforcements to the east, not to France.

Third, and most damaging of all, the much vaunted brains of the German General Staff just hadn’t done their sums. To march through Belgium, then south through France to Paris or the Marne is about 240 miles (380 km). But the German troop trains stopped in Belgium. From then on it was ‘Shank’s pony’, as the increasingly hot and exhausted Ländser pursued the retreating French and British Expeditionary Force south.

This is where the general staff got it so badly wrong; like a piece of elastic the German supply line was stretched a little further every day. In those pre-lorry days, every round of ammunition, every bale of hay for the horses, every bit of food for the weary troops, even horseshoes and new boots for the footsore soldiers, had to find its way forward on an ever-lengthening supply chain to the advancing armies, which were getting further and further away from their logistic bases.

After two weeks the supply chain was stretched so far that hay intended for the front-line horses was being consumed by the horses trying to bring it forward. At the front horses were dying from lack of food or falling sick from eating green unripe corn. The great advance faltered and slowed in the sweltering heat. The German generals then took a fateful decision. Realising that they couldn’t surround Paris – it was now too far and would take too long – they ordered the advance to swing south, to the east of Paris. By doing so they presented a flank to the army in Paris, who promptly attacked and stopped the Germans on the river Marne. The German advance was over; they fell back in September to dig trenches and go on the defensive.

That was the moment the Germans found themselves fighting a war on two fronts. That was the moment Germany lost the Great War .

The four bloody years that followed merely reinforced the outcome of that August. But from that war, the world changed out of all recognition. The effect and consequences of World War I were dramatic. In 1914 Europe controlled most of the world, effectively. For five hundred years Europeans had sailed the globe, seizing land and dominating what Kipling called ‘lesser breeds without the law.’ The 15th-century European voyages of Henry the Navigator – resulting in discoveries and maritime expansion into Africa and Asia – set up the Portuguese Empire. A century later Spain dominated the Americas, to be followed on the high seas by the Dutch, the French, the English and the Americans, all projecting their trade and power across the world. By the 19th century, Europe, and European ideas and values, ruled the world in one form or another. The ‘Guns of August’ put a stop to that. By 1922, the Russian, German, Austrian Ottoman empires were no more. France and Britain were bankrupted and enfeebled and new countries after Versailles were hostages to future problems, from the Balkans to the Middle East.

The Great War opened a Pandora’s box of problems that has haunted us ever since.

Once again we are in the danger zone this month for armed conflict somewhere. So, yes, beware the month of August. Statistically speaking, this tends to be the favoured season for wars to start.

Looking around at our troubled world, it is worrying that there are far too many conflicts waiting to explode.

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On the Freedom of the Press

The row that has blown up over the leaking of the British ambassador’s private opinions of President Trump and his administration has far-reaching consequences.

In a crude but accurate of an ambassador’s job description, Sir Christopher Meyer in his memoir, DC Confidential, revealed that Tony Blair’s chief of staff had instructed him to ‘get up the arse of the White House and stay there’ when George W Bush was President. Having been effectively barred from the White House, suddenly finding himself with little or no access to Washington’s movers and shakers, Sir Kim Darroch had little choice but to fall on his sword.

Back in London a hunt is now on to find the leaker of those secret ‘diptels’; there have even been calls for the newspaper that published them to be charged under the Official Secrets Act. This is explosive stuff because the ‘freedom of the press’ is one of the cornerstones of a free society.

Freedom of the press is the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government. Americans enjoy freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:

 ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’

In the late 1770s this was remarkable stuff. Across the Atlantic, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes landed in jail for daring to criticise the London establishment in the press.

Wilkes was accused of treason and seditious libel for publishing articles critical of King George III’s government. He was arrested, thrown out of Parliament and put into prison. His legal travails, his publications, and his every movement were covered with great interest by the colonial newspapers. To those breakaway Britons, he provided a powerful example of why liberty of the press was so critical: after their observations of London’s heavy hand, they saw press freedom as vital for their new American state.

However, this declaration of press freedom caused concern, even in the new USA.  For example, under the existing Common Law, protection against false allegations of defamation was a long standing legal right. How did that square with a press that had the legal right to print whatever it liked? ‘Fake news’ is no modern phenomenon.

Early American courts struggled with the argument that the punishment of ‘dangerous or offensive writings… [was] necessary for the preservation of peace and good order…’ How did that balance with a free press guaranteed by federal law? That difficult question was swept under the carpet for two centuries after the ratification of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Not so in Britain, however. In the early years of the 20th century spy fever gripped Britain. An Anglo-German naval arms race bred a panicky – if totally inaccurate – belief that the country was riddled with spies bent on uncovering the defence secrets of British dreadnoughts and dockyards. A worried government rushed through an Official Secrets Act in 1911 with little debate or opposition. The new Act had extremely wide-ranging powers. There were two main sections: Section 1 contained tough provisions against espionage and concentrated on the theft of military secrets; Section 2 dealt with unauthorised disclosure of government information, making it a criminal offence to disclose any official information without lawful authority.

The absurdity of making publication of even a Buckingham Palace menu a crime was quickly spotted by lawyers and widely ignored.

Across the Atlantic this problem came to light during World War I. In a famous case a man called Schenk had been convicted under the US wartime Espionage Act for publishing leaflets urging resistance to the Draft. This went against the right to freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tried to unscramble the contradiction, ruling: ‘the question in every case is whether the words are used… to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.’ He went on to add the all-important interpretation of the legal principle:

‘There is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material. It is embarrassing…  but it is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into the public domain. That is what they are there for. A prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement on press freedom.’

The Supreme Court agreed, and held that virtually all forms of restraint on free speech were unconstitutional. The key was that embarrassing the government was no crime; the real illegality was the theft of secrets.

Into this delicate legal minefield one of Britain’s most senior police officers has now blundered. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the leak had caused damage to the UK’s international relations, pompously warning that journalists who publish leaked information risk going to jail. Senior legal figures said that Basu, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s specialist operations, appeared to have set out to ‘protect the Government from embarrassment’ after he issued his warning that the publication of the leaked memos could in itself be ‘a criminal matter’.

The subsequent outrage was both unnecessary and predictable. Sharp-eyed lawyers immediately pointed out that in law, the authorities have to prove that ‘damage’ – not mere embarrassment – has been caused to Britain’s international relations through a leak.

However, nothing that Ambassador Darroch said in his diptels was remarkable. He could have been quoting the views of the Guardian or the New York Times on Trump. Nothing has been published that in any way affects national security. So for the Mail to be threatened with the Official Secrets Act 1989 was a clumsy and unwise thing to do. The real crime is the theft and leaking of the secret diptels. Even then the case is arguable: nothing that has been leaked in these particular diplomatic reports threatens Britain’s (or Britons’) security. However, even if there had been sensitive material involved, it is a decision for responsible newspaper editors to decide whether or not they should publish it.

The authorities quickly realised that a PR disaster was looming; from 10 Downing Street downwards the hapless Assistant Chief Commissioner of the Met was thrown under the bus, ethnic figurehead of ‘diversity’ and Common Purpose mole or not. Even London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who is responsible for policing in London, said the media ‘must not be told’ what they could publish. Sir Paul Stephenson, a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and a mentor to Mr Basu when he was at the force, warned that the police must ‘step very carefully and warily’.

Politicians en masse quickly backed away from what was an obvious tar baby; trying to muzzle – let alone jail – newspaper editors in today’s digital communications world would be political suicide, especially when no lives are at risk from the disclosure.

Here is the key: whereas Julian Assange and his unwitting pawn Private Chelsea Manning stole US military secrets and really did put many undercover lives at risk via Wikileaks, nothing the Mail has published risks anything other than the red faces of officials. So, to threaten editors with the OSA and Court Number One at the Old Bailey was a blunder of monumental proportions.

The irony is that the British press are often far too ‘responsible’. For example, over the Rochdale sex gangs and the Elm Guest House MPs paedophile scandals the press kept too quiet whilst great wrongs continued. They knew all about the Pakistani sex traffickers and they knew all about the behaviour of MPs Cyril Smith and Nicholas Fairbairn; but, under pressure not to rock the political or policing boat, the press stayed quiet. Too quiet, too long.

Press freedom is today a delicate balancing act, requiring skilful tightrope walking by editors and journalists. The threats and heavy hand of Mr Plod would be funny – if it were not so serious.

Telegraph British Troops Must Have Better Legal Protection

The following letter from John Hughes-Wilson was published in The Telegraph on Saturday, 29 June 2019, in response to an article entitled ‘British troops must have better legal protection, say Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt‘ by Anna Mikhailova, the newspaper’s deputy political editor.

Letter to the editor

‘The crass equating of soldiers doing their duty with criminal terrorists has done far more damage than people realise.

‘The result of this weak political leadership is that now almost all service personnel do not trust the MoD’s civil servants or politicians.

‘The armed forces have no separate votes or political clout, and so can be run down, exploited and used as political [mainly Treasury] pawns, with little fear of reprisal.

‘The military now feel they have been hung out to dry by political calculation.

‘Serving senior officers are reluctant to speak out, because they will be instantly muzzled or sacked by politicans.

‘This distrust of politicians will take a military generation to expunge and means that the ‘Military Covenant’ is just a piece of window dressing for cheap headlines.’

Mereo Books release ‘Chronicles of the Winter World’

All five novels in the ‘Tommy Gunn’ World War I ‘Chronicles of the Winter World’ series are now published by Mereo Books.

Written by leading military historian, John Hughes-Wilson, these five historically accurate novels in takes us in the company of protagonist ‘Tommy’ Gunn from the outbreak of the Great War, through the horror of the trenches and arduous campaigns to the eventual Armistice.

Publication date was 28 June 2019, to mark the centenary of the opening of the Versailles Conference (on 28 June 1919) that marked the official end of World War I

‘A unique contribution to World War I literature’
Brian MacArthur, author: King and Country

In 1914, they could not have known just how long this war would last or just how many lives it would cost …

When we first meet TOM Gunn, he’s a young infantry lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters, back on leave from India just as Europe catches fire in the chaotic summer of 1914.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) is off to France, and Gunn joins a hastily formed mixed battalion of reservists, regular and territorial soldiers. He soon finds himself pitchforked into the mayhem and suffering of unrelenting war.

Soon the high hopes of short conflict fade into the horrific reality of the trenches. Thaddeus Gunn and his men realise that this is going to be a long and bloody war and they will be lucky if any of them survive ….

Hughes-Wilson places the main character, Thaddeus (‘Tommy’) Gunn, at most of the major battles of the war, in order to show us the utter terror and slaughter suffered by the troops.
Although this series of books are fictional accounts, the use of real diaries of young officers who fought and quotes from newspapers of the day, give these novels authenticity and help the reader appreciate how people actually lived through the war.

Now, with the release of all five novels to mark the Centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, readers can follow Hughes-Wilson’s creation, ‘Tommy Gunn’ throughout the entire war. These powerful novels stand as a testament to the heroism and sacrifice of a generation of young men.

‘Gripping … superbly written, true-to-life down to the least military detail, and very exciting. Readers will be keen to follow the fortunes of Thaddeus Gunn’
Andrew Roberts, FRSL, historian

All five novels are available in paperback or ebook:

  • 1914 First Blood
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-277-2 210pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B00Q386D90; £3.00
  • 1915 Pride & Glory
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-922-1 213pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KMB934Q; £2.35
  • 1916 The Big Push
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-923-8 280pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKP874RRRP £2.35
  • 1917 Hanging On
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-925-2 234pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKNCS8C; £2.35
  • 1918 Defeat Into Victory
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-277-2 175pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKLRD7P £2.35

All five titles in the series are published by Mereo Books (an imprint of Memoirs Publishingand are available through all good bookshops and internet booksellers (see Mereo Books: Books by John Hughes-Wilson)

Local UK interest, Nottinghamshire:

Tommy Gunn, the central character in the series, comes from Nottinghamshire and serves with the Sherwood Foresters. (The author also served in the Sherwood Foresters early in his career.)

To request review copies or to be put in touch with the author, please contact:

Andrew Hayward
Court Publishing Services
andrew.hayward21@yahoo.com
Tel: 07876 155663 or 020 8761 0147

Further information:
www.johnhugheswilson.co.uk

Press release issued on behalf of Mereo Books & Court Publishing by Elly Donovan PR
elly@ellydonovan.co.uk | Tel: 01273 205 246

Turkey at a Crossroads?

‘Peace at home; peace in the world.’ Atatürk’s homely ambition has never been more important for Turkey. However, a number of crises are coming together inexorably to force Ankara to think long and hard about its future intentions. Turkey is at a major crossroads.

There are three main reasons: first Ankara’s relationship with the USA; second, Turkey’s position in the Middle East; and lastly, its delicate economic position.

The biggest snowball rolling down the hill is defence, surprisingly. Ankara has insisted that it will take delivery of a Russian-made S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system this month, but the US Congress says it will impose penalties on Turkey if it does so. The sophisticated Russian SAM system poses a direct threat to the latest hi-tech US F-35 fighter, also being supplied to Turkey.

Turkey faces a position in which it must either back away from Moscow’s S-400 deal, or accept the possible economic damage of sanctions and its eventual ejection from the US F-35 programme. The result would have been that, whether by levying economic sanctions, or by cancelling Turkey’s participation in the highly advanced (and very expensive) F-35 stealth fighter programme, the US could retaliate and hurt Turkey’s economy badly.

However, risks to its economy and the threat of US sanctions have not stopped Turkey from acquiring Moscow’s air defence system. Ankara stood firm. A government spokesman was defiant: ‘We are a serious country. Our deal with Russia continues.’ Ankara clearly believes that it can withstand US pressure over the issue – because America needs Turkey.

Then, in late June 2019 (in the margins of the G20 Osaka meeting), the Turkish president claimed that a deal had been struck. President Trump had told him there would be no sanctions over the Russian deal and that Turkey had been had been ‘treated unfairly’ over the move.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the first delivery of the S-400s would take place within 10 days and that he believed the dispute would be overcome ‘without a problem’ and without sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Moscow’s missiles. The results were immediate; the Turkish lira soared nearly 3 per cent on 1 July 2019 to its strongest level since April 2019.

However, Ankara’s optimism is a risky calculation. A USAF spokesman later said: ‘Nothing has changed …  Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.’ Moreover, if the US Congress follows through on its threat to impose sanctions on Turkey by 31 July 2019 and ignores President Trump, that pressure will have a much wider impact on Turkey’s political and economic future than just defence.

Should the USA remove Turkey from the F-35 programme and impose sanctions on its NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations. It would be one more policy dispute that over the years have tested the complicated relationship between Turkey and the USA.

From Turkey’s military intervention to stop the Greek coup and civil war in Cyprus in 1974, to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, US support for the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units in Syria’s civil war, ties have frequently been strained between the supposed allies. The danger is that Turkey is, for many reasons, drifting away from the West.

This brings us to foreign policy. Turkey is being forced to recalibrate its foreign and regional policy at a time when the Middle East is undergoing a major transformation. Both Russia and Turkey are seeking more influence in an unstable region. Their relationship is a curious mix of cooperative and competitive. Whilst Ankara is well aware of the dangers of creating new risks to its already weakened economy, it also needs to demonstrate its power as a major regional player.

The problem is that Turkey and Russia have serious form going back to the days of the Tsars. For example, the Crimean War in the 1850s was really all about Russian and Turkish rivalry. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always sought to deny Russia a significant presence to the south or in the eastern Mediterranean. But that is now where Russia is becoming increasingly active – especially in Syria. As Russian influence grows, Turkey’s room for regional influence shrinks. Turkey’s recent accommodation of Russia is therefore historically and geopolitically unusual.

However, given Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 – and its determination to support President Assad in power – some form of engagement between Russia and Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, was inevitable. The two sides seem, for the moment, to have settled on a wary cooperation. Russia controls northern Syria on Turkey’s border. When Turkey is frustrated with the West – as it is now over US support for Syrian Kurdish forces and the EU’s doublespeak on enlargement –- it finds in Russia a sympathetic ear.

The third factor is economics. Turkey is a major energy-importing country. It needs low energy prices, particularly given its alarming level of borrowing and an unsustainable current account deficit, much of it caused by its increasing energy needs. Ankara is however in serious economic trouble. This spills over on to the streets of Turkey itself, as recent elections have shown.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won support on the streets by using nationalism to highlight frequent challenges from alleged EU and Western hostility, fear of Islam and foreign pressure against the country. The fragile state of Turkey’s economy now however threatens social and political stability. The country’s economy dipped into a recession since the last quarter of 2018. The lira has lost 30 per cent on the global money market.

Over the next year, the Turkish private sector must pay back at least $150 billion in debts, and in foreign currency too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the money. Financially, Ankara is drifting towards national bankruptcy without serious economic reforms – or getting a lot of new money.

However, there are four more years until the next scheduled elections in 2023. The AKP leadership is banking on having time to stabilise the economy, as Ankara believes it can find alternative sources of money.

Two obvious pots of gold are the hydrocarbons beneath the sea off Cyprus and the lure of a sell-out to the East. To deal with the latter first, China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (to buy up ports and infrastructure across the Middle East and eastern Europe) could be a tempting offer for Ankara. Turning to the East offers easy cash – but at a heavy price.

The second cash cow could be hydrocarbons off Cyprus, and Ankara has shown itself determined to get as much as it can and, in the process, warn off any competition. South Nicosia’s optimistic alliance of Italian, French, Israeli, US and Egyptian backers to support their national oil companies’ ambitions is being met with hard words and the threat of maritime force. The balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean is being challenged.

Inside Turkey the first tremors of a domestic political earthquake are being felt, too. With the country in economic turmoil, AKP’s legitimacy is suddenly facing serious challenges. It suffered stinging defeats in municipal elections in March and was humiliated in the recent mayoral election in İstanbul, the key to national political power. Already there is talk of a rival party based on AKP’s original blend of Islamism with democracy and liberal market policies. Both former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gül are now looking to create a rival party and bid for power themselves.

The result is that politically, economically and abroad, Turkey is at a crossroads; ‘peace at home and with the neighbours’ is a fine slogan, but is looking to be an increasingly distant dream …

What on Earth are ‘Rare Earths’?

Right! Hands up all those who have heard of rare earths?

I thought so – well, just for our single clever clogs at the back, name them?

You can’t?  That proves my point.

Well, we’d all now better pay attention, because rare earths are very important and are will become more so in the future; even though most of us have never even heard of them. In fact, they are going to become just one more commodity over which nations can, and probably will, come into conflict. Rare earths are a modern showstopper.

First, what are rare earths? There are 17 ‘rare earth’ minerals. They are actually fairly abundant in certain areas, but difficult to mine. Their importance stems from their uses in some vital products on which the modern world depends, including: mobile phones; fibre-optic cables; lasers; nuclear reactors; and X-ray machines.

Understandably, most people have never even heard of these obscure elements. However, a list of these rare minerals and their uses shows their importance in our modern technologically advanced and digital world. For example:

  • Scandium Found in aerospace alloys and cars’ headlamps
  • Yttrium Used in energy-efficient lightbulbs, spark plugs and cancer treatments
  • Lanthanum Found in camera lenses, battery electrodes, and catalysts used in oil refineries
  • Cerium Used in self-cleaning ovens and industrial polishers
  • Praseodymium Used in lasers
  • Neodymium Used in electric motors for electric cars, hi-tech capacitors
  • Promethium Found in luminous paint
  • Samarium Used in the control rods of nuclear reactors, lasers and atomic clocks
  • Europium Used in fluorescent lamps, MRI scanners
  • Gadolinium Found in computer chips, steel, X-ray machines
  • Terbium Used in sonar systems on navy vessels, fuel cells on hi-tech cars
  • Dysprosium Used in hard disk drives and lasers
  • Holmium Used in mass spectrometers by hospitals and forensic scientists
  • Erbium Used as catalysts for the chemicals industry and in electrical grid batteries.
  • Thulium Found in portable X-ray machines and lasers
  • Ytterbium Used in stainless steel, thyroid cancer treatment and earthquake monitoring
  • Lutetium Used in LED lightbulbs, oil refining and medical PET scans

It is clear that access to these rare elements – which most normal people have never heard of – is vital to any modern advanced economy. To take just two examples, we would all notice if MRI scanners gradually disappeared or if computer memory chips suddenly became unavailable.  So where is the problem?

There are two: first rare earths are so-called because they are not abundant; second, ominously, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) controls the world’s supply. In a world driven by global supply and demand, the economic power and control of much needed rare earths are obvious.

These rare metals, which are excellent conductors of electricity, also come with a serious health warning. They are dangerous. To extract the usable material from their ore is a very dirty business, needing acid baths and even nuclear radiation. Many are extracted from radioactive ores that contain uranium and thorium. The toxic waste from this process is harmful and there is a danger of it leaking out into the surrounding environment after processing which risks polluting water supplies.

So, just as with plastic, the West has ducked responsibility, outsourcing the environmental challenges of rare earths by dumping the problem out in the dusty deserts and cheap mass labour of far-distant China. By doing so it has allowed Beijing to corner the global market. There’s a price; China holds 37 per cent of the world’s rare-earth deposits and it controls the rest. Even when rare earths are mined in the US – or in other nations, such as Estonia – the extracted material is sent to China for processing. It’s cheaper, easier and, most important, it avoids the environmental lobby’s inevitable shrieks of outrage.

The result is that Western scientific and technical efforts have failed to develop new, cost-effective rare earth substitutes. Many universities no longer offer courses and advanced degrees in ‘materials science’, ‘metallurgy’, or ‘mining engineering’. China has cornered the market. Rare earths are now an ace in Beijing’s hand. ‘The geopolitical and economic importance of rare-earth minerals is vastly inflated by China’s overwhelming near-monopoly on the mining of these elements,’ says Ole Hansen, the head of commodities at Saxo Bank (Saxo Markets, 23 May 2019). China churns out 260,000 tons of rare earths – that’s 95 per cent of global output.

The Chinese are well aware of the importance of these commodities. In May 2019, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a dramatic and highly symbolic gesture. He visited one of China’s most important rare-earth metals mining and processing plants, in Ganzhou, along with Liu He, his US  chief negotiator in the trade talks.

Even more significantly, he combined the visit with a stop at the monument in Yudu that marks the start of Mao’s ‘Long March’ during the Chinese civil war during the 1930s. The Long March, when the communist armies undertook a 6000-mile trek to the mountains of the north during the civil war, was a key event in communist China’s history. Xi was signalling a symbolic warning to America and the West that in any trade war, China is ready for a long, painful economic conflict.

The global effects of the visit to the Ganzhou plant were swift. Rare-earth equities leapt in value. America’s Blue Line Corporation of Texas rushed to sign a deal with Australia’s Lynas Corporation, one of the few rare-earths processors outside China. ‘I would expect US importers to develop local, domestic processing facilities over time and also to buy from non-China sources,’ said a spokesman.

Beijing is now openly ‘seriously considering’ restrictions on exports of 17 key elements; a move that will force up prices and dry up supplies of rare earths. The hit on US industry, and the military, would limit production of hard disk drives, lasers, fibre optics, LED lightbulbs, hospital scanners, low-carbon technology and camera lenses.

To make the point, Beijing raised tariffs on imports of US rare earth metal ores from 10 per cent to 25 per cent from 1 June 2019, making it less economical to send the material for processing in China. Such a move will prove costly to Washington and will be a key weapon in the trade war between the USA and China.

‘This will cause a lot of short-term pain for US companies. In the longer term it would accelerate the decoupling of the US and China,’ says Rory Green, an economist at TS Lombard. Even the IMF warns that the ‘delicate balance of the world economy could be split apart. Higher trade barriers would disrupt global supply chains and slow the spread of new technologies, ultimately lowering global productivity and welfare.’

Whilst some analysts regard cutting off supply to the USA as something of a nuclear option, others note China that the PRC already has form in ‘weaponising’ these vital metals. In 2010 there was a diplomatic spat with Japan that saw China cut the country out of its rare-earths exports. This action caused a price rise of around 20-30 per cent as a panicked Japanese market rushed to find (expensive) alternative sources.

The connections are now well-established between rare-earth elements, specialist metals – and their corresponding supply chains – and the US high-tech manufacturing sector, renewable energy, and military readiness. All these sectors in the US economy require rare earths in large quantities. Even for the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, the stakes cannot be higher. China could hold the USA (and the West, by extension) to ransom.

Does any of this matter to us?  Well, next time you look at your smart phone, that ubiquitous symbol of modern civilisation, remember that China copies and reproduces Apple’s products on an industrial scale. Apple is forced to manufacture its iPhone and other electronic products in China in order to maintain access to a steady supply of rare earths.

Think about a smart phone costing $1000 – or a Chinese knock off at £300.  Or worse – a world without your mobile phone? Unthinkable!

Rare earths matter.

Versailles – The Terrible Treaty

One hundred years ago, one of the most important conferences in the 20th century began (on 28 June 1919) culminating in the negotiation of a portentous document (finalised on 10 January 1920) that has had ramifications ever since. The Treaty of Versailles – signed to put a formal end to Word War I – turned out to be a disastrous script offering nothing but grief. It would lead in future decades to the death of millions and the chaos of the world in which we continue to live today.

For the first six months of 1919, the leaders of the great powers descended on Paris to reshape their world. Empires were broken up and horse-traded over tea and biscuits in the Quai d’Orsay as new countries were discussed and confirmed – or not. Royalty, journalists, economists, bankers, prostitutes, politicians and other con men poured in to make their unique contributions to building a ‘new world order.’

Although 27 nations attended the Peace Conference at Versailles, it was President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau of France who dominated the proceedings. They came to the table determined upon a settlement that would keep Germany down, albeit tempered by liberal-democratic ideals: a settlement intended to get rid of the catalysts for future conflict, or at least control them.

The problem was that everyone attending the negotiations had a different agenda. Belgium and France wanted payback and security from the warlike Germans across the Rhine. Britain had already got most of its war aims. Wilson insisted that there should be ‘peace without victory’, believing that that if Germany was treated too harshly she might seek revenge, and start another war. He came to Europe determined to preach that the sacred legacy of the Founding Fathers and American political ideas were universally intended for the good of all mankind. Cynics – including Lloyd George and Clémenceau – were sceptical.

The cracks emerged early on in the proceedings. Unlike the high-minded President, the British PM was a slippery, unprincipled pragmatist: in the US advisor’s words, he was ‘a mischief-maker who changes his mind like a weather cock’; and Clémenceau’s judgement was even harsher: ‘Lloyd George is a trickster…  Lloyd George has deceived me. He made me the finest promises, and now he breaks them.’ Clémenceau was heard to growl: ‘Between the crooked Lloyd George and the saintly Wilson, it’s like sitting between Napoleon and Jesus Christ.’

Wilson’s demand for a League of Nations to control his new world order was dealt with rapidly. Lloyd George agreed with the idealistic American to keep him happy, as did Clémenceau, both believing that although the League was theoretically a good idea, it would never work. Wilson virtuously lectured them all on ‘American values and principles of liberty and independence as a perpetual charter for the whole world.’ The startled delegates moved on rapidly to safer topics.

Russia was not represented at Versailles, even though the country was theoretically one of the victorious belligerents. The new Bolshevik regime spurned international diplomacy, concentrating instead on exporting revolution to their erstwhile allies’ home countries. The problem was that Russia was still legally an ally. However the subversive aims of Bolshevism, Lenin’s flat refusal to pay Russia’s debts, and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, sent a shiver down the spines of European politicians, aware that they were seeing something new and alarming on the international scene.

The other important reason was that war-weary Western public opinion was decidedly hostile to any new war; in many places (such as Red Clydeside and Liverpool) people actually supported the Bolsheviks. In 1919 Whitehall was terrified of a British revolution. So the powers opted to isolate Red Russia by blockade and provide dwindling support for the anti-Bolshevik Whites. It was a policy that would cost the unfortunate Russian masses dear over the next 70 years.

The other big absentee from the negotiating table was Germany. Most Europeans were understandably bitter about the legacy of the ‘Second Reich’. Their millions of dead stood as a mute reproach to any calls for leniency towards German militarism. Clémenceau of France, demanding ‘victory with vengeance’, insisted that the defeated must expect little mercy from the victors. His aims were clear: to punish Germany; to make the Germans pay for all the damage they had done to France and Belgium; to recover Alsace and Lorraine; and to restrict Germany military power to ensure that it was forever weaker than France. The Germans were not consulted. Berlin was, in historian Norman Stone’s dry comment, ‘just expected to sign on the dotted line.’

Meanwhile the peacemakers turned their attention to creating a new and supposedly more peaceful Europe. New countries sprang up in the Balkans, where the war had started in 1914. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Greece all got new borders. The Slavs got a national home in Yugoslavia and an independent Poland was created with a curious corridor to Danzig on the Baltic, isolating East Prussia, and creating a serious international hostage to fortune. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia suddenly appeared. Italy’s frontiers took in former Austrian territories inhabited by Italians. Ottoman Turkey lost everything as their empire was parcelled out. Further east the French got Syria – much to TE Lawrence and the Arabs’ dismay – and the British got the oil in what was now Iraq and Persia. (Kurdistan was completely overlooked, because Lloyd George had never heard of it and didn’t know where it was.)

When the details of the treaty were published in June 1919 German reaction was surprised and outraged. The still-blockaded German government was given just three weeks to accept the terms of the treaty, take it or leave it. Its immediate response was a lengthy list of complaints, most of which were simply ignored. The terms of the treaty were seen as an unreasonable Diktat, clearly intended to ensure that Germany remained militarily and economically powerless. After all, argued the militarists of the ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ nationalists, Germany had never actually ‘lost’ the war.

The final terms of the Treaty were indeed harsh. The blame for the whole war was placed firmly on Germany. The ‘War Guilt Clause’ (Article 231) in particular was judged very unfair. How could Germany be the only country to blame for the war? The war had been caused because a Serbian hothead had assassinated an Austrian Prince. Germans believed that they were being made the scapegoats for everything.

Berlin was also ordered to pay reparations of around 226 billion gold marks. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men, the navy to six warships and no submarines; and all military aircraft were to be destroyed. Heavy artillery, gas, tanks and military aircraft were banned. In addition, there was to be no military presence within 30 miles of the east bank of the Rhine. Kaiser William II and some German army officers were found guilty of ‘war-crimes.’

The Allies also foisted a new form of government on Germany to prevent the country from being taken over by a dictatorship. Instead ‘proportional representation’ would lead to more than 30 political parties, and the Weimar Republic’s eventual weakness and collapse.

The final act of Versailles was overshadowed by German’s refusals to sign. Political chaos reigned in Germany. The government folded and no politician was prepared to put his signature to what was seen as a dishonourable capitulation. Without a government there could be no Treaty. The Germans said that if the offending articles were removed, then they would sign. Paris refused, threatening to start Foch’s armies marching again. Germany backed down, sending two subordinate ministers to sign.

On 28 June 1919, in a glittering ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Peace Treaty to end World War I was finally signed. Next day Paris rejoiced, en fête; but in Germany the flags were at half mast.

Later generations would be left to deal with the problems of a resurgent Germany and the USSR, let alone Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli wars, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and control of global oil supplies.

All consequences of Versailles: the 20th century’s political Pandora’s Box…