Tag Archives: France

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…

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The New Religious War?

Europe faces a major problem with its restive Muslim population. Like it or not, we seem to be in the middle of a war with echoes of the religious wars of the Crusades and the bloody strife between Protestants and Catholics that tore Europe apart between 1550 and 1650.

For a start, there’s something decidedly fishy about the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame. Within an hour of the flames rising above Paris’s cathedral the French authorities announced that the fire was an ‘accident’ and that ‘arson has been ruled out’.

Given that there had been no investigation, that seems a remarkably quick rush to judgement. The truth is that the French authorities were lying: no one at the time had the slightest idea how the fire had started. Except – if indeed it was arson – the people who started the fire.

Since then, the cause of the fire has been attributed to ‘an accident’, ‘a short circuit’, and the latest explanation: ‘a computer glitch’. Huh?

The fire at Notre-Dame is actually part of a clear pattern of attacks. Three years ago a ‘commando unit’ of jihadis tried to destroy the cathedral by detonating cylinders of natural gas. Three days before the Notre-Dame fire, Ines Madani (a convert to Islam) was sentenced to eight years in prison for recruiting a French ISIS terrorist group. The Notre-Dame fire also occurred during a period in which 800 churches have been attacked in France in 2018.

Many have suffered serious damage, including broken and beheaded statues, and faeces thrown on walls. In several churches, fires were lit. In March the Basilica of St Denis in a North Parisian suburb was vandalised by a Pakistani refugee. Several stained-glass windows were broken and the basilica’s organ seriously damaged.

Only 12 days later, a mysterious fire broke out at Saint Sulpice, the largest church in Paris, causing major damage. After days of silence, the police finally admitted that the cause had been arson.

If the Notre-Dame fire really was an accident, there is no explanation of how it started. Benjamin Mouton, Notre-Dame’s former chief architect, pointed out that no electric cable or appliance, and no source of heat, could be placed in the attic – by law. However, the fire spread so quickly that the firefighters who rushed to the spot as soon as they could were shocked. Remi Fromont, architect of the French Historical Monuments said: ‘That fire could not start from any element present where it started. A major heat source is necessary to launch such a disaster.’

Now there’s an old saying among bomb disposal experts about terrorist bombs: ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it isn’t a bloody hedgehog.’ The fire at Notre-Dame has all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack. There is clear motive, method and opportunity.

First, France has a serious problem with Islam. The post- colonial legacy of French involvement in North Africa has left a massive Arab–Muslim population in France. A 2008 census recorded 5.3 million foreign-born immigrants and 6.5 million direct descendants of immigrants. That’s nearly 20 per cent of the total population of metropolitan France. Paris has a particularly explosive problem with its infamous bainlieue estates, full of rebellious, unemployed Muslim youths burning cars and throwing bricks at passing police cars, on occasions when les sales flics dare to venture into these no-go suburbs.

It’s not just Paris that is playing host to what French nationalist politicians call ‘a plague of parasites.’ Muslims are estimated to comprise one-fifth of the population of Marseilles, compared to 15 per cent in Paris, Brussels and Birmingham (in the UK). The impact and influence of Islam is growing across Europe, especially in France. Since the 2005 riots at Clichy, France has a major problem with its restive Muslim population.

Second, jihadis have quite openly been calling for the destruction of Christian churches and monuments in Europe. Notre-Dame was repeatedly named as a primary target for ‘Islamic warriors’. Despite these warnings, the cathedral was not adequately protected.

French Muslim activists have also been celebrating the Notre-Dame attack. Messages exulting in seeing an important Christian symbol destroyed were posted by people with Muslim names on social media and Al Jazeera. Hafsa Askar, a migrant from Morocco and the vice-president of the National Union of Students of France (UNEF), the main student organisation in France, even published a tweet saying, ‘People are crying over little pieces of wood … it’s a delusion of white trash.’

The curiosity is the continuing French official denial of the obvious. In 2015, after the jihadi massacre of 90 people at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, the French Interior Ministry said that the government had no information, except that ‘a gunfight had occurred.’ They admitted the truth only after ISIS claimed responsibility for the slaughter.

In Nice, after the truck attack in 2016, the French government insisted for several days that the terrorist who crushed 86 people to death was just a ‘man with a nervous breakdown’. So, it wasn’t a Muslim fanatic out to kill and cause mayhem? That’s OK then …

Why this mulish denial? The truth is that Christianity in France is dying.

Churches are empty. The number of priests is decreasing and the priests that are active in France are either very old or come from Africa or Latin America. The dominant religion in France is now Islam. Every year, churches are demolished to make way for parking lots or shopping centres. Mosques are being built all over the country – and they serve full congregations.

Even President Macron’s attitude is not supportive. He has avoided any Christian ceremony because officially France is a secular country. Any political leader who dares to identify as a Christian is criticised in the media and risks losing Muslim votes and a budding political career.

The truth is that the fire that destroyed much of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is an irreparable tragedy on many levels. The water needed to extinguish the flames has weakened the limestone walls. The roof has gone, leaving the interior vulnerable to bad weather. The building cannot even be protected until the structure has been surveyed, which will take weeks.

Many also see in the ashes of the cathedral a symbol of the collapse of the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe. American columnist, Dennis Prager, wrote:

‘The symbolism of the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral … the iconic symbol of European Christendom, is hard to miss. It is as if God Himself wanted to warn us in the most unmistakable way that Western Christianity is burning – and with it, Western civilisation.’

Notre-Dame is more than 800 years old. It survived the turbulence of the Middle Ages, Robespierre’s Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, two World Wars and the Nazi occupation of Paris. It could not survive what France – and the rest of Europe – is sadly becoming in the 21st century: a civilisation under attack.

With nearly 1000 casualties, the recent Sri Lankan atrocity is but the latest step in this new religious war. ‘National Thawheeth Jama’ath’, with links to ISIS, appears to be responsible. Officials said the group, which had not previously carried out any serious attacks, had received help from ‘an international terrorist organisation’. A recent intelligence report said Al Qaeda and ISIS are recruiting followers in South Asia and their propaganda ‘highlighted injustices against Muslims in Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka.’ Officials said ‘These attacks are designed to increase sectarian tensions and destabilise the governments of the countries where they take place.’

The truth is that this plague of religious-inspired terrorist atrocities is spreading like a rash across the globe: and the worst is yet to come.

Let us pray that Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral are well protected and insured; because they are on the ISIS target list, too …

The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of the Gatestone Institute in the preparation of this article

The Doomed Euro?

In any normal January commentators offer their views on the coming year. However, most years, after the usual mix of doom and gloom, the world seems to carry on in the same old way.

This year, however, really is different. Quite a lot of the world is already not carrying on in ‘the same old way.’ In 2019 we are going to realise that something big has changed ‘out there’.

The Eurasia Group, political risk consultancy and adviser to the world’s elites, warns in its latest report: ‘The geopolitical environment is the most dangerous it’s been in decades.’ This is the year that events, and lack of remedial action, threaten global stability and risk collapsing the old world order in a way not seen for many years. The post-1945 Pax Americana is crumbling before our eyes as President Trump unravels the transatlantic alliance that has underpinned Europe since the 1950s. Many blocs – NATO, the UN, the G7, G20, WTO and the EU – are in varying degrees of crisis as new global challenges emerge and as America walks away from acting as the world’s sheriff. The Middle East is a basket-case, fighting its own ‘Thirty Years War’ between Sunni and Shi’a with a wary Israel looking on. In the East, China and North Korea are flexing their muscles; and in the emerging world a new breed of hard-line autocrats are taking over in Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hungary.

The world order is changing – and not for the better.

The outlook is bad enough; but to make things worse, a world trade recession is looming. Global economic forecasts for 2019-20 make for dismal reading: 2019 could turn out to be the year that the world economy falls apart, although timing global economic slumps is like watching an oil tanker running slowly onto the rocks.

This is the wretched backdrop against which the European Union is confronting the biggest challenge to its existence since it began as a dream of a single European superstate back in the 1950s.

The year 2019 will be full of important decisions for the EU, as Brussels will have to set a seven-year budget – without Britain’s cash – as well as appointing new leaders to key institutions, and discussing reform, whilst coping with falling economic growth, the threat of populist national elections, trade frictions with the US, plus the challenges from Russia and China. Brexit is merely background noise to the increasingly embattled, unelected and unpopular bureaucrats sitting in the Berlaymont (European Commission HQ).

The EU is fighting on three fronts at the same time, even as many of its member states have their own domestic problems to contain (the French anti-Macron revolution is a symptom of a wider EU malaise):

  • First, nationalism (aka, ‘populism’)
  • Second, the Catalan rebellion and the Visegrad Four’s mutiny epitomise the growing challenge to Brussels’ rule
  • Third, underpinning everything, is the threat to the Euro. Brussels’ flagship currency is in deep trouble

The smiling celebration party for the euro’s 20th anniversary masked the rising panic among the fat cats, bureaucrats and bankers waving champagne flutes for the cameras. They now know that their grandiose plans to cement the EU together by issuing a single currency was a huge gamble and a serious mistake. ‘The house of cards will collapse’, admits Professor Otmar Issing, ironically one of the original cheerleaders of the euro and the founding chief economist of the European Central Bank (Business Insider, 17 October 2016).

For a real monetary union to work smoothly you need a genuine single authority, plus the ability to swing government money around a united economy. Thus England can pipe London taxpayers’ cash to support Scotland, Wales and Ireland; and the US can shore up the Rust Belt states with money from New York and California. Brussels however does not have the power, or the authority, to transfer rich German taxpayers’ cash to struggling Greece, or to get the Netherlands to pay for the million illegal immigrants who are descending on Italy.

The real economic problem is the EU’s ‘Club Med’. Southern Europe’s economic fragility was well known when Greece was allowed to join the euro, after some pretty dodgy accounting. It was always a risky venture.

To take one simple example, when Greece had its own currency, Athens could stimulate an economic slump by devaluing the drachma: suddenly Greek holidays were dirt cheap and millions of tourists brought their spending power to Greece. Not anymore. Athens was trapped into a currency it could not control or devalue, and which the big boys of the EU wanted to keep strong at all costs.

Devaluation of any German controlled pan-European currency was unthinkable. So Greece was told to cut its budget and live with austerity. That meant that the only way Greece could get extra euros was by borrowing – heavily. Sure enough the big German and French banks were only too happy to lend trillions of euros to the Club Med countries. Unfortunately it became a vicious circle, known as a ‘debt doom loop’, between countries with high levels of debt and the banks that hold that debt.

The problem got worse. Big banks have bought more and more public debt from Eurozone countries. However, should the debts not be paid back (‘non-performing loans’ in Bankspeak) then the banks holding those loans are themselves in deep trouble. Now the euro-banks are running scared. Without payment, they could follow Lehmann Brothers into oblivion. The ‘rescue’ of Greece 2010-13 turns out to have been nothing more than a face saving bail-out ‘loan’ to save the big French and German banks. Even the IMF has admitted that Greece was sacrificed to save the euro and the European banking system from disaster in the great financial crisis.

Italy is the canary in today’s Eurozone coal mine. Italian banks hold one-third of the unpaid euro loans; Italy largest banks hold 300 billion euros of bad debt, dodgy securities and off-balance sheet items that aren’t being repaid. Also, billions of euros of Italian government bonds are held by Deutschebank, Commerzbank, Societé Générale, Crédit Agricole and the Netherlands’ ING.

All this could be solved at the EU level; however there is fierce opposition from Northern European countries to swinging their taxpayers’ money around. In 2018 they diluted President Macron’s proposals for greater money pooling and higher spending in the Eurozone. The idea of stripping elected parliaments’ control over taxation, spending, and the economic policies of the nation state was never going to be accepted; ‘ever closer union’ had hit the buffers of national self-interest, as the UK’s Brexit proves.

Without a means to transfer funds and a ‘fiscal union’ by the EU countries (by pooling everyone’s taxes in Frankfurt and Brussels) the euro is at mortal risk. Now the economic storm clouds are gathering to make things even worse. Eurozone economies are slowing. Even the German economy is contracting. Industrial production was down by 4.7 per cent in the previous year leading up to November 2018. This means that, unbelievably, Germany – yes, Germany – is probably heading for a recession. Meanwhile, Italy has been in recession for a long time and Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal are still struggling to escape the last financial disaster. The Eurozone is heading for a full-blown recession; and without the means to devalue, or order ‘government’ spending to boost European economies, a slump seems inevitable. The pressure to break out of the stranglehold of the euro in order to print their own money has never been stronger for some nations.

‘What is clear is that the status quo cannot persist indefinitely if the euro is to survive in the long term’, an LSE blog article warned in October 2016.

This combination of member states’ disillusionment with Brussels, domestic problems, a shrinking economy, massive indebtedness, social and political challenges and the crisis of migration, plus the intrinsically unstable basis of the euro, means that monetary union has failed economically and politically.

Unless the EU27 agree to form a new central Treasury, the euro is doomed. That’s something to keep an eye on in 2019.

The Slaughter of the Subalterns

Open letter to the Editor of Legion, the Royal British Legion magazine

Dear Sir,

I was dismayed to read the letter from Elisabeth Wooley in your September issue on officers in the First World War. It is a frequent misapprehension and demands the strongest rebuttal.

I speak from experience. Once, some years ago, I was compelled to intervene at Delville Wood Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France, after hearing an earnest young schoolmistress holding forth to her gullible pupils that ‘the reason there were so few officers’ graves was because they all stayed in the trench, forcing their men to advance at pistol point or be executed for cowardice.’ My (somewhat forceful) interruption to point out that she was talking nonsense and there were only 30 officers in a battalion of 900 men (3 per cent), and the officers led from the front was met with incredulity ….

A century on, we do a grave disservice to the dead young officers of the Great War to allow this disgraceful lie to continue unchallenged. Historical facts and truth are more important than ignorant opinions and prejudice. The Legion has a national duty to set the record straight.

The real truth is that the casualty rates among the junior officers in the Great War were horrific. The title of John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, describes the fate of most; the life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front in the trenches was just 42 days: ‘The universal expectation of a subaltern was “a hospital bed or interment in the soil”. Many had come straight from the classroom to the most dangerous job in the world, yet nearly all stepped forward, unflinchingly, to do their duty.’

Attacking across No Man’s Land with nothing but a revolver and in a distinctive uniform, junior officers were obvious targets for German defenders; they dropped in their thousands. One in five of the officer-students drawn from Oxford and Cambridge Universities died.

In the UK around 6 million men were mobilised and, of those, just some 750,000 were killed. That’s around 12 per cent. In fact, as a British soldier, statistically you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-6) than in World War I.

However, although numerically the great majority of casualties in World War I came from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately much harder by the global conflict. Their sons provided the junior officers, whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 17 per cent of the British army’s officers were killed, compared with 12 per cent of the rank-and-file soldiers killed during the war. Most of those were junior officers, although – contrary to popular belief – more British generals were killed in World War I than in any other major conflict (including three divisional commanders at Loos in 1915). Also, in 1914-18, most officers came from privileged backgrounds.

Casualty rates for regimental officers have always been proportionately higher than for other ranks.

The reason is simple. Young men as junior officers are needed to command infantry. The basic unit of foot soldiers was – and still is – the platoon under the command of the lowest commissioned officer rank. The official title of these junior officers is ‘subaltern’. A century ago in Britain, any educated young man over 18 and with a private school education was deemed officer material and, given a minimum of training, competent to lead his men into battle.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, these young men (many of whom were barely out of school) rushed to join the forces; many thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at most, and they didn’t want to miss out on the glory and fun.

Overwhelmingly, these junior officer volunteers were educated in British public schools, which in the quaint way we British have with the language are actually private institutions open only to those who can afford the fees. In 1914, the student body came almost exclusively from the British upper and professional caste and filled the classrooms of 120 elite schools.

According to an article by Lewis-Stempel in The Express (9 February 2014), ‘They trained a whole generation of boys to be waiting in the wings of history as military leaders. The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for this duty … but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die. Manliness, duty, love of Britain, and stiff upper-lip self-denial were the inescapable virtues. So, when Lord Kitchener asked public school boys to step forward to officer the expanded British Army in 1914, they did so in their thousands.’

These products of tough boarding schools had been educated in a regime of muscular Christianity: team games, cold showers, demonstrating ‘pluck’ at sports, and immersion in history and the classics. They read GA Henty and Rudyard Kipling and were brought up on the famous Henry Newbolt poem, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’

In a society defined by class and the accent with which a person spoke, public-school boys were taught it was their destiny to lead, above all to set an example, and to inspire others through their gallantry. Their soldiers deferred to their young leaders sharing the same hardship in the trenches and acknowledged their courage and devotion to duty.

They were rarely let down. The courage of these junior officers was by and large amazing. A common thread is in the letters of many of these well-educated young men; they seemed to fear to be seen ‘letting the side down’ or ‘not being brave enough’ in front of their men more than they feared death itself. They were schooled to set an example; and they did.

The subalterns – in all armies – were always the first ones over the top of the trench and the last ones to retreat. The idea was that through this display of careless bravado they would inspire their men to follow them into Hell. Lionel Sotheby was a product of Eton and a subaltern on the Western front. He wrote in his last letter home that ‘To die for one’s school is an honour.’ He fell in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was just 20 years old. His public school, Eton College, sent 3000 of its ex-pupils into the army of the First World War: 1157 (over 30 per cent of them) died on the battlefields.

Guy Chapman of the Royal Fusiliers recalled ‘I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, most anxious lest I show it.’

Another tragic example was Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, educated at Wellington, keen to join the fight, but rejected because of his severe short-sightedness. His father pulled strings and wangled him a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards. In autumn 1915, he saw his first and last action in the Battle of Loos. Within minutes of going ‘over the top’ he was dead, crying from the pain of his wound, shot through the jaw but still – according to his platoon serjeant – gamely trying to carry on, only to be later blown to pieces by a shell, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

John Ellis wrote in his 1989 book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I that, among subalterns, ‘estimates for the mortality rates among platoon commanders in the attack range from 65 to 81 per cent. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men.’  The German and French casualties reflect even higher mortality rates for their officers, and lost over 50 percent of their young males aged 20–24 during the Great War.

Bloodshed on this scale prompted the British historian AJP Taylor to write ‘The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry.’ The American novelist Gertrude Stein lived through the Great War and afterwards described the dead young officers as ‘The Lost Generation’.

Sandhurst’s proud motto is ‘Serve to Lead’. The British soldier expects nothing less from his officers – then and now. The dead young officers of the Great War prove that truth, as a visit to any CWGC cemetery on the Western Front shows.

John Hughes-Wilson
Past President, International Guild of Battlefield Guides
Author, A History of the First World War in 100 Objects (Imperial War Museum, 2014)

Royal Weddings and Other Disasters

‘Did the earth move for you, darling?’

‘No, it bloody well didn’t! How am I expected to perform with all these damn’ courtiers standing around gawping?’

Fortunately for Prince Harry and Meghan, their wedding night will (hopefully) not be spoiled by the ancient custom of the public consummation of a royal marriage.

Throughout history, there have been some disastrous marriages involving royals. Not every royal wedding is the stuff of fairy tales.  Whilst we wish the happy couple all the best, history offers some cautionary examples.

Perhaps the most bizarre was the old custom of ‘bedding.’ The original purpose of this ceremony was to record the consummation of a marriage, without which the union could later be legally annulled. Public bedding was therefore essential for royalty and the nobility to establish the legality of any union. In medieval Iceland, a marriage was only valid if it included the bedding ritual witnessed by at least six men, including a lawyer. That must have put many a nervous groom off his stroke ….

Consummation was often a problem in dynastic marriages because of the age of the participants. For example, Isabella of Valois was just 6 years old when she was married off to King Richard II.  (But then, they couldn’t spell ‘paedophilia’ back in 1396 ….)  And Queen Mary II, of ‘William and Mary’ fame, was only 15 when she married William of Orange in 1677.

A less fortunate young bride was Marie-Antoinette, daughter of Austria’s Holy Roman Empress, who was married off by proxy in 1770 to the French Dauphin, the future King Louis XVI.  She was just 14, he was barely 15. Consummation was impossible because the groom was not present at his own wedding. That was held in the bride’s native Vienna; unfortunately, Louis was in Paris.

When the young bride finally arrived in France, her petulant husband sulked all through the wedding mass in Notre Dame and then, embarrassingly, later failed to do his public duty. As distinguished guests (including an archbishop to bless the newlyweds) crowded into the happy couple’s bed chamber to watch, something went wrong. An embarrassed Louis could not perform in public. It would be seven long years before Louis and Marie Antoinette finally consummated their marriage, making them the butt of suitably Rabelaisian jokes by court and commoners alike.

French royal weddings already had a dodgy track record.  On 18 August 1572 an arranged marriage between the Protestant (or ‘Huguenot’) Henri de Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, the Catholic daughter of King Henri II, was designed to reunite two French royal houses by ending France’s savage religious civil war. It went wrong from the start.

The nervous groom had to stand outside Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral during the religious part of the ceremony – because he was not a Catholic! Inside, the blushing bride was forced by her brother to go through with the wedding at knife point. Six days later, on 24 August 1572, Catholic mobs slaughtered thousands of French Protestants gathered in Paris for the great royal wedding knees-up in the ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.’ Henri himself only survived the carnage by swiftly promising to convert. Sadly the newlyweds’ marriage did not survive – it was later annulled.

Britain has had its own problems with royal marriages, too. After the death in childbirth of his third wife, Jane Seymour, Henry VIII looked around for a suitable Protestant dynastic replacement. The artist Holbein was despatched to Germany to paint a prospective bride, Anne of Cleves. He returned with a portrait that appears to have flattered her, because when she arrived in England Henry took one look and fled, dismayed by her drab looks and lack of sophistication, famously calling her ‘the Flanders mare’. Henry’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, convinced him to go through with the wedding for diplomatic reasons. After just one night, the king wanted out, proclaiming, ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse’, and complaining that she also had a bad case of BO. The marriage was quietly annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated and, as a result, Anne was never crowned, just quietly pensioned off to court as ‘the King’s Beloved Sister’. Looking at Henry VIII’s track record with his brides, Anne seems to have had a lucky escape from the fat old monster.

Another continental import, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, arrived in London two centuries later in 1736, at the tender age of 16. She had been promised to King George II’s oldest son, Frederick. Speaking not a word of English, and clutching her favourite toy doll, she was likened to ‘a frightened puppy.’ Within ten days the unfortunate maiden was bundled into her wedding gown and marched off down the aisle. She was so nervous that she vomited down her wedding-dress and all over the skirt of her new mother-in-law. The wedding took place nonetheless, with Britain’s Hanoverian Queen translating the ceremony into Augusta’s ear.

History doesn’t record what happened on the new Princess of Wales’ wedding night but, despite its inauspicious beginning, the marriage is thought to have been a happy one and was definitely consummated. She bore nine children.

One of her grandchildren was Prince George Frederick Augustus, the dissolute eldest son of King George III. A marriage was arranged with his German cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. The future royal couple had never met. Worse, there was a little problem.  George was already married – to Maria Fitzherbert, a widow six years his senior and a commoner to boot. This existing marriage was recognised by the Catholic Church but not by English law. George protested, but the King ordered him to wed Caroline or lose his allowance.

In April 1795 a surly George met his affianced for the first time. Disappointed by Caroline’s looks and casual attitude to personal hygiene, the reluctant fiancé promptly demanded a large brandy, while the bride-to-be complained that her prince was ‘nothing like as handsome as his portrait.’

At the wedding, George arrived very late and very drunk. He managed to fall over on the altar steps in the Chapel Royal and only muttered his vows when his father, the King, shouted to him to behave himself – or else. The bridegroom then spent his wedding night drunk as a skunk, unconscious on the bedroom floor. The unhappy couple eventually produced a daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta, in 1796. Soon afterwards George demanded a separation; but Caroline flatly refused any divorce.

An attempt to blacken the Queen by alleging ‘scandalous and improper conduct’ became the subject of an official investigation, but failed amid widespread public sympathy for Caroline. George got his revenge by having his Queen locked out of the Abbey for the coronation service in 1821. Poor old Caroline died just two weeks after guards stopped her attending her estranged husband’s coronation – by no means the first or the last victim of a disastrous royal marriage.

Closer to home the story has continued. Royalty are no more immune to the travails and trials of marriage than anyone else. Royalty pays a heavy public price for its privilege and duties – in some cases with harsh consequences, as the abdicated King Edward VIII found to his cost in 1936, when he announced he intended to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American.

And everyone remembers the fairy tale wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 ending in bitter estrangement, divorce and ultimately tragedy. Now Britain’s future king will be a divorcé. The gilded cage of royalty can destroy relationships just like any other.

So today, let us raise our glasses to the happy couple and wish them, sincerely, all the luck in the world. They will need it on life’s journey together.

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Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

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The Month that Changed the World

A century ago this month an event occurred that would have world-changing consequences: the United States of America entered the First World War.

In 1914 the prospect of ‘Europeans cutting each other’s throats’ proved a blessing to the economy of the USA. Industrial production and stocks and shares soared that autumn as the British and French placed massive orders for weapons with American companies. The war was very distant and very profitable. The general feeling among Americans was, ‘Let Europe stew in its own juice’.

However news of German atrocities in Belgium shocked many Americans and there were some open calls for war. But with 2.3m German-Americans, German immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the United States. The Irish bore no love for the British either and America’s Jewish community supported the Germans, seeing Russian Jews rescued from the tyranny of the Tsar.  Congress agreed that staying out of it was best, and supported a strongly isolationist foreign policy. The Americans’ view was that it was not in their interest to get involved in the ‘Europeans’ War’.

However, the powerful ‘Robber Baron’ capitalists of Wall Street slowly came to realise during 1915 that if the Allies lost the war – and could not repay the two billion dollars they owed to the American bankers – the US economy risked collapse. US bankers, led by J P Morgan, unsurprisingly began to lobby for a pro-Allied policy.

Into this confused neutrality Mexican Pancho Villa’s invasion and attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in early 1916 caused shockwaves throughout America. A retaliatory expedition under General John Pershing promptly invaded Mexico to hunt down the rebellious warlord. Suddenly the realities of war seemed closer for many Americans.

Moreover, by the summer of 1916 American attitudes towards Europe’s bloody conflict were changing. There were dark rumours of German-inspired industrial sabotage, supposed poisoning of water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and penetration of American labour unions. These rumours, along with the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, added to the growing distrust of Germany. Growing public concern over the weak state of the US armed forces saw a National Defense Act passed in June 1916, authorizing an army of 175,000 men, and a National Guard of 450,000. Many liberals regarded this as a dangerous first step towards war and campaigned hard for peace and isolationism.

The November 1916 election spelled out these political issues very clearly. After a close fought campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s winning margin was tiny. (He carried New Hampshire by just 56 votes.) An idealistic Harvard law professor, Wilson was re-elected on a ticket promising ‘peace, progressivism and prosperity’. He succeeded primarily because he branded his Republican opponents as ‘the War Party.’ The great majority of Americans were determined to remain neutral.

Wilson tried hard to end the war, even launching his own diplomatic mission over the winter of 1916-17 to seek a peace deal. All it did however, was to reveal was that the warring factions’ aims were absolutely irreconcilable. Germany insisted on keeping Alsace and Lorraine; Britain, under its new Prime Minister Lloyd George, would fight to the death; and France and Belgium demanded all their occupied territories back, full compensation, plus a demilitarised border on the Rhine.

Then in February 1917 came the news of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The normally calm Wilson was furious and broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin.  Despite this, Wilson still believed that ‘the Teutonic powers’ really wanted peace and began preparing a new round of peace proposals.

However, Germany now made a disastrous blunder. On 24 February an astonished Wilson learned of the contents of a secret telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Zimmermann.

On top of U-boat attacks on American ships, came the breath-taking news that Berlin had made a back-stairs deal with Mexico to invade the USA. It was impossible for America to ignore such a provocation.  Wilson, who had been returned to office on a peace platform only two months before, was now contemplating taking his country to war – and all because of a serious German miscalculation.

When the German submarine cable had been cut in 1914, Sweden let Berlin use the Swedish cable to send its diplomatic telegrams out to its embassies world-wide. But this cable route went through the UK and the British codebreakers could read the German signals. The so-called ‘Swedish roundabout’ suddenly produced pay-dirt on 17 January 1917, when astonished Admiralty codebreakers intercepted a German telegram from Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico, to let him know that Germany was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Ominously, it also instructed the Ambassador to offer Mexico a secret alliance with Germany on the promise that Berlin could offer ‘an understanding … that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.’

The British sat on this explosive telegram for over 2 weeks, hoping that the Americans might be provoked without any action from London. The British problem was how to tell the world of the Germans’ plans without letting them know how they had found out? That would compromise the true source and the Germans would change their codes. Signals intelligence relies on total secrecy.

London’s ‘insurance’ copy of the Mexican version of the telegram provided the solution. The British obtained a hard copy of the actual telegram that had been delivered to the Germans in Mexico City.  When the Americans were handed the formal copy of the offending telegram, they were told that it had been obtained by ‘an agent in Mexico.’ To British astonishment, Germany admitted that the telegram was no forgery.

Even when confronted with this open evidence of hostile German intention, Wilson still hesitated to call for war. He only briefed his Cabinet on 20 March, nearly a month after he had first seen the telegram. By then, the U-boats’ deliberate sinkings of neutral American merchant and passenger ships, plus the explosive content of the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’, had completely changed American public opinion.  On 2 April an indignant President briefed the House and Senate, calling for a declaration of war. In typical idealistic style however, he sold it as some great moral crusade: ‘The world,’ Wilson declared, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ On the 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on an unrepentant Germany.

Allied hopes of any immediate reinforcement by US armed forces turned out to be optimistic. America’s army was still tiny, with only 128,000 men. There was no air force – in 1914 the army had only 6 planes and 16 pilots, and the navy was undermanned and unprepared. America was just not ready for war. The first real reinforcement only came as late as December 1917, when US Navy dreadnoughts arrived in Scapa Flow to augment Britain’s Grand Fleet.

The real benefit of America’s entry into the war in 1917 was the psychological boost to Allied morale post-Passchendaele, post-French Army mutinies, with the promise of massive new fighting forces coming from across the Atlantic in 1918 to tip the balance in Europe by sheer weight of numbers. It also meant that Berlin was now uncomfortably aware that America’s entry inevitably spelled defeat unless Germany got in some war-winning blow before it was too late.

So April 1917 was a decisive month for the war – and for the world. It was the month that would ultimately lead to Germany’s desperate final offensive of spring 1918, to be followed by inevitable defeat, retreat, revolution and the fall of the Second Reich, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Those great events of one hundred years ago this month would also lead to America’s emergence as a world power.

To this day we still live with the consequences of that April, long, long ago.

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