Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Colonialism

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An Eskimo man enjoying some music on a record player; ca. 1922

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A young man snatches the ceremonial sword of King Baudouin of Belgium during a procession with the newly appointed President Kasa-Vubu, on the eve of the independence of the Belgian Congo, Leopoldville; June 30, 1960

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Ambroise Boimbo was a Congolese citizen who snatched the ceremonial sword of King Baudouin I of Belgium on June 29, 1960 in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) on the eve of the independence of the Belgian Congo. He was a former soldier who originated from Monkoto in the Équateur Province.

The king’s entourage was driving from the airport into the city when it slowed to enable the monarch to stand and salute the flag of an honour guard of the Force Publique drawn up by the side of the road. A widely published photograph, taken by journalist Robert Lebeck, shows an exuberant Ambroise Boimbo, in jacket and tie, flourishing the sword while Baudouin and Congolese President Joseph Kasa-Vubu appear unaware of the incident. Further photographs taken by Lebeck show Boimbo encircled by Belgian and Congolese colonial gendarmes, as they wrestled him to the ground. According to media reports the “nationalist demonstrator” was taken away in a police vehicle but released later the same day at the king’s request. The sword was apparently quickly retrieved and returned to King Baudouin, who was filmed wearing it at the Independence speech-making ceremonies the next day on June 30.

To some commentators the seizure of the sword symbolized the independence of the Congo, although others saw it as simply an instance of high-spirited behavior at a time of celebration.

(From Wikipedia)


How the Russians conquered Siberia:

Prior to the Mongol invasions, the Novgorodians had penetrated past the Urals. The Russians used northern routes to enter Siberia by land and sea, and by the mid-sixteenth century they had reached the mouth of the Enisei.

In the sixteenth century, the Stroganov family developed large-scale industries, including salt and fur extraction, in North-Eastern European Russia the Ustiug area (a bit right of the red area in this photo):

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After the conquest of Kazan (see here), the Stroganovs obtained large holdings in the upper Kama region, where they maintained garrisons and encouraged colonists to settle. In 1582, the Stroganovs sent an expedition against the Siberian Khanate, consisting of around 1500 cossacks and some volunteers, and lead by a Cossack, Ermak. The Russians were massively outnumbered, but made good use of organisation, firearms and that famous Russian bravery to overcome the Khanate, and they ultimately seized the headquarters of the Siberian Khan. Ivan the Terrible realised the prospects of this, as Siberia was well known for the opportunities for fur trading, and sent reinforcements. Ermak died in 1584 however (before reinforcements arrived), and although they actually had to conquer the Siberian Khanate again, they began to consolidate their holdings.

In order to subjugate the natives and collect tributes of fur (iasak), which the natives were expected to pay, a series of forts were built at the confluences of major rivers and streams and important portages. The first among these were Tyumen and Tobolsk — the former built in 1586 by Vasilii Sukin and Ivan Miasnoi, and the latter the following year by Danilo Chulkov. Tobolsk would become the nerve center of the conquest. Essentially, from here on out, the Russians began to subdue minor tribes and further expand these forts and outposts. Of these, Mangazeya was the most prominent, becoming a base for further exploration eastward. It was a highly profitable undertaking for the Muscovite state, due to the furs extraction.

Following the khan’s death and the dissolution of any organized Siberian resistance, the Russians advanced first towards Lake Baikal and then the Sea of Okhotsk and the Amur River. Between 1610 and 1640, the Russian military and the Cossacks moved three hundred miles further into the southern steppe, in continuous conflict with the Crimean Tartars and other nomads. However, when they first reached the Chinese border they encountered people that were equipped with artillery pieces and here they halted. The treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) outlined the borders between the two countries and lasted until 1858. A small band of Cossacks, lead by Ivan Moskvitianin, reached the Pacific Ocean in 1639. After the conquest of the Siberian Khanate (1598) the whole of northern Asia – an area much larger than the old khanate – became known as Siberia and by 1640 the eastern borders of Russia had expanded more than several million square kilometers. In a sense, the khanate lived on in the subsidiary title “Tsar of Siberia” which became part of the full imperial style of the Russian Autocrats.


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Sir Evelyn Baring, the British Governor of Kenya; ca. 1954

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The nine European Monarchs who attended the funeral of Edward VII, photographed at Windsor Castle; May 20, 1910

I always enjoy identifying where people are situated to identify who was perceived to be the most powerful. Obviously UK front and center, flanked by Spain and Denmark with Germany behind and Belgium relegated to the outside...

I always enjoy identifying where people are situated to identify who was perceived to be the most powerful. Obviously UK front and center, flanked by Spain and Denmark with Germany behind and Belgium relegated to the outside…


Child in a British concentration camp during the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

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For those of you that don’t know, here is a brief lead up to the Boer wars:

In 1795 the British took over the Cape Colony for the Dutch during the French Revolutionary Wars. The colony was restored to Dutch rule in 1804 by the Treaty of Amiens and retaken by the British in 1806. This colony was important to protect trade routes to Britain from the east, especially India. The Dutch settlers in the Cape were known as the Boers. The Boers ignored the new governors and moved away from administrative centers, remaining as independent as possible.

Hostilities started to develop in 1823 as the British changed English to the official language. These escalated further in 1833 when the British passed equality laws, making slavery illegal. This was deeply unpopular will the Boers whose economic stability relied on farming using slaves. Although promised compensation for the Brits they soon learnt that it could only be picked up from London.

In the following years thousands of Boers left British territory to continue farming using slaves. Two new states were formed the Republic of Transvaal and a couple years later the Orange Free State.

The British continued to expand their territory, fighting small wars and skirmishes with the Boers and other Africans.

In 1867 diamonds were discovered near the Vaal River, 550 miles northeast from Cape Town. Tens of thousand of people from around the world flocked to the area.

In 1875, Lord Carnarvon attempted to organize a federation between the Brits and Boers (similar to the Brits and French in Canada). The idea was rejected by the Boers.

In 1877 the British annexed Transvaal non violently, they accepted this because the Boers were near war with the Zulus and couldn’t risk fighting a war on two fronts. This raised Anglo-Boer tensions once again.

The Zulus, who had gathered a sizable army of around 40,000 and now had firearms, were seen as a threat to British and given an ultimatum to disband their army. They failed to do this and reluctantly in 1879 7,000 British with 7,000 Black African levies fought a short war effectively ending the Zulu kingdom.

Now the Boers enemies had all been defeated by the British the Boers resentment grew further for the British and they wanted their independence back.

In November 1880 a Boer man refused to pay a tax and his wagon was seized. When his wagon was to be sold a group of armed Boer took the wagon back and assaulted the sheriff. British troops sent after them but were fired upon.

In December 1880 Transvaal declared independence and began besieging British garrisons in the region and so the First Boer War began.

The Boers being farmers were excellent hunters and riders. They fought using camouflage and stealth to snipe at British red coats.

*Fun Fact: The Boers fought in guerrilla groups called kommandos. Winston Churchill was captured by the Boers and out of respect for their skill he later named British special forces ‘commandos’.


WWI Veterans:

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In Britain, there were victory parades in London and other big cities to celebrate both the end of the war and the return of the men. But most simply returned home to their everyday life, as their contract only conditioned them to fight for three years or until the end of the war (whichever came first).

Wounded Prisoners

The soldier that came back in 1918 was very different from the man who left for war four years before.

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In Britain, there were three distinct types of soldier to be found in the infantry:

  • The so-called “Old Contemptibles“, who had been professional soldiers or reservists upon the war’s outbreak. Many such men were in their thirties or forties when the summer of 1914 drew to a close, and some boasted relevant combat experience from the Second Boer War. These men comprised the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France and Flanders in August of 1914; at the time they constituted six infantry divisions split between I (Haig) and II (Smith-Dorrien) Corps.

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  • The men of “Kitchener’s Army“, the massive infantry apparatus built from the volunteers of the first wave of recruitment. This is an important distinction that I’ll be examining more in a moment: from the first, there was no program of conscription for the British infantry. The battalions that were raised were voluntary, and were very often comprised along local/professional lines for the sake of convenience. The practical consequence of this is that you’d have a regiment like the East Surreys (for example) comprised almost entirely of men from East Surrey, or the Artists Rifles comprised largely of… well, you get the idea. Entire villages and towns worth of men went off to fight in these battalions side by side, and the spirit of familiar camaraderie that prevailed in them saw them referred to as the “Pals’ Battalions.” More on why this matters in a moment, as I said. Anyway, whereas the men of the Old Contemptibles arrived in France more or less immediately upon the war’s outbreak, Kitchener’s Mob took a considerable amount of time to equip and train — often with less than satisfactory results, but there’s no sense in throwing about blame at this stage. The bulk of those trained up in this group began to arrive on the Western Front in the spring of 1915 — in time for Second Ypres, and eventually Loos.

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  • Finally, the men of the post-conscription recruitment drive. Conscription was formally enacted as of 1 January 1916, and the men inducted into the infantry through this drive first started to arrive on the Front in the late summer of that year. A further crucial difference prevailed: the “Pals’ Battalions” structure was largely abandoned, and conscripts were instead usually assigned to battalions as the need for them arose.

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So, I stress these differences (to finally come to the point) because they would produce remarkably different sorts of veteran. Let’s examine some implications.

Army Rough Age in 1914 Rough Age in 1918 Active Service Duration Character
Contemptibles 30-40 34-44 ~52 Months Professional, Voluntary
Kitchener’s 17-18 21-22 ~43 Months Civilian, Voluntary
Conscripts 15-16 19-20 ~29 Months Civilian, Duress

Let us consider some implications, even if only sketchy ones.

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Those in the first wave had survived a grinder of unparalleled proportions, and their first taste of the war’s true flavor would have come with the disastrous Retreat from Mons. No longer young men to begin with, 4.25 years of grueling conditions would have taken an enormous physical and mental toll upon them. Having been professional soldiers at the war’s outset, some would choose to continue serving in this capacity now that it was over — but this was a difficult prospect in the great national rush to demobilization. Positions in the rapidly shrinking peacetime army were hard to secure and even harder to hold, and many of these veterans found themselves demobbed (though honorably) whether they wished it or not. They then found themselves forced to seek new employment after (in some cases) two decades of army life, and the difficulties this posed would have been considerable. There were literal millions of demobbed soldiers searching for the same jobs, and most firms would balk at the notion of hiring an exhausted 40-year-old when there were so many millions of men at half the age begging to be taken on. These are stories that did not always end happily. In any case, the appalling casualties suffered by this particular wave of the infantry ensured that they did not constitute a very large portion of surviving veterans after the war. As Robin Neillands notes in The Old Contemptibles (2004), “the British Official History gives the casualties from the start of the campaign in August 1914 to the end of First Ypres in November as 89,864 men killed, wounded or missing. It notes also that ‘the greatest part of this loss had fallen on the infantry of the first seven divisions [the six infantry divisions I mentioned plus one cavalry division], which originally numbered only 84,000 men'” (328-29).

French Advance

 

This original number would only grow to a total of 160,000 by the end of 1914 — still better than 50% casualties. By means of useful comparison, the French mustered an army of 1,071,000 within the first days of the war, while the initial German army of 850,000 swelled to 4,300,000 within a few weeks. Even “brave little Belgium” could boast an initial army of 350,000 (37). The BEF started small, and suffered an appalling proportion of casualties by any metric. Many of the men left over were moved into training positions as the second wave began to train up — but more on that below.

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Those in the second wave served a similar stretch to their earlier professional counterparts, but with some considerable practical and psychological differences. Their first taste of combat would likely have been the appalling terror of Second Ypres (with its corresponding first deployment of poison gas) or the catastrophic failure that was the Battle of Loos. This is not a cheerful tone to set, and it was only made worse by the situation of the Pals’ Battalions. Because of the way in which these battalions were constructed, a particularly bad day for one of them could result in the functional destruction of an entire town’s worth of men. This, in part, is responsible for the idea of the “lost generation” — in many villages and towns throughout the isles, this was very literally the case. These veterans, then, would carry with them the scars of having (in many cases) lost every friend or even nodding acquaintance they had ever had, often over the course of a single day. Though still relatively young, they returned to uncertain prospects and with a host of physical and mental ailments. The prevalence of PTSD among veterans of this sort, but it is also worth noting the high rate of respiratory ailments and chronic pain that afflicted them as well — not very helpful when looking for jobs in industry.

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Less happily still, many of those who had been most eager to enlist in the first place had done so due to a lack of employment prospects elsewhere, and because the life that the army provided would be a step-up from what they might otherwise expect. It’s amazing to consider that army life (in spite of its dangers) actually constituted a real improvement recreationally, vocationally and even nutritionally for many of those who enlisted, but this was very often the case. With the war over, however, and the great demobilization in progress, these men, too, had to find new jobs — and they were not often available. A final note about this group: a combination of patriotic fervor, the opportunities offered by the soldier’s life, and a very lax system of official scrutiny led to many under-aged boys enlisting as adults. Such boys were scarcely ever to be found among the Old Contemptibles (for reasons I hope are obvious), and the census records kept by the government formed a more reliable means of age verification when it came to distributing conscription cards in the third wave, but all that was required of those volunteering from 1914 onward was the declaration by oath that the man was over the age of 18 — that’s it. Though it’s impossible to get a hard number, it’s estimated that as many as 250,000 such under-aged volunteers served in the British infantry throughout the war. Most joined up at 17, unwilling to wait; some were as young as 15 or 16. The youngest of which we have record, a Pvt. S. Lewis, was a mere 12 years old when he arrived on the Somme. He survived, as best we can tell, and went on to open a pub, live through the second war, and die in the fullness of his years in the 1960s — but many did not. (See Richard van Emden’s Boy Soldiers of the Great War for more on this subject.)

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Finally, those in the third wave may have been in the hardest place of all. In addition to all of the challenges I’ve already noted above, these poor souls had the misfortune to have had their first tastes of combat on the Somme. Not necessarily at its supremely troubled opening, of which today is the 97th anniversary, but throughout that long, frustrating slog all the same — through the wet summer, into the frozen winter, and finally into its quiet and (apparently) consequence-less conclusion. This, too, is a hard place to start one’s career as a fighting man — and to have it followed up by Passchendaele and the German Spring Offensive of 1918 does no favors either. Another crucial difference between this group of veterans and those above is that many of them had very much wished to have nothing to do with the war at all. While many of those conscripted in 1916 would have gone willingly enough in 1914 if only they had been older, there were many more still for whom their lack of a uniform after 2.5 years of war was a very conscious choice. They were conscripted against their will, sent off in resentment or fear, trained in arts they did not wish to learn, deployed among strangers, and then subjected to all of the difficulties and boredom and thrills of the war that the first two waves experienced without any of the small mitigation of having chosen to. If we wish to find at least one of the roots of the spirit of “disillusion” that blossomed so aggressively from 1927 through 1933, we may look with interest to this generation.

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Some final notes before concluding.

A serious consideration in the post-war employment market was that of women. During the war, women had risen to the nation’s call in a tremendous way and had provided crucial labor in industry of all sorts — and not just those focused on the manufacture of weapons. While many such women found themselves being let go at the war’s conclusion as the production of artillery and whatnot inevitably wound down, those in industries that would remain prolific (such as textiles, metal-working, food distribution, and so on) were not so willing to simply see themselves sent back to their former situations. Many of their employers agreed, having come to recognize their talents and being unwilling to sacrifice experienced labor to give the jobs to men who had spent the last four years doing nothing of the sort. A step forward for sexual equality it certainly was, but it also carried the unfortunate consequence that many of the men who went off to war returned to a country in which jobs that might once have been guaranteed for them would never be theirs again.

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A variety of groups tried to ameliorate these problems in different ways. The Red Cross and the YMCA continued to serve as vital support networks for veterans, offering shelter, employment (when it could be found), entertainment and a means of keeping in touch with erstwhile colleagues and finding out about new opportunities. New organizations came into being in the midst of this as well; the main reason for the founding of the Royal British Legion, for example, was to help alleviate the hardships being faced by veterans who returned to a country that seemed no longer to hold a place for them.

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It may surprise a modern reader to learn of it, but Sir Douglas Haig was instrumental in the founding of this charitable group, among several others, and devoted most of his public energies until the end of his life to its service. He flatly refused to allow separate Legions to be created for officers and for other ranks, believing that the wartime spirit of mutual respect and utility must be maintained, and refused the reward of a viscountcy after the war until then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed to create a more substantial network of support for veterans. The Legion is still widely known and popular, and chapters of it operate both in the United Kingdom and in many those countries that were imperial dominions during the war. Somewhat less known are the Haig Homes for ex-servicemen, which Haig’s estate helped endow at his request, and the Haig Fund — now known more simply as the Poppy Appeal. Gary Sheffield’s The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (2011) has much more to say on this subject, among countless others.

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(A word or two should be said about the programs in place for disabled veterans returning home, but I am much less qualified to speak on it than I am on other matters. Let it suffice to say that there were large-scale governmental training programs set up to teach veterans with a variety of disabilities how to master trades that they could practice even in spite of whatever disability they then bore. Basket-weaving, sewing, painting and so on were popular choices for those who had lost the use of one or both their legs; other possibilities existed for those without arms, or who were blind, but I know little about them myself.)

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