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

Posts tagged “historian

Napoleon’s Exile.

Painting : Napoleon at Fontainbleau

The first abdication was originally conditional. Tsar Alexander had then proposed that Napoleon be exiled to Elba. Even after the unconditional abdication, the marquis de Caulaincourt convinced Alexander to keep the proposition open. Napoleon wasn’t seen as a criminal, an upstart perhaps, but his rule was legitimate and the wars were often declared by the Coalition.

There wasn’t widespread support for Elba, and most diplomats and politicians had their own ideas on where to send him. The United States, Corsica, Sardinia, and the British fort of St. George on Beauly Firth were other possibilities. Alexander insisted on Elba as it would put him at an advantage to Austrian interests, and the other nations went along with it due to the other choices not being entirely pleasing — along with some threats from Alexander that were Napoleon not sent to Elba he would rescind his support for the Bourbons.

When Napoleon escaped, he was declared as much as an enemy of humanity and that he would banished from Europe if captured. He could, in theory, be executed. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Prussians stated that he would be executed if captured by them. For personal reasons, Napoleon refused to surrender to the Austrians and Russians — though they were unlikely to execute him. Napoleon made his way to Rochefort where he planned on embarking to the United States, though he delayed in doing so and the British blockaded the port in the meantime. Napoleon sent his aides to the captain of the HMS Bellerophon to see what terms he might get for surrendering to them. Captain Maitland suggested that asylum in England may be possible, but would have to clear it.

After some deliberation, Napoleon decided to surrender himself to the Bellerophon. When it arrived at Torbay, Napoleon was kept on board — an amusement for sight seers to come and see. The British government debated what to do with him. The three main figures (being the Prince Regent, Prime Minister, and Secretary of War) all hated him and previously instructed the Bourbons that they should execute him. They declared Napoleon a prisoner of war, which put Bonaparte in a grey area of legality. He couldn’t technically be a prisoner of war since Britain and France were no longer at war. Napoleon was no longer considered to even be a citizen of France. The possibility of him being tried and executed as an outlaw or pirate was raised, but then he couldn’t have been detained as a prisoner of war.

The government’s response to this scenario was to exile Napoleon to St. Helena as a retired general on half pay. Napoleon’s response to this was bewilderment and confusion, stating that if his coming aboard the Bellerophon was simply a trick to make him a prisoner, Britain had shamed itself. One of his remarks was, “They may as well call me Archbishop, for I was head of the Church as well as the army.” The Allies approved of the action, though the British Parliament later admitted that the government had no legal basis for Napoleon’s exile.

So, specifically as for why Napoleon wasn’t executed basically comes down to the unique position he was in. The concept of war criminals wasn’t yet around, and Napoleon was neither a figure that could simply be executed nor given asylum. If Napoleon had been given a *writ of habeus corpus, he could have been put on trial. However, the British government didn’t want the possibility for Napoleon to be let off, so they quickly decided to exile him. Even that was outside of their legal jurisdiction, but it caused a lot less fallout than an execution would have.

[*Napoleon technically had received a writ of habeus corpus. A sympathetic former judge came up with an excuse (an admiral failing to perform his duties) to have Napoleon appear as a witness in a trial. The writ was obtained, but Napoleon was whisked away before he could set foot on land.]

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Finland: The Swedish Period.

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The earliest period of Swedish colonization of Finland proper (in the area around the city of Turku) occurred at the end of the 12th century, and could be considered a part of the religious and political movement known as the Northern Crusade. The Swedish monarchs and nobles would have had numerous reasons for the effort including

•suppression of piracy in the Gulf of Finland and Aaland archipelago.
•conversion of Finnic tribes to Catholic Christianity.
•creation of markets, establishment of feifs, and access to raw materials.
•to check the influence of Novgorod, and counter the spread of the “heretical” Orthodox creed.

Indeed, the spread of Swedish language and construction of fortresses goes hand in hand with the construction of Catholic churches and cathedrals in the early period.

Skipping ahead from the 1200s up to the 1400s, Sweden joined Denmark and Norway in a union of the skandinavian kingdoms called the Union of Kalmar, which was dominated by Denmark. Under Gustav Erikson, later King Gustav I Vasa, Sweden (and Finland) left the Kalmar Union in 1523. Gustav Vasa profoundly changed the Swedish monarchy, weakening the power of the nobility and church to enhance his own power. Following a dispute with the Pope about the appointment of Bishops, Gustav allowed the spread of the Lutheran church in his kingdom. This period also saw the administration of the provinces in Finland come under the supervision of royally appointed bailiffs, rather than being administered by local Bishoprics and noble families (who tended to be Germans appointed by pre-Kalmar kings).

Following Gustav I, his sons Eric XIV and John III ruled. John originally ruled as Duke of Finland during his brother’s reign, and used his power base in Finland to depose his mentally unstable brother. John had strong catholic sympathies, and under his reign and that of his son Sigismund, Sweden would see the reintroduction of many Catholic ceremonies and the drift back towards Catholicism being the state religion.

Sigismund was troubled in that his Catholicism as well as his duties as King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth put him at odds with his Swedish nobles, and he was deposed in turn in favor of Gustav I’s youngest son Charles IX. During this conflict in Sweden proper, the provinces of Finland saw what has been called the Cudgel War, where peasants rebelled against burdensome and exploitative nobles and military garrisons. Charles IX expressed support for the peasantry, but his forces were engaged fighting Sigismund in Sweden.

The period of Charles IX reign would see the lessening of the old rivalry with the Russian principalities (Muscovy was descending into the Time of Troubles) and a heightening of rivalry with Poland-Lithuania ruled by the disgruntled Sigismund who never relinquished his claim to the crown of Sweden. In fact, this period would see Russia as the playground for Polish and Swedish invasions and puppet Czars (something never mentioned in discussions of Charles XII/Napoleon/Hitler).

Charles IX was succeeded by his illustrious son Gustav Adolph, also known by his latinized name Gustavus Adolphus. Gustav Adolph’s reign saw the conquest of Skane from the Danes by the young monarch, an extended war against his cousin, Sigismund, in Prussia, and eventually Swedish intervention in the 40 years war. During this long period of war, Finnish cavalry regiments known as Hakkapeliitas made a name for themselves for their endurance and savagery. Actually, Jean Sibelius wrote a concerto about them known as the Hakkapeliita March.

At the end of Gustav Adolph’s reign, Sweden could be considered one of the “great powers” of Europe to come out of the 40 years war, along with France.

However, Swedish strength would ebb away with the reforms of Peter the Great of Russia. King Christian XII fought the Russian Czar to a standstill in the early phases of the Great Northern War in 1700, but the Swedish monarch made the drastic mistake of engaging in a long and inconclusive war with Poland while the Russians recouped their strength. The result was Russia took over the territory of Estonia, gained access to the Gulf of Finland including the site on which St Petersburg was constructed, as well as the loss of Viipuri/Vyborg, the lynchpin of the eastern defenses of Finland.

Finally, Sweden would lose the entirety of Finland in the 1808-09 Finnish War.


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The Yalta Conference, Crimea; February 1945.

This is photograph TR 2828 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums]


American intervention in the Russian Civil War:

DDD0918489TAmerican involvement in Russia was part of an Allied Intervention into Russia rather than an actual invasion. President Wilson authorized limited military force in Russia but no formal declaration of war was ever authorized by the American Congress. Wilson ordered 5,000 men to occupy Arkhangelsk and around 8,000 to Vladivostok, a port city on the far eastern reaches of Russia. The American “expeditionary” forces were not part of a concerted American war effort but rather an American commitment made out of the emerging European debates that followed the First World War. Wilson was also known to use limited occupational forces to achieve political goals. One example is his 1914 occupation of the Mexican port city Veracruz to influence the success of a U.S. friendly Mexican government, obviously Veracruz is a different story but it demonstrates that Wilson used Executive power to authorize military occupations that were not necessarily outright invasions or declarations of war.

Importantly the number of around 13,000 thousand American soldiers was considerably less than the commitments of Czechoslovakia’s (50,000), France’s (12,000) and Britain’s (40,000). Moreover the strategic importance of the areas occupied by America were also minor in comparison to other zones of conflict and the role of America was manifestly less significant than the contributions of her Allies. General Graves who commanded the American contingent present in Siberia (American Expeditionary Force Siberia) had the aim of protecting American military equipment and American capital investment that was still in Russia after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Graves’ other objectives included safe guarding the exit of the Czech legion from Russian territory and to assist the reorganization of the new Russian government.

You have to take into account that Russia in 1918 was vastly different from the Communist state that we understand it to have been throughout the twentieth century. In 1918 it was not clear that the Bolsheviks would emerge as victors, the Red Army faced opponents on four fronts to control a comparatively small area compared to the huge country we know Russia is today. The map I’ve linked at the bottom shows the extent of Bolshevik control in 1919, Archangelsk is just at the top, Vladivostok where most of the Americans were stationed is located thousands of kilometers to the east and Americans stationed there engaged in a limited role against Russian Cossacks, a group separate to the Revolutionary Bolsheviks.

Wilson’s motivations for sending American troops were numerous but stemmed from his willingness to see through his own vision for a post war peace process. He was pressured by allies to commit to Russian intervention and he likely did so in a diplomatic measure to ensure he had some leverage in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Undoubtedly Wilson was more concerned with fostering a democratic environment in Europe (and protecting physical American interests in Russia) rather than in participating in a huge mobilization against Russia after the toll of the First World War. The intervention was certainly no secret, Congressmen, Newspapers and Citizens were alert to the experiences of American soldiers stationed in the frozen port cities and campaigned for the men to be returned. Generally Americans opposed intervention and largely felt that their commitment in the First World War had been sufficient enough in aiding allied European nations. Additionally many Americans did not share the international spirit that Wilson pushed in the post-war peace conferences. President Warren Harding who followed Wilson’s administration condemned the intervention as a complete mistake.

Here are a couple of good sources if you want to develop some of the ideas that I’ve written here:

(It wasn’t an invasion, it was an intervention authorized by the President and not Congress and the American people knew about it.)

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*Maybe the best quick read to get the bet settled that isn’t a wikipedia article.

*The introduction here will help you get a better idea on some of the context surrounding the intervention.


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Viet Cong prisoner with mouth and eyes taped, Vietnam, by Paul Schutzer; ca. 1965.

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What caused Sweden to transform from a highly militaristic society (30 years war through the Napoleonic Wars) to one of staunch neutrality?

First of all, Sweden being neutral did not mean it was not militaristic or even belligerent at several times even after the Napoleonic war. In general, Sweden had more soldiers per capita and invested a larger percentage of its GDP into defense spending than most western countries.

Sweden’s foreign ambitions almost all start with weak neighbors or potential threats.

As the Livonian Confederation was falling apart and faced Russian invasion 1558-1583, the Duchy of Estonia – we are talking the nobility and the burghers of Reval (Tallinn) here, the only ones with a voice in Estonia at the time – swore allegiance to Sweden 1561, which was confirmed by all powers 1570 in the Peace of Stettin.

Sweden’s first real war after the final dissolution of the Kalmar Union was the Nordic Seven Years’ War 1563-1570, which was indecisive, but forced the Danish King to finally abandon his claims on the Swedish throne and thus ending a potential restoration of the Kalmar Union.

Johan III, son of Gustav I (Wasa) married a Polish princess, and their son, Sigismund, became King of both Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. He preferred to host his court in Poland and was a catholic. His uncle, Karl, used fears of continental serfdom, catholicism and counter-reformation, his own position as a very independent Duke with vast estates to revolt against the King and siezing the Swedish throne.

During the Russian times of trouble, Sweden took the opportunity to take Ingria and Kexholm during the Russian war 1610-1617 in order to protect Swedish Finland and take control of all ports and river mouths, thus being able to toll all Russian trade (except the one at Archangelsk, but that was closed during a large part of the year).

Sigismund was still King in Poland-Lithuania and still claimed the Swedish throne – the Poles supporting various candidates for Czar of Russia led Sweden to intervene and de la Gardies campaign, which actually instated Vasilij IV and captured Moscow for him, until de la Gardie was defeated by the Poles. The threat of a Polish-Russian alliance was too severe for Sweden to consider not intervening.

This also led to the Livonian War of 1600-1629, in which Sweden defeated Poland-Lithuania and captured Riga and most of Livonia.

Now Sweden had a strange situation – it had a competent army and a Baltic Empire – but at this time, supporting an army was extremely expensive. Sweden was sparsely populated, and although decently well off by GDP per capita, it was poor compared to most European nations. In order to maintain its Baltic Empire, it needed an army. In order to maintain its army, it needed a war. This situation would last until 1660. Sweden went to war with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, Denmark and Russia several times during this era.

To maintain the army, it was placed in foreign land, living mostly off the land and pay was maintained with tolls and French subsidies. As the Habsburgs surrounded France by controlling both the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, it was a sensible policy for France to pay to keep the Holy Roman Empire occupied by fighting a relatively unimportant country to the north.

After the death of King Karl X Gustav in 1660, a regency ruled for his son Karl XI until he reached maturity in 1672. At this time the Swedish army was defeated by Bremen (!) 1665-1666 which severely shocked Europe at the time, since Sweden had been seen as more or less invincible. Corruption in the regency council also led to a worsening state of the army and especially the navy and increasing French influence to the extent that France treated Sweden as a client state at the Peace of Fontainebleau 1679. France signed the peace in Sweden’s name without consulting the Swedish government. It was to Sweden’s advantage, as the enemies of Sweden and France were forced to return Sweden’s German provinces captured during the war, but it made King Karl XI wary of French influence. He had no desire to see Sweden as a client of France.

King Karl XI made two great policy changes – first of all, he changed the foreign policy, aligning with the Anglo-Dutch instead of France and ending the long-standing tense relations with the Holy Roman Empire. Secondly, he created an effective army that did not need a war to exist with indelningsverket (the allotment system). Semi-professional soldiers maintained by peasants (who maintained a soldier instead of paying tax) created a superb army that did not cost the state much to maintain in peacetime.

This army served his son, Karl XII very well during the Great Northern War 1700-1721, but Sweden still lost (against Denmark-Norway, Poland-Lithuania, Saxony, Prussia-Brandenburg, Russia and Hannover) and the Baltic Empire was no more. Still, Sweden retained Finland and a small German bridgehead in form of Vorpommern (Nearer Pommerania).

Swedish politicians during the corrupt so called frihetstiden (freedom era), when the members of the estates parliament were openly bribed by the French and Russian embassies to vote in both foreign and internal matters as those countries wished, did not want to let go of Swedish grand power status, and on French instigation, Sweden entered a disastrous war against Russia 1741-1743 – the plan was to capture Saint Petersburg and aid a French-planned coup d’etat to replace the Austria-friendly regime of Anna Leopoldovna (regent of Czar Ivan IV). Once again France used Sweden as a pawn. The war resulted in a peasant revolt which actually captured Stockholm before being cut down by calvary and grape shot. The same government who had started the war against Russia now considered itself forced to seek Russian aid against its own population. The Russians stationed 30 galleys and 12 000 men north of Stockholm for some time – effectively, Sweden was then a pawn of Russia.

Secondly, Sweden attempted to regain lost parts of Pommerania by entering the Seven Years’ War (the Swedish participation lasted 1757-1762), which was indecisive, even if Sweden completely destroyed the infant Prussian navy in the Battle of Frisches Haff 1759. Again this war came at French instigation.

Gustav III, who had launched a coup d’etat 1772 and faced stiff opposition against his new absolutist rule from the nobility who had lost a lot of power, launched a war against Russia 1788-1790, in the hopes of reducing Russian influence in Sweden and regain territories lost. The war was indecisive, partially because noble officers refused to obey orders and wrote a letter to Czarina Catherine the Great, trying to broker a peace since the Swedish declaration of war technically was illegal. However, the Russian status as a guaranteer of the 1720 Swedish constitution (which had been dissolved by Gustav III in 1772) was ended, which meant that Russia no longer had a formal right to intervene in Swedish politics.

Durign this time, Sweden once again aligned with Francem something which ended with the French revolution. Gustav III had plans to aid the royal family, and the Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, who had very close ties with Queen Marie Antoinette (he was probably her lover) attempted to aid their escape.

Gustav IIIs son, Gustav IV Adolf maintained a strict anti-Napoleonic policy. In 1807 a small Swedish army basing out of Pommerania was captured by the French, but were released when they tricked the French into believing they were going to launch a pro-French coup or even a revolution in Sweden. Sweden had to join the continental system formally in the peace, but never did so.

So, 1808 the Russians, on French instigation, attacked Sweden to force it into the continental system. Due to confusion, noble opposition to the King and bad plans, Sweden lost Sveaborg and the whole of Finland quickly. King Gustav IV Adolf was deposed, and the intended successor of his brother, Karl XIII, the Danish-Norwegian Christian August (taking the name Carl August in Sweden) died from a stroke (rumored to have been poisoned, and the earlier mentioned Axel von Fersen was lynched by a mob over it).

Since Russo-French relations were deteriorating, a few Swedes launched a mini-coup and invited the French Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte to become crown prince and regent of Sweden, thinking he would recapture Finland in alliance with Napoleon. He accepted, and was elected crown prince. However, he saw the writing on the wall and refused to ally with Napoleon and attempt to retake Finland during the French 1812 campaign. Instead Sweden partook in the War of the Sixth Coalition 1812-1814 as one of the anti-French allies and received Norway as a price for its participation at the Congress of Vienna.

King Karl XIV Johan, as Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte became known in Sweden, started the long path of Swedish neutrality. As he had no designs to regain territory lost to Russia, and had traded away Swedish Pommerania for Norway at the Congress of Vienna (Denmark, which got it, traded it to Prussia and got the Duchy of Lauenburg instead). Seeing that Sweden was not a great power, and that designs towards that would only lead to ruin, he devised that “Sweden shall be free of foreign entanglements”. No alliances, and no foreign influence. King Karl XIV Johan and his government and successors and their governments saw that foreign influence had caused much more problems than they had resolved, and decided that neutrality was much better option.

Russia was content with Finland – they had mostly wanted Sveaborg as an outer fortress to protect Saint Petersburg anyway, and with the trade-away of Swedish Pommerania, Prussia (and later Germany) did not have any territorial designs on Sweden either.

While Sweden has been close to going to war several times since – an attempt to build a grand European coalition against Russia (including Austria and Prussia) to re-capture Finland was made during the Crimean War 1853-1856, and Sweden sent troops to aid Denmark directly 1848 and volunteers 1864. However, the Scandinavian Union that some wanted never materialized as Denmark was defeated by Prussia 1864 and lost Lauenburg, Schleswig and Holstein.

Sweden sent volunteers to Finland and Estonia 1917-1918 and to Finland 1939-1940 (declaring itself not neutral but rather non-belligrent in the winter war) and again to Finland 1941-1944, but has not participated in any war except UN-missions such as in Kongo.

Since neutrality has worked very well for Sweden during the 1814-1989 era, there has been no reason to revert this policy.


Sieges of Paris:

Two major sieges happened to Paris in the years 1870-1871. That’s right, two.

The first was at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The French had been beaten back to the point that Napoleon resigned (because he was captured) and Republic declared. The French government fled to Versailles (right down the road). Paris, on the other hand, became the point of contention in negotiations. The Prussians laid siege to the capital, cut off supply lines, and shot cannons wildly onto the city. The French – in Versailles – eventually capitulated, and the Prussians stormed the city.

Paris was pissed. They thought the war had been lost by the mismanagement of generals and the cowardice of the provinces. Wasn’t it Paris after all that was most affected by this war? And wasn’t it Paris that so courageously held out?

Under this mounting indignation at the new Versailles government, the shame of seeing Prussians parade through the shining capital of the 19th century, and finally feeling betrayed by the French who “decapitated” the country by moving the seat of government to Versailles (where the kings used to live, btw), Paris declared itself independent. Under the red flag of the people, the Paris Commune was declared.

The Versailles government had to do something. Thiers, the interim leader of the Versaillais, commanded his armies to attack the city. Paris was once again under siege, but this time by their own countrymen. The Versaillais troops literally picked up the cannons the Prussians had set down, and began shooting again.

This means that everyone living in Paris either had to flee their home or suffer through a year of dwindling food supplies and death from above.

Accounts by the Goncourt brothers, for example, tell of the last oyster eaten at the Café Riche. Rats and cats became staples of butcher shops.

The most interesting thing about these two sieges is that the people in Paris were very divided. The bourgeoisie who were not able to flee lived in fear of not only the Prussians (then later the French) outside, but also of the lower classes that became more and more politically vocal. The poor were not just asking for food, but also for a halt on (and sometimes even forgiveness of) debts, including rent. The lower classes began to organize (in Montmartre and Belleville), and eventually during the Commune held elections that in essence deprived the bourgeoisie of their majority.

The point I’m trying to make I guess is that the city under siege doesn’t just come to a halt – in fact, everything you do becomes political or ideological. What you eat, where you go, what work you do all becomes a way of telling others how you expect the siege to end, and more importantly, how you want things to be afterward.


Herman Goering and the Holocaust.


Herman Goering doesn’t really fit into that group of “radical Nazis” who were responsible for developing and tweaking the Nazi racial theory, this would include people like Hans Frank, Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg.

But Herman Goering wasn’t some secret anti-Nazi. He definitely bought into the racial theory, or at the very least he had no problem implementing it.

Goering was a key figure in developing things like the Hunger Plan, which entailed starving millions of “inferior people” to death. In 1941 he told the Italian foreign minister, Ciano, that “This Year 20-30 million people in Russia will starve”. Goering’s Green Folder outlined Nazi plans in the East. Goering signed off on and endorsed orders that led to countless deaths and suffering for non-Aryans.

Goering agreed with Hitler’s and Himmler’s orders that the Jews should be completely deported and destroyed. In private conversations with Martin Bormann, Goering said that he “believes the steps taken by the Reich leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, to be absolutely correct”. Goering also gave a speech a few days earlier which said that Churchill and Roosevelt were “drunken and mentally ill people who dangle from the Jews’ wires”. Goering agreed with Hitler that the extermination of the Jews and other non-Aryans was a necessary act to ensure the survival of the German people. Goering referred to the war as a “great race war about whether the German and Aryan will survive or if the Jew will rule the world”.

It’s also worth noting that Goering was formally in charge of Jewish policy. Goering therefore gave a number of orders that allowed the Jews in any German controlled territory to be killed. One such order was give to Reinhard Heydrich. The order stated that Heydrich had the power to “make all necessary preparations in organizational, practical, and material respects, for a total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe”.

As for other “Nazis” who may not have been as anti-semetic. A number of the July Bomb Plotters, notably Claus von Stauffenberg, while still anti-semetic, didn’t think the Jews should be exterminated. There weren’t any Nazis that one could classify as “not an anti-Semite”


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.

WW1-volunteers

 

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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Pregnancy during the Holocaust:

Because conditions varied wildly over time and across the different camps (political prisoner camps, forced labor camps, ghettos, etc.), I will concentrate on Auschwitz since there is rather a lot of material available about this harrowing subject.

Warning: this is not pleasant reading

Jewish Women:

Before the autumn of 1944, when systematic gassing of Jewish inmates was halted, all Jewish babies were killed upon birth, generally together with the mothers who were guilty of the “crime” of arriving or falling pregnant in Auschwitz. If the pregnancy was discovered before the birth, the women were killed too. This led to the drama of improvised abortions and concealed births followed by infanticide, either by the hands of the mothers or by the physicians, nurses or midwives among the inmates that were assisting them in their labor. The most famous of these doctors was Gisella Perl, a Jewish-Romanian gynecologist who wrote I was a doctor in Auschwitz in which she describes how she performed many abortions to save the mothers’ lives.

After October 1944, Jewish babies were not automatically killed, but this didn’t increase their chances of survival significantly, as no accommodation was made for the welfare of mother and child, and the women were expected to continue with the excruciatingly hard work and subsist on literal starvation diets. There are only eight recorded births of Jewish babies in Auschwitz. There is no record of any surviving.

The Family Camps:

There were two “family camps” at Auschwitz where certain groups were allowed to live on as best they could on starvation rations and racked by diseases caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The inmates in these “family camps” were not subjected to wholesale gassing of children, the sick and the elderly upon arrival as the regular transports were and families were allowed to stay together.

The “Gypsy” camp was established before it was finally decided that these people were all to be exterminated too. There were sporadic gassings, though. It housed Sinti and Roma families from February 1943 to August 1944. Occasionally, groups of inmates were sent to other camps for forced labor. On August 1944, almost all the remaining inmates were killed. More than 370 children were born in this camp, though it is unclear whether any survived.

The Theresienstadt family camp was in operation from September 1943 to May 1944 and was part of the whole Theresienstadt propaganda effort to “prove” to the outside world that Jews were not being killed after deportation. It housed families deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Bohemia who were forced to write letters about how good they had it at Auschwitz and that the families were staying together. Pregnant women were allowed to give birth. However, after six months the camp was liquidated to make room for new transports from Theresienstadt, and these inmates in turn were all killed in July 194

Non-Jewish and Non-”Gypsy” Women:

Most of these women were Polish and Soviet “political” prisoners, though there were some German inmates (Jehovah’s Witnesses, women convicted of crimes, prostitutes, etc) as well as a smattering of “political” prisoners from other countries. Policies were more erratic here. At first, these women were killed upon arrival if they were found to be pregnant. If they fell pregnant after entering Auschwitz, they generally resorted to secret abortions much in the same way as did the Jewish women. Starting from 1943, women were allowed to give birth, but many babies were subsequently killed, sometimes immediately, sometimes later, depending, it seems, on the whims of the SS. Generally, the women were forced to kill their own babies, or this was done by the medical staff who were inmates themselves. However, some blond and blue-eyed babies were taken away to the Potulice concentration camp or similar places that acted as transit camps for Polish children who were deemed to look “Aryan” enough to be subsequently adopted by German couples. In September of 1943, the first baby was officially registered as a camp inmate and received the distinctive Auschwitz tattoo with its inmate number. At liberation there were 156 children of less than three years still alive in Auschwitz, but it is not known how many (if any) of these were actually born there (a number of children were sent to Auschwitz in the wake of the Warsaw uprising of autumn 1944). The living conditions were such that a baby had very little chance of survival.

Sources:

Langbein, Hermann. People in Auschwitz. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) in Auschwitz

Bársony, János, and Ágnes Daróczi, eds. Pharrajimos: the fate of the Roma during the Holocaust. IDEA, 2008.

Gutman, Yisrael, and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz death camp. Indiana University Press, 1998.

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