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

Posts tagged “Solider

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Soldiers from the East German National People’s Army, man an unfinished part of the Berlin Wall; August 18, 1961

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A French soldier of the 151st Régiment d’Infanterie posing with his dog; ca. 1917.

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A French soldier threatens an elderly German man during the Ruhr Occupation; ca. 1923

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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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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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Bill Slim and the “Forgotten Army”:

William Slim was a lower middle class man from Bristol who rose from being a temporary NCO during WWI to getting a commission into the Indian Army during the 20’s to commanding his very own brigade during the early years of WWII until finally arising to becoming a division commander, corps commander and ultimately, army general.

In 1942, Bill Slim became commander of the Burcorps in Burma. The Japanese appeared to be unstoppable and soon enough, what had started as defensive campaign turned into the longest retreat in British military history. The British and Indian soldiers in Burma were under-equipped, under-trained, and suffered from serious moral issues. They kept succumbing not only to battle wounds but also tropical diseases and had no way to escape but to walk with their two feet all the way back to India. Imagine being fatigued, not allowed to sleep as you tried to make your way to India as soon as possible before the Japanese could cut your escape route off. Imagine how much you fear to be surrounded by the enemy who seemed to come out of nowhere and infiltrated through your lines. But imagine how much of a difference the spoken word can have. Imagine how you’d feel if you in the middle of all this tropical hell, you were spoken to by a superior in a caring, straight forward and casual way. If you were an Indian soldier, he’d speak to you in your language. Same thing if you were a Gurkha. The British army walked over a 1000 miles back to India only to be received as cowards and as a burden by the British garrison in Assam, India.

Over the next two years, these men as well as completely new divisions and outfits would be trained by Bill Slim in India. They would receive what they didn’t receive in pre-war Burma: Training in jungle warfare. They would learn not to fear the enemy; the enemy was supposed to fear them. if they were being surrounded by the enemy, they were supposed to consider the enemy as being the one surrounded. Never again would there be any frontal attacks, instead it was outflanking through the jungle that was on the schedule. Later training also emphasized co-operation between air support, tanks and infantry. Bill Slim even revolutionized the concept of air drops, using that as a means to supply surrounded units in his tactic of “admin boxes”. The men were given new uniforms, new equipment, new rations and whatever else they needed, yet they were still under supplied. The war in India and Burma was truly forgotten in the home front and the 14th Army, which Bill would establish and build up from scratch, came to be known as “The Forgotten Army”. But this forgotten army was truly a multi-national one. From the ordinary British soldier from the British isles to the Indian soldiers from all over India to the Gurkhas from Nepal and Africans from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Rhodesia, Kenya, Ghana, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland and Tanganyika. All these men would learn to fight, suffer and die next to each other in a campaign that few people cared about. But all of them had one thing in common: They all respected and cared for their general. Bill Slim knew what they had to go through because he often visited the front line and always had a chat with a soldier or two whenever he could. He knew that if he could bring up morale, perhaps the ordinary soldiers could overcome their shortage of everything else. And boy, did they.

Starting with Arakan in 1944, the men under Bill Slim fought and defeated the Japanese. The Japanese had expected an easy victory, expecting the same soldiers they had fought in Burma but this would not be the case. They were met by men who knew their tactics, who could outflank them and who were not afraid of being surrounded by them. Arakan was followed by the battles of Imphal and Kohima in Assam, India which led to the destruction of a large part of the Japanese forces built up in Burma. Operation U-Go, the Japanese invasion of India was stopped in its track and the Japanese were beaten back after ferocious fighting. The 14th Army chased the Japanese to the Chindwin in Burma where they stopped in preparation for the new Burma campaign. Bill Slim would finally get his revenge for the retreat two years ago. In a brilliant battle plan named Operation Extended Capital (which had to be modified from the original Operation Capital due to the changes in circumstances), he used surprise, ruse, timing and maneuver into something which became his masterpiece. One of his corps was to take Meiktila, crossing the Irrawady in the south while the other corps would cross the Irrawady in front of Mandalay to make it seem like they were the main attack. By taking Meiktila, the 14th Army would be on the flank of the Japanese and this would mean the end of operations there. This plan succeeded beyond belief and after that, the road to Rangoon was practically open.

Bill Slim was in many ways the most down to earth general in WWII. He knew and understood the ordinary soldier because he knew where most of them came from. He had personally spent time amongst workers and miners in Bristol as well as worked in a poverty stricken school where he first got his insight into a different world. He never made himself out as being anything but Bill Slim, treating everyone with kindness, humor and patience. He rarely got angry and he was incredibly self-deprecating, blaming all mistakes on him and him alone. Not even in his post-war memoir did he choose to say anything bad about anyone, even those who hated him. He loathed publicity and remained as modest as he could be. He was beloved by his men and never cared about gaining glory or recognition. Despite this, Bill Slim was given the title of Field Marshal, was knighted several times, received the title of “Viscount Slim” as well as the Distinguished Service Order. But in the very end, it wasn’t the titles, the knighthoods or the medals which became his most important title. In the very end, it was the affectionate nickname of “Uncle Bill” given to him by his men which held the most truth to it.

Personally, there is something in this story which not only is inspirational but also seems like a life lesson. Bill Slim was a modest, simple man who found himself in an extraordinary situation after the other. But he never gave up and realized that if you go that extra mile, the people who look up to you will as well. There is also an element of unfairness in this as well, seeing as how the 14th Army sacrificed so much only to live forever in the shadow of all the other theatres of war in WWII. The fact that the 14th Army didn’t even receive a proper welcome home or a parade is inexcusable, according to me.


Poetry from the Trenches:

The Wipers Times was a largely satiric British newspaper famously published in the trenches during the First World War on a printing press that had been “liberated” from the ruins of a French town. It was by the infantry and for the infantry, and much of it was marked by a very dark streak of humor indeed.

Nevertheless, there were contributions that were amazingly sad and touching, too. The poem “To My Chum”, written by an infantry private of the Sherwood Foresters who had lost his friend, is impossible to read without at least a twinge of sorrow. I say this charitably — for my own part, at least, I can barely get through it at all without tearing up.

To My Chum

No more we’ll share the same old barn
The same old dug-out, same old yarn,
No more a tin of bully share
Nor split our rum by a star-shell’s glare
So long old lad.

What times we’ve had, both good and bad,
We’ve shared what shelter could be had,
The same crump-hole when the whizz-bangs shrieked,
The same old billet that always leaked,
And now – you’ve “stopped one”.

We’d weathered the storms two winters long
We’d managed to grin when all went wrong,
Because together we fought and fed,
Our hearts were light; but now – you’re dead
And I am mateless.

Well, old lad, here’s peace to you,
And for me, well, there’s my job to do,
For you and the others who are at rest
Assured may be that we’ll do our best
In vengeance.

Just one more cross by a strafed roadside,
With its G.R.C., and a name for guide,
But it’s only myself who has lost a friend,
And though I may fight through to the end,
No dug-out or billet will be the same,
All pals can only be pals in name,
But we’ll all carry on till the end of the game
Because you lie there.

 


What I have learned from studying history:

I think that a lot of people get into military history because of their childhood. Fond memories of plastic army soldiers, and jingoistic, watered down tales of derring-do. I know I certainly was drawn to it for the glory when I was a little kid. War was running around the woods with a stick going “bang”, and the most contentious issues were arguments about who got who. And many people I don’t believe move beyond that.

 

Military history, for many, still remains a mostly clean affair, with the good ol’GI-citizen soldier going and liberating Europe from the clutches of Nazism. We simply forget the abject horrors of war. The dying cries of “mother” or simply “water”. The smell of shit that permeates a battlefield. Widows, orphans, and parents burying their spouses, parents, or sons. And that, of course, is only in wars that are fought with close attention to the rules.

I was listening to an interview given by Shelby Foote, the author of several Civil War books, and she said something that struck me as so perfect:

“There is a general belief that war books promote a love of war, and that is true about bad war books, but every serious book about a battle or about a war, if it’s serious, is bound to be anti-war. […] Because the truth is, it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the suffering is a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory, and that will come across with an honest writer. Cheap literature hurts everybody, but decent, honest literature will always carry this anti-war message, it’s bound to be there. No matter how patriotic a man may sound, underlying it, if he has a good eye, everybody is going to see through the phony patriotism and the ephemeral glory, and to the real suffering of it and especially the absurdity of it.”

And I couldn’t agree more. War is absurd, and I now find great distaste in books that don’t present that side of the conflict alongside. It is a disservice to everyone to separate the good parts of war from the bad.

I don’t believe people are either good or bad, and studying war, really, has shown me that anyone is capable of reaching both extremes. So what I can say about how studying conflict has affected my outlook on human nature is that it has sobered it. Sure, I still enjoy reading an uplifting story about some brave soldier saving his buddies, but you can’t shake the images of the terrible human cost.


Marching Belgian Carabiniers leading their dog-drawn machine gun carts towards the front line during the German invasion of Belgium; ca. 1914

 I feel sorry for all parties involved, human and quadruped...

I feel sorry for all parties involved, human and quadruped…

“Marching toward the camera, and shot from a low angle, these Belgian Carabiniers are given a powerful sense of purpose by the photographer. Clean uniforms and neat formation say the soldiers have not come from battle.

These are the early days of WWI and Belgium has been invaded by the Germans in a surprise move. The Germans, 600,000 strong, were confident against the small Belgian Army of around 117,000, who were ill-equipped and poorly trained.

Yet the Belgians fought bravely in and around their fortifications in the Liège area. They held up the German advance for ten days before withdrawing on 16 August, when the Liège system finally fell. This delay would prove crucial to the French forces’ ability to re-organise and oppose the German push through Belgium into France.

King Albert I had ordered his Army to retreat to the ‘National Redoubt’ at Antwerp, consisting of over 40 forts and several lines of defence. Our Carabiniers are part of the force sent forward to cover that retreat by confronting the advancing Germans.

Marching out of the foggy background, the Carabiniers, with their Tyrolean hats and dog-drawn heavy machine-gun, look as if they are striding out of the past into the light of 20th century warfare. Almost like gentlemen in top hats taking their dogs for a walk.

The traditional dress of the Carabiniers, a light-infantry unit, was a tunic and greatcoat of a green so dark that the German nickname for them was the ‘black devils’. Many new recruits, however, were given a greatcoat of the more usual Belgian Army dark blue because of the chaotic supply situation. Despite their old-fashioned uniforms, their machine-guns were effective enough, though both soldier and dog were to pay a high price.

Although the main German forces bypassed Antwerp, four divisions had to be diverted to contain the Belgian forces there, further weakening the thrust into France. Antwerp did not fall until 9 October.”

Source.