Posts Tagged ‘Great war’

Philip Johnstone: High Wood

November 5, 2018

2013-09-21 09.44.12 sommeLadies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

When I first used this poem in school many years ago, I imagined it must be some sardonic reflection from long after the Great War, and I was rather shocked to discover that it had been written in 1918. Certainly, tourism of the former Western Front took off pretty rapidly after the end of the war, and the removal of corpses and obvious unexploded munitions; there are Michelin Guides from the early 1920s (some of which have been reprinted by Smiths of Easingwold, if you are interested).

The poet focuses on a real spot – I took the photo on a visit a few years ago, and the site is privately owned and not accessible to visitors – and a real battle, the Battle of the Somme. He mimics perfectly the patter of a bored tourist guide who has done this dozens of times before: the ‘Observe’, and ‘here is wire’ suggest a lecture, and there is the slight frisson implied by the reference to ‘This mound on which you stand being…’ Equally there is the concern for keeping the exhibits in good condition – ‘kindly not to touch’ / ‘the path, sir, please’ – and the references to ‘the Company’s property’. The idea of guaranteed souvenirs is macabre, perhaps, as is the suggestion that the remains of an actual corpse is on display. The ground was secured ‘at great expense’: to what expense and whose exactly is our guide referring here? And then the alliteration of the refreshments at a reasonable rate’ rounds it all off…

Except that this has not been my experience of British visitors to the war sites. I have seen coachloads of teenage schoolchildren stunned into silence at the Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres and been moved by floral tributes left at many war cemeteries by school parties, including flowers and cards placed on German war graves. I have seen people hunting down the names of relatives on the Thiepval Memorial, seen a wreath from my former grammar school at the Menin Gate, and talked with many people involved in projects where their village had decided to hunt down and photograph the last resting-places of those war dead listed on the war memorials in the village. I noticed that it was no longer just the British who were coming to find the graves of their forebears, Germans were beginning to do the same. The only time I have ever been surprised by what I felt was inappropriate behaviour was by French visitors at their national ossuary at Douaumont near Verdun: some were noisy, loud and disrespectful.

So, although I can understand the poet’s cynicism, the idea that all the horrors would soon be forgotten, I am heartened that he has been proven wrong in his imaginings, and that ordinary people’s responses are largely silent and reverent. When I have stood in any of these places, I have been lost for words, unable to believe what I know to be the truth about what happened, faced with the reality and the enormity.

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Balance sheet of the First World War

November 3, 2018

Earlier this year I did a series of posts which were a translation of a 1930s French poster detailing the true and lasting costs of the Great War. I’ve now created an easy page of links to access them all, if anyone’s interested in such a resource. The last one, for me, was in a strange way the most shocking…

On another centenary…

November 2, 2018

My father was born a subject of the last Tsar, of a nationality without a nation. My researches have shown me that he will have spent the early years of his life pretty close to the lines of the Eastern Front during the Great War. And then came November 1918, the end of the war, and the re-establishment of an independent Poland, after well over a century of non-existence. The Second Republic was born.

You can read about Polish history elsewhere; if you need a recommendation, the excellent books by Norman Davies are the best I know in English. Although only half-Polish, I do feel some pride in the history of the nation, once the largest on the European continent, in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Somewhere I read, the first country to abolish corporal punishment for children; not quite sure how that actually worked. But a nation which elected its monarch? A great idea in theory, perhaps, but which was one of the factors leading to its downfall. A country with a nobility where membership went with your name, not your status and wealth and importance: though my origins are in the peasantry in the middle of nowhere, our name is in the book, the Index of Polish Nobility. It doesn’t do me any good; the Second Republic abolished the nobility in 1919, I think.

Re-creating a nation after over a century is a pretty impossible task, and the Second Republic didn’t do terribly well, torn between those who wanted Poland to be for the Poles and those who hankered after the old, vast commonwealth encompassing many peoples, and much wider territory. It didn’t take long before Poland was another of the fairly grubby semi-dictatorships that spread over much of central Europe. And then there were the Jews, getting on for a quarter of the population, and not always popular, in a country full of poor peasants who saw some prosperous Jews. Because they couldn’t own land, Jews turned to trade and property to make their living; my father said they sometimes taunted poorer Poles: “You may own the land, but we own what is built on it.”

My father was called up in August 1939; living in the eastern part of the country, his section of the army was not involved in trying to hold back the Germans. On 17 September he and his mates were taken by the invading Russians before they could leave their barracks, and shortly after, Poland once again ceased to exist. He and his fellow-soldiers were marched off to Siberia like many thousands of other Poles, where they endured appalling conditions in various camps for more than two years. Enough has been written about the bestiality of the German occupation; what the Soviets did is less well-known. Once Hitler invaded Russia, Poles were grudgingly allowed to leave and make their way to the West to join Allied forces for the struggle against the Nazis. It wasn’t easy; disease and semi-starvation took their toll. But my father ended up in England, joined the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and was trained to be dropped as part of the liberation of his country – which never happened. He was part of the abortive Arnhem operation, and then Poland was sold down the river by the Western allies.

Newly ‘liberated’ Poland shifted a hundred miles or so to the West and my father’s homeland became part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which meant that technically, were he to return home, he would be a Soviet citizen. But Soviet citizens who had been in the West were dangerously suspect, so he did not return, one of many thousands in that plight. He knew some who did return, and who then vanished.

Under the Soviet umbrella, Poland attempted to become a nation again, with a certain amount of success, in the sense that there was stability of a kind for the next forty years or so, and also an ethnically homogeneous nation, almost entirely Polish. However, as recent events have begun to show, that has not been a wholly good thing: Poland does not welcome refugees which, given its own past, is rather sad. And the fact that opposition to the Soviet-imposed regime was centred on the Catholic church has created other difficulties, too, for a nation now free of one set of shackles but seemingly unsure of its future direction…

I’ll not apologise for that personal take on Polish and family history. I’ve wrestled with my origins for over sixty years now, and in many ways I’m as English as they come; I was an English teacher for my entire career. I’ve visited Poland five times, and I would not want to live there, not because I don’t like it – I do – but because I’m English too. I’m entitled to Polish citizenship and a Polish passport if I stump up about €1000, and I’ve been briefly tempted, because of all the Brexit insanity. But I think that currently Poland is in a different kind of mess because of its past. Collectively, though Poles are justifiably proud of their record in the Second World War, they seem as yet unable to come to terms with the fact that not every Pole behaved with honour or decency towards his Jewish fellow-citizens. And I’m not casting any stones here, because the English have not a clue as to what life under Nazi occupation for Poles, whom the Nazis also regarded as an inferior race, was like. Poles have yet to face up to the anti-semitism fostered and fanned by the Catholic church in the inter-war years.

But Poland is a free and independent nation, and has been free of the Soviet shackles for nearly thirty years, even if it has found others instead. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it all. Though he saw the successes of the Solidarity movement, and eventually free elections in Poland, he died a month before the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, six months before the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, which had so radically altered his life…

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 21

April 7, 2018

IMG_0818

War at sea Total navy and merchant marine force losses during the war 86,000

England alone suffered more than half the losses: 2,468 officers and 30,895 sailors of the Royal Navy,

and 14,661 officers and men of the Merchant Navy.

Tonnage torpedoed or sunk during the war:

England 8.610,000 tonnes

USA 613,000 tonnes Norway 1,287,000 tonnes

France 972,000 tonnes

Italy 923,000 tonnes

Japan 182,000 tonnes

In total, 12,587,000 tonnes with a value of 50,000,000,000 francs, corresponding to 5,000 ships.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 20

April 4, 2018

IMG_0817

Progress in war… War has progressed. That is undeniable. Today it kills more quickly and better. If we compare the losses in the 1914-18 war with the losses in the eight great wars of the previous two centuries, a real improvement is noticeable:

Seven Years War 551,000 men killed

Revolutionary Wars 1,400,000

Napoleonic Wars 1,700,000

Crimean War 785,000

War of American Independence 700,000

Russo-Japanese War 624,000

Balkan Wars 108,000

Great War 10,000,000

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 19

April 4, 2018

IMG_0816

The first four months

During the first 4 months of the war (August to November 1914) we lost (killed) 454,000 men, that is to say one third of our total losses.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 18

April 3, 2018

IMG_0815

The development of artillery:
number of guns in service in the armies at the start of Sept 1914/ Nov 1918 

campaign artillery approx 3,400 (93%) /6,200 (41%)
heavy artillery 230 (7%) /6,800 (45%)
trench artillery (Nov 1918) 2,200 (14%)
totals 3,630/ 15,200

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 17

April 1, 2018

IMG_0814

The front on 11 November 1918 represented a development 550km long, shared out thus:

the Belgian Army held 30 km (12 divisions, 110 fighting battalions)
the British Army held 90 km (60 divisions, 560 fighting battalions)
the French Army held 330 km (102 divisions, 1081 fighting battalions)
the American Army held 100 km (31 divisions, 372 fighting battalions)

To these troops must be added:
2 Portuguese divisions – 24 fighting battalions
2 Italian divisions – 26 fighting battalions
1 Polish division - 15 fighting battalions

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 16

March 27, 2018

IMG_0813

Losses in particular time periods This table is again pretty self-explanatory and so I haven’t translated it fully. The war has been divided into separate time-slots, dominated by a particular battle or action, and the losses are listed in three categories under each head:

Died on the battlefield, missing or taken prisoners

Died in first aid/ dressing stations

Died in hospital (behind the lines)

For us to notice again is the huge proportion of casualties in the opening months of the war.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 15

March 25, 2018

IMG_0812

The war cost France: costs of the war 989,483,000,000/debts and reparations 137,111,000,000 francs. Total = 1,126,594,000,000 francs.

The war cost the belligerents: According to calculations by the League of Nations, spent or destroyed the value of ten trillion (10,000,000,000,000) francs.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
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