The Point of Light

There was little reason for the German and Austro-Hungarian units on the Romanian front to believe they would see action again anytime soon.

Devastated by counteroffensives following their entry into the war the previous summer, and now seemingly completely dependent on Russian support, Romanian troops clung to what little territory remained of their state.  Despite the overwhelming concentration of men – 9 armies, 80 infantry divisions, 19 cavalry divisions and 1.8 million combatants in all – the front was but a minor theater in the massive war in the East between the Central Powers and Russia.  How could a nation incapable of producing more than one bullet per soldier per day defend itself, let alone launch an offensive?

On July 22nd, 1917 at town of Mărăști, Romania did precisely that – and would punch a 22-mile wide and 12-mile deep hole in the Central Powers’ line.


Romanian troops advance – the Romanian offensives of 1917 were the most successful (by territory) of any Entente operation that summer

Only months after their entry into the Great War, Romania had lost nearly 1/3rd of their mobilized forces and more than half of their territory.  The nation had lacked the industrial infrastructure to resupply their troops and what little heavy artillery they had was lost during the German/Austro-Hungarian/Bulgarian/Ottoman counteroffensives in the fall of 1916.  If not for the presence of one million Russian soldiers, Romania would be driven out of war as fast as she had entered it.    Continue reading

Divisible

There was very little international fanfare as five signatories placed their ink to paper on July 20th, 1917 on the Greek island of Corfu.  The signers, a mixture of Serbian politicians and Croatian nationalists, had pledged their post-war political unity under the banner of the Serbian Karađorđević monarchy.  But this was no “Greater Serbia” as the nationalists who had started the Great War had envisioned.  Rather, the signers saw their new state as a constitutional monarchy that would unite the Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian peoples in a free nation.  “This State will be a guarantee of their national independence and of their general national progress and civilization, and a powerful rampart against the pressure of the Germans”, the Declaration proclaimed.

With the conclusion of the ceremony, the nation of Yugoslavia had been born.  It had been the product of nearly a century of political idealism in the face of ethnic rivalry.  And before the ink even dried, the seeds of another near century of political division and bloodshed in the Balkans had already been planted.

A modest attendance – only five signatures are on the Corfu Declaration, and they represented only around a dozen members of the “Yugoslav Committee” that had pushed for the unification of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes in one nation


From the battle of Kosovo in 1389, which robbed the Serbs of their independence from the Ottoman Empire, to the Balkan Wars of the 1910s that had set the region’s then-modern boundaries, Serbian nationalism had literally defined most of the Balkan’s history.  By the summer of 1917, it had also cost Serbia everything.

The influence of the terrorist group The Black Hand had corrupted sections of the Serbian military and intelligence services and led to the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  The Black Hand, and their sympathizers, had long dreamed of a “Greater Serbia” that encompassed vast tracts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Ferdinand stood not only as the heir to the hated Habsburg throne, but as a political threat due to Ferdinand’s support of unification of the Slavic people under a third crown alongside the Austrian and Hungarian titles.

The Archduke’s murder had brought death across the globe, but in few places worse than Serbia.  57% of the nation’s male population would be killed or wounded during the conflict and Serbia was now suffering in occupation by the Central Powers.  What remained of the Serbian army sat in Salonika as a small part of a vast listless Allied army.  And what Serbian government still existed did so in exile in Corfu, left with little to do but issue powerless decrees.

Austro-Hungarian propaganda: “Serbia Must Die!”

Prime Minister Nikola Pašić wasn’t interested in pushing around paperwork while awaiting the end of the war.  A formidable politician for 40 years, Pašić had been Serbia’s Prime Minister since 1904 and was viewed as a political opponent of the Serbian “Court Party” of the government that had, in theory, supported the same aims as The Black Hand.  While the historical record conflicts Pašić’s claim to not knowing about the smuggling of The Black Hand terrorists into Bosnia who eventually shot Ferdinand, Pašić’s political history would not place him as a likely ally to the group.  In either case, the cause of “Greater Serbia” had effectively destroyed the country – it was up to men like Pašić to envision it’s rebuilding.

Few could have seen the eventual fate of post-war Europe in the summer of 1917.  For Pašić, a reborn Serbia would need allies against the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians, and a crumbling Russia, Serbia’s long-time ally, hardly appeared able or willing to perform the role of protector.  If Serbia was going to survive, she would need ethnic allies, which by necessity meant Serbian nationalism had to be checked.  Serbia would offer a nation guided by self-determination for their ethnic neighbors.  The concept wasn’t new – in fact, it went as far back as the French Revolution.

“Serbian National Day” – honoring their 1389 defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire


For Croatian intellectuals of the early 19th century, the Balkan ideal was a unification of all southern Slavic peoples, or “Yugoslavism.”  The name itself was a combination of the Serb-Croat word “Yugo” or “southern” and Slavic.  With the French Revolution propelling ideas of self-determination, Croatian politicians and writers fixated on a mythical unification of all southern Slavic people whose ethnic distinction would merge in a Balkan melting pot that would look like, perhaps not surprisingly, a culturally Croatian nation.  As such, the concept of “Yugoslavism” held little appeal to Serbs, Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims.

The unification of Italy would re-ignite the fire of “Yugoslavism” in the late 1870s.  For Serbia, Yugoslavia might represent a similar grand unification and allow Belgrade to play the role of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont as providing the political and military heft to a new empire.  For the first time, Serbs and Croats spoke of “Yugoslavism” as political goal, albeit with vastly different interpretations of who would be the dominant political and cultural force in such a joint nation.  Coupled with the example of the alliances of the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire, the hazy 19th century dream of a single Slavic state appeared as a potential reality in the 20th century.

In a cruel irony, the war that would unite the Croats and Serbs had been launched by a Yugoslav, not Serbian, nationalist.  “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs,” said Gavrilo Princip at his trial.  “I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.”  That defining principle would be shared by the signers in Corfu.

From the early, heady days of the war – Serbia held out against Austria-Hungary far longer than most anticipated, but at tremendous cost


Nikola Pašić would have an additional motivation to find Croatian allies before the end of the war – the territorial promises made to Italy.

The 1915 Treaty of London that had brought Italy into the Great War had contained what Britain and France likely considered colonial scraps.  However, the Treaty also granted Italy large chunks of the coastal region of Dalmatia, which was currently under Austro-Hungarian rule.  Beyond the fact that Dalmatia was culturally Croatian, if Italy controlled the region, it would again relegate any future Serbia as landlocked.  Belgrade wasn’t about to trade a hostile Austro-Hungarian neighbor for a hostile Italian one.  Serbia could hardly make a claim on Dalmatia, but Croatian nationalists could.

Ante Trumbić would become the Croatian face of the new Yugoslav nation.  A former Austro-Hungarian mayor, Trumbić had been exiled due to his support for a Croatian-Slovenian Yugoslavia, even starting a “Yugoslav Committee” with the sole purpose of lobbying the Allies for support.  Trumbić needed an influencial ally; Pašić needed a moderate Croat he could sell to Serbian nationalists.  Together, they created most of the foundation of the Yugoslavian State.

Ante Trumbić

The Corfu Declaration embodied, on paper, the best principles that the Western Allies claimed to be fighting for: guaranteed universal male suffrage, territorial indivisibility, religious freedom, and full legal equality for the three national denominations.  The details of the new state were vague, but considering the territory that they hoped to govern was still ruled by their Central Powers opponents (and promised to one of their nominal allies), the Declaration was more a statement of intent than definitive plan.  The marker had now been set – the Allies stood for the independence of ethnic states ranging from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.  In a brief two years, the goals of London and Paris had shifted from dividing colonial territory to a redrawing of the map of the world into smaller and smaller states.


The unity of the Corfu Declaration would not even survive to the actual founding of the Yugoslav State.

Pašić would soon tell Trumbić that calling the new nation “Yugoslavia” was good for domestic consumption, but that in international affairs “Serbia” ought to represent all three ethnic groups.  It soon became clear that the proposed Constituent Assembly that would rule Yugoslavia would be tilted in favor of Serbian control and would have little veto power against the Serbian monarchy.  Despite being given the post of the first Foreign Minister of Yugoslavia (Pašić would be the first Prime Minister), Trumbić voted against the 1921 Yugoslavian Constitution, decrying the document’s enshrinement of Serbian hegemony.

Division Multiples – more and more ethnic groups now sought nations of their own

By the 1930s, Trumbić was out of power in Yugoslavia and could only offer his emotional support as King Alexander embraced a royal dictatorship that formally renamed the nation as “Yugoslavia” and stripped numerous Serbs from power, at last balancing out the power structure Trumbić and other Croats thought they had agreed upon in 1917.  It would be a preview of the post World War II era of the nation as only dictatorial power could seemingly prevent one group from dominating the others.

In his last media interviews Trumbić expressed regret he ever signed the Corfu Declaration, claiming he wished the Austro-Hungarian Empire had never disappeared.

Nothing Is Written

Apart from it’s mountainous view, the concrete blockhouse atop Abu el Lasan was an otherwise forgotten roadmark within the Arabian desert on July 2nd, 1917.  Situated between the small town of Ma’an and the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea, the blockhouse was home to a Turkish battalion, recently arrived to drive out the handful of Arab rebels.  The size of the Turkish force was likely unnecessary given that the few Arabs scattered with the battalion’s arrival, but since the rise of the so-called “Arab Revolt” the previous summer, more and more Turkish regulars had been dispatched to try and re-occupy the lands of the Hejaz.

As the Turkish battalion made camp, the surrounding hills of Abu el Lasan revealed their own occupants – hundreds of rebels from the northern Howeitat tribe of Bedouin Arabs.  Led into battle by their Sheikh, Auda ibu Tayi, the tribesmen overwhelmed the Turks, slaughtering 300 of their number – the majority while trying to surrender.  For the loss of only 2 men and a handful of wounded, the path to Aqaba had been cleared.  Four days later, as British warships pounded the port city and Ibu Tayi’s men marched against scant Ottoman resistance, Aqaba fell.  The last Turkish port on the Red Sea was in the hands of the Entente – and had been delivered by Arab forces acting largely independently of their British allies.

News of the operation would capture the attention of the world due to the promotional skills of it’s brainchild – British Military Intelligence officer and adviser to the Hashemite Army of the Arab Revolt, T.E. Lawrence.  Lawrence had almost not survived the battle at Abu el Lasan.  While Auda ibu Tayi suffered several gazing shots, Lawrence found himself thrown from his camel at the beginning of the fight.  His Arab compatriots rushed to his side to find Lawrence unharmed but his poor animal with a gaping bullet wound to the head.  For despite the dashing persona Lawrence would soon encourage among the world’s press, Lawrence was actually quite poor at riding or fighting – he had accidentally shot his camel in the back of the head.

Lawrence his men pose for a photograph after Aqaba – Lawrence was always very conscious of his media image, and that of the Arab Revolt


By the summer of 1917, what had been missing in the Arab Revolt were Arabs.  There were no shortage of military advisers under the banner of Sharif Hussein bin Ali.  French Muslim officers and former Ottoman commanders populated the ranks of the conventional Sharifian Army and the tribesmen-based Hashemite Army under the control of Hussein’s sons Abdullah and Faisal.  But their combined forces reached fewer than 30,000 men at their apex, many of whom were former Ottoman soldiers from across the Turkish empire who had deserted while stationed in the desert.  Despite the £220,000 a month the British were pouring into the rebellion (the equivalent of £11,470,000/month now), the Arab Revolt had failed to attract many supporters or win many victories.   Continue reading

July Daze

Recently arrived by rail, Russian troops by the thousands off-loaded themselves in St. Petersburg on the night of July 5th, 1917.  For days, the capitol had been rocked by increased protests from Bolshevik supporters, whose ranks had now included armed soldiers chanting “all power to the Soviets.”  Not even the local Soviet leadership could apparently calm the growing mob, who screamed back at the group’s representative “take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you!”  For the second time in 1917, St. Petersburg looked ready for a coup.

But the Provisional Government of Russia was determined to not make the same mistakes as the Tsar had just months earlier.  Loyalist troops quickly swarmed the offices of Pravda and the Bolshevik Central Committee, shutting both organizations down.  Warrants for the arrest of Vladimir Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were authorized, forcing the Bolsheviks to flee the city or go underground.  The general St. Petersburg public, tired of the constant protests and street violence they increasingly associated with the Bolsheviks, cheered the Provisional Government’s swift hand.  Even the most liberal members of the government began endorsing violent retribution to protesters and disorderly soldiers.

By July 7th, 1917, St. Petersburg was as quiet as it had been since the start of the Great War.  The proto-democratic Provisional Government had crushed their fiercest internal opponent while launching an offensive against the Central Powers that the government believed would save the war effort.

On both counts, they would be sadly mistaken.

The “July Days” protests – the Provisional Government saw the protests as a Bolshevik-inspired coup.  More likely, it was a fairly spontaneous series of protests over the lack of improvement of living conditions and getting Russia out of the war


The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II following the events of the “February Revolution” had left St. Petersburg/Petrograd (the city’s name had been changed at the start of the Great War as to avoid sounding “too German”) as a capitol nearly void of actual political power.   Continue reading

Broken China

In the early morning hours of July 1st, 1917, Peking was a capital on the edge.

From the beginning of the Great War, China had debated whether or not to enter the conflict, even going so far as offering the British 50,000 troops to invade the German colonial city of Tsingtao.  But internal divisions – both within China and among the Entente – kept Peking on the sidelines of a war occurring in their own backyard.

For the past year, the debate over the war had divided the capital between President Li Yuanhong and Premier Duan Qirui.  Yuanhong, the successor to General-turned-President-turned-Emperor-turned-President again Yuan Shikai, wanted to keep China out of Europe’s squabbles.  Qirui saw an opportunity to exert Chinese power abroad in hopes of securing European alliances that might undo the various concessions the nation had endured, including the “Twenty-One Demands” foisted upon them by Japan in 1915.  But despite his internal popularity with Peking’s politicians and various warlords, few wanted to follow Qirui into war.  Yuanhong had seemingly put an end to the debate as he dismissed Qirui from power.

The troops that entered Peking that morning were not supporters of Qirui, nor were they loyalists to the otherwise unpopular central government.  The troops of General Zhang Xun had an entirely different future for China in mind – a return to the Imperial model and restoration of the Qing Dynasty.  The shape of the war in Europe would depend on the outcome of a coup in China.

Pro-Qing Dynasty troops await orders


The dissolution of the nearly 300-year reign of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 had left China with a massive power vacuum.  Rebellious southern provinces, various generals and pro-republican politicians each had sought power for themselves, with little unifying an already fractured empire.  One man had appeared capable of bringing together such disspitate parties  – General Yuan Shikai.  Through alliances, guile and force, Shikai positioned himself as the first President of the newly formed Republic of China.   Continue reading

This Great And Noble Undertaking

I first wrote this piece in 2009.   I’ve updated it, bit by bit, on successive D-Day anniversaries.  I’m reprising it today:


It was sixty-seven years ago today that the Allies started taking Western Europe back from the Nazis.

The first, inevitable step was to get past the Westwall – perhaps the most immense set of fortifications ever built, with the intention of making the beaches from Denmark to the Spanish border a bloodbath for any troops trying to cross the beaches.

In places, it worked:

In some places, the troops had to overcome the near-impossible:

And yet by the end of the day, nine allied divisions were ashore, a toehold for a bridgehead that would eventually expand, ten months later, across Western Europe.

There were troops from the US, of course, on the two western beaches…

…and farther east, beaches with Brits…

…and Scots…

And in the middle, linking the two and meeting the worst resistance other than Omaha, the Canadians:

Troops from the Canadian Third Division coming ashore at Juno Beach – where the ferocity and difficulty of the fighting was exceeded only by Omaha Beach.

…along with troops-in-exile from elsewhere in occupied Europe; French commandos – some of whom had spent four years in exile, and who spent the next year belying the notion that the French were cowards…:

…and Norwegians, who’d been without a homeland for four years…

HNoMS Svenner – sunk by German gunfire off Sword Beach.

…and Poles, who’d been in exile for five years and would, in some cases, remain there for forty-five more:

The world may see nothing like it again.

So – thank a D-Day veteran.

Here’s President Reagan’s address to the survivors of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion, thirty years ago today…:

…who at this time seventy years ago, French Time, were still a day away from being relieved by the troops coming in from Omaha Beach.

Opportunity Knocks

To: Hollywood, the major media, the opinion-making classes, the educational/industrial complex
From:  Mitch Berg, obstreporous peasant.
Re:   Want to do some good?

Millennials know nothing about the Holocaust:

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

The study, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, interviewed 1,350 American adults in February and recruited by telephone and an online non-probability sample.

Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says that at least 1.3 million people were deported to the camp, run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland, from 1940 to 1945, and 1.1 million of them were killed. It was the largest concentration camp among many built by the Nazis during their campaign to wipe out the Jews and other groups.

But lest you think its just malfeasance and sloth:

Respondents indicated much more awareness of modern-day bias against Jews, with 68 percent saying anti-Semitism is present in America today, and 51 percent saying there are “many” or “a great deal of” neo-Nazis in the United States today.

So a majority “know” a non-existent factoid that is entirely a figment of propaganda intended to gull the hysterical, but a tiny fraction know why those people might conceivably matter.

So, media and entertainment industries – perhaps we could make with a  little of the “never again” in between comic book remakes and endless FBI “investigations”?

Just a suggestion.

That is all.

The Shot In The Dark National Holiday

The jelly beans are out.  The delivery and accent are in place.  The “Reagan/Bush ’84” sticker is in its place of honor on my car.

It’s Ronald Reagan’s birthday today.

The greatest president of my adult lifetime would be 107 today.

But in these difficult times, after eight years of a President who promoted  fear and malaise in the guise of “change” and “doing something”, and a year of a President who brings some of the same rah-rah, but little of the calm, confident reassurance that was Reagan’s hallmark, it’s worth remembering Reagan’s example; when times seemed at their most dire, Reagan walked onto the scene with a smile and a vision, and a backbone of steel, and cleaned up the mess lefty by his failed predecessor – something our current, and next, president will need even more of in the fiuture.

And the most important part? He did it by unleashing something that many, then as now, thought was dead – the inner, optimistic, take-charge greatness of the American spirit.  Triump shows some signs of doing the same; if he succeeds – and it’s still a big if, given the toxic political climate – then he’ll be a success.

Oh, there are those who say “today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate Reagan!” – to which I respond with a contemptuous sign, before telling the critic to listen to “A Time for Choosing”, and tell me who is more resembles; Arne Carlson, or Scott Walker?

Reagan’s gone. But that spirit, the one he understood, almost alone among American politicans of his era, lives on in the American people. Most of it, anyway.

So Happy Reagan’s Birthday, everyone!

NOTE: While this blog encourages a raucous debate, this post is a hagiography zone. All comments deemed critical of Reagan will be expunged without ceremony. You’ve been warned.

You have the whole rest of the media to play about in; this post is gonna be gloriously one-note.

In Some Ways…

…it seems like it’s been longer than 20 years since this happened.   Sometimes, 20 years goes very fast – but this past 20 years in politics seems like it’s been a very, very long time.

By the way, I keenly remember this being my introduction to internet news; I was working at Best Buy, and was introduced to the Drudge Report by an IT network tech…

named Pat Garofalo.

Yep, it’s been a while.

Beach Party

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For the better part of a year and a half, the British General Staff had tinkered with the plan.  The lessons of failed offensives and technological innovations had repeatedly changed Sir Douglas Haig’s tactics but not his overall strategy.  On June 18th, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Forces signed off on the most ambitious amphibious attack since Gallipoli – an invasion behind the German line via the beaches in Belgium.

Massive newly designed landing crafts would drop off 13,500 British troops, tanks, artillery and even a motorized machine-gun unit.  Coupled with a joint British/Belgian/French offensive from Ypres, Haig had envisioned a quick strike behind the fearsome new Hindenburg Line, driving deep the behind German front to sow confusion, forcing what the British believed were weary German defenders to abandon their fortified trenches.  For a commander who was already earning the gruesome moniker of “Butcher” for his seemingly callous disregard for British lives, Haig appeared invested in finding a solution to the trenches short of yet another frontal assault.

The offensive had been silently built up for months, hence the codename of Operation Hush.  Yet for all of the supposed secrecy, within 24 hours of the offensive’s approval, the Germans would know exactly what the British intended – and would counter it.


Operation Hush – a naval-based flanking maneuver designed to finally circumvent the German trenches, the operation would be batted around the halls of the London War Office for almost two years

Since the earliest days of the Great War, Britain had obsessed over the opportunities that the Belgian coast provided their armies.  As early as October of 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had advocated for a naval landing behind the recently occupied Belgian front.  Even officers as relatively cautious as the British Expeditionary Force’s first commander, Sir John French, backed the concept until it was shelved for the similar Gallipoli operation.    Continue reading

48 Hours

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

After a year that had seen carnage on a historical scale, the opening salvos around the Chemin des Dames region of Western France almost appeared as modest.  850,000 men, a joint Franco-British task force, lashed out against Germany’s Hindenburg Line with 7,000 guns and 160 tanks on April 16th, 1917.

The operation, the brainchild of France’s newly promoted commander of it’s northern armies, Robert Nivelle, had all the hallmarks of the sort of offensives that had dominated the Western Front since 1915 – massive artillery bombardments, human waves attacks, gruesome casualties and continued stalemate.  Only the reaction of the men who participated would differentiate the assaults from the dozens that had preceded it.

A general with the penchant towards the dramatic, Nivelle had promised that he could bring about the end of the deadlock in the West within 48 hours of the first shots fired from his offensive.  Instead, he would usher in the near total collapse of the French military.


French troops, in gas masks, await orders to go over the top.  By the start of 1917, 1 million Frenchmen, out of a population of 40 million men of all ages, had died in the Great War

By the spring of 1917, the dividing lines in the Great War appeared less to be between the Entente and Central Powers, then between those nations willing to adapt and those who stubbornly refused to change.    Continue reading

The Yanks Are Coming

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For almost two and a half years, the crew of the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cormoran had sat in Apra Harbor in the U.S. territory of Guam.  The cruiser, captured from the Russians off of Korea early in the war in 1914, had stopped in Guam in December of that year in an effort to resupply themselves with coal.  With the United States a neutral power, and the island already significantly short of coal, the Cormoran‘s request was refused.  Since then, the ship had sat at anchor while the German crew settled on the island, awaiting the end of the war in tropical peace.

On April 7th, 1917, the Germans noticed that the 3 seven-inch guns on nearby Mount Tenjo had been turned to face them.  The schooner the USS Supply pulled close to the Cormoran, and demanded the ship surrender.  The Germans promptly set to work attempting to scuttle the vessel instead.

In response, the U.S. opened fire over the Cormoran‘s bow.  Fearing the Americans would soon overpower the ship’s crew, the speed of the Cormoran‘s scuttling was hazardously increased.  An early explosion would led to the deaths of 9 crew members and make Apra Harbor the Cormoran‘s final resting place.

Just hours earlier – a day earlier by the time difference from Washington – the United States had formally declared war against Germany.  America had joined the Great War.

The U.S. enters the First World War – a variety of factors had led to this eventual decision…


 

“It is a war against all nations…The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it….

 

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

—President Woodrow Wilson, addressing Congress, April 2nd, 1917

It was an address Woodrow Wilson had fought against having to make.  The president who had “Kept Us Out of War,” and as recently as the end of 1916 believed he could negotiate an end to Europe’s bloodshed, had rapidly seen the nation’s appetite for neutrality vanish with the publication of the Zimmerman Telegraph a month earlier.  The tide towards war had been building far before that, as Wilson told crowds in October of 1916 that “this is the last war of the kind, or of any kind that involves the world, that the United States can keep out of.”  Having just been inaugurated for a second term on a platform of peace, Woodrow Wilson now stood before Congress asking for a declaration of war.   Continue reading

Barbed Wire Disease

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For the German prisoners of war in Souilly, a French commune in the Meuse near Verdun, life behind enemy lines hadn’t been much better than their previous life in the trenches.

Operating as unpaid laborers, the German POWs dug trenches and roads eleven hours a day, seven days a week.  A dysentery outbreak in the camp months earlier had decimated their ranks, as French supplies and medical care struggled to meet the prisoner’s needs.  Even the basic safety of the prisoners was willfully neglected as POWs were forced to perform their roles right on the frontlines, often under German shellfire.

News of such treatment had been suppressed in France – the army’s Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle (who hadn’t taken much care with his own men’s lives in Verdun), brazenly lied to Paris about the practice – but news had trickled back to Germany.  In response, the Germans publicly announced that newly captured French POWs would no longer be transferred back to Germany but kept on the frontlines as quasi-human shield laborers.  If the French would move their German prisoners further back, and not expose them to gunfire, the Germans would do the same.  With German authorities allowing French prisoners to write letters home, detailing the conditions they faced at the front under their nation’s own artillery fire, public pressure quickly mounted in France to move the German POWs.

On March 27th, 1917, the French government agreed to Germany’s demands, despite objections from London and Nivelle.  By June of 1917, no POWs remained at the front on either side.  It was a small gesture of deescalation in the increasingly dehumanizing treatment of POWs in the Great War.


German POWs in France

European history had given relatively little insight into how to manage the problem of hundreds of thousands of enemy prisoners for an indefinite period of time.  Prior to the wars of the Napoleonic era, most armies were made up almost exclusively of professional soldiers, providing a sort of collegial basis for the treatment of those captured on the battlefield.  Prisoners were usually quickly exchanged via the “cartel” system, which placed monetary values on prisoners based on rank.  Thus those who surrendered would often find themselves soon back with their armies, having been traded for a man of equal rank, money, or both.   Continue reading

A Point Of Unity

You don’t find many things that unite nearly all Americans – but the death of Charles Manson is one of them.   Other than high school kids trying to get a rise ouf of their elders, not many people – especially those that remember the utterly legitimate fear his “familiy” inflicted for a time in the late sixties – aren’t happy to see this vile chapter in history fade to a halt.

Manson predated me and my consciousness – to me, there’s always been a Charles Manson – but the attempt by “familiy” member “Squeaky” Fromme on President Ford forty-odd years ago was certainly a punctuation mark in my early understanding of the weirdness of the world (and of the US in the seventies, which was a whole ‘nother level of weird).

I did read Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s masterpiece on the era, including his prosecution of Manson and his family.  If you’ve never read it, do; it’s not only the best explanation of the era, but one of the best lessons on the anatomy of a prosecution you will ever find.

Of ocurse, for a brief stretch of my life, Manson wasn’t just background; he was an assignment.

Back in 1987, after Don Vogel went to Chicago, I spent some time producing the Geoff Charles show at KSTP-AM.  And Geoff was obsessed with Manson.  One of my ongoing standing assignments; land an interview with Manson.  Didn’t matter how; by phone, in person, on tape; Charles would have flown himself out to San Quentin to put the interview on tape at his own expense, IIRC.

And so I spent the next three months making at least a couple calls a month to the California Department of Corrections.  Me and everyone else, of course; “an interview with Manson” was on pretty much every media person’s wish list at the time, and we may have been one of the smaller potatoes in the bag.  But we were a persistent small potato, at least.

 

Punching Above Their Weight

It’s been 77 years since Germany invaded Norway.

History writ large records that the Norwegian capitol, Oslo, fell in hours.

It takes a deeper reading to know that Norway – with a lot of help from troops from Britain, the UK, and the Polish army in exile – gave the Germans not a few bloody noses, small and large, covert and open.

And one of the greatest chapters in Norway’s formal resistance, the Norwegian 6th Division’s battle to recapture the port of Narvik, in the far north, spearheaded by a unit called the ” Ålta Battalion”.

A militia unit based in the town of Ålta, in the far, far north of Norway,  Rural men who’d had to report for duty by reindeer sled and ski, they were first called up in the winter of 1939 to guard the Norwegian/Finnish border during the Winter War.   Witnessing the brutality of the war in Finland from across the border, the men from Ålta went home with a pretty sure sense of what was coming.

They were called up again just a few months later, when Germany invaded.  They were transferred from Alta – a town of 20,000, near the northern tip of Norway –  to Narvik – a small port city high above the arctic circle.   So backward was this part of Norway, just 77 years ago that they reported for service by reindeer sled and boat, not much different than 130 years earlier.   They were carried via steam ferry to Narvik – another small port town, rendered strategic by the fact that Swedish iron ore, vital to the German war effort, was carried there by rail, and then shipped to Germany; the little city was one of the most strategic spots in Europe, for a few weeks in April, 1940; it’s only a matter of dumb timing that Churchill didn’t invade Norway before HItler did; his plan to seize Narvik to interdict Germany’s iron supply was already in motion when Germany invaded.

Geographic and economic strategy didn’t matter that much to the guys in the Alta Battalion

And there – outnumbered, outgunned (they had only rifles and a few machine guns and mortars, and no air support to speak of), they did the unthinkable; they moved through the snow into the hills above Narvik, and they pushed the Germans back.  The Alta Battalion, along with the Norwegian Sixth Division (along with the destruction of a GErman fleet in Narvik Fjord by the British Royal Navy), had the Germans on the ropes; General Dietl, the Germans’ commander, estimated that his troops could have held on another day, maybe two, had the attack continued; they’d have had to surrender, or pack it in for Sweden.

But that didn’t happen; France fell, and the French, British and Polish troops pulled out and went back to the UK to face an expected invasion.  The Alta battalion turned in its guns and went home (many of them to carry on the fight in the resistance, in Sweden, or in the Free Norwegian forces overseas.

Ingvald Heitmann, the last surviving member of the Alta Battalion.

I bring this up to note, purely in passing, that Ingvald Heitmann, age 100 and the last surviving member of the Alta Battalion passed away last week at the age of 100. (The article is in Norwegian, but I think I got it right).

Everyone else’s greatest generation is passing from the scene, too.

Grass Grown Over Collapsing Trenches

It’s 9/11 today, as most of you are aware.

If you’re younger than 34, it happened when you were still in school.  And it shouldn’t blow my mind that people who were toddlers on 9/11 have graduated from high school – but it does.

Put another way – if 9/11 were December 7, we’d be in 1956; the war would have ended 12 years ago; Elvis would be at his peak, Germany and Japan would be back from the stone age and rebuilding their economies, and we’d be on the brink of the space race.  Tempus fugit.  

After the attacks, one of the social undercurrents – which morphed, as social currents do, into comedy that often tried too hard – was the notion that if we gave up our freedoms out of fear of terror, then “the terrorists will win”.

So today, 16 years later, government goons grope us in line at airports (but miss all the dangerous stuff anyway), and we don’t complain because, well, we gotta make our flights; the whole exercise seems designed more to train people to get in line and shut up than to find terrorists.

We fill out paperwork if our bank deposits are too big.  We watch as our police departments turn into playtime special forces teams, chasing after pot dealers and trial skippers with armored cars and assault rifles.  We see our Fourth Amendment gradually being reduced to toilet paper – and, in parts of the country where the people are more amenable to presenting their papers on demand, the Second as well.

And on the campuses where the generation that has the same memory of 9/11 that I have of Barry Goldwater (hint:  I was a toddler) are getting “educated”, people are being badgered into line by social codes imposed by self-appointed cultural police no less zealous than the Wahhabi morality police, enforcing a social code that are no less absurd than the rules, and rulers, in Afghanistan 16  years and one day ago today – enforced (!), in some cases, by people whose only difference from ISIS’s morality police is that they haven’t cut off anyone’s head.

Yet.

I’m less and less sure this nation – or at least it’s self-appointed culturaloverlords – learned the right lessons from 9/11.

So Much Work To Be Done

So many statues out there – ergo, so much triggering.

As Big Left prowls the country looking for history that “triggers” them and must be destroyed [1], it’s probably worth pitching in and helping findi more history that needs to be expunged.

Exhuming McCarthy:  much has been made of the statue of Lenin in, where else, Seattle:

... Lenin Statue - "Sunday Strip" - Seattle, WA Visit - Mueckenfett

Leftover “art” from some misbegotten WPA project from hell?

No – a labor of “love” in the full Orwellian sense of the term;  from Wikipedia:

Lewis E. Carpenter, an English teacher in Poprad originally from Issaquah, Washington, found the monumental statue lying in a scrapyard ready to be sold for the price of the bronze; Carpenter had met and befriended Venkov while in Czechoslovakia. In close collaboration with a local journalist and good friend, Tomáš Fülöpp, Carpenter approached the city officials with a claim that despite its current unpopularity, the sculpture was still a work of art worth preserving, and he offered to buy it for $13,000.[1] After many bureaucratic hurdles, he finally signed a contract with the mayor on March 16, 1993.[4]

With the help of Venkov, the statue was cut into three pieces and shipped to the United States at a total cost of $40,000.[1] Carpenter financed much of that via mortgaging his home

The architect of a kleptocratic thugocracy that murdered tens of millions of people over seventy years?  I’m #triggered!  Break out the tow cables and the blowtorches!

But we’re not done expunging Communism’s murderous legacy.   The Minnesota State Capitol is crowded with paintings and sculptures of people who were figures in the “Farmer Labor” Party, and the early years of the merger between them and the Democrats to form the “DFL”.

The Farmer-Labor, as well as the DFL it joined, was expressly pro-communist.  The new party inherited the FLP’s support for the USSR and Josef Stalin.   The infant DFL, in other words, supported the party of the Holodomor, of the Gulag, of the Purge.

It’s time to rid our state of this noxious legacy of genocide.  I suggest a painting-burning and smashing.

Politically Incorrect:   Next, it’s time to address statues and other public art that pays omage to a  Christianist preacher who was a very powerful spokesperson against gay marriage – one whose influence among opponents to gay marriage today is too huge to calculate; one who, were he alive today, would be railing against same sex marriage with a fluency and authenticity today’s speakers can only dream about.

That anti-gay bigot?

What did MLK think about gay people?

Martin Luther King!

His failure to support gay marriage – presaging the mass dissent from most black Christian ministers, even today-

MLK memorial dedicated on the National Mall – Summit County Citizens ...

Can this be allowed?

Continue reading

Blast From The Past

Robert Fisk – the gassy far-left Brit columnist upon whose oeuvre the term “fisk” was launched – is back with a bit of virtue-signaling…

…that actually has a point, although I’m not sure Fisk knows it.

The headline – “When you watch Dunkirk, remember that it’s a whitewashed version which ignores the bravery of black and Muslim soldiers” – set off a bit of a teapot-tempest on social media over the weekend.

He’s got about a third of a point.

About a third of the French Army in 1940 was from France’s overseas colonies; black troops from Guinea and Cameroon, Muslim Arabs from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and Black Muslims from Senegal and Chad.    They were among France’s best troops, too – solid fighters who didn’t bother much with hardships in the field.  They were a significant part of the French First Army, the vanguard of the French armed forces which had joined with the Brits in advancing into Belgium, only to be cut off by the Blitzkrieg through the Ardennes.

And when Churchill decided to evacuate the “British Expeditionary Force” – the British Army in France and Belgium – with the original stated intent of sending them back to Franch to continue the battle – it was the French First Army that held the Germans off long enough to carry off the evacuation (and then, long enough to get about half of its own troops evacuated).

And among those troops – among the best and bravest of them – were the colonials.

Fisk:

A justly cynical revue of Nolan’s Dunkirk by Francois Pédron in Paris Match points out, correctly, that 18,000 French troops paid with their lives to hold the Dunkirk perimeter and 35,000 were made prisoner – almost 140,000 French soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk – but that not only do the victors write history. Filmmakers write the “history” too, Pedron wrote. He is right. The true story of the Algerian and Moroccan units has still to be filmed. It would make a terrifying drama. The Germans threw raw meat into the prison cages of Algerian and African troops – to show cinemagoers how they fought for the food and tore it to pieces like animals. Algerians were massacred by the Nazis on racial grounds – an act which strongly supports the suspicion of some intellectual Arabs today: that Hitler, after destroying the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, would have next turned his exterminating fury against their Semitic Arab brothers.

All true enough.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW)

But if you remember the movie, there really was exactly one filmic depiction of the French Army holding the line; the squad of metropolitan French holding the roadblock in the town of Dunkirk, in the first two minutes of the show.  That’s it.

So yes – Christopher Nolan, in telling the story of three British people at Dunkirk, neglected the stories of black and Muslim French soldiers.

Also those of the rest of the French Army – Catholic, atheist, and otherwise.

It’s the French as a nation, stupid.

And just to show that Robert Fisk is still the fisk-worthy fella he’s been for a decade and a half:

Much has been made, inevitably in The Guardian, of Nolan’s failure to acknowledge the presence of Muslim troops at Dunkirk – Muslim Indian Commonwealth soldiers (from what is now Pakistan)

Which may be because Christopher Nolan is a racist.

Or, perhaps, because the British Expeditionary Force included no “Bengali” (what they called Pakistani) troops – or, for that matter, any of the much more numerous Indian Hindi troops that also served the Brits in the millions.  While the British military included millions of troops from colonies like India and Hong Kong, like the French, colonial troops served in colonial units.  The Indian and Bengal troops served in large numbers in North Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia – including defending India itself from a Japanese invasion – but only rarely did they serve in Northwest Europe during /world War 2.

While PC virtue signaling is easy, facts are hard.

Zero Sum

I caught the movie Dunkirk the Saturday before last.

I’ll be reviewing it in a separate piece later this week or early next.

In the meantime – this “Feminist” review of the movie is enough to make you wonder if we really saved western civilization at the end of WW2, or merely delayed its demise.  It’s from “Marie Claire”, and it’s as bad as you might expect. 

One extracted bit of foul written effluvia – by no means the worst:

But my main issue with Dunkirk is that it’s so clearly designed for men to man-out over. And look, it’s not like I need every movie to have “strong female leads.” Wonder Woman can probably tide me over for at least a year, and I understand that this war was dominated by brave male soldiers. I get that. But the packaging of the film, the general vibe, and the tenor of the people applauding it just screams “men-only”—and specifically seems to cater to a certain type of very pretentious man who would love nothing more than to explain to me why I’m wrong about not liking it. If this movie were a dating profile pic, it would be a swole guy at the gym who also goes to Harvard. If it was a drink it would be Stumptown coffee. If it was one of your friends, it would be the one who starts his sentences with “I get what you’re saying, but…”

The “writer” – one Mehera Bonner – is so tied to pop-culture cliches, I was tempted to think the whole thing was a McSweeneys level parody of “feminist” writing.  Indeed, the title suggests “parody” with all the subtlety of a “Real Housewives” makeover: “I Think ‘Dunkirk’ Was Mediocre at Best, and It’s Not Because I’m Some Naive Woman Who Doesn’t Get It”

If that’s not parody, Ms. Bonner, then yes – your are precisely a naive, cossetted, hot-house flower “feminist” who does not, in fact, “get it”.

Kyle Smith at NRO simultaneously gives Bonner more respect than she deserves, and savages her “writing” even more brutally:

Feminists have a habit of obsessively dividing the world into teams — us, them. Ideas and even facts get considered in the light of whether they are good for Team Woman or not. Instead of seeing men and women as close collaborators in the human project, feminists often suppose that the sexes are rivals, opponents. This is sheer tribalism. Bonner looks at Dunkirk and is irritated that men like the film. She sees it as a celebration of manly courage and bravado, or at least manly endurance and grit, and this repulses her. Feminism means constant maintenance of an imaginary set of scales, and she fears Dunkirk adds weight to the masculine side, tipping the culture away from women. If Dunkirk — “Christopher Nolan’s new directorial gift to men,” she calls it — shows men at their best, it must therefore be bad for women.

There’s a much larger column involved here.

The “Brilliant Victory”

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

Night had only begun to settle over Gaza for the ANZAC Mounted Division on March 26th, 1917.  The division, part of a 22,000-man operation to build upon the British victory at Romani in the summer of 1916, had accomplished its objective of defending the main advance of British infantry against any Ottoman counterattack.  Only 12 hours into the offensive, Gaza had been effectively surrounded, and by dusk, units such like the Mounted Division had even captured outlying portions of the city.

Despite the ferocity of some of the German-led Ottoman counterattacks, the Commonwealth units held their ground.  The British infantry had captured the hill of Ali al Muntar, overlooking the rest of Gaza, while holding over 460 German and Ottoman prisoners, including a divisional commanding general.  The British held the high ground and all the access points to the city.  The campaign for Palestine might be over before it even started.

Instead, the ANZAC Mounted Division – along with the entire defensive screen of forces – were told to retreat.  The threat of 12,000 Ottoman soldiers to the battle’s east had been deemed too great a threat to the British supply lines.  Rather than risk a fight, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) command chose to disengage.  The irate men of the Mounted Division cursed that “victory [had been] snatched away from them by the order to withdraw.”

In addition to the elements and the Ottomans, Britain would have to confront its own generals in the Middle East.

The Ottomans on the march – the Empire was in retreat on all fronts and their men were asked to hold Palestine against a growing British force


With revolution in Russia, and strategic inertia in France, the Middle East appeared to be the only front that saw the armies of the Entente victorious at the start of 1917.

Following the debacle at Kut, a joint British/Indian army had successfully marched to Baghdad by the spring of 1917, putting a practical end to the Mesopotamian campaign with the capture of the city in early March.  And the Arab Revolt of the summer of 1916 had managed to drive the Ottomans out of a series of coastal towns dotting the Red Sea, while sowing rebellion among the various tribes of Arabia.

Yet these campaigns, while providing much need victories for a war-weary Entente, had proved themselves to be little more than costly distractions.  The Arab Revolt had to be completely underwritten by London, and (thus far) hadn’t been able to win without British support.  Baghdad had been the first prominent capital within the Central Powers to fall, but the operation had required over 800,000 men with 250,000 casualties – and the Ottomans looked no closer to surrender as a result.    Continue reading

How’s That, Now?

At the end of a generally good review for the upcoming Dunkirk in USA Today, the reviewer writes (with emphasis added by yours truly):

The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way. Still, Nolan’s feat is undeniable: He’s made an immersive war movie that celebrates the good of mankind while also making it clear that no victory is without sacrifice.

Hm.  In a war fought almost exclusively by men, in Northwestern Europe which was, in 1940, almost entirely white1, go figure.

[1] In fact a large part of France’s army was colonial troops – including many of their best and a significant part of the covering force that allowed the evacuation to happen at all,- were colonial troops from Chad, Morocco, Cameroon, Tunisia, Algeria, Vietnam and, especially, Senegal.  It’ll be interesting to see if they turn up.

A Tsar Is Torn

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

Cramped in the rail-yard of the Pskov station, the Tsar’s Imperial Train made for quite a sight.  The train carried ten carriages: a sleeping-car for the Tsar and Tsarina, a saloon car, a kitchen, a dining car, carriages intended for the grand dukes and other family, the children’s car, cars for the Tsar’s retinue, as well as cars for railway servicemen, servants, luggage and workshops.  The ornately designed cars stood out like a sore thumb amid the largely industrial city.

But on midnight of March 15th, 1917 (or March 2nd, by the old Russian Gregorian calendar), the attention of the citizens and soldiers of Pskov were not on the garish train, but it’s occupant – Tsar Nicholas II.  Having rushed back from his command headquarters in Mogilev, some 400 miles away from St. Petersburg/Petrograd, at the repeated urging of the capital’s political and military leadership, Nicholas II found his path home blocked by rebelling soldiers.  Instead of arriving back at his seat of power, Nicholas II had been forced to retreat to Pskov.

Three days earlier, Nicholas had fumed with indignation that the Chairman of the Duma had described the scene in St. Petersburg as “anarchy.”  The Tsar called such warnings “nonsense,” declaring he wouldn’t even reply to such communications.  Now, Nicholas II’s military and Duma allies were grimly explaining the consequences of the Tsar’s inaction.  St. Petersburg was completely in control of the rebels and a makeshift coalition of forces there had declared themselves the legitimate Provisional Government of Russia.  Further violent crackdowns seemed out of the question.  Any federal troops sent to St. Petersburg only joined the rebels.

Tsar Nicholas II asked Army Chief Nikolai Ruzsky what he should do.  “Abdicate,” Ruzsky replied.  Hesitating for but a few moments, Nicholas agreed.  Russia’s 370 years of Tsarist rule was about to end.

The “February Revolution” – hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded St. Petersburg/Petrograd, prompting the fall of the Tsarist regime


By the spring of 1917, the surprise was not that Tsarist Russia collapsed, but that it had endured for as long as it did.    Continue reading