Saturday, 31 May 2014

Lloyd George's Love Nest

Back in my dim and distant college days, there used to be an interminable song sung by drunken rugby players to the tune of "Onward, Christian Soldiers!" the only lyric to which was: "Lloyd George knew my father, father knew Lloyd George ..." repeated endlessly, or at least until the drunkards concerned fell over.

But who was this mysterious Lloyd George that father was supposed to have known?

I think it will come as a surprise to most people that David Lloyd George was technically a Mancunian - that's somebody born in Manchester, by the way – but in all other respects he was famously Welsh. He was a lawyer, and then a Liberal politician, and by 1906 at the age of 43, he had risen to become a member of the Cabinet. He was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer (the man who held the government's purse strings) by the time the Great War broke out, and by the time it ended he had been Prime Minister for two years.

What was certainly not so well known at the time was Lloyd George's sexual incontinence. He was known as "the Goat" in recognition of his many affaires. General Kitchener once said that Cabinet members should not be told military secrets because they all told their wives - except for Lloyd George who told other people's wives.

In 1913, after Lloyd George refused to see a deputation of Suffragettes to discuss votes for women, they made him their especial target. Lloyd George liked women, but he also liked golf. He had a house built near the course at Walton Heath, so he could play a round and then play around, so to speak. When militant Suffragettes found out about this still unfinished love-nest, they planted two time-bombs there.

One bomb, containing five pounds of gunpowder, actually went off. Neither Lloyd George nor his lady-love were hurt, but there's still a crack in the wall of Pinfold Manor to remind us that the female franchise was a matter of hot debate in those charming days before the Great War changed everything.

The Deadly Playground, 1914 is out now.  Why not click on this link and get yourself a copy?

Monday, 26 May 2014

Queen of Belgium's Embarrassment

Not too many people outside Belgium remember King Albert the First, but they should, because he was a man of honour and a great king.

When in August, 1914, the Germans told him they were going to march their armies through his country on the way to stabbing France in the back, he told the Kaiser where to get off. What followed was five years of torture, with just about every major Power in the world trying their best to kick the German army back across the Rhine. Albert must have wondered more than a few times if he had done the right thing, but what else could he have done? You can't have powerful neighbours marching troops onto your territory whenever they choose. (Are you listening Mr. Putin?)

Anyway ... I guess you're wondering about the Belgian queen - Elisabeth by name - and her embarrassment.

Well, Albert and Elisabeth were married in Munich.  Germany, on 2nd of October, 1900. They married there because she was a Bavarian Duchess and a princess of Wittelsbach who had been born at Possenhofen Castle.  She and Albert were very much in love, and nobody at that wedding could have imagined that fourteen years later German troops (including Bavarian regiments) would be marching through Belgium, committing atrocities of the worst kind.

But if anyone thought Elisabeth might have harboured divided loyalties, they were made to think again. "Once a Belgian," she said, "always a Belgian."

My latest novel, The Deadly Playground, 1914 is out now.  Why not click on this link and get yourself a copy?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The moon and New York City?

By October 1914 the German invasion of Belgium was almost complete. Only a tiny remnant of land behind the road from Nieuport to Ypres was left unconquered. Of 11,800 square miles, only 300 was left - about the land area of New York City. This had to be defended because the German army was about to be hurled at the remnant in the hope that this final capture would knock Belgium out of the war completely.

The Belgian army was exhausted and all but out of ammunition. The low-lying ground was saturated with water so defensive trenches couldn't be dug. There was nowhere to hide from German artillery. The French 42nd division and French colonial troops from Senegal had to be sent to reinforce them. They deployed along a railway embankment built up between three and six feet in elevation, running from Nieuport to Dixmude and waited.

Then, just as all hope began to fade, the moon came to Belgium's rescue. The moon? Yes, that's right: the moon.

A high tide in the North Sea meant that the sluice gates at Nieuport could be opened to let sea water into the Yser Canal. The resulting flood thwarted German intentions. Their furious attack on Ramscappelle had to be called off, and they were forced to turn their attention to the town of Ypres, where British forces were preparing to give them a dose of their own medicine.

If you are interested in my fictional account, then look at The Deadly Playground, 1914 at this link and get yourself a copy

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Trampling of Louvain - Part 2

So what exactly did the Germans do to Louvain?

They spent five days burning it and looting what they could. They destroyed a library of a third of a million ancient manuscripts and medieval books. They burned Louvain's Catholic University and the church of St. Pierre along with the most prominent public buildings. But there was far worse: 250 men, women and children were shot dead. and the whole population of ten thousand were turned out of their homes and told to leave. Their supposed crime was rather nebulous and certainly untried in any court of law. They were said to have fired on German soldiers -- an attempt at an excuse which was seen, even at the time, as ludicrously transparent and self-serving.

In Aarschot there were 156 civilians murdered. In Andenne 211, in Tamines 383, and at the village of Dinant, near Liege, 674 - all murdered in an attempt to terrorize and cow the population. The German army stole all available food, even that growing in the fields, they looted anything that could be removed, broke into wine stores and drank all the alcohol they could get their hands on. Once Belgium was firmly in their grip, they went on to disable the Belgian economy by carting industrial machinery off to Germany along with thousands of workers who would then work at slave rates and act as hostages into the bargain. A third of Belgium's population of eight million became refugees, walking the roads by day and sleeping in ditches by night. How many perished is not recorded.

All this misery was not simply a by-product of war, it was masterminded as an illustration that no one should dare to oppose the Kaiser's will.

German war-planners, noted for their minute attention to detail, overlooked one glaring factor: no provision was made by the invaders to feed the Belgian population. The story of how they were eventually fed is told in my novel "The Deadly Playground." Make no mistake, the imperial German occupation of Belgium was, in almost every respect, a prototytpe for the "Nazi Europe" that appeared twenty-five years later. Those who have seen the movie Schindler's List can begin to imagine that living under the heel of the jackboot was a hellish experience.

"The old Reich knew already how to act with firmness in the occupied areas. That's how attempts at sabotage to the railways in Belgium were punished by Count von der Goltz. He had all the villages burnt within a radius of several kilometres, after having had all the mayors shot, the men imprisoned and the women and children evacuated."

Now guess who wrote that. Yes, you're right, it was indeed Adolf Hitler.

All this barbarism backfired, of course. Neutral countries saw what had been inflicted, and were horrified. Some were horrified enough to send their boys over to help sort it out. You should be proud of their contribution. This really was a case of going out to slay a very nasty dragon indeed.

You may be interested in my fictional account - The Deadly Playground - why not click on this link and get a copy?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Trampling of Louvain - 1

Having invaded Belgium on August 4th, 1914, the Germans found themselves unable to sweep aside the Belgian army as they had confidently expected. This was rather embarrassing for the generals of the German high command, who regarded their army as the the best-trained and best-equipped military on the planet.

The Germans had planned to march their armies through Belgium on the way to France, whether the Belgians objected to this or not. The Belgians most certainly did object, and fought so well that they retarded the German advance sufficiently to allow France (and to a much lesser extent, Britain) to halt the invasion well before it reached Paris.

Infuriated by their lack of progress, and the surliness of uncooperative Belgians, they fell upon the Belgian city of Louvain (or Leuven, in Flemish) and tortured it mercilessly for five days, from August 25th, to teach Belgians a lesson they would not forget. They then began lying. They tried to blame the Belgians and make themselves out as the victims.

After the Germans took the city on August 19th, Hugh Gibson, a diplomatic official stationed at the American legation in Brussels commented thus:

"There is bad news from Louvain. The reports we have received agree that there was some sort of trouble in the square before the Hotel de Ville a day or two ago. Beyond that, no two reports are alike. The Germans say that the son of the Burgomaster shot down some staff officers who were talking together at dusk before the Hotel de Ville. The only flaw in that story is that the Burgomaster has no son. Some Belgians say that two bodies of Germans who were drunk met in the dusk; that one body mistook the other for French, and opened fire. Other reliable people tell with convincing detail that the trouble was planned and started by the Germans in cold blood. However that may be, the affair ended in the town being set on fire, and civilians shot down in the streets as they tried to escape. According to the Germans themselves, the town is being wiped out of existence. The Cathedral, the Library, the University, and other public buildings have either been destroyed or have suffered severely. People have been shot by hundreds, and those not killed are being driven from the town. They are coming to Brussels by thousands, and the end is not yet. This evening the wife of the Minister of Fine Arts came in with the news that her mother, a woman of eighty-four, had been driven from her home at the point of the bayonet and forced to walk with a stream of refugees all the way to Tervueren, a distance of about twelve miles, before she could be put on a tram to her daughter's house. Two old priests have staggered into the Legation more dead than alive after having been compelled to walk ahead of the German troops for miles as a sort of protecting screen. One of them is ill, and it is said that he may die as a result of what he has gone through."

And so it goes on ...

Any historian following the trouble in eastern Ukraine of late will recognize the dead hand of a despot at work. The Russians are operating in a way not dissimilar to that of the German high command of 1914.  What's perhaps most pathetic of all is their hope that anyone actually believes their lies.

Why not take a look at my latest novel, set in this period?  Click on this link and get a copy.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Those beastly Germans ...

Noble Readers who reside in modern Germany and folks of German descent such as my good friend Herb Muller will, I hope, forgive my recent lambasting which was aimed at the misdeeds of their country between 1870 and 1945.

I must say here and now: I am not anti-German. I have nothing but admiration for modern Germany, which I have visited many times. I think highly of their wine, their beer, their women, their scenery and their cars. I wish the English football team could be relied upon to perform as well as the German football team, and when it comes to classical music, give me German composers every time.

But ...  I guess you knew there was a "but" coming.

We would be remiss in our observance as historians, were we to overlook the behaviour of Germany during the above-mentioned period, which was, to say the least, quite disgraceful.

That blunt instrument Political Correctness, it seems to me, wildly bludgeons those suspected of harbouring criticisms of others, when a finer, more surgical approach, is called for. One hardly dare criticise a given individual's misdemeanours for fear of being taken for being anti-this or an anti-that on a much larger scale. Much casual racism, I venture to suggest, is not actually racism, but an objection to tiresome or irritating elements of culture.

We need, I suppose, to realize that all cultures - yes, including our own -- have poisonous components which need to be recognized, operated on and removed. Like diseased organs that are better out than in, we can, if we are sensible, have the bad culture whipped out and sent to the incinerator. In the same way that individual people can have unpleasant habits or character traits, so entire cultures can contain toxic aspects which often hamper the lives of people brought up within those cultures. These elements can and should be got rid of.

Like trade, this can work to advantage in both directions. How much better would it have been, for example, if the Methodists who persuaded South Sea islanders not to eat one another had been reciprocally persuaded to be a bit less, well, Methodist? Or if the Germans whom we cured of their self-destructive obsession with tracked vehicles and well-cut uniforms had, in return, taught us how to run a railway on time.

It cost us all an enormous price to put an end to one of the nastiest and most toxic subcultures in all of history: Prussian militarism. It cost us further sacrifice to stamp out National Socialism, the monster that Prussian militarism begat. But it was worth it in the end, and I'm proud to think that Britain was at the forefront of the fight both times.

That's why we must look upon the many rows of white tombstones in the military cemeteries of Belgium and northern France without tears. The men whose remains lie beneath those memorials were not the hapless victims of a "futile" war, but heroes who died to make your today possible. If you want to salute the sacrifice of those men and women, use your freedoms wisely and try to turn yourselves and your children into kinder and more considerate people.

One day, perhaps, humankind will collectively learn how not to spawn toxic sub-cultures, and having snuffed out the worst of each other's weaknesses, perhaps we'll be able to fully enjoy each other's achievements in an atmosphere of security and peace.

In the meantime, you might be interested in my novel - The Deadly Playground - a fictional account of this period.  Click on this link and get a copy

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The German Overseas Empire

Before the rise of the United States, Britain, and to a far lesser degree France, shared the task of policing the world. Both had a great deal of experience in regulating volatile political situations that threatened the economic development of the world.

At their heights, France's empire totalled a little under 5 million square miles with a population of 110 million including France. The British Empire included a little more than 13 million sq. miles and contained a population amounting to one fifth of the world's total at the time - getting on for half a billion people. The British also controlled the world's oceans.

For comparison, the contiguous United States today has an area of about 3 million square miles with a population of 310 million, and the Russian Federation 6.5 million sq. miles with 145 million people. The erstwhile Soviet Union was somewhat less than 8.5 million sq. miles, with 293 million people.

Imperial Germany, personified by its half-crazed leader Kaiser Wilhelm II, was extremely jealous of the British Empire. When the Great War broke out, Germany had an overseas empire of its a own, comprising 1.3 million sq. miles and 65 million people - about the same size as the Dutch Empire. In Africa, they administered Togoland, Cameroon, German East Africa (which later was called Tanganyika, and later still Tanzania) and German South-West Africa (now Namibia, basically, the Namib desert.) They also possessed the north-eastern part of New Guinea, some lease-ports in China and various specks in the Pacific.

The Kaiser and his warmongering advisers thought they could add to this tally by invading France and removing a chunk of the French Empire as part of the price of withdrawing their army from French soil. They had gotten away with this kind of mugging before, notably during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. One attraction of the famous "Schlieffen Plan" – the German scheme to encircle Paris by invading through Belgium - was that the occupation of that country would give them not only Channel ports, but also Belgium and therefore another large chunk of Africa, the Belgian Congo. This acquisition would have split Africa by creating German-controlled territory from coast to coast.

The trouble was that, unlike the British, and to a lesser extent the French, neither the Belgians nor the Germans were particularly good at being colonialists.  Noble Readers who feel duty-bound to read about genocide, might begin by looking up the story of the Herero and Nama peoples who were herded into the Namib desert by the Germans to die of thirst just before the Great War.

Why not click on this link and get a copy of The Deadly Playground - my novel set in this period?

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Lest we forget - a caution on the Great War

Noble Readers the world over will doubtless soon begin to hear the distant trumpets that herald another historical anniversary. Here in Britain we have received over the past few months a steady flow of TV documentaries as the media rev up for the August, 2014 centenary of the start of World War One.

But I have already noticed a worrying trend in the coverage, which I feel I must remark upon and perhaps even attempt to correct. Many years ago, in the 1960's, it became fashionable to denigrate Britain's efforts to halt the German invasion of Belgium and France. Cheesy productions such as "Oh! What a Lovely War" saw luvvies* of lofty rank mercilessly lampooning the generals of the Great War, and the phrase "lions led by donkeys" became vogue. It was also common to hear the Great War described as "futile."

Today, we have a more informed view of those days. We understand that the explosion of German aggression that all but destroyed Europe, was something that had to be opposed. Millions of good men gave life and limb to accomplish that end, and the generals who led them eventually won the war. To hear present-day media types ignorantly ridiculing that heroic effort as imbecilic or callous turns my stomach.

My remedy? Just say "no" to mealy-mouthed obfuscation and historical revisionism. And say it loud when it dishonours our fallen heroes. These men would not have wanted to be remembered as victims, but as men who stepped up when civilization needed saving from a bestial menace.

The truth is, Prussian militarism was a nasty piece of work. It had to be curbed every bit as much as its natural heir, the Nazis. Prussian militarism specialized in invading neighbouring countries and then treating their inhabitants with appalling brutality. So when you hear commentators attempt to characterize the Great War as a six and two threes kind of thing, in which the blame ought to be shared out equally by all the countries involved, just remember that the Germans were the bad guys.

The moment Germany became a nation ruled by the Prussian military they went looking for trouble. Austria, Denmark, France ... no neighbour was safe. If German armies hadn't swarmed across their borders in 1914 in pursuit of long-planned conquests, then there would have been no war. Germany started it. It was Germany's fault. We must remember that and remember it accurately, or remembrance is worthless.

Why not click on this link and get  a copy of The Deadly Playground (above) - my latest novel and set in this period?

* British slang. A luvvy is an actor, usually of the  pretentious, overblown or narcissistic kind.