Monday, 30 June 2014

The Germans Love their Children Too

A touching photo of German infantrymen about to head off to war. Noble Readers will have noticed the chicken head-dress theme extended here to include the female of the species, along with a rather more worrying trend to dress babies as sailors. Soldiers, however are invariably hatted and helmeted as soldiers. Even the soldier's back-pack has one. No wonder Germany won the"Best-Equipped Army of 1914" award.

Right! No more on chickens and millinery, I promise.

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

More Emperors, More Chickens

To show that the Germans had absolutely no monopoly in ridiculous apparel back in the day, I present for your delectation a photograph of King Edward VII at his mother’s funeral. (And yes, the air pollution in Victorian London was very bad in those days.)

As you can see, the king, who was also styled an emperor, having recently become head of state of the entire British Empire, is following the mode for emperors and wearing a head-dress liberally smothered in chicken feathers.

Actually, I can't say for certain that the feathers in question were plucked from that particular species of fowl, but let's assume so.

So, Wilhelm II with large bird on his head, and Edward VII with a mop of chicken feathers. Heaven knows what psycho-sexual implications this curious fashion holds, but it does remind me irresistibly of the joke that used to circulate at school: what's the difference between "kinky" and "perverted"?

Answer: kinky is when you use a feather, perverted is when you use the whole damned chicken.

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

Man with Chicken on Head Longs to be Taken Seriously

Noble Readers should be warned that men who dress like this are likely to be trouble. While other men might be content to sport simple spikes on their helmets, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – for it is he - decided he would benefit from a nine-inch tall gilded eagle.

Along with the epaulettes, sashes, cavalry boots, sabre and curiously enlarged tassel, Wilhelm looks quite the part. But what you don't see in the picture is the sad, fact that blighted Wilhelm's whole life and outlook - that magnificently uniformed left arm of his was deformed.

Nowadays, right minded folk would overlook such a bodily imperfection. We would reprove our children for remarking cruelly on physical differences among their school pals. But in Wilhelm's time - and, more importantly, in Wilhelm's mind - possession of a malformed arm was an unforgiveable weakness.

Imperial tailors were tasked with the mission of hiding the problem in plain sight. The Emperor's new clothes must act as camouflage, so that resurgent Germany could not be mocked through its leader. Wilhelm must be presented to the world as faultless, virile, strong!

Noble Readers, I have to tell you now, they went too far.

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

Friday, 27 June 2014

So What About This Serbia Anyway?

Interesting. Serbia is a country in the Balkan region of south-eastern Europe, a region that had been overrun by the Ottoman Turks during the Sixteenth Century and slowly relinquished in succeeding centuries. 

In the Nineteenth Century, Serbia emerged as a sovereign state. The Treaty of Berlin (1878), the one which gave Austria-Hungary its mandate to administer Bosnia, also proposed an independent principality of Serbia. This land-locked country with its capital at Belgrade would then become a kingdom in 1882, ruled by Milan I.

King Milan enjoyed close relations with Austria-Hungary and was happy to acknowledge the borders defined by the treaty. Milan abdicated suddenly in 1889, but he would not die until 1901. His young son, Alexander, became king. He was under his mother's regentship, until the age of sixteen, at which point he wrestled himself free, having decided he was old enough to take control.  

Now, it is never a good idea for a country to have a head of state who is sixteen years of age. Most sixteen year-olds think they know everything, when the truth is they don't usually know enough. In the case of sixteen year-old kings, this creates a situation in which a circle of power-hungry "advisors" cluster around the child and battle it out for influence and power.
In 1894, Alexander abolished the constitution. Soon afterwards, he dragged his father out of private life and installed him as Commander-in-Chief of Serbia's army. Then, in 1900, he decided he was going to marry, Draga, one of his mother's ladies-in-waiting, a woman twelve years his senior -- a very unpopular move.  Alexander's mother was not particularly amused either, so he banished her. More dismay was generated by Alexander, who made it clear that he was prepared to name his wife's brother as heir presumptive.

Unfortunately for the royal couple, an army coup in May 1903 led by one Dragutin Dimitrijevic, succeeded.

The head of the palace guard was forced to show the revolutionaries a large mirror behind which there existed a secret chamber. With the kind of overkill indicative of extreme disapproval, the assailants shot Alexander some thirty times. Draga, presumably out of some chivalric impulse, was shot only a mere eighteen times. The bodies were then mutilated with swords, disemboweled and defenestrated onto a convenient dung heap.

Having got rid of the previous lot, Dimitrijevic installed a new outfit. Henceforth, King Peter I would rule. His rule would be pro-Russian and anti-Austrian, and Serbia would become a right royal regional troublemaker.

I suppose, Noble Readers, that in light of previous blogs, you can probably see where all this was heading.

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

Reprisals against Serbs for Franz Ferdinand's Life

This street scene shows the disorder in Sarajevo following the killing of Austria's heir apparent.  Serb-owned businesses were attacked, blameless people assaulted, wrongs not quite righted.

But while Bosnian Serbs were being hounded in Sarajevo, other attempts were being made in high places to gain satisfaction. Austria-Hungary gave Serbia 48 hours to comply with a demand to, among other things, cease all inflammatory anti-Austrian rhetoric, to halt secret gun-running, to sack the most hawkish members of its military and to arrest those responsible for the assassination.

In reply, the Serbs (who had been lumbered with a very anti-Austrian government in the coup of 1903) dissembled in a way calculated to infuriate the Austrians. They waved a telegram of support from the Russia czar, and immediately mobilized their army.  Austria-Hungary's own mobilization followed soon after and they declared war on Serbia.

A secret treaty signed more than twenty years before provided that France and Russia would mobilize if any member of the Triple Alliance (i.e. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) did so.

So France and Russia mobilized. Russia's mobilization set off full Austro-Hungarian and German mobilizations.  Soon all the Great Powers were at one another's throats. All except Italy, which was still trying to decide which side to go with.

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

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Another Day, Another Photograph ...

Last week they were lying in bed together. Now Franz Ferdinand and his wife are lying in state.  Candles burn,  haloed in light. The figure of Christ crucified seems to offer a blessing. He needs to: history is now set on a track that will send millions to their graves.

In Vienna, the aged emperor, Franz Josef, is consulting advisors about how to avenge the death of his son. Five hundred miles down the Danube, in Serbia, they are preparing for the inevitable backlash. The Serbs are not as worried as they might be - they have Russia as a guarantor: if Austria mounts a punitive expedition against Serbia, Russia will come to their aid.

Franz Josef's advisors have an answer to this upping of the ante. If Serbia has a big brother, then so does Austria. A letter must be sent to Germany.

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

All that remains is ... a little hole in a road?

Let's freeze time again: a Sarajevo policeman has placed a board over a little hole in the road, and his foot is firmly placed on the board. The message to onlookers milling around nearby is, "Move along, now. There's nothing to see."

But there is something to see.

That hole has been made minutes before by a bomb thrown at Archduke Franz Ferdinand's car by a man with a cause. The bomb-thrower has links to a terrorist group called the "Black Hand." The organization is opposed to the inclusion of certain south Slavic provinces in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It wants Bosnia-Herzegovina to become part of a greater Slavic state. It wants "freedom" for Bosnian Serbs!
Arcane stuff.

Perhaps, but this sort of consideration is usually enough to inflame the passions of foolish young idealists who are convinced that the "oppression" of some group or other must end now. Others in the group are, of course, simply misfits with violent urges who are looking to commit barbarous acts under a cloak of political respectability. All are street-level members prepared, for whatever reason, to do the bidding of their leaders. There are half a dozen members of the Black Hand in Sarajevo. Enough to cause a war? Well, maybe.
Noble Readers will observe how a hundred years passes and nothing changes except the labels? Well, there it is ...

As for the Austrian archduke and his wife, they are on an official visit. Figureheads must be seen to be figureheads. And so the show must go on. 

The bomb is not very powerful. And it is poorly aimed.  No one in the archduke's car is killed, or even injured, and the official visit does go on. Flustered by the attempt on the archduke's life, his advisors alter the route, but the driver becomes confused and misses his junction. He tries to turn the car around, and that provides a second killing opportunity.

This time the would-be killer has in his pocket a Belgian-made FN Model 1910 automatic pistol, designed by the American gunsmith, John Browning. The magazine holds six rounds. Only two of them will be necessary to spark the deadliest war to date.

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

Ferdinand and Sophie

As we have already seen, discussion of the accuracy of newspaper reports is nothing new. Wise readers know that editors, then and now, seek to shape news reports in a way that is palatable to both their readership and their proprietor. In so doing, they are apt therefore to deviate somewhat from the strict truth.

But surely the camera cannot lie - can it?

Misplaced trust, I'm afraid. Cameras do nothing but lie. Yet still, a photograph freezes a moment in time, and thus some photographs are able to become remarkably poignant in the light of subsequent events. In that poignancy lies their power.

This photograph shows the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, at Sarajevo railway station. Had things turned out differently, this picture may well have ended up gracing the society pages of Vienna's most widely-circulated newspaper along with the caption - "Imperial Heir Visits Troubled Province."

But nobody could have known when the shutter was pressed that the imperial heir and his wife would both have bled to death within the hour.

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

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Artists' Impressions?

Noble Readers who troubled to read my last blog will have seen the way artists were early drawn into the Great War. I find period posters curiously fascinating, but they are not the only way in which the artists of 1914 were engaged.

In Edwardian times, when photography was a much more involved art than it is today, equipment was often so bulky as to preclude all but the staged portrait. And if the still picture was hard to obtain, how much more difficult was the movie clip? This being the case, newspaper editors often commissioned graphic artists to depict current affairs.

When the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, one artist took the opportunity not only to depict but also to dramatize the event in what appears at this remove to be ludicrous way. Realism was not, it seems, the artist’s strong suit.

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

Fit enough for a mechanized war?

Many Noble Readers who have read The Deadly Playground, 1914 have been wonderfully kind insofar as they have told me how realistic the book's atmosphere feels. This I take as a great compliment, but it is no accident. Much time was spent in accurately rendering the spirit of the times.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, means were sought in Britain to encourage soldiers to enlist. Germany’s invasion of France and Belgium had been expected in the years before the war, but Britain's attention was largely elsewhere. Her main interests did not so much involve the machinations of Continental politics, but rather the development of her vast empire around the globe.

Britain relied on the English Channel and a powerful navy for defence. Her regular army was only one-tenth the size of Germany's. Moreover, the British instinctively disliked the Continental system of conscription which obliged young men to join the military for two or three years, so there was no reserve of trained men who could be quickly called up.

Nor was there any broadcasting in 1914, not even radio, and people could only be reached by newspapers and posters. Consequently, when the war began, the government’s call was made through these media, and the message was: serve your country now!

What may now seem naive in the light of later events, appeared during the summer of 1914 to be the right thing to do. The nation was under threat. It was clearly the duty of healthy young men to rally to the cause.

However, this was the time when the practices of warfare were first being shaped by mass production techniques on an industrial scale. No one, not even the experts of the day, knew how the coming war would be sought. The foremost instruments of death would turnout to be thousands of miles of barbed wire, tens of thousands of machine guns and millions of high-explosive artillery shells.

Unfortunately, this was not going to be a war in which athletic prowess was particularly required.

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