Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Commonwealth Games - Who? What? Where?

Having wryly commented on the colourful goings on in Brazil, Noble Readers, I think it only right that I should point out a few interesting features of the Commonwealth Games, now rolling along in glorious Glasgow.

The Scots, in a last minute orgy of spending before their peninsula separates itself from the United Kingdom, are hosting a sort of mini-Olympics which is confined to those nations formerly under the steel jackboot of British domination.

Not all of our ex-colonies have joined that great successor to the British Empire, the organization secretly known as the British Commonwealth – Ireland (Southern Branch) and the United States being notable exceptions -- but the Mother Country has now been forgiven by most of its other children, and so the Games stirs interest in the following places:

    Anguilla                   Mozambique
    Antigua and Barbuda        Namibia
    Australia                  Nauru
    The Bahamas                New Zealand
    Bangladesh                 Nigeria
    Barbados                   Pakistan
    Belize                     Papua New Guinea
    Botswana                   Rwanda
    Brunei                     Saint Kitts and Nevis
    Cameroon                   Saint Lucia
    Canada                     St Vincent & the Grenadine
    Cyprus                     Samoa
    Dominica                   Seychelles
    Fiji                       Sierra Leone
    Ghana                      Singapore
    Grenada                    Solomon Islands
    Guyana                     South Africa
    India                      Sri Lanka
    Jamaica                    Swaziland
    Kenya                      Tanzania
    Kiribati                   The Gambia
    Lesotho                    Tonga
    Malawi                     Trinidad and Tobago
    Malaysia                   Tuvalu
    Maldives                   Uganda
    Malta                      Vanuatu
    Mauritius                  Zambia

Most of these domains will doubtless be unfamiliar to all but professional geographers. Many will sound like anagrams or specks in the ocean, and indeed are. But perhaps surprisingly, these territories account for a couple of billion inhabitants spread over eleven and a half million square miles of the earth. For some unknown reason places at one time ruled by Britain - such as Egypt, Iraq, what's now Israel and so on - have stubbornly neglected to join the Grand Club, whereas other places over which we Brits never had any dominion at all, such as Mozambique and Rwanda, have been surreptitiously welcomed in, despite having suffered under the jack boots of Portugal and France respectively.

For the purposes of the Games, the United Kingdom is divided up into four big bits and three tiny little islands. (Nobody knows why.) I give the populations so you have a sense of proportion about the whole thing.

         United Kingdom    61,609,500

         England           53,012,456
         Scotland           5,327,700
         Wales              3,063,456
         Northern Ireland   1,841,245
         Guernsey              65,345
         Isle of Man           84,497
         Jersey                97,857

My theory is that we enter seven different teams in order to let Australia top the medals table, which they do pretty well all the time. (They sulk if they don't win, you see.)
Some places do not appear on the list, maybe because they don't think very much about sport, or maybe they're too busy being tax havens or exotic holiday destinations:

     Bermuda                    Maldives
     British Virgin Islands     Montserrat
     Cayman Islands             Niue
     Cook Islands               Norfolk Island
     Falkland Islands           St Helena
     Gibraltar                  Turks & Caicos Islands

At least one of the above, and I'm not going to tell you which, is neither an accountant's heaven nor a beach resort but an absolute disaster zone, half of it having exploded some years ago. No, John of Devizes, it wasn't Ginbraltar. (Here the "n" is silent.) I personally watched it exploding (from a nearby island I'm glad to say) and couldn't help thinking that God had got that one notably wrong.

Yet other places are in the queue to join the groovy British Commonwealth, but haven't yet got the green light:

                  South Sudan

All of these have obviously made-up flags, and so may not be actual countries but bits of Empire that fell off and were forgotten about.

There is but one more country to name. It is a naughty country that has not been allowed to come to the Games at all, but has had to stand in the corner while all the other countries had jelly and cake and sang songs.  Yes, I'm sure you know of it - it's called Zimbabwe. Actually, that country and almost all its people are not naughty but lovely and cuddly. However, it has a president who is very naughty indeed, in fact he's a psychopathic Marxist despot, and you don't get much naughtier than that. He has also accumulated a gang of most unseemly types around him which he calls "a government" and whose job it is to beat people senseless with rubber hoses - so that's probably what's holding the nation back.

Stay tuned to this channel, Noble Readers, because with the Games 2/3 over, there will be more soon on how the Games' spoils are being divided.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Royalty Too ...

Then as now, the British royal family had to show that it was getting stuck in just as much as any other family, perhaps more so, because of its German connections. 

The rather slight, if not gaunt, figure in the center of this 1914 photograph is the 21 year-old Prince of Wales. He was the eldest son of the then monarch, King George V, and he later became King Edward VIII - and even later the Duke of Windsor, and Governor of the Bahamas, but the less said about that the better...

Known to his friends as "David", the future Edward VIII had a huge number of given names, as presumably befits the heir to the throne. In 1914, he joined the Grenadier Guards, one of Britain's elite regiments. By all accounts he was anxious to go to the Front, but Lord Kitchener would not let him.

He wrote to a friend, "... mine is a most rotten position ... I'm not allowed to fight. Of course I haven’t got a proper job which is very painful to me and I feel I am left too much in a glass case. I long to be taking my chance in the trenches with my brother officers and in fact all able-bodied Englishmen. But both seem to be impossible, so I have to carry on here at HQ ... It's a dull, monotonous life. This is a most rotten war unless you are actually fighting. It's a rotten war altogether and the sooner it ends the better for everyone concerned."

Nevertheless, he did manage to get into the trenches from time to time, and his father awarded him the Military Cross in June, 1916, a medal given for acts of “exemplary gallantry."

David thought his MC was undeserved, and so do I, but there was a war on, and figureheads have to do their figure heading, even when it be noxious to them. The man eventually took control of his life and told his handlers where to get off -- and you can't help admiring him for that.

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

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Louvain: German "frightfulness"

When the German invasion of Belgium began on 4th August, 1914, civilians began to be rounded up and shot in order to persuade the Belgian army to surrender. Now, this was definitely not playing fair, not even playing by the rules - rules laid down by the Hague Convention, a sort of predecessor of the Geneva Convention, to which Germany was a signatory.

But the German army decided to put that piece of paper to one side, just as they had done with their promise not to violate Belgian neutrality. Within a week, over a thousand innocent civilians had been murdered.  Wherever German advances were frustrated, officers would report that civilian snipers (called francs-tireurs) had been firing on them, and "reprisals" were carried out.

But there was nothing defensive about these actions.  They were the stamping of an iron boot-heel on a population, a method to quickly terrorize them into supine complicity. In the university town known to Flemish speakers as Leuven and to French speakers as Louvain, a library of ancient manuscripts was reduced to ashes and 250 inhabitants shot.

By the year's end, thousands of innocents had been singled out: men women and children, publicly murdered to show the rest not to mess with the Kaiser's boys. I say "murdered," because although the perpetrators were wearing uniforms, they were breaking the law – and they knew they were.

Why not click on this link and get a copy of my latest novel - The Deadly Playground, 1914

Friday, 18 July 2014


German troops entered Brussels, Belgium's capital, on 20th August, 1914. The Belgian government had already moved out to the port of Antwerp, which had the same kind of out-of-date fortifications as Liege, and so it was surmised that as soon as the Germans could move up their Big Bertha guns, it would be curtains for Antwerp.

As for Brussels, it was a pretty city, so rather than have it smashed up for no good reason; the German army were offered unopposed entry. It was hoped that the invaders would behave themselves with decorum.

As this photograph shows, the German army were an orderly lot when they wanted to be. Someone in their military hierarchy could not resist organizing a Brussels victory parade - the photos would doubtless play well in the newspapers back home. But it was the start of an appallingly oppressive occupation. It soon became apparent that in their haste to conquer their little neighbour, they had overlooked one rather important detail – how to feed the population.

It wasn't long before Belgium had had its chips.

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

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Who was Louis Raemaekers?

I like to think of my job as writing novels that will give Noble Readers pleasure. The pleasure comes mostly from an interesting story told in such a way that readers can insert themselves into a different time and a place, and so vicariously live a different life for a few hours.

But there is another pleasure to be had, and that is the satisfaction of finding out something new, something that illuminates the past and escapes the clutches of historical cliché. I get pleasure from that, so why shouldn't you?

Noble Readers will likely already know that Holland did not share the fate of Belgium in World War I - lucky for them. But as a neutral country, Holland was in a difficult position.

The man I want to introduce you to in this blog was a cartoonist. His name was Louis Raemaekers. In 1914 he was working in Amsterdam, drawing illustrations for DeTelegraaf. In recent blogs I've mentioned some of the ways in which artists contributed to the war effort. This was true of Raemaekers, whose punchy drawings characterized German aggression so effectively that the Berlin government first demanded that the Dutch put him on trial, and when he was acquitted they actually went so far as to put a "dead or alive" bounty on his head.

This was a move so gobsmackingly stupid that instead of getting Raemaekers shot, it shot Raemaekers to international fame. Raemaekers own move in reply was to cross the Channel and live in England, where his artwork went straight into The Times, was sent on travelling display around the country and ended up being syndicated by periodicals across the United States.

Louis Raemaekers didn't just sit at home and make it all up, you know, Noble Readers. He actually crossed into Belgium to witness at first hand the atrocities inflicted by the Germans on their hapless victims.

Six and two-threes historians - the ones who like to put present-day reconciliation ahead of truth, and who therefore like to say that all countries involved in the Great War were equally culpable in moral terms - those guys tend to dismiss Raemaekers as a "propaganda cartoonist." I don't do that. I recognize the moral rage this unassuming - and remarkably talented --artist felt towards the Prussian clique who were traumatizing Europe at the time.

Some of us just can't stand bullies.

Friday, 11 July 2014

A City with a Medal

As can be seen from the postcard, France awarded the Belgian city of Liege the Legion d'honneur. The order is France's highest and Liege was the first non-French city to receive it.

Liege was in the way of the German army in 1914, and its stand against them bought precious time to allow the French to prepare for the coming blow.

Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, twelve modern fortresses had been built around the municipality and were defended in August, 1914, by General Leman and 35,000 Belgian troops. Unfortunately for him, concrete fortifications built in the 1880's were not steel-reinforced, and so were unable to match subsequent improvements in artillery fire-power.

The battle of Liege saw the debut of Germany's new wonder weapon, the so-called "Big Bertha", a giant mortar which fired 1,800-pound shells, and could batter just about anything to bits. One such shell penetrated Fort Loncin and set off its magazine. The explosion killed more than 300 defenders. It also knocked General Leman unconscious. He was captured and hauled off to Germany to spend the rest of the war as a guest of the Kaiser. He died in 1920.

General Leman's heroic defence was not in vain. The twelve days that Liege withstood the German advance helped to bring about the Anglo-French victory on the Marne which prevented the capture of Paris. Hence the medal.

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

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

German Mobilization, 1914

So what does it mean, this "mobilization" I keep talking about?
Well, Noble Readers, let me explain. Suppose you're a nice, peaceful country with several borders, and you've recently had a nasty spat with one of the awkward countries next door.
The spat may have been over some perceived slight or possibly even something more serious, like an act of war, the assassination of one of your important people perhaps. Anyway, let's suppose that diplomacy has failed, the situation has deteriorated, and that you either, 
(a)  fear an attack,or,
(b)  have decided to jolly well teach them a lesson.
It is, after all, for these two eventualities that you bother to keep an army at all.

Now, your soldiers are housed in barracks here and there. But you need to have them at the border where the trouble is about to begin, and so you must issue an order to that effect. That's mobilization.
It means that you entrain your serving forces, you call-up your reservists - men who've had a military training, but who are now civilians again - and you commence measures that will switch your peace-time economy over to supplying the coming war.
Now, all of this activity is likely to be readily apparent to the enemy. Firstly because they pay actual spies whose job it is to report on what's happening, and secondly because, even in a world without mobile phones, word just sort of leaks out.
It's a very Bad Thing when you hear that a country next-door has mobilized. It means that in a few hours they’ll have their troops up against your border and will be ready to start swarming across it. It means, if you’re a small country like Belgium let's say, that you're about to get the stuffing kicked out of you.
The worst thing is, in these circumstances, there is no alternative to mobilizing yourself. And so the process feeds on itself, and even without nations being tied into secret treaties the whole shebang goes up inflames before you can say "Pax Britannica."

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

Friday, 4 July 2014

"French Wine is Rather Good!"

But it wasn't all mud and blood being in the German army. One of the advantages of invading a country like France was the convenient habit the citizens had of preparing vast numbers of bottles of wine and then hiding them in holes in the ground to keep for later.

Unfortunately for the citizens of Northern France and Belgium in 1914, there would be no later. No sooner had the Germans occupied the place than they began serious enquiries as to where the jolly old wine bottles might be hidden. Naturally, they had a mighty thirst and a celebration to get under way.

The French were caught in two minds. Allowing the hated invader to quaff their nation's sacred vignobles struck them as heretical, not to say deeply offensive. On the other hand, it was easier to fight German soldiers who were star-fish drunk or who were suffering from the sort of hangover that only a cheap Artois Cabernet could inflict.

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