Category Archives: Britain

Religion Sparked the Crimean War

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 260-275:

In August 1851 the French formed a joint commission with the Turks to discuss the issue of religious rights. The commission dragged on inconclusively as the Turks carefully weighed up the competing Greek and Latin claims. Before its work could be completed, La Valette proclaimed that the Latin right was ‘clearly established’, meaning that there was no need for the negotiations to go on. He talked of France ‘being justified in a recourse to extreme measures’ to support the Latin right, and boasted of ‘her superior naval forces in the Mediterranean’ as a means of enforcing French interests.

It is doubtful whether La Valette had the approval of Napoleon for such an explicit threat of war. Napoleon was not particularly interested in religion. He was ignorant about the details of the Holy Lands dispute, and basically defensive in the Middle East. But it is possible and perhaps even likely that Napoleon was happy for La Valette to provoke a crisis with Russia. He was keen to explore anything that would come between the three powers (Britain, Russia, Austria) that had isolated France from the Concert of Europe and subjected it to the ‘galling treaties’ of the 1815 settlement following the defeat of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Louis-Napoleon had reasonable grounds for hoping that a new system of alliances might emerge from the dispute in the Holy Lands: Austria was a Catholic country, and might be persuaded to side with France against Orthodox Russia, while Britain had its own imperial interests to defend against the Russians in the Near East. Whatever lay behind it, La Valette’s premeditated act of aggression infuriated the Tsar, who warned the Sultan that any recognition of the Latin claims would violate existing treaties between the Porte and Russia, forcing him to break off diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. This sudden turn of events alerted Britain, which had previously encouraged France to reach a compromise, but now had to prepare for the possibility of war.

The war would not actually begin for another two years, but when it did the conflagration it unleashed was fuelled by the religious passions that had been building over centuries.

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Crimea: The 19th Century’s ‘Great War’

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 47-82:

Two world wars have obscured the huge scale and enormous human cost of the Crimean War. Today it seems to us a relatively minor war …. Even in the countries that took part in it (Russia, Britain, France, Piedmont-Sardinia in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, including those territories that would later make up Romania and Bulgaria) there are not many people today who could say what the Crimean War was all about. But for our ancestors before the First World War the Crimea was the major conflict of the nineteenth century, the most important war of their lifetimes, just as the world wars of the twentieth century are the dominant historical landmarks of our lives. The losses were immense – at least three-quarters of a million soldiers killed in battle or lost through illness and disease, two-thirds of them Russian. The French lost around 100,000 men, the British a small fraction of that number, about 20,000, because they sent far fewer troops (98,000 British soldiers and sailors were involved in the Crimea compared to 310,000 French).

Nobody has counted the civilian casualties: victims of the shelling; people starved to death in besieged towns; populations devastated by disease spread by the armies; entire communities wiped out in the massacres and organized campaigns of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the fighting in the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Crimea. This was the first ‘total war’, a nineteenth-century version of the wars of our own age, involving civilians and humanitarian crises.

It was also the earliest example of a truly modern war – fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine, and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene. Yet at the same time it was the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with ‘parliamentaries’ and truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields. The early battles in the Crimea, on the River Alma and at Balaklava, where the famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place, were not so very different from the sort of fighting that went on during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the siege of Sevastopol, the longest and most crucial phase of the Crimean War, was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare of 1914–18. During the eleven and a half months of the siege, 120 kilometres of trenches were dug by the Russians, the British and the French; 150 million gunshots and 5 million bombs and shells of various calibre were exchanged between the two sides.

The name of the Crimean War does not reflect its global scale and huge significance for Europe, Russia and that area of the world – stretching from the Balkans to Jerusalem, from Constantinople to the Caucasus – that came to be defined by the Eastern Question, the great international problem posed by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps it would be better to adopt the Russian name for the Crimean War, the ‘Eastern War’ (Vostochnaia voina), which at least has the merit of connecting it to the Eastern Question, or even the ‘Turco-Russian War’, the name for it in many Turkish sources, which places it in the longer-term historical context of centuries of warfare between the Russians and the Ottomans, although this omits the crucial factor of Western intervention in the war.

The war began in 1853 between Ottoman and Russian forces in the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the territory of today’s Romania, and spread to the Caucasus, where the Turks and the British encouraged and supported the struggle of the Muslim tribes against Russia, and from there to other areas of the Black Sea. By 1854, with the intervention of the British and the French on Turkey’s side and the Austrians threatening to join this anti-Russian alliance, the Tsar withdrew his forces from the principalities, and the fighting shifted to the Crimea. But there were several other theatres of the war in 1854–5: in the Baltic Sea, where the Royal Navy planned to attack St Petersburg, the Russian capital; on the White Sea, where it bombarded the Solovetsky Monastery in July 1854; and even on the Pacific coastline of Siberia.

The global scale of the fighting was matched by the diversity of people it involved.

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Reactions to Russia Annexing the Crimea, 1783

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 403-410:

The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 1783, was a bitter humiliation for the Turks. It was the first Muslim territory to be lost to Christians by the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier of the Porte reluctantly accepted it. But other politicians at the Sultan’s court saw the loss of the Crimea as a mortal danger to the Ottoman Empire, arguing that the Russians would use it as a military base against Constantinople and Ottoman control of the Balkans, and they pressed for war against Russia. But it was unrealistic for the Turks to fight the Russians on their own, and Turkish hopes of Western intervention were not great: Austria had aligned itself with Russia in anticipation of a future Russian-Austrian partition of the Ottoman Empire; France was too exhausted by its involvement in the American War of Independence to send a fleet to the Black Sea; while the British, deeply wounded by their losses in America, were essentially indifferent (if ‘France means to be quiet about the Turks’, noted Lord Grantham, the Foreign Secretary, ‘why should we meddle? Not time to begin a fresh broil’).

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Singapore POWs in the Solomon Islands

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 5582-5601:

THE BOMBERS’ FIRST destination was Ballale, an island so tiny that its crushed-coral airstrip reached from one side of the island to the other. Officially part of the Shortland group, the arrowhead-shaped isle lay fourteen miles southeast of Moila Point on the tip of Bougainville. The airfield was built by the Imperial Navy’s 18th Construction Battalion, headed by Lt. Cmdr. Noriko Ozaki, between November 1942 and January 1943. Because the Japanese had no bulldozers for such big projects, much of the labor was done by hand. In early December 1942, a shipment of 517 POWs arrived from Rabaul to work on the airfield—and therein lay another dark story of Japanese atrocities.

Known unofficially as the “Gunners 600,” the prisoners sent to Ballale were among the thousands of British soldiers captured after the surrender of Singapore the previous February. Some 50,000 POWs were initially held near Changi Prison, but in mid-October about 600 Royal Artillerymen were sent to New Britain. After three weeks of misery at sea aboard a “hellship,” they arrived at Kokopo on November 6. One prisoner had died en route, and many others were sick with dysentery, beriberi, and malaria. About a week later, 517 men were sent on to Ballale, leaving 82 of the sickest at Kokopo.

From the time of their arrival at Ballale, the British gunners were harshly treated. Ozaki himself was said to have beheaded a prisoner the next day, no doubt to establish his absolute authoritarianism. The POWs, housed in a compound of huts near the southwestern end of the airstrip, received no medical attention and were not allowed to dig or construct air-raid shelters. Korean laborers, Chinese prisoners, and native islanders also worked on the airfield, but they were strictly prohibited from making contact with the white prisoners.

The island’s occupants were all living on borrowed time. On January 15, 1943, a single B-17 from Guadalcanal bombed the airstrip, and within a matter of weeks, aerial attacks became heavier and more frequent. Unknown to the American aircrews, dozens or possibly even hundreds of POWs were killed by friendly bombs. The Japanese permitted the burial of the victims, whereas POWs who died due to illness or neglect were placed in rice sacks and dumped at sea. By the time [Admiral Isoroku] Yamamoto’s party approached Ballale, the tiny island had been hit at least fourteen times—and only a few dozen of the original 517 gunners were still alive.

Whether Yamamoto was aware of the British prisoners at Ballale is unknown. Either way, the gaunt, sickly survivors would probably have been kept out of sight while the commander in chief visited the garrison. There is no point in speculating further, however, because Yamamoto never reached the island.

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British Indian POWs in New Guinea

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6755-6767:

As far back as 10 December 1944, the first two Indian prisoners of war had been found by an Australian patrol. Indians had been brought in by the Japanese to work in labour companies, and these two had walked for forty-five days from Wewak. The advance towards Balif in March gathered up more emaciated Indians: Sandy Pearson released some who had been kept in bamboo cages and were unable to stand. In March 1945, Gavin Long talked to a released Indian who had been captured in Singapore and brought to Wewak with about 500 other POW-slaves. Long wrote, ‘I have never seen a man so thin, he was literally skin and bone.’

The 2/8th Battalion recovered 102 Indian prisoners of the Japanese. Despite their starving condition, they refused bully beef because their Hindu faith proscribed it. One man who had survived a Japanese massacre fifteen days previously had been carried in on a stretcher. He gratefully ate biscuits and then gathered all the fallen crumbs and placed them in his shirt pocket.

By the end of the campaign, 201 Indian prisoners had been rescued by the 6th Division, the only survivors of around 3000 who had been brought to Wewak in May 1943. As Jemadar Chint Singh later wrote, ‘At this hour of our calamity the Division worked as [an] Angel for us.’ The angels kept particularly close to Singh: of the handful of Indian prisoners recovered from Japanese control at the surrender, he was the only one not on board during an aircraft accident in which the rest perished.

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Japan’s South Seas Detachment Crosses the Line, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1125-1147:

Private Akiyoshi Hisaeda, from the Ehime Prefecture of Shikoku, kept a diary as he sailed to Rabaul aboard the transport Venice Maru. He described the conditions as “very cramped and uncomfortable,” and noted that the temperature inside the ship reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Life inside the other transports was equally awful. There was little fresh water, and the crude wooden benjos (latrines) were up on the main deck, which also happened to be where the meals were cooked. Down below, everyone was tormented by hordes of flies.

The Japanese soldiers were no strangers to terrible conditions or harsh environments. Their rigorous training system, based on the principle of instant obedience achieved through strict discipline, had prepared them well. From the moment they began training as recruits, they were immersed in a culture of degradation and abuse, a rude awakening for people who had spent their entire lives learning group harmony. Not only were recruits cursed and shamed in front of their peers, they were also beaten regularly. Sometimes they were hit on the buttocks with wooden sticks, other times they were slapped, usually with an open hand but occasionally with the sole from a hobnailed shoe. Many instructors were sadistic, barely more than thugs, and they had tremendous latitude to punish recruits with methods calculated to break down every vestige of individuality. Frequently the entire class or platoon received the same punishment: If one suffered, all suffered.

One of the cruelest penalties was meted out during evening meals. Picked at random, recruits were ordered to recite by memory from the Gunjin Chokuyu [軍人勅諭 aka 'Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors'], “Emperor Meiji’s Instructions to the Men of the Fighting Services.” First issued in 1883, it exhorted warriors to carry out their duties with loyalty, propriety, valor, faithfulness, and simplicity. The wording was archaic, difficult to memorize, and if anyone made a mistake or forgot a passage, he was forbidden to eat. For recruits already bruised, exhausted, and ravenous from the day’s training, the denial of food was excruciating. After six months or more of such extreme conditioning, the recruits emerged as well-disciplined soldiers, their “bodies and minds tempered hard as steel.” The men of the South Seas Detachment were no different, and could tolerate anything that nature or the Imperial Army could throw at them.

WHEN THE INVASION FORCE REACHED THE EQUATOR AT 0500 ON JANUARY 20, the South Seas Detachment paused to commemorate a special event. In all of Japan’s 2,600-year history, they were the first army force to cross the line. Miyake later described the scene aboard his vessel: “On the day we crossed the equator, all the men, fully armed and equipped, assembled on deck. ‘At this time, when we are about to … advance into the southern hemisphere, we shall pay our respect toward the Imperial Palace,’ said the commander toward his assembled subordinates. Solemnly, and with overflowing emotions, the men presented arms toward the north.”

The South Seas Detachment [南海支隊 Nankai Shitai], under Imperial Japanese Navy command, was mostly drawn from Japan’s 55th Division, which was recruited primarily from Shikoku and played a key role in the Burma Campaign. The 55th Division’s home base and elite POW camp was Zentsūji. The POWs included about 200 Americans captured by the South Seas Detachment on Guam and Wake Island, a few dozen mostly British prisoners from Singapore, and 60 Australian officers from Rabaul. The Zentsūji POW camp was a Potemkin village to impress International Red Cross representatives with Japan’s humane treatment of its captives. Most of the rest of the men captured in the Rabaul Campaign died aboard the hell ship Montevideo Maru en route to Hainan Island, when it was torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, on 1 July 1942. The loss of those 1050+ men was Australia’s single worst military disaster of World War II.

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1918-11-11: End of the Shooting War

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5198-5212:

Behind the lines, the news rarely provoked outright celebration. When the battery commander, Major F. J. Rice, got up that morning and was on his way to the regimental mess for breakfast, one of his men told him that ‘it was all over sir’. Orders had come in that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. ‘All the officers took it very calmly,’ he recalled. After breakfast they managed to get their hands on a bottle of port and shared it with their NCOs. When they saw one of the sergeants walking across the gun park, they shouted out the news. The man merely halted, saluted, and said ‘very good, sir’, before continuing on, seemingly as unconcerned as ever.

The American First-Lieutenant Clair Groover of 313th Infantry Regiment – the junior officer who had survived the assault on Montfaucon – remembered how the quietness that followed the Armistice ‘got to you’. ‘It was so unreal, that it disturbed you emotionally,’ he admitted. ‘Some of the hardest officers wept. It was so unusual that you would walk around without being shot at.’ Within moments he noticed German soldiers getting up out of their positions and moving out into the open. One of them came over and told him, with tears in his eyes, that his brother had been killed the day before and that he would like permission to locate and bury the body. Groover agreed. That night ‘all the troops along the line were treated to the greatest display of fireworks ever set off. Both sides were setting off their entire pyrotechnic supply of rockets, Very candles, red, blue, green, were sparkling in the air. The first few scared you and you would flatten out on the ground, forgetting that it was all over. That night there were camp fires all along the lines.’ That was it; it was over. ‘It was the end of the shooting war.’

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1918: Quick Collapse on All Fronts

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4440-4447, 4754-4770:

For so long the various theatres of war in Europe, Italy and the Middle East had seemed frozen and immobile; stalemated and deadlocked. And then in late autumn, with surprising suddenness, the thaw finally set in. By 30 September, Bulgaria had signed an armistice, which opened up the southern flank of the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary was already on the verge of capitulation, and it took only a limited offensive by the Italian Army in the final week of October – the Battle of Vittorio Veneto – to push it over the edge. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was now entering its final death throes. What remained of the Turkish Army in Palestine had been routed at the Battle of Megiddo in late September, and over the following month General Sir Edmund Allenby’s troops pushed north, mercilessly harassing the retreating Turkish columns. Aleppo fell on 26 October and within days an armistice was signed on the island of Mudros – thus bringing the war in the Middle East to a victorious conclusion.

By the first week of November the German Army was in full retreat across the Western Front. From the air ‘we saw all the roads crowded with columns of men marching back,’ wrote one German pilot. Endless lines of weary troops splashed and shuffled their way eastwards, bowed down with their equipment, looking over their shoulders in fear, half expecting to see Allied aircraft or cavalry squadrons ready to scatter them again. It was an awful sight: the faces of young boys overshadowed by the steel helmets that were too big for them, or hobbling along in boots that had been worn away long ago; old veterans who had seen too many battles marching along with glassy eyes and a grim acceptance of death or wounding. It was by now a motley army; the exact opposite of the legions of proud feldgrau that had marched across Europe in the summer of 1914 on their way to enact Count von Schlieffen’s great war plan. The German Army had reached its end; worn down by four years of merciless slaughter and pounded into dust by the brutal Allied artillery bombardments. Some still believed in victory, in some divine intervention – a catastrophic outbreak of flu in Paris or London; a devastating fallout between the English and Americans perhaps – but most realized there was little they could do. How could they defeat the endless power of the Allied guns or their swarms of tanks? How many Americans would they have to kill before they too gave in? And in any case, was it really worth fighting and dying for any more? Did anyone really care whether Alsace-Lorraine was French or German?

Casualties were nothing short of catastrophic. Fritz von Lossberg estimated that by the time the German Army reached the Antwerp–Meuse Line it had lost over 400,000 men and 6,000 guns. Other authorities put it higher, and it is possible that between 18 July and 11 November the Army suffered 420,000 dead and wounded with another 385,000 men being taken prisoner. Such a magnitude of loss was simply unsustainable, and when this was combined with the thousands of casualties from Germany’s spring offensives earlier in the year – perhaps as high as a million – it meant that her army was bleeding to death.

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1918: Respect for German Gunners

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2481-2488, 4523-4538:

Whatever the Americans thought about the British or the French, they soon acquired a healthy respect for the Germans: for their ability as soldiers; for their ruthlessness; for their professionalism wherever they fought. Within days of reaching the front with his division, Captain Grady saw a German plane fly low over the lines and drop a note addressed to their Commanding Officer. ‘Goodbye 42nd Division,’ it read, ‘hello 77th’. ‘Jerry sure is there with the humour,’ wrote Grady. For Frank Holden, his respect and admiration for the German soldier was summed up in his experience at Boucanville with 82nd Division. It was commonly said that the location of their battalion headquarters was well-known to the Germans, and that they could probably shell it any time they wanted. The divisional staff would joke about the time when three large shells – huge 210mm rounds – landed in a direct line near to the battalion headquarters; two shells behind, one in front. But no matter what the Germans did, they never moved their headquarters, simply because ‘we thought if we did then the Germans would drop a 210 on us just to show us that they knew that we had moved’.

For every group of cowed, shivering soldiers, there were others in the German Army who would not give in; those who were disputing their progress every day, inch by inch: the spine of the German defence, her machine-gunners. These men were both feared and respected. ‘The gunners were brave men,’ wrote T. H. Holmes, a Private with 56th (London) Division, ‘because firing the gun meant revealing the position of it, and up would come a tank and invariably shoot the post to pieces, and then trample it flat. I saw a ghastly mass of crushed heads and limbs tangled up with twisted iron. They said some of these machine-gunners were chained to their weapons.’ Another British soldier, a member of the Machine-Gun Corps, recorded in his memoirs how these men repeatedly occupied the best positions with the most deadly fields of fire, and consequently always proved extremely dangerous. Like many soldiers, he soon became used to the sight of machine-gunners crushed beneath tanks. Although it was not true that these men were chained to their weapons – the strap that the gunners wore was often mistaken for some kind of restraint – their courage was legendary. On one occasion, a Canadian, R. H. Camp, came across a gunner who had fired off all his ammunition. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, but Camp was amazed by what happened next. ‘He stood up in his hole and started taking his gun to pieces and he was throwing the pieces at us, anything he could get a hold of. We knew then of course that he was out of ammunition and we up and rushed him.’ Just as the Canadians were about to get to grips with him, their officer ran up shouting. ‘Don’t stick him boys! Don’t stick him.’ He got out a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and then put it in the German’s pocket. ‘Don’t touch this man, he’s brave.’ He then told the German to make his way back to the rear. The note was a signed declaration of the machine-gunner’s courage and a guarantee that he would not be harmed.

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1918: The Americans

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2489-2509:

At first glance the doughboys looked little different from their British and French associates. They wore a version of the British tin helmet and used the small pattern box respirator. They ate bully beef. They fired French or British weapons, often Lee Enfields, Lewis guns or Chauchats, and threw Mills bombs. They went into action alongside French tanks – Renaults or Schneiders – flew French or British aircraft – Spads or Sopwith Camels – and grew to love the French 75mm field gun, the legendary soixante-quinze. But in other respects the Americans were remarkably different. While both British and French Armies recruited mainly from remarkably cohesive home societies (excepting, of course, their colonial contingents), Pershing’s men were drawn from the full spectrum of US society, and included many recent immigrants from Europe, Russia and Latin America, as well as Native Americans. A considerable number of black Americans also went to France, and although they were not permitted to serve alongside white soldiers and continued to suffer horrific racial prejudice, they did yeoman service on the lines of transport in France, helping to unload equipment and supplies, and doing the menial jobs without which Pershing’s army could not have survived.

The Americans were different in other ways too. They were much richer than their cousins in other armies. They could draw $30 a month, about ten times the pay of a French private, thus gaining the eternal jealousy of the poilus, who looked upon the arrival of the Americans with concern and insecurity. And in another odd, but still tangible way, the Americans differed from their British and French counterparts. They were big; physically big. Numerous commentators at the time noticed the physical presence of the first US soldiers, tall, well-built troops with high morale and an instinctive, almost cocky pride; the kind of soldiers that had not been seen on the Western Front since 1916, when Britain’s New Armies had entered the fray. For their commander, this was the key point. Pershing was confident that American valour – her aggressive frontier spirit – would be the answer to the stalemate in the west. When he had first travelled to France and met British and French commanders, Pershing had quickly come to the conclusion that their methods would never win the war. They were stuck in their ways, he would tell his subordinates, and obsessed with limited, artillery-heavy trench attacks. He wanted his troops to be trained, first and foremost, as individual soldiers and riflemen, able to think for themselves on the battlefield and engage the enemy on their own terms.

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