Category Archives: Britain

Hitler’s Role at Dunkirk

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1052-72, 1226-39:

Up until now victory had tumbled upon victory in breathless profusion. Now was time for defeat. Hitler suffered his first at Dunkirk. And what better authority for this statement than von Rundstedt himself.

“To me,” remarked the Field Marshal rather ruefully, “Dunkirk was one of the great turning-points of the war. If I had had my way the English would not have got off so lightly at Dunkirk. But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself. While the English were clambering into the ships off the beaches, I was kept useless outside the port unable to move. I recommended to the Supreme Command that my five panzer divisions be immediately sent into the town and thereby completely destroy the retreating English. But l received definite orders from the Fuhrer that under no circumstances was I to attack, and l was expressly forbidden to send any of my troops closer than ten kilometres from Dunkirk. The only weapons I was permitted to use against the English were my medium guns. At this distance I sat outside the town, watching the English escape, while my tanks and infantry were prohibited from moving.

“This incredible blunder was due to Hitler’s personal idea of generalship. The Fuhrer daily received statements of tank losses incurred during the campaign, and by a simple process of arithmetic he deduced that there was not sufficient armor available at this time to attack the English. He did not realize that many of the tanks reported out of action one day could, with a little extra effort on the part of the repair squads, be able to fight in a very short time. The second reason for Hitler’s decision was the fact that on the map available to him at Berlin the ground surrounding the port appeared to be flooded and unsuitable for tank warfare. With a shortage of armor and the difficult country. Hitler decided that the cost of an attack would be too high, when the French armies to the south had not yet been destroyed. He therefore ordered that my forces be reserved so that they could be strong enough to take part in the southern drive against the French, designed to capture Paris and destroy all French resistance.”

Hitler’s successes as a strategist were now beginning to bear their blighted fruit. Despite the assurance of a man like von Rundstedt that he was capable of carrying on against the English at Dunkirk, his opinion was tossed aside by the Fuhrer in favor of his own judgment and intuition. Thus a little man studying a map hundreds of miles away from the battle, by rejecting the advice of his most brilliant commander, changed the course of history. The ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ seems even more fore-ordained than it ever appeared before.

“Hitler’s order preventing us from attacking the English at Dunkirk convinced many of us that the Fuhrer believed the English would come to terms,” said Blumentritt, “I have spoken to some Luftwaffe officers and they also say that Hitler forbade them from conducting an all-out aerial attack against the shipping at Dunkirk. This attitude of the Fuhrer’s was made clear to me at a round-table conference he had with a small group of officers following the break-through into France. It was at Charleville when Hitler came to visit Army Group headquarters. He was in an expansive mood and discussed with us his political ideas of the moment. He told us that he was exceptionally pleased with the way the offensive was going, and that everything had worked out beyond his wildest expectations. Once France was defeated there was only England left.

“Hitler then explained that in his opinion there were two fundamental established institutions which, for the time being, must be recognized as essential cornerstones in the framework of Western civilization — the Catholic Church and the British Empire. The power and strength of these two forces must be accepted as faits accomplis, and Germany must see that, for the moment, they be maintained. To achieve this purpose he proposed to make peace with England as soon as possible. Hitler was willing to grant England most generous terms, and he would even desist from pressing his claims for German colonies. Of course, England’s armed forces would have to be disbanded or seriously decreased in size. But in return for such a concession, Hitler was prepared to station as many as ten German divisions in England to aid the British government in maintaining the security of the United Kingdom. Having heard these theories of the Fuhrer, we can hardly be blamed for believing that the invasion of England was never contemplated as a serious operation.”

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Decline of British Shipping

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4318-37:

In the twentieth century, just as the Royal Navy came no longer to rule the waves, the British merchant fleet began to fall sharply as a percentage of the world total. The port of Singapore would see far fewer British-flagged ships. Some of the commercial decline lay beyond British control. But British shipyards were slow to innovate, short on investment, and did not try to improve the skills and efficiency of their workers or their management. Labor relations were poor and class prejudices aggravated them.

When Lee Kuan Yew visited a British shipyard and compared it with one he had seen in Japan, he commented that Japanese executives had firsthand familiarity with the factory floor whereas British executives seemed to confine themselves to their carpeted offices. In contrast, Japanese management and workers dressed in the same hardhat and rubber boots and customarily ate the same plain food together in the same canteen. They were all “gray collar workers,” as Lee puts it. But in Britain, class lines were clear. At noon Lee’s British host, elegant in his bespoke suit, whisked him off in a gleaming Rolls Royce to lunch at a hotel far removed in every way from the yard.

British yards were known for late deliveries, and management paid insufficient attention to the market. Attitudes certainly tell us something. Sir John Mallabar, chairman of Harland & Wolff, the great Belfast shipbuilder, explained that he did not need market research. “If you get an explosion in population, you must get an explosion in world trade. This is all I need to know.”

The triumphs of the past had nurtured a sense of superiority that in a new climate caused British maritime interests to suffer. As one observer put it, “Complacency is an all-pervading legacy of Victorian Britain and affected most industries which reached positions of strength and importance in that period.” With the amalgamation of shipping lines and disappearance of the old family firms, the business became more abstract. The ship owners shifted their eyes from the ship to the office, from the deck to the ledger. And as British maritime industry declined, those leading it, instead of looking for ways to improve, tended to blame others.

I was surprised to read that “the last ship to unload cargo in London did so in late October 1981” (p. 260).

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Chinese Overseas Labor Recuitment, 1800s

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2328-68:

During the nineteenth century, in seaports along the China coast, … it was not a good idea for a Chinese man then to walk alone along the waterfront, especially after dark. “To be Shanghaied” entered the English language to signify the kidnapping that occurred, not for service at sea—unless it were pirates desperate for additional crew—but for labor ashore. A ship would simply be the vehicle bearing the victim to his new life. He would be headed for some overseas destination, sometimes Singapore, as a contract laborer, and a virtual slave in many cases.

Customarily brokers would not resort to kidnapping. Instead they would advance a variety of approaches to their quarry: cajolery and threats. Crimps would receive a bounty for every victim delivered to a holding pen, the so-called barracoon, a word taken directly from the African slave trade. The Chinese shipped all the way across the Pacific received treatment as bad as Africans in the Atlantic Middle Passage. Many would die at sea….

In the barracoon, the man would be given a cursory physical examination and if passed, which was highly likely, he would be handed a contract to sign specifying the number of years he must work and the amount of pay he would receive. A governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, saw this process for himself: “hundreds of them gathered together in barracoons, stripped naked, and stamped or painted with the letter C (Cuba), P (Peru), or S (Sandwich Islands–Hawai’i) on their breasts .” They would be held there until a ship was ready for them. Some did escape from the barracoon, Bowring said, “by going through an opening in the water closet into the mud and water of the river,” which might mean survival—for those who could swim.

Driven by poverty, many Chinese also left the mother country voluntarily. The 1849 gold rush in California encouraged those looking for a new life promising prosperity. The mines and plantations of Southeast Asia beckoned others. Treatment of those bound for Singapore was marginally better than those heading for forced labor elsewhere. Their numbers were heavily male; the few females who came, often kidnapped or deceived, were mostly prostitutes whose services an all-male society craved.

From the China coast the seaborne flow of emigrants to Southeast Asia lay in Chinese hands. The official Qing attitude toward this human traffic, free or forced, was analogous to its attitude toward the opium trade. Many in authority deplored it; but no one took consistent action to stop it. Too many local officials found such activities personally profitable.

Those who went to mine tin in Malaya, tough as it was, were more fortunate than those taken across the Pacific, either to shovel acrid bird dung, guano, prized as fertilizer, in a treeless environment on a desolate island off the coast of Peru with hot sun beating down all day, or to equally disagreeable toil on sugar plantations in Cuba. The tin miners in Malaya were often able to complete a work contract and then find something better to do.

For them, Singapore served as a gathering spot, a free port for people as well as objects. Unlike so many other countries, Singapore welcomed immigrant Chinese, most of whom came as contract laborers who passed through the city to work in the nearby staple industries that were crying for labor. Those who stayed and failed to climb the economic ladder pulled the rickshaws, or carried sacks of rice on the docks, working a long day in the tropical heat. Immigrants were overwhelmingly male until the twentieth century. When females began to come in number after 1918 and the Great War, family life could begin, transforming the immigrant community.

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German East Africa Import Substitutions

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3843-3870:

The British blockade of German East Africa—challenged briefly by Königsberg before she hightailed it up the Rufiji—was nearly a complete success. Shortages of basic necessities made themselves painfully felt everywhere. The colonists soon lacked adequate supplies of soap, toothpaste, candles, fuel, beer, booze, rubber, cloth, chocolate, castor oil, and, most important, quinine, without which life in the tropics became impossible for Europeans. One or two blockade runners reached the Swahili Coast after many ha[r]dships—notably the Krönborg-Rubens and the Marie von Stettin—but these were heroic exceptions. The aim of any blockade—complete starvation of the enemy—seemed within reach of the British Royal Navy for the first few months of 1915.

Then, with the begrudging help of Governor Schnee, still stewing away at Morogoro, von Lettow organized the colony to produce some of the most needed items. German East Africa, rich in natural resources, mostly lacked the necessary infrastructure—factories, refineries, laboratories, warehouses—to turn these resources into commercial goods. But presently, the colonists took it upon themselves to manufacture a variety of products for both civilians and Schutztruppe—now reaching its peak popularity as patriotic enthusiasm, fueled by the victory at Tanga, swept the colony.

Planters’ wives revived the neglected art of spinning using native cotton; African women, given scratch-built looms, wove bolts of cloth. Between them, they more than made up for the lack of imported fabric. Leather torn from the backs of native buffalo herds and tanned using chemicals extracted from the colony’s plentiful mangrove trees got cobbled into the boots so critical for the Schutztruppe—soon to march unimaginable distances over rough landscapes, much of which could not be traversed barefoot. Candles materialized from tallow; rubber from tapped trees: carefully dripped along rope, the raw, milky stuff was then hand-kneaded into tires for GEA’s few automobiles, including von Lettow’s staff car. A kind of primitive, homemade gasoline called trebol powered these vehicles—it was a by-product of distillates of copra, which also yielded benzene and paraffin. Soap came from a combination of animal fat and coconut oil. Planters and small businessmen eventually produced 10,000 pounds of chocolate and cocoa and 3,000 bottles of castor oil. Meanwhile, new factories sprang up in Dar es Salaam to make nails and other metal goods, including some ammunition. Rope woven from pineapple fiber proved both durable and less susceptible to rot than hempen rope from Germany; cigars and cigarettes rolled from native-grown tobacco made their way into every soldier’s kit. At Morogoro and elsewhere, home brewers distilled schnapps and moonshine. The latter, at 98 proof and optimistically labeled “whiskey,” was issued to the troops as part of their basic rations.

All this ingenuity, however, would be rendered useless without quinine. Before the war, the colony had gotten its supply from distributors in the Dutch East Indies, now cut off by the blockade. Dwindling supplies meant European populations of the colony would have no defense against their greatest enemy—not the British or rebellious natives but the malaria-bearing anopheles mosquito. At von Lettow’s urging, the famous biological research center at Amani turned its chemists to developing a quinine substitute in their laboratories. The chemists researched furiously, tried formulations of this and that, and at last came up with an effective type of liquid quinine distilled from cinchona bark. Called “von Lettow schnapps” by his men, this foul-tasting, much-reviled elixir nevertheless met most of the army’s needs for the next year or so.

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Monitor-class Gunboats in WWI

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4586-4635:

In 1913, the Brazilian Navy, eager to dominate the upper reaches of the Amazon, had ordered three curious, old-fashioned gunboats from the Scottish shipyards at Barrow-in-Furness. These vessels, called monitors because of their resemblance to the original ironclad warship (that “cheesebox on a raft,” the USS Monitor of the American Civil War), were little more than floating gun platforms. An unusually shallow draft of about six feet allowed the monitors to work close inshore and navigate rivers impassible to deeper-hulled warships. Their heavy armaments—two 6-inch and two 4.7-inch guns—made them formidable opponents. Indeed, these guns were as large as anything carried aboard German battle cruisers like Königsberg.

The monitors, 256 feet long and 1,256 tons unloaded, sported a single prominent funnel and an 80-foot central mainmast. Projected top speed of a painfully slow twelve knots proved much slower in practice. Each carried a minimal coal supply and so could not manage long voyages, which was just as well: Waves crashed over their narrow freeboard at stem and stern; with a direct wind from either port or starboard they wallowed and threatened to swamp—all obvious liabilities for any oceangoing vessel. But for river wars, they were just the thing.

Brazilian Navy officials eagerly awaited delivery of their new warships. They had already been christened Solomos, Madeira, and Javery and were undergoing acceptance trials when war broke out in August 1914. An ocean voyage being impossible under their own steam, the monitors would soon be towed across the Atlantic to the Amazon by oceangoing tugs. Suddenly, the Admiralty stepped in and confiscated the three ungainly vessels; their use was immediately required for Great Britain’s war against Germany and the Central Powers. The Brazilians’ reaction to this seizure must have been utter dismay: They had spent freely on lavish interior fittings and other cosmetic niceties. Indeed, the Brazilian monitors were perhaps the most luxurious naval vessels anywhere in the world.

When British officials came aboard for an inspection tour, they looked around aghast: Behind the monitors’ steel bulkheads, painted a jaunty Coast Guard white, the interiors resembled a posh gentleman’s club—or a high-class bordello: Captain’s cabin and officers’ quarters, ready room and gun room were done up in glossy oak paneling agleam with brass touches. Persian carpets decorated the decks. Blue linen tablecloths flecked with white embroidered anchors, monogrammed china, and chairs with interchangeable seats (wicker for hot weather, velvet for cold) had been specially made for the officers’ mess. Chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The British Navy inspectors allowed themselves a moment of envious awe, then took to the interior with crowbars and sledgehammers. The monitors’ gleaming white hulls—calculated to dazzle any Amazonian Indian approaching in a canoe—were immediately covered in wartime gray; any remaining brass fittings ended up a tarry black. All the luxurious accoutrements—carpets, tablecloths, interchangeable chairs—ripped out and discarded, ended up in a heap on the docks. Renamed Humber, Severn, and Mersey, the squat little ships were made ready for war.

Now dubbed the “Inshore Flotilla and Squadron,” they engaged in early action along the Belgian coast in 1914 and 1915 and played an appreciable part in the “Race to the Sea” campaign of the first weeks of the war: As trenches were dug in a frantic burst all the way across Flanders to the English Channel, the monitors lying just offshore supported the action on land with their big guns. Coming under fire from German field artillery, they sustained damage and casualties, but played their role well. Churchill credited them with preventing the fall of Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne and saving what was left of the Belgian Army….

Flotilla officers, an odd mix of merchant marine and naval reservists, suited their curious ships. Most, getting on in years, had already pursued a variety of nonmilitary careers—including the stage and the teaching of German to high school students —before being recalled to service in August. Captain E. J. A. Fullerton, first of Mersey, then Severn, the flotilla’s commander, had been a gym instructor at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, and had served aboard King Edward VII’s yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert, in the last days of the Belle Epoque. When promoted to captain in January 1915, he provided a pint of beer to every sailor in the flotilla for a toast to his health.

Following action in Belgian waters, the Admiralty ordered the monitors to the Dardanelles to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. There, along with several of the most obsolete vessels in the British Navy, they were to help force the straits—the goal of the campaign being the capture of Constantinople from the Turks by naval action alone. Made as seaworthy as possible, with topmast stowed and hatches battened, the monitors wallowed down the European coasts and through the Straits of Gibraltar in heavy seas, towed by their tugs at the punishingly slow speed of six knots. They arrived at Malta in March, next stop Turkey. All officers and men of the Inshore Flotilla and Squadron had been sent ahead as passengers aboard the HMS Trent.

But by this time, the Turks under the famous Mustapha Kemal—later Ataturk—with German help had sunk three British battleships off the Dardanelles and disabled three more. British Admiral John de Robeck, in charge of naval operations, abruptly called off his battered fleet, in favor of an amphibious invasion force. Now, suddenly, the monitors had become redundant. They languished in the fortified harbor at Valetta for weeks—until Admiral King-Hall, from his watch on the far-off Rufiji Station, got wind of their presence in the Mediterranean. These clumsy, powerfully armed, shallow-draft vessels might have been made expressly for his ongoing battle against Königsberg.

After some wrangling with the Admiralty, King-Hall secured the use of Mersey and Severn and their officers and crews, though not Humber. The pair of monitors, again fixed to their oceangoing tugs via steel cables, began another long journey—this time 5,000 miles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and to the clotted, crocodile-infested channels of the Rufiji Delta.

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Fall of German South West Africa

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 334-359:

German South West Africa—modern-day Namibia—while not Germany’s largest African colony and arguably its least beautiful, was nonetheless the most populous, prized, and dearly won. GSWA’s flat brown, wide-open spaces were well suited to cattle ranching. About 12,000 German colonizers lived a kind of Texas life on isolated ranches, in cow towns and small cities with names like Swakopmund, Grootfontein, and Windhoek, the colonial capital, which boasted substantial half-timbered German-style buildings, beer halls, modern sanitation, electric lights. Windhoek’s powerful Telefunken wireless transmitter facility, which enabled High Command in Berlin to communicate with their commerce raiders and U-boats at sea, was the main British strategic objective in the war in GSWA.

“Coming out of the desert, Windhoek was a revelation, and a great tribute to German colonization,” commented Major Trew, when Windhoek was taken. “The government buildings are most ornate and would have done credit to any city in the world.” The town itself was dominated by an absurd replica of a traditional German castle.

Victorious British Imperial troops also found comfort in the arms of the lonely German women of Windhoek—after the manner of conquering armies from time immemorial. A charming, susslich Viennese beauty known only as Regina ran a private club for officers of the German General Staff that now, suddenly, catered to their British counterparts: Regina remained a German patriot, she insisted—never mind the fortunes of war that at the moment dictated otherwise. And she invited a bevy of similarly patriotic friends for evening dances with British officers to the music of a gramophone. They tangoed, they waltzed. Whatever else they did remains unmentioned. In exchange, Regina and her friends enjoyed the dubious benefits of British military rations and polished off their regimental champagne reserves.

After the fall of Windhoek, the rest of German South West Africa quickly succumbed to a fast-moving campaign described by the Cambridge Military History of World War One as “one of the neatest and most successful . . . of the Great War.” The Germans experienced GSWA’s loss as a painful diminishment of national pride: First because, as historian Edward Paice puts it in his monumental study, World War I: The African Front, “Africa mattered to the European powers at the beginning of the twentieth century.” And second, the British victory rendered worthless the colony’s vicious and hard-won pacification by German forces less than a decade earlier. The high cost of that pacification had been spiritual as well as physical: General Lothar von Trotha’s merciless suppression of the native Hereros would be labeled genocide by later generations—the first such charge laid at the feet of the German people in the bloody century just dawning.

Abandoned German settlements, half buried in sand, their thick plaster and brick walls pockmarked with bullet holes, can be seen in Namibia to this day, bizarrely preserved by the super-arid climate. At Riet and Pforte, Jakkalswater and Trekhopf, rust-free relics of the battles of more than 100 years ago still lie strewn across the brittle surface of the desert.

The German defeat in GSWA in 1915 had followed hard on the heels of lesser but equally painful disasters in German Togoland and the Cameroons.

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Rapid Fall of Germany’s Overseas Empire

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 365-394:

Today, a bronze historical marker in Belgium memorializes the first British shot of World War One and the first death in battle involving British troops. According to this marker, the opening round of uncountable millions was fired by Corporal Ernest Thomas of C Squadron, 4th Royal Irish Dragoons on August 22, 1914, in a cavalry action near the town of Casteau, Belgium. The first combatant killed, a German uhlan (mounted infantryman), is credited to Captain Charles B. Hornby in that same action. Captain Hornby pierced the unfortunate uhlan’s heart by saber thrust—an ironically old-fashioned death (on horseback, with a sword) in what was to become a decidedly modern war (mechanized, faceless), its human toll exceeding 14,000,000. But the markers’ assertions do not stand historical scrutiny; their authors disregard earlier campaigns in far-off Africa.

The first British shot of the war actually occurred on August 5, fired off by Regimental Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi, a black African soldier serving with British Imperial forces a few miles north of Lomé, in German Togoland. The first recorded British death in battle, one Lieutenant G. M. Thompson of the Gold Coast Regiment, took place sometime over the night of August 21–22, also in Togoland: Lieutenant Thompson, given command of a company of Senegalese Tirailleurs, fought it out with German askaris in a confused action in the thick bush on the banks of the river Chra. His comrades found him in the morning, lying dead and covered with insects in the midst of his slaughtered command. They buried them that way; the Senegalese arranged around Lieutenant Thompson’s grave like a loyal pack of hounds around the tomb of a Paleolithic chief.

After less than a year of war, the German Overseas Empire—one of the main catalysts for the war in the first place—seemed nearly at an end.

In China, on the other side of the globe, the small German garrison holding the Kiao-Chow Concession found itself besieged by a Japanese Army 23,000 strong, supported by a small contingent of the 2nd Battalion of South Wales Borderers. The Concession—a 400-square-mile territory centered in the fortified port city of Tsingtao on the Yellow Sea—had been ceded to Germany in 1897 as compensation for the murder of two German Catholic priests by anti-Christian Chinese mobs. Tsingtao’s commandant, Kapitän zur See Meyer-Waldeck, held out against the siege behind the city’s thick walls for two months, under continual bombardment from land and sea as Japanese Infantry assault trenches pushed relentlessly forward. Realizing the pointlessness of further struggle against the combined might of the Japanese Army and Navy, Meyer-Waldeck surrendered his garrison of 3,000 German marines and sundry volunteers at last on November 16, 1914. It came as a surprise to him that the Japanese and the British were fighting together against Germany—they had signed a secret mutual defense treaty in 1902, only now bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, Australian, New Zealand, and Japanese forces easily captured German possessions in the South Pacific. These included the Bismarck Archipelago, the Caroline Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, Palau, New Caledonia, and Samoa—where the Kaiser’s barefoot native soldiers sported fetching red sarongs beneath their formal German military tunics—and Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, now the northeastern part of Papua New Guinea. Here one intrepid German officer, a certain Hauptmann Herman Detzner, who had been off exploring the unknown interior with a contingent of native police, refused to surrender and remained on the loose in the wilderness for the duration of the war. He turned himself in to the occupying Australians on January 5, 1919, wearing his carefully preserved and outdated Imperial German uniform—a kind of German Rip van Winkle who had been asleep in the jungle while the world changed irrevocably around him. By July 1915, of Germany’s prewar colonial possessions, only German East Africa remained.

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