Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Chilling Legend of What Lived between the Trenches of World War I

'No man's land' is land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties that leave it unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty. The term was originally used to define a contested territory or a dumping ground for refuse between fiefdoms. It is now most commonly associated with the First World War to describe the area of land between two enemy trench systems to which neither side wished to move openly or to seize due to fear of being attacked by the enemy in the process

During the Great War, a frightening legend regarding this 'no man's land' arose out of the real-life horrors that were taking place during this bloody conflict. Like all legends, it has several variants, but at the heart of each of them were sightings, stories and encounters with ghostly scar-faced and fearless deserters banding together from nearly all sides—Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, and Italian, living deep beneath the abandoned trenches and dugouts of no man's land. According to some versions, the deserters scavenged corpses for clothing, food and weapons. And in at least one version, the deserters emerged nightly as ghoulish beasts, to gorge upon the dead and dying, waging savage battles over the decomposing food source.
Historian Paul Fussell called the tale the “finest legend of the war, the most brilliant in literary invention and execution as well as the richest in symbolic suggestion” in his prize-winning 1975 book. Fussell, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who had served as a lieutenant during World War II, knew well the horrors of combat, which he vividly described in his 1989 Wartime.

One of the earliest published versions of the “wild deserters” legend appeared in the 1920 memoir The Squadroon by Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman, a lieutenant colonel in the British cavalry. No other recount of the legend is as sickening as Beaman’s. Written just two years after the war’s end, Beaman's tale begins in early 1918 on the marshes of the Somme in northern France. This is where some of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought and Beaman is convinced that he has witnessed two dozen or so German prisoners of war vanish into the ground. He wants to send a search party into the maze of abandoned trenches but is advised against it because the area “was peopled with wild men, British, French, Australian, German deserters, who lived there underground, like ghouls among the mouldering dead, and who came out at nights to plunder and to kill. In the night, an officer told him, mingled with the snarling of carrion dogs, they often heard inhuman cries and rifle shots coming from that awful wilderness as though the bestial denizens were fighting among themselves.”

In the 1930 novel Behind the Lines by Walter Frederick Morris, who had served in the war as a battalion commander, the protagonist Peter Rawley, a second lieutenant, deserts his Royal Field Artillery unit after killing his company commander. Somewhere on the battlefields of France, Rawley meets up with Alf, another deserter, who leads him underground. “Rawley squeezed through the hole, feet first. He found himself in a low and narrow tunnel, revetted with rotting timbers and half-blocked with falls of earth. . . . The whole place was indescribably dirty and had a musty, earthy, garlicky smell, like the lair of a wild beast. . . . ‘Where do you draw your rations?’ asked Rawley. . . . ‘Scrounge it, [Alf] answered, . . . We live like perishin’ fightin’ cocks sometimes, I give you my word. . . . There’s several of us livin’ round ’ere in these old trenches, mostly working in pairs.”

Another gruesome description of wartime outlaws and deserters came in the 1948 five-volume autobiography Laughter in the Next Room by Sir Osbert Sitwell, a fifth baronet and a captain in the Army (he was also the younger brother of the poet Dame Edith Sitwell). In recalling Armistice Day 1918, Sitwell wrote, “For four long years . . . the sole internationalism—if it existed—had been that of deserters from all the warring nations, French, Italian, German, Austrian, Australian, English, Canadian. Outlawed, these men lived—at least, they lived—in caves and grottoes under certain parts of the front line. Cowardly but desperate as the lazzaroni of the old Kingdom of Naples, or the bands of beggars and coney catchers of Tudor times, recognizing no right, and no rules save of their own making, they would issue forth, it was said, from their secret lairs, after each of the interminable checkmate battles, to rob the dying of their few possessions—treasures such as boots or iron rations—and leave them dead.” Sitwell’s concluding note is equally chilling: British troops believed “that the General Staff could find no way of dealing with these bandits until the war was over, and that in the end they [the deserters] had to be gassed.” 

A more recent literary account comes in 1985 from No Man’s Land by Reginald Hill, author of some 50 novels, many of them police procedurals. The novel begins with Josh Routledge, a British deserter from the Battle of the Somme, and a German soldier-turned-pacifist, Lothar von Seeberg, being chased by mounted military police. Out of almost nowhere, a band of 40 deserters, mostly Australian, attack the military police, and take Josh and Lothar into their dugout. “They were a wild-looking gang, in dirty ragged clothing and with unkempt hair and unshaven faces. They were also very well armed.” In a second instance, these deserters come “swarming out of nowhere, out of the bowels of the earth, that’s how it looked. . . . They was scruffy, dead scruffy. Sort of rugged and wild-looking, more like a bunch of pirates than anything. There was one big brute, nigh on seven foot tall he looked.”

The legend seems to have also taken root in modern journalistic accounts. James Carroll in the International Herald Tribune noted in 2006 how World War I deserters refusing to fight “had organized themselves into a kind of third force—not fighters any more, but mere survivors, at home in the caverns. Dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. Human beings caring for one another, no matter what uniform they were wearing.” According to Carroll’s interpretation, these deserters were like angels, taking care of those who had fallen into the safety of the underground caverns—acting as a sane alternative to the insanity of war.

The 'wild deserters' of no man’s land, whether angels or devils—or even flesh-eating ghosts who emerge only at night—is the stuff of a legend tremendously rich in illustrative value. It reminds us today, a century after it began, of the lunacy, chaos and meaninglessness of all the horrors of war.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Book Review: Stalin's American Spy: Noel Field, Allen Dulles and the East European Show-trials

By Tony Sharp

Stalin's American Spy tells the remarkable story of Noel Field, a Soviet agent in the US State Department in the mid-1930s. Lured to Prague in May 1949, he was kidnapped and handed over to the Hungarian secret police. Tortured by them and interrogated too by their Soviet superiors, Field's forced 'confessions' were manipulated by Stalin and his East European satraps to launch a devastating series of show-trials that led to the imprisonment and judicial murder of numerous Czechoslovak, German, Polish and Hungarian party members.

RRP: £25.00
Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
Publication Date: 6 Jun 2014
ISBN: 978-1849043441
Buy This Book

Yet there were other events in his very strange career that could give rise to the suspicion that Field was an American spy who had infiltrated the Communist movement at the behest of Allen Dulles, the wartime OSS chief in Switzerland who later headed the CIA.

Field was ideally suited to the Communists' show trials; he had known and assisted many highly placed officials, including resistance fighters and members of the Spanish International Brigades with whom he had maintained contact after the war. In addition, he had had contact with Allen Dulles which allowed the Communists to construct a scenario of cooperation with the U.S. directed against the Soviet bloc. It could even be argued that Field had turned his friends into a spy network penetrating Central Europe. Moscow could thus counteract the ongoing uncovering of its own network in the U.S. with the bogus uncovering of an extensive network of American spies headed by the same Field whom the U.S. had charged with being a Soviet agent.

Never tried, Field and his wife were imprisoned in Budapest until 1954, then granted political asylum in Hungary, where they lived out their last years. Noel Field remained a staunch communist; his final testament, written in Budapest and published in an American political journal, was entitled "Hitching Our Wagon to a Star". In 1956, just out of prison, he had published an angry defence of the Russian counterrevolutionary brutality in Hungary. Noel Field died in 1970.

This new biography takes a fresh look at Field's relationship with Dulles, and his role in the Alger Hiss affair. It sheds fresh light upon Soviet espionage in the United States and Field's relationship with Hede Massing, Ignace Reiss and Walter Krivitsky. It also reassesses how the increasingly anti-Semitic East European show-trials were staged and dissects the 'lessons' which Stalin sought to convey through them.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book Review: A Tommy in the Family, First World War Family History and Research

By Keith Gregson

Keith Gregson taught history for over thirty years and now works as a full-time family history writer and author. A regular contributor to Ancestors, Family Tree Magazine, Family History Monthly, and Your Family Tree, he is the author of Sporting Ancestors, Tracing your Northern Ancestors, A Viking in the Family and now A Tommy in the Family.

RRP: £12.99
Publisher: The History Press
Publication Date: 3 Feb 2014
ISBN: 978-0752493367

The First World War was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, the first instance of modern total war and one of the most far-reaching. As a result, almost all of us have an ancestor family who was involved in or effected by the Great War. In A Tommy in the Family, Gregson explores some of the human stories behind the history of the war, from the heart-warming to the tear-jerking.
He encounters the mystery of the disappearance of the Norfolks; the story of a French girl’s note in a soldier’s pocket book; and the tragic tale of a group of morris dancers who paid the ultimate price while serving their country. The investigations that preceded each discovery are explored in detail, offering an insight into how the researcher found and followed up their leads. They reveal a range of chance findings, some meticulous analysis and the keen detective qualities required of a family historian.

Full of handy research tips and useful background information, A Tommy in the Family will fascinate anyone with an interest in the First World War and help them to find out more about their ancestors who participated in one of the most troubled conflicts in the history of mankind.
When held up with its contemporaries, Gregsons contribution to this extensive published field is a refreshingly detailed introduction to the social history of the Great War, giving an accessible and attractively illustrated insight into what will be for the next few years, the most significant and talked about period of human history. It will be of interest to the general reader and especially local history historians of Norfolk.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Book Review: One Summer: America 1927

By Bill Bryson

We all have visions of America in the 1920s; flappers, Al Capone, prohibition. They were a time of opportunity, wealth and optimism, coming before the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. They were also a period of innovation in technology, shocking political views and striking sporting achievements. It is simply one period of 3-4 months, the Summer of 1927, which are the focus of Bill Bryson’s charming book.

RRP: £20.00
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date:  2013
ISBN: 978-0385608282

Bryson brings us the more famous events from this period, most notably, as shown on the alluring art deco cover (I always enjoy a good book jacket), the flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis. This story is fascinating not so much for the story of Lindbergh himself, who frankly appears to have been a fairly morose and shy character, totally unprepared for the universal fame and adulation which awaited him post-flight; instead, it is the story of all the other amateur and professional aviators, investors and enthusiasts around the world as well as in America, who were competing for the Orteig Prize, as Lindbergh was. Bryson introduces a catalogue of unfortunate accidents, excessive egos and a surprising number of men and women who set off on a flight across an ocean, never to be heard of again. It is these stories, which give a context to the more famous Lindbergh tale, which are the most compelling.

Other events which Bryson covers are numerous and diverse; the great 1927 baseball season of Babe Ruth, who hit more home runs than any other player in history; the beginning of the end for Al Capone; the introduction of the talking pictures into American Cinema; the possible mistrial of 2 Italian Fascists, and the ongoing problems with the social experiment which was Prohibition. 

As one has come to expect from this new brand of Bryson book, there are funny elements balanced with more thoughtful moments. One cannot read about the flirtation with eugenics which occurred in America’s academic and conservative circles, and their legal achievements in sterilising those they considered too imbecilic to be allowed to breed, without a sense of horror and sadness. Equally, the knowledge that the American government deliberately poisoned some of its citizens by denaturing industrial alcohol – which was then misappropriated to make bootleg drinks – with poisons such as strychnine, as a ‘moral lesson’, is difficult to swallow.

Bryson incorporates all his story elements into a flowing narrative, ostensibly in chapters covering different months, but actually with a broader sense of time. He provides context which allows the reader to understand where the characters have come from, and where they are going into the years beyond the book’s focus.

Bryson’s book is thoughtful, entertaining and broad without ever feeling scattered. Babe Ruth was once described by a team mate as ‘a constant source of joy’; Bryson’s book deserves no less a tagline.

By Guest Reviewer: Martha Stoneham 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945

By Richard Overy

Richard  Overy is a British historian who has published extensively on the history of World War II and the Third Reich, in particular he has been writing about aerial warfare during World War II for well over 30 years,. His initial work, The Air War, published in 1980, was advertised as the first general history of aerial conflict from 1939 to 1945 to appear in English. Now a professor at the University of Exeter, in his current book, Overy aims to create the first narrative history covering the full aerial assault launched by all Allied powers against targets across the continent of Europe, including occupied countries and Axis satellites. Rather than relying on the official histories, Overy has gone back to the original documents – in Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy and France – many of which were not available when the official histories were written. And rather than concentrate on Germany or Britain, he looks at attitudes towards bombing throughout Europe.

RRP: £19.99
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: Feb 2014
ISBN: 978-0670025152
Buy This Book

His fresh approach is apparent right from the opening. He starts the book not with Germany or Britain or even Poland, but with the bombing of Bulgaria. His message is clear: bombing was not solely a German phenomenon, it was a fact of life for almost every country on the Continent. Nearly a third of the bombs that the Allied air forces dropped on Europe fell not on Germany but on countries they were supposed to be liberating. Furthermore the author repeatedly and critically calls into question the value of all such large-scale bombing. When conducted in support of an army, it can often cause more harm than good: the devastation of Caen or the Nazi bombing of Stalingrad, for example, the latter creating the perfect environment for urban guerrilla warfare.

'The Bombers and the Bombed' is both refreshing and litigious in its lambasting of the common mythology of the famous bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Overy argues the economic effects of bombing were hugely exaggerated on all sides: German production was dented but not destroyed, largely due to the relocation and dispersal of arms factories to safer areas.
He goes on to point out that bombing was surprisingly inefficient, poor visibility, the sudden deterioration of weather conditions, malfunctioning equipment, outdated and slow-moving aircraft, pilot inexperience or crew exhaustion, and enemy action varying from anti-aircraft batteries to night-fighters or the jamming of navigation beams, all reduced the effectiveness of the bomber fleets. Aircraft regularly crashed, ran out of fuel or suffered engine failure with astonishing frequency. In its raids on Britain from January to June 1941, for example, 216 German bombers were lost and 190 damaged; 282 of these were as a result of flying accidents!

Moreover, bombing was appallingly inaccurate. Bombers had to fly high to avoid anti-aircraft fire from the ground, so even if the weather was clear, they were often unable to locate their targets effectively. In 1944, during the controversial bomb attacks on the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino, used by the Germans as a military and communication base, the headquarters of general Oliver Leese, three miles from the abbey, was destroyed, as was the French corps headquarters 12 miles away.

His bibliography provide an excellent source for readers who want to pursue further the many facets of the complex air offensives that Overy covers. Ultimately, this book offers much for both novices and experts to contemplate. I seriously hope that in the wake of this outstanding re-evaluation of a topic, that appears overanalysed on the surface, forces historians to revise many of their long-accepted facts and figures when approaching this subject.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Why is Russia Obsessed with the Crimea?

Pro-Kremlin activists rally to celebrate the incorporation of Crimea into Russia
 Its secession from Ukraine after the recent 'referendum' and subsequent de facto annexation by Russian President Vladimir Putin drew the indignation of most of the civilised world, but we have been here before. Putin is simply the latest proponent of a Russian obsession with the Crimea that can be traced back centuries and lies at the heart of current events.

The Crimean Khanate, a vassal from 1441, of the Ottoman Empire, was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783. Following its incorporation into the Russian Empire, the Crimea became the "heart of Russian Romanticism".

The first Russian ruler to convert to Christianity did so more than a thousand years ago with the aid of a Byzantine Orthodox priest in the former Greek colony of Khersonesos, near the modern Crimean port of Sevastopol. In a speech delivered earlier this year to justify the current incursion, Putin reached back and invoked this narrative. “Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride, this is the location of ancient [Khersonesos], where Prince Vladimir was baptized in [988 AD]. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values” of all Russians.

Putin is not the first Russian leader to hold up the Crimea, for centuries home to a myriad of innumerable inhabitants, as a sacred site of Russian Orthodox culture. When Tsarina Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula in 1783, she proclaimed it an eternal part of Russia. Her imperial courtiers then adopted the Greek name for Crimea -Taurica - instead of the Turkic Krim (or Crimea) used by the region’s native Muslim Tatars. Russian pre-eminence over the Black Sea, as far as Catherine was concerned, could restore the glory of the fallen Byzantine Empire, lost to the Muslim Ottomans.

With its Black Sea fleet based in Sevastopol, Tsar Nicholas I knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the region – a hugely symbolic feat considering Russia's tricky relationship with its Muslim population and its centuries in need of a fleet with access to the Mediterranean. But Nicholas' superciliousness in the Crimea in part led to the Crimean war with Britain and France, whose leaders attempts to stop Russia's expanding borders and to slow its influence in the Middle East  saw somewhere between half a million to a million people die and led to more myth-making. The Russians endured a grinding, year-long siege at Sevastopol that, despite their heroics, resulted in the eventual Russian surrender; nearly a century later, Sevastopol’s Soviet defenders were almost wiped out in a doomed bid to repel the encircling Nazis.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told Russian media that the annexation of Crimea, which after decades of resettlement and the slaughter and forced exile of many Tatars had become majority Russian, would redress a Soviet-era “mistake” of attaching the peninsula politically to the Ukrainian republic. Putin subsequently lamented how the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. transformed tens of millions of Russians into minorities living in new states to which they didn’t necessarily want to belong. Russia felt that she had not just been robbed, but plundered. Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up in another, transformed overnight into minorities within the former Soviet republics and the Russian nation became the biggest, partitioned nation in the world.

History haunts arguments about what Putin thinks, how much further he might go, and what should be done. Some commentators focus on how Putin sees himself in history, while others, like me, draw historical analogies. But no matter what parallel people choose to explain Putin’s power play in the Crimea, the region will probably continue to change hands as it has done for the last thousand years.


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