Tag Archives: 1900s

Removing your enemies 2: Presidents, Popes and Protesters

McKinleyAssassination

A drawing of the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.  (Author: T. Dart Walker; Source: here)

 

Removing your enemies 2: Presidents, Popes and Protesters

Following on from an early post about assassinations, here are five more, although that of Steve Biko was not necessarily planned as such and those on Pope John Paul II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were important but failed attempts. We will start with the death of William McKinley who is one of the four US Presidents who have been assassinated while in office. When you think that two others have been wounded in assassination efforts and there have been numerous credible plots identified against another twelve, you realise why there are so many security guards around the White House. And the job seems to be getting riskier as the last eight presidents since Richard Nixon, have each faced at least one assassination plot, apparently.

 

William McKinley – 1901.

William McKinley (1843-1901, elected in 1896 and 1900) was the last US President of the 19th Century and the first one in the 20th Century, which is useful ‘Pub Quiz’ information. He was a popular Republican politician and most people were comfortable as he took office for a second term in the White House. The economy was doing well and the USA had recently taken control of Guam, Cuba and the Philippines, actions which reflected the growing power and confidence of the country. On 6th September, 1901, McKinley had just been on a visit to Niagara Falls when he went to an exhibition and was shot by a Michigan born man called Leon Czolgosz, who was 28 years old at the time. Some of McKinley’s last words were, ‘Be careful how you tell my wife’, which, it must be said, shows the most remarkable kindness under extreme pressure. He died eight days after the shooting, largely because of an infection in the stomach wound he suffered, an infection caused by material from his clothing. It was never made clear why Czolgosz killed McKinley but he himself was executed by electric chair in late October of the same year.

The death in office of any President, even one as little remembered today as McKinley, is always significant but some are more important than others; this was a hugely important event. The USA was not the world power it was to become in the Twentieth Century and its rise to global dominance came in part because of the removal of McKinley. As with the other presidents who have died in office, he was replaced by his vice-president. In this case it meant the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) in the White House, a man whom many Americans see as one of the greatest and most dynamic presidents they ever had. Roosevelt certainly had a great energy and introduced  a more dynamic foreign policy that saw the USA become far more involved in world affairs; his most famous line on that subject was ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’, meaning, ‘Be polite and sound reasonable but always be able to intimidate people with the threat of a very big army’. Roosevelt, who was a distant cousin of the later president Franklin Roosevelt, also organised the building of the Panama Canal which linked the Atlantic with the Pacific, and negotiated the peace between Russia and Japan to end the war of 1904-05. Of course, you probably know that ‘Teddy Bears’ are named after Theodore Roosevelt, thanks to an incident in which Roosevelt refused to shoot a tired old bear while on a hunting trip in Mississippi.  Although the German company Steiff started making toy bears without knowing about this story, an American company was inspired by the story of ‘Teddy’s Bear’ and made them under that name. And that is how the most famous cuddly toy got its name – but you might well have never heard of him, or the bears, if William McKinley had lived to see out his time as President.

William_McKinley_by_Courtney_Art_Studio,_1896

William McKinley: with such fine eyebrows he would have made an excellent ‘baddy’ in many fine TV shows of the 1960s, like ‘Stingray’ or ‘Thunderbirds’. (Author: Courtney Art Studio; Source: here)

 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – 1933. 

An attempt to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), a man usually voted in the three greatest US Presidents of all time, was made in February, 1933, before he had actually been inaugurated as President of the USA. FDR was in Florida, making a speech from the back of a car when five shots rang out,. They were fired by a man by the name of Giuseppe Zangara. Zangara was Italian born and, like Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. He had lived in the USA since 1923. He had a history of physical and mental ill-health. One fact about Zangara turns out to be of the greatest significance in this attempted killing; he was only five feet (152 cm) tall. When he was in the crowd around FDR, he could not see well enough to aim at the future President and so he had to stand on a small collapsible chair. As he aimed his pistol, Zangara slipped and he missed Roosevelt. He managed to fire four other shots before he was over-powered, though, wounding four different people. Most importantly, he hit Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago, who died three weeks later. For the killing of Cermak and the attempt on FDR, Zangara was sent to the electric chair and died in March, 1933.

The attempt on Roosevelt’s life came just a month before he took office as President. It is no exaggeration to say that, had it succeeded, this killing would have potentially had the most far-reaching consequences imaginable, including no ‘New Deal’, a less powerful industrial machine which might not have been able to support Britain in World War II and a completely different leader of the USA during that war. Indeed, the whole world as we know it today would probably be a very different place had Zangara not been so short that he needed to stand on a chair on that day. Life really does hang by the thinnest of threads at times.

FDR_Inauguration_1933

FDR (right) on his inauguration day, 4th March, 1933, with former President Hoover, less than three weeks after the assassination attempt. His chances of getting elected today would be pretty thin: a chain-smoking, heavy drinking man from a very wealthy family, known as a bit of a snob and a flirt who cheated on his wife by having many affairs…but he turned out to be one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. And it all nearly ended in Florida but for a wobbly chair. (Author: Photograph from Architect of the Capitol, AOC no. 18241; Source: here)

 

Pope John Paul II – 1981.

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005, Pope from 1978-2005) was one of the most charismatic religious leaders of the Twentieth Century. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Krakow in Poland, he was elected Pope on 16th October, 1978, following the sudden death of Pope John Paul I after only 33 days in office. He was different to any Pope elected in living memory: at 58, he was considered very young to be elected to the highest office in the church; he was Polish; he was the first non-Italian Pope for over 400 years; he had lived under Communism for three decades – and he had arrived with an energy rarely seen before in the Vatican.  Following his election, things looked set to change but few would have appreciated the impact Pope John Paul would have on the church itself but also on the world at large.

One thing that was immediately clear, though, was the extraordinary boost his election gave to many Polish people who were, despite having lived under atheistic Communism since 1945, still predominantly, and devoutly, Catholic. But all of this was very nearly cut short as on 13th May, 1981, Pope John Paul was attending one of his regular public audiences in the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. From the crowd, shots rang out and the Pope collapsed having been hit by four bullets. He suffered severe loss of blood and the attempted assassination failed by less than an inch as one of the bullets passed so close to his heart.

The potential assassin was over-powered by on-lookers, including some nuns in the crowd, and he was later imprisoned. His name was Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish man, who was almost certainly working on behalf of the KGB (the USSR’s Secret Service) and the Bulgarian Secret Service, the same group which probably did for Georgi Markov in London in 1978. The Pope did survive and had a major impact on the collapse of Communism: his numerous trips to Poland were hugely influential in giving confidence to the people and strengthening their belief that Communism could be defeated. This period also coincided with the rise of ‘Solidarity’, the Trade Union which was, along with the Catholic Church, the focus for anti-Communist activity in Poland during the 1980s.

If Pope John Paul II had died in 1981, it is interesting to consider what impact it would have had on Polish resistance and the rise of ‘Solidarity’, as well as the final collapse of Communism. There may have been an uprising that would have drawn the USSR, then under the leadership of the ill and ageing Leonid Brezhnev, into action similar to that seen in Hungary in 1956. The world of speculative history could lead us into many scenarios but the truth is that he survived and events were as they were and as Pope, John Paul played a major role in opposing Communism, a role which contributed to its eventual collapse after 1989.

What we also know, though, is that rather like with Lenin in 1918, the shooting did have long term consequences because the Pope was never as physically robust afterwards as he was before and it probably accelerated the on-set of  Parkinson’s Disease from which he suffered later in life. And although he lived until the age of 84, there are many who believe he was so fit and strong before the assassination attempt, that he would have lived far longer but for the shooting.

Pope-poland

Pope John Paul II visits Poland in 1979. The crowds were a huge shock and a threat to the Communist leadership.  (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Steve Biko – 1977.

Most people associate resistance to apartheid with Nelson Mandela. Mandela has become one of the world’s most famous and respected politicians but fewer people today remember Stephen Bantu Biko, one of the inspirational figures who led resistance on the ground during the years that political leaders like Mandela and Jacob Zuma were in prison.

Steve Biko (1946-1977) was a political activist, an opponent of the white supremacist system which had been institutionalised with the apartheid laws of 1948 and after. A key moment in his politicisation was the arrest of his brother which took place while he was a teenager at Lovedale Institute in Durban. Biko himself was interrogated by police and, after just three months at Lovedale, he was forcibly expelled. As someone who valued education, in line with his father’s values, the young Steve Biko developed a deep and lasting animosity towards white authority. Biko made education of oppressed South Africans his main goal and  instilling ‘Black consciousness’ became his abiding ambition and his legacy.

Biko managed to continue his own education, going to the University of Natal to study medicine although his progress was limited by his political activities. He was a very talented and capable student but he was de-registered from his course in medicine because he fell so far behind, a result of his time given to political activism. In 1968, he formed SASO, the South African Students Organisation, which sought to establish ‘Black Consciousness’ in the lives of the South African people, especially students. Obviously this was a radical organisation which was pro-Black and, by definition, anti-White, and as President of SASO, Biko was increasingly under the watch of the authorities. As SASO and the Black Consciousness Movement grew in influence its character and focus developed. Biko was placed under house arrest but managed to remain active, establishing literacy courses and practical classes in the townships and even setting up a clinic outside King William’s Town, where he was confined.

Steve Biko was a powerful figure in South Africa in the 1970s. His ideas and values inspired many others and the Black Consciousness Movement was undoubtedly influential in the most famous uprising of the decade, the Soweto riots of June 1976. It was a year after these riots in the huge township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that Biko was arrested. He was a fit, strong and healthy man when he was arrested and only the violent actions of some very angry men could have caused the horrendous brain injuries that killed him 0n 12th September, 1977.

Steve Biko’s death may not have been an ‘assassination’ in the true sense of the word but there is no doubt that it was a politically motivated act. Apartheid was a most brutal system and Steve Biko was its most high profile and important victim. He was killed by the legal authorities who exercised power within that system of apartheid.  The people responsible for his death were never put on trial. The inquiry into his death was delayed by the South African government and eventually it actually cleared the police of any fault even though the cause of death was serious brain damage; it was rather difficult to see how a person could inflict such injuries on himself. The bitterness around Biko’s death, and the way the event was treated, served to foster a deep resentment in the black and coloured community.

In 1994, at the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, five police officers who admitted involvement in Biko’s death were denied an amnesty. His story became known in the wider world thanks to a book called ‘Biko’ which was written by Donald Woods, a white South African who was a newspaper editor and a friend of Steve Biko. It was later made into a film, ‘Cry Freedom’ starring Denzil Washington and Kevin Kline. And ‘Biko’, one of the great protest songs, was a tribute to him by Peter Gabriel.

 

Chico Mendes – 1988.

In an age when we have become used to the high profile given to ecological and environmental issues, such as deforestation, over-fishing and climate change, it is easy to forget that not that long ago such concerns were almost unknown to most people. Nowadays, most people who support environmental causes are seen as caring and sensible people who have an important message for all but in the recent past such people would have been dismissed as fools or worse. However, even today there are many opponents to those who seek to protect the environment. most of them being linked with big business, such as the energy and fast food companies. From the poaching of ivory in Africa to fracking in the USA and Europe, to the destruction of tuna in the Mediterranean and the destruction of trees and tribes in the Amazon, the struggle to protect the environment goes on in so many regions of the world, the battle being waged against those who seek the exploitation of the world’s finite resources for their own short term financial gain.

One of the important names in the ecology movement was a man called Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes (1944-88). I first heard of Chico Mendes on a song called ‘Amazon’ by the great folk singer, Eric Bogle, a man who has given voice to many forgotten heroes and underdogs; its themes like this that lead many historians to value folk music. Anyway, Chico Mendes was one of the pioneers of resistance to the logging, agriculture, mining and energy companies who were determined to take advantage of the natural resources in the Amazon rainforest. He was a self-educated rubber-tapper who opposed the injustices that left workers in debt to the big companies and also stood against the Brazilian government for the incentives it gave to businesses that wanted to slash and burn the forest for beef production. He galvanised the Amazon Indians and local workers into credible opposition and eventually received the support of the World Bank and the US Congress over the way Brazilian development was funded.

In doing this, of course, Mendes and his supporters made many enemies. In the 25 years of protest, over 1000 people were murdered, often after being arrested and tortured by the police who used bribery to control them and the politicians. Chico Mendes was a passionate man, an organiser and negotiator who united many ordinary people and created a mass movement. He was a protector of the rainforest long before the word ‘ecologist’ had become known and long before most people even saw a threat to the Amazon.

Over many years, powerful individuals and big companies abused their wealth and status, influencing judges and politicians to enable them to continue their exploitation of the forest for mining and farming, forcing native peoples and others from the jungle and punishing Mendes and his supporters with imprisonment and fines. In the end, one rancher, Alves da Silva, decided to get rid of Chico Mendes and he was shot just as he left his home on 22nd December, 1988. This marked a turning point in the defence of the Amazon as Mendes’ assassination became a high-profile incident that raised awareness and anger levels around the world.

Recent events in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, as well as other Amazonian states, have shown that the assassinations at the hands of the logging and mining companies, as well as drug cartels, continue. The slaughter of numerous ‘unknown’ tribes with the destruction of their cultural heritage and the loss of these people who have lived in harmony with the rainforest for generations is a stain on the modern world which can never be washed away. The bullying and greed which stand behind these decisions which attack the most vulnerable people and the environment itself points to something tragically wrong and short-sighted in society.

Chico Mendes may have been one of the first to die for trying to protect the environment but he was certainly not the last. And the struggle to stand up to those who exploit and destroy in the name of short-term profits will be with us for years to come.

800px-Chico_Mendes_at_rubber_tree

Chico Mendes: one of the first modern ecologists to die for their beliefs. (Author: Miranda Smith, Miranda Productions Inc; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

For further information regarding the assassinations and attempted assassinations of all five of these people, the internet is the best starting point. There are few easily accessible books about McKinley; by contrast there are too many about FDR. And with a recent religious figure like Pope John Paul II, the danger of opinions being too extreme makes for finding a balanced analysis difficult.

Steve Biko: ‘Biko’ by Donald Woods (Penguin, 1987); ‘the film ‘Cry Freedom’ (1987) and the song ‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel

Chico Mendes: ‘The Burning Season’ by Andrew Revkin (Shearwater Books, 2004); the song ‘Amazon’ by Eric Bogle on ‘Voices in the Wilderness’ (1991).

 

The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

British_wounded_Bernafay_Wood_19_July_1916

The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

‘Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ JRR Tolkien

When JRR Tolkien’s epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, appeared in three volumes in 1954-55 it sold pretty well without setting the publishing world on fire. It only became a ‘legendary’ book in the 1960s when it captured the imagination of a new generation of readers including many amongst the ‘hippy’ generation. Tolkien’s story of hobbits, elves and dwarves fighting alongside men against the evil power of Mordor was rich in imagery and seemed to be especially enjoyable when viewed through a smoky haze of some kind. Led Zeppelin, the legendary band of the late sixties and seventies, wrote many songs which were filled with imagery taken straight from the legends of ‘Middle Earth’. The incredible popularity of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of films took the legend of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum and the ring to an enormous audience around the world. But what was ‘The Lord of the Rings’ actually about? Indeed, was it about anything at all?

Having been published in the mid-1950s, many people read Tolkien’s work as an allegory for the struggle for power in the Cold War. The ‘good’ forces of the West, seen in the feisty dwarves, the pure elves, the fragile men and above all the innocent, loyal and determined hobbits, were vulnerable band of friends, the allies, taking on the ‘dark forces’ of Communism represented by Mordor in the East. This was certainly a widespread interpretation and one passed on to me and many who read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the seventies. But the story was actually written long before the Cold War and the frightening tension between Communism and the West. Some people claimed it was based on World War II with Germany being ‘Mordor’ while others looked for a simpler tale rooted in the Norse myths that Tolkien had loved and studied since childhood. In reality, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ speaks of war, of course, and has images rich in Norse mythology but its true origins and the essence of its meaning is to be found in an earlier conflict, the Great War of 1914-18, when Captain Tolkien served with the British Army in the trenches of the Western Front.

4070992817_199878c7f4

JRR Tolkien, in military uniform during the Great War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

JRR Tolkien was born in 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa but his family moved to England after his father died in 1896. They lived just outside Birmingham, in a village called Sarehole, near Moseley and in what was then Worcestershire but today is very much part of the city itself. It was from Sarehole that the young Tolkien would look out towards Birmingham in the distance, across to Perrot’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks, the buildings which would become the ‘Two Towers’. The domes of St. Philip’s Cathedral and the Oratory church in Birmingham may also have influenced his imagery, as did the local mill at Sarehole. ‘Ronald’ as he was known (his full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, in case you need to know) grew up at a time of great upheaval with technological change impacting on life at almost every level in Britain. For Tolkien this drama was played out at home as the strength of the local industrial city cast a lengthening shadow over the countryside around him: crafts were changing, traditions were under threat and ‘Old England’ was dying.

Without going into too much detail, childhood was far from straight-forward for Ronald Tolkien, especially after his mother died in 1904. She had suffered from diabetes which was untreatable in those days before insulin had been discovered. It may seem surprising to people today, but Ronald and his brother were placed in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a friend of the family. Father Morgan was a Catholic priest at a church called the Birmingham Oratory, which had been founded in the 19th Century by John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism. Tolkien’s mother had grown up as a Baptist but had become a Catholic and JRR was strongly influenced by his own Catholic faith. Tolkien was a very intelligent, bright child, who was taught a lot by his mother, and he was extraordinarily talented at languages. He mastered Latin and Greek as a boy before developing an interest in Welsh, Finnish and Old English at Oxford University. He also had a habit, going back to childhood, of inventing his own languages, something that would lead to his creation of ‘Elvish’ as used in his books.

1916 was a momentous year for Tolkien: at the age of 24, he married Edith Bratt at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, and was also sent out to fight in the Great War. He arrived just in time to join the fighting at the Battle of the Somme, which started on 1st July of that year. He was in and out of the trenches for four months before being sent home with a common infection called ‘trench fever’, a result of the unhygienic conditions at the front line. He was kept in hospital in Birmingham for over a month, during which time he heard that most of his old friends from school had been killed in the war. These experiences influenced him deeply and were formed into a story known as ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ which later became ‘The Silmarillion’. The sense of belonging to small groups of friends seems to have been significant for Tolkien throughout his life: at school, in the army and later on in academic life he was most at ease with small groups of like-minded men. There was something life-giving and sustaining about facing the hardships and challenges of ‘mighty forces’ in the company of a faithful ‘band’ of friends, something which stands at the heart of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Tolkien suffered recurring bouts of trench fever in 1917-18 and he did not return to the army. He entered academic life, becoming professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925 where he remained until he retired in 1959. Tolkien was a normal sort of ‘prof’ really, doing nothing too remarkable apart from being part of ‘The Inklings’, a group that met in various pubs around Oxford, the best known of which is ‘The Eagle and Child’. Each week the group met for drinks, discussions and debates on their own writings, and the group famously included the other great ‘religious novelist’ of the period, the Anglican CS Lewis, author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Surprised by Joy’ amongst others. Tolkien clearly valued the company of like-minded men who were able to reflect on life and offer good company.

In 1937, Tolkien had a story published. It was called ‘The Hobbit’, which received widespread acclaim at the time and has remained a children’s classic ever since, selling over 100 million copies. ‘The Hobbit’ was a fantasy work which introduced Bilbo Baggins, Gollum, Middle Earth and ‘The Ring’ to the world, and would provide the background for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which would take 16 more years to reach publication. The key point to know, though, is that the great themes of both books are to be found in his earlier book, ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ or ‘The Silmarillion’. In other words, the themes and imagery for ‘Lord of the Rings’ are rooted in his early experiences in life, his childhood in and around Birmingham, his Catholicism and, most importantly, his experience of fighting and the destruction of the Great War.

3475918_87ec040c

Sarehole Mill, Moseley, Birmingham. (Author: Ashley Dace; Source: here)

Cheshire_Regiment_trench_Somme_1916

Trenches of the Somme, 1916. (Author: John Warwick Brooke; Source: here)

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a big book in length, of course, but also in ideas, which is why so many people read it at different levels. The basic setting is the on-going struggle for power between good and evil, such that there is almost a dualism at work between a ‘good god’ (embodied in Gandalf) and a ‘bad god’ (represented by Lord Sauron with help from another baddy in Saruman). Religious values mingle with basic human and cultural values to represent a traditional way of life that comes under threat from something more simple, direct and ultimately destructive in the forces that come out of Mordor. They are expressed in the obsessive greed, lying and violence that come from the power of the ring.

The real backdrop or context for the struggle in the story is the Great War, which is one of the reasons why the story focuses on men; very few women play a significant role in the story. The plot is rooted in the traditional values of ‘Middle England’, the world of his childhood, which Tolkien saw as coming under such threat in the war. These values were expressed in many ordinary, traditional things and rooted in the disappearing English countryside: the landscape itself, the small farmers, the village pub, the old crafts, the folk songs and the relationships between ordinary people who just wanted a simple, safe life. These values saw people take time over things that mattered, built quality goods, respected wisdom and the old ways, a world in which people had time for play and for friendship. They were people who lived by the rhythm of the seasons, people who understood the traditional arts and crafts and had manners, honesty and respect for all. This way of life, the life of the ‘Hobbits’ of ‘The Shire’, had come under the greatest threat from dark, distant forces which reached out to cast a shadow over the traditional ways. These were the violent forces of the Ringwraiths at first but the Orcs and others too, the forces that wanted to seize, exploit and reject traditional ways in favour of control, selfishness and greed. The dark forces of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were the result of the rise of industry, capitalism, individualism, greed and violence. The Hobbits were the simple people Tolkien had grown up amongst and who saw their way of life under threat: the farmers, craftsmen, the families of ‘Middle England’ who were thrown into a nightmare not of their making. Most of all they were the ordinary young men who were forced out of ‘The Shire’ and thrown into the horror and the slaughter of the trenches, in a war which seemed to be a struggle for the survival of civilisation itself. The story almost comes to express the values of the Luddites and Captain Swing, all mixed together with a bit of William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’.

The context for the struggle faced by Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf and the others is the Great War, the First World War of 1914-1918. Young men, many of whom had never left their home villages and towns, and who knew of foreign lands only through books and newspapers, marched off with high hopes and in great excitement to face an unknown enemy from the East. Inspired by dreams of loyalty, trust and patriotism, they volunteered and celebrated the chance to do their bit ‘for King and for country’. These men, some of them as volunteers, others as conscripts, were sent to the front line to be mown down in their millions for this was a new horror, the first ‘industrial’ war. Traditional weapons and tactics came face to face with the mass-produced destruction made available through machinery, as symbolised by the creation of the Orcs. In the Great War, artillery, gas, tanks and machine guns would wipe out a generation. Industry was tearing up the countryside of Tolkien’s childhood, the landscape being destroyed to turn trees into guns and men into monsters. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is really war poetry on the grandest scale.

One particular scene might serve to illustrate this. If you watch the final film, ‘The Return of the King’, there is a point where, following an ‘Entmoot’, a slow discussion amongst the Ents, Merry and Pippin are carried by the leading Ent to the edge of the wood. There they look out towards Isengard, the fortress of Saruman, and see a devastated landscape where the trees are being torn up and thrown into a giant furnace to build an army of Orcs to destroy Middle Earth. The Ents, or trees, are representative of the countryside itself, symbols of the slow moving but wise and deep-rooted wisdom of Middle Earth, the unchanging landscape of England reaching back to the Anglo-Saxon times and the days of Beowulf, Bede and Caedmon. Nature is being fed into the fires of industry, the landscape is being lost and the old ways are on the verge of destruction at the hands of the Orcs and Ringwraiths who are led by cold, heartless leaders who look down on all that they represent. In this scene, Tolkien recreates the trenches, the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele, and shows what is at stake with the battle for the ‘Ring’, namely civilisation and the heart of humanity. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the struggle for the soul of ‘Old England’ expressed in the horrors unleashed by politicians and rulers who seek power and ‘progress’ at any cost. The alliance of dwarves, elves, men and hobbits represent a vulnerable group which can survive only by sticking together and putting differences of language, culture and religion to one side.

796px-Gibraltar_bunker_Pozieres_(AWM_EZ0098)

A scene from ‘Gibraltar’ bunker on the Somme showing the destruction of life as well as the countryside. (Author: British War Photographer; Source: here)

Tolkien would later speak out against Communism and Nazism for the same reasons really: totalitarian regimes, imposing their wills on ordinary people and rejecting traditional, cultural and religious values in the process. He had a world-view that was firmly set against these new ideas and against industrialisation. He favoured tradition and saw a frightening tipping point in his experiences on the battlefields of the Western Front. This is the real meaning of his greatest book.

But maybe it really is just a fairy tale about some brave little hobbits, some elves, a ring and, of course, Gollum. Maybe.

247842722_086d2515f8_z

Professor Tolkien in 1967. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien (both Harper Collins)

Films : ‘The Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by Peter Jackson (Eiv)

Books: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by CS Lewis (Harper Collins)

War Poets: Poems of the Great War (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Ivor Gurney and others.

Book and film: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, one of the most famous anti-war statements of all time, with the film best seen in the original from 1933.

Books on ‘The Somme’: There are so many fine works about ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that it is hard to choose one or two. Fine works include: ‘The first day on the Somme’ by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin History, 2006); ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine (Ebury Press) shares many of the stories of ordinary soldiers in the battle and Peter Barton’s ‘The Somme’ (Constable) contains a wide range of photographs and testimonies.

DVD: The original of ‘The Battle of the Somme’ which appeared in cinemas at the time is available from the Imperial War Museum here.

 

The Great War: ‘Well, this is a sort of war, isn’t it, sir?’

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, his wife, leave the Town Hall in Sarajevo – and the world is just five minutes away from the assassination which will take the world to war. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Great War, 1914-1918: ‘Well, this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?’

‘The conduct of Germany is almost unexampled in human history. The terrible responsibility which lies at her doors can be seen in the fact that not less than seven million dead lie buried in Europe, while more than twenty million others carry upon them the evidence of wounds and sufferings, because Germany saw fit to gratify her lust for tyranny by resort to war.’ Georges Clemenceau at the Versailles Conference, 1919

‘The Great War’, ‘World War I’, ‘The First World War’, ‘The War To End All Wars’. 1914 to 1918, or 1914 to 1917, or 1917 to 1918, depending on which country you were in. Whatever you want to call it and whatever you might think of it, the ‘Great War’, was very, very big and very, very important. It was a quite extraordinary event that marked a dramatic change in world history, shifted power between nations, redrew maps, changed international relations and killed more people than any previous war. There is good reason to see it as one of the most significant events of the Twentieth Century, alongside the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and, in some mistaken minds, such ‘sensational’ moments as England winning the World Cup, the arrival of ‘Rock’n’Roll’ and the invention of colour TV. Here we will just take a brief look at the origins of the Great War, a tragic tale of boredom, revenge, envy, technology and bad luck.

The Great War did not start for one simple reason, one of the facts of life in history which can upset some people. Nothing so big can ever have a single cause and the road to that war was along many routes and from many different places, factors which merged together in the glorious summer of 1914. Some of these causes were long term, a few were medium term, others were short term and they were ignited by one final trigger. It was like building a good bonfire: you need some big chunks of wood (like railway sleepers and old fashioned wardrobes) which are hard to set alight but when they do they will keep going for ages; these are the long-term factors. Next you need some medium-term issues, which are like good branches and chairs which will help set the sleepers and wardrobes on fire. After that, small twigs and kindling, maybe some rags and newspapers, which will fill in the gaps of your bonfire and catch light easily. Finally you need a light, a match which will get the whole thing going. This is the trigger, often just a tiny flame which can be transformed into a terrifying conflagration. So, what set the war off?

As so often happens in history, it would be useful at this point to have a look at some maps, to help your understanding of the situation in the world of 1914. In Europe, you should look at the way the continent was dominated by five great powers: Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Notice how few countries there are in total and the absence of many familiar modern-day countries and borders. When you consider the strength and status these European Powers enjoyed thanks to their worldwide Empires, especially those of Britain, France and Germany, you can quickly see how this became the first truly global conflict. You should also look for maps that show you how the Great Powers split into the two alliances after 1914: the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia (with Italy after 1915 and the USA from 1917), the ‘Central powers’ of Germany, the Austro-Hungarians and Italy (until 1915) with Turkey (from 1915). And in case you don’t have time to find these maps for yourself, here are a few to help.

Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg

This map shows the war alliances as they were at the start of the war in 1914. As mentioned, Italy actually switched sides in 1915, believing it had a better chance of gaining land and status there than with the central Powers. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central powers, again in 1915.

(Author: Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg: * historicair (French original); Source: here)

It’s important to note that the alliances of the Great War were not deep and long-standing relationships based on deep trust, lasting friendship and a long-shared vision. The treaty between Russia and France, for example, had only been signed in 1894 while the one between Britain and France was only agreed in 1904, just a decade before the war itself. The alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been signed in 1879, and extended to include Italy in 1882. If you study some maps of Europe in 1914, you should also notice that some of the countries were a very different size and shape from what they are today; Germany, for example, was much bigger than it is today and had a border with Russia. There were also ‘states’ or empires, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which do not exist today but was an ancient territory that covered much of central and south-east Europe: modern Austria, Hungary, parts of Germany, Romania and Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other countries with which we are very familiar today, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, did not exist and were parts of those former Empires. All of these states and regions, all of the many people, would be dramatically changed by the events of the next four years for this was war on a scale never seen before. After 1918, the whole map of Europe an, indeed, the world would be re-drawn.

So, why did this ‘Great War’ come about? Not surprisingly, this is not a small question and there can be no short answer. There were, instead, several long-term and medium-term factors which combined to provide the main fuel for the fire which was the Great War. One of these was, surprisingly, boredom and restlessness among the major European armies. The great European powers had a long history of fighting each other and, compared with most earlier periods, the nineteenth century (the 1800s) had actually been rather peaceful with little by way of a ‘proper’ war since the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (which is in Belgium by the way) in 1815. There had been the Crimean War, of course, which had seen the British and French humiliate the Russian Army in 1854-56 and also the very important ‘Franco-Prussian War’ (France v Germany) in 1870-71, but overall, things in Europe had been very quiet for the best part of a hundred years. During this period, most European conflicts had in fact taken place in the more remote parts of the world, as the main powers made moves to develop and control their Empires. ‘Real’ war between the big players just hadn’t happened.

Most people would consider this situation of relative peace to have been a decidedly ‘good thing’. However, during the years of peace, one great development had been transforming the world, namely industrialisation. It had changed everything: work, pleasure, transport, buildings, diets and many other things. Those ‘other things’ included weapons. Massive scientific and technological advances had impacted on steel production, chemicals, fuel and machinery, so that military power had been transformed by the creation of powerful new weapons which had been made available to armies and generals across the continent. Armies had also got bigger as populations grew rapidly on the back of industrial progress. But many of those soldiers, especially the generals, had gone through their whole careers without the opportunity to use them. Many of them were restless, and eagerly looking for an opportunity to use their new ‘toys’. It may seem ridiculous to us but conflict between nations was seen as a far more natural and expected fact of life back then. Boredom really was an important factor in starting the Great War.

Another factor which led up to the war was the shifting balance of power between Europe’s major players. England’s traditional enemies were, of course, France and Scotland. If anything, England (and later, Britain) has had a far greater bond with Germany than it ever had with France for most of history; the ‘entente’ or ‘understanding’ with the French was a recent development, based in part at least on King Edward VII’s love of all things French, especially wine, food and women. Meanwhile, Britain had started to face a growing threat from Germany, partly in economics (as the German industrial-based economy overtook Britain’s around 1900) but also militarily through its navy. The German-British ‘arms race’ was shifting the traditional ‘balance of power’ by which peace had been maintained in Europe. France also felt a deep sense of anxiety at the military threat posed by the industrial strength of Germany but her people also wanted revenge for their defeat to Prussia in 1871. This had been a massive blow to national pride and resulted in the loss of two French regions, Alsace and Lorraine, to German control.

472px-Edward_VII_and_Alexandra_after_Gunn_&_Stuart

(Author: The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson; Source: here)

Although it may be hard to see him as a ‘Ladies’ Man’, Edward VII’s love of all things French played a major role in the alliance between the two countries which had such an impact on the Great War. He is pictured here with his wife, Queen Alexandra.

Germany, by the way, had only been properly united as one country on 18th January, 1871, as a result of victory in the Franco-Prussian War, having previously been the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. This Empire had existed for a thousand years and had united many states, over 200 at times. These states had included large regions like Prussia, Bavaria, Bohemia and Saxony, with others which were very much smaller, like Lichtenstein, Thurn and Taxis, Luxembourg and Fürstenerg. The key man in the whole process of German unification, and the creator of what would be called the ‘Second Reich’, was ‘The Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), a huge figure on the European and world stage. He deserves a picture.

403px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2005-0057,_Otto_von_Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898): The Iron Chancellor.(Author: Jacques Pilartz; Source: here)

 

Another key factor that led to the Great War was the arrival on the scene of the hugely important Emperor, Wilhelm II (1859-1941) or ‘Kaiser Bill’ as he was known to British troops. Wilhelm became Emperor of Germany in 1888 following the death of his father, Frederick III, after only 99 days on the throne. Wilhelm would remain as ruler until 18th November, 1918, just after the end of the war, when he abdicated. Kaiser Wilhelm II played a major part in creating the tension that almost made the Great War an ‘inevitability’, a word to be used with great caution in history. Wilhelm demands a little more attention.

index

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – a fine hat and a moustache to die for. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Wilhelm II was a complex character. Of course, many of us can claim to be ‘complex, brilliant, misunderstood’ figures but rarely do we come to wield the power of a dictator as Wilhelm did, though. He had numerous dangerous characteristics, being described as vain, ambitious, jealous and greedy for power. Wilhelm was also impulsive, inconsistent, obsessive and a bad listener; one can see that such a man as a dictator was potentially hazardous for all concerned. One other thing which is of particular significance, and what often sees in photos and film of him, is that he had been born with a withered left arm. Less obvious is that he also had terrible issues with his balance due to a problem with the development of the inner ear. This was very damaging to his self-image and to his ability to ride a horse, an essential for any royalty of the day. In learning to ride as a child, Wilhelm was put on a horse, day after day, for several years before he could stay upright. The falls he suffered and the abuse shouted at him, fired a fierce determination, a self-loathing at his ‘weaknesses’, a desire for power and a certain pleasure in the pain of others. Such characteristics can make an individual’s life and relationships challenging; in a ruler, they can bring disaster for millions.

Kaiser Wilhelm knew England well, being a grandson of Queen Victoria, the ‘Grandmother of Europe’, as she was known because so many of her children had married into other royal families around the continent. Wilhelm visited England often and was fascinated by the Royal Navy. It is fair to say that he actually had quite an obsession with Great Britain and looked across the North Sea with particular envy and a desire to emulate her success. From the Isle of Wight, where Victoria often received Wilhelm as a guest, he would see the great warships pass, and he nurtured the desire to create such a navy of his own. German ships were invited to join the procession to mark Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, but were overshadowed by the British, much to Wilhelm’s shame. Wilhelm was actually given his own ship in the Royal Navy and was an honorary ‘Rear-Admiral’, giving him a uniform he loved to wear.

Thanks to the rise of Germany’s industrial power, Wilhelm had the opportunity to address his naval and military needs. Thanks to Krupp’s steel, for example, he had the opportunity to build ‘a fleet of my own’, especially new battleships, and so to compete with Britain for control of at least some of the seas. The British Government watched with alarm as these mighty German ships were launched, and responded by building the largest battleships ever: the Dreadnoughts. Despite all this, Britain’s desire to stay out of European affairs was strong and the Empire was far more the focus of her attention. However, there were plenty of people who thought that if the Germans wanted a fight they could have one, and that the chance to ‘put them in their place’ was not to be missed. Tension was rising in the first decade of the century.

800px-UK_dreadnoughts_through_the_Solent

A convoy of the most powerful ships of the age, the Dreadnoughts, including ‘Thunderer’, ‘Monarch’ and ‘Conqueror’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It should be remembered that the prelude to war was not all to do with Germany. Another area of tension was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had been in decline for many decades. After 1848, the country had faced growing internal pressures as it tried to keep control of people of many different nationalities, cultures and religions within its borders. However, the memory of glory was strong among many leaders and generals, so that the there was not just a willingness to fight but even a desire for it, a cleansing of defeats past and the rebirth of a dynamic new empire. The relative successes of the Balkans War (1912-13) suggested they were still a powerful force.

Elsewhere, things were not so clear. Italian involvement was especially confused, although having signed the ‘Triple Alliance’ with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians in 1882 as a means of defending themselves against any threat from France and Russia, they did decide to honour their commitments when war started in 1914. However, there was much opposition to this from within Italy itself. The Ottoman Empire (basically modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iran, parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia) would also become involved (after 1915) on the side of the Central Powers, partly as a way of withstanding any threat from Russia, its main enemy. The Ottoman Army was not strong, having fought badly in the Balkans War (1912-13) and this made an alliance essential. Fear was, therefore, a powerful reason for their involvement in the war.

So, why did the Great War start in 1914? In the briefest of summaries, we have: boredom in the military, coupled with the desire to try out new weapons; France’s desire for revenge and its old territories back; the push for Germany, under Wilhelm, to increase its naval power and rival Britain militarily; and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Italy’s fear of their stronger neighbours. War would bring risks but also opportunities for power, land and glory. It is important to realise that the values which dominate societies do change overtime and this was especially true about Europe in the early years of the Twentieth Century. One factor which marked those days more than our own times was a widespread sense of nationalism, something well beyond patriotism, something far more aggressive, which looked down on foreigners with deep hatred. A word widely used in Britain was ‘Jingoism’, a sense of one’s own superiority with a belief in the right to win and to take over what belonged to someone else. This ‘nationalism’ meant decisions were made and events were interpreted by people who saw things in very stark terms: anger, revenge, glory, victory, hatred, distrust; us and them; right and wrong; kill or be killed.

Into the powder keg of fear, anger and greed came one horrid spark, a shot which would ring out around the world. The famous incident which finally set the European bonfire burning in the summer of 1914 has not been mentioned yet. The final element, the match or the trigger, was the death of a rather pompous and difficult man in a far off country, an event which might well have been a mere footnote in history had circumstances been a little different. This ‘spark’ was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Far from a footnote, his shooting was to become a headline on an epic scale.

On 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, travelled down by train to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had come under the control of the Austro-Hungarians in 1912-13 as a result of the ‘Balkan War’. They went to visit the soldiers of their Empire who were seeking to hold on to the region against local groups who were unhappy at their loss of independence. On their arrival at the railway station, the royal couple travelled down into Sarajevo by car but on the way they came under attack from a grenade thrown by a member of ‘The Black Hand Gang’, a group which wanted independence for Serbia, another region of the Balkans and also under the control of the Austro-Hungarians. They survived as Franz Ferdinand saw the bomb coming, put up his arm and deflected it away, unfortunately causing it to explode under the car behind. It injured about 20 people, including their attendants in the car.

The visit continued with a reception and speeches at the City Hall but Franz Ferdinand and Sophie wanted to visit the injured in the hospital. The driver of the car who was to take them to the hospital got lost as he took a wrong turn, one of the simplest, most devastating errors of all time. While he was reversing in a narrow street, trying to get back to the route, a member of the ‘Black Hand Gang’, Gavrilo Princip, just happened to walk by having come out of a shop; it was a pure coincidence that he saw the car. He was carrying a gun and fired two shots, hitting both the Archduke and his wife. Sophie, who was pregnant, died in her husband’s arms before he too died in the car. He was 51 at the time, and she was 46. Those shots would echo across the world. Princip was not executed because he was under 20 years of age; he died of tuberculosis while in prison in 1918. But his actions were to live on as the shootings would set Europe on fire for four years.

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, about five minutes before they were killed on 28th June, 1914. (Author: Bettmann/Corbis; Source: here)

 

Actually, it is only right to use another photo from that day, an image which is one of the most famous in history. This is Gavrilo Princip being arrested and taken to the police station in Sarajevo.

untitled

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did this killing of an heir to a throne, in an obscure town in a distant country, lead to 16 million deaths in the Great War? The key lies with the alliances described above. The Austro-Hungarians were furious with the Serbians for what had happened and gave them a list of 30 demands that they required to be met within a month, as reparation for the loss of the Archduke. The Serbians felt able to accept all but two of these demands. But this was not enough for the government in Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, triggering a chain reaction of declarations of allegiance on both sides.

The declaration of war set in train a series of alliances. Russia had an ancient agreement to defend Serbia and so declared war on the Austro-Hungarians. The Germans honoured their alliance with the Austro-Hungarians by declaring war on Russia, leading France to declare war on Germany. Germany was determined to avoid a direct attack on France owing to a line of huge forts which had been built on their joint border by the French since 1871, and so decided to invade with a sharp and dramatic attack through Belgium. This was called the ‘Schlieffen Plan’. But Britain had a treaty with Belgium going back to the 1830s saying it would protect Belgium if it were invaded. So it was that on Bank Holiday Monday, 4th August, 1914, Britain found itself at war with Germany as a way of defending ‘plucky little Belgium’. And the rest really is history.

 

Find out more

Books: There are obviously many books which deal with the Great War. A few novels and factual books which might be used to introduce the war include: ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks; ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque; the ‘Regeneration Trilogy’ by Pat Barker; ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain; ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ by Max Arthur; ‘The Great War, 1914-1918’ by Peter Hart; ‘The Western Front’ by Richard Holmes, and ‘1914-1918’ (BBC).

TV documentaries: ‘1914-1918’, ‘First World War in Colour’, ‘The Western Front’, ‘The Great War’

Films and dramatisations: ‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916), ‘The Trench’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘A very long engagement’, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Birdsong’.

War Poets: ‘Poems of the Great War’ (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and many others.

Maps: Study maps of Europe from 1914 and from the 1920s to analyse the creation of new countries and the changes to old borders.