January 17, 2015

Still nothing to see here, folks, just move along now…

Filed under: Europe,Law,Media,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

David Warren expresses his surprise at the news of police raids in Europe:

“Two die in Belgian anti-terror raid.” … The headline is from the BBC website, yesterday, but these keywords could be found in breaking-news headlines all across Europe. (I checked.)

Gentle reader must have been wondering, who is it this time? The Buddhists, perhaps? (Mahayana or Theravada?) Jains? Angry rampaging Hindu swamis? Prim Confucians? Taoist anarchists? What about the Zoroastrians, we haven’t heard from them in a while. But it might be the Lutherans, no? Or the Presbyterians? Pentecostals more likely, or Fundamentalist Christians from Allah-bama. Hey wait, Belgium used to be a Catholic country, perhaps they were Latin Mass traditionalists? SSPiXies? Dominican monks? Third Order Franciscans? On the other hand, Secular Humanists would be statistically more likely. Wiccans? Druids? Nudists? Maybe we should bet long-shot on Animists of some sort, from the former Belgian Congo. Or from New Guinea: could be, you never know these days.

Well, the answer caught everyone by surprise. Turned out they were Muslims.

As some wag in Washington recently responded, to another “religion of peace” muttering from on high: “How odd that so many are killing for it.”

A correspondent in Alexandria-by-Egypt reminds of Christians slaughtered and churches trashed in his town not so long ago, after rumours circulated that a Coptic priest had said, “Islam is a violent religion.” Turned out he hadn’t said that. But whatever it was, he won’t be saying it again.

The media have thoughtfully spared us from reports of demonstrations in the Muslim world in support of recent actions in Paris, which involved the “execution” of several French cartoonists who had drawn vile, blasphemous pictures of their Prophet Jesus, and his Mother Mary. Also, of the Prophet Muhammad. The media don’t want to abet prejudice against any particular religious community; and Islam is quite particular.

November 18, 2014

Excavating the trenches of Flanders, 100 years on

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

In the Telegraph, Tim Rowley reports from Ypres:

In Flanders fields, dozens of men are digging trenches. From dawn to sunset, they force their shovels through the soil, even when the temperature plunges below freezing. When it rains, their clothes cling to their bodies. They were told it would be over by Christmas; now, they are not so sure.

This is Belgium, 2014, and the men are archaeologists, not soldiers – but in one regard their experiences are not so far removed from those of their forebears a century ago. The foes of the Great War have long been reconciled, but the weather is as harsh as ever.

“The cold is not the problem, it’s the rain,” says Simon Verdegem, one of the 30 archaeologists excavating land touched by only a plough for decades. “By the end of the day, our shoes are full of mud and we can’t walk straight because we slip all the time. And, this time, nobody’s firing at us.”

Verdegem’s great uncle fought on these fields 100 years ago. Now the 31-year-old is learning a little of the conditions he had to endure. “The first thing I do when I get home is take a shower and hang my clothes up by the fire. But they didn’t have the chance. They had to stay in a water-filled trench. I know how we feel after a day out here in the rain – we’re just miserable – and I can’t imagine it.”

All these years later, Belgium’s war wounds have still to heal. In the years following the Armistice 96 years ago today, vast mounds of earth were shovelled into the trenches. In the great cemeteries of Belgium, the row upon row of Portland stone stood as testament to the sacrifice of the men; the authorities were less keen to remember the inglorious squalor to which each side subjected the other.

If only that were so easy. For decades now, Flanders farmers have turned up a deadly harvest of unexploded bombs, shells and grenades. They all know the bomb squad’s phone number, and some have reinforced their tractors against explosion.

Yet archaeologists rarely get the chance to mine this rich seam of history. Under European Union regulations, they can only excavate these fields when there is an external threat to the artefacts buried beneath, such as a housing development.

Which is why Verdegem is so excited by this latest dig, the largest-ever excavation of First World War battlefields. Next year, Fluxys, a Belgian energy company, will lay a new £120 million gas pipeline across the country, snaking through 18 miles of land that formed the frontline for four years, as both sides inched from Ypres to Passchendaele then back to Ypres – each time, shuffling just far enough to bury their dead.

January 18, 2014

British army unit diaries from WW1 now online

Filed under: Britain,Cancon,History,Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:07

Rather than the diaries of individual soldiers (as the original title of the video suggests), these are the formal day-to-day action records of battalions and regiments of the British army. A proportion of the diaries from the First World War have been digitized and are available on the internet:

Published on 15 Jan 2014

Diaries describing life during the First World War by British soldiers have been digitised and can be read online.

As part of the organisations centenary programme the National Archives is publishing the first batch of unit diaries from France and Flanders.

One soldier from the 4th Division, 1 Battalion Somerset Light Infantry in 1917 describes one occasion of gunfire: “The Germans quickly got their artillery into position, and a considerable amount of shelling was experienced. Our casualties in this engagement were slight.”

Another entry by Captain CJ Paterson, one of the First Battalion’s soldiers describes the horrendous reality of life in the trenches:

“As I say all should be nice and peaceful and pretty. What it actually is is beyond description.

“Trenches, bits of equipment, clothing (probably blood-stained), ammunition, tools, caps, etc., etc., everywhere.

“Poor fellows shot dead are lying in all directions. Some of ours.”

“Everywhere the same hard, grim, pitiless sign of battle and war. I have had a belly full of it.”

Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, said: “The National Archives’ digitised First World War unit diaries will allow us to hear the voices of those that sacrificed their lives and is even more poignant now there are no living veterans who can speak directly about the events of the war. This new online vehicle gives a very public voice to some of these soldiers, through which we will be able to hear their thoughts and feelings.”

You can read the online war diaries on the National Archive website here: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-­war

Records for the Canadian Corps (which fought as part of the British army) are in the process of being digitized, according to the Library and Archives Canada website.

War diaries are a day-to-day description of unit activities for army units in active service, and contain information about unit location and the military operations in which it may be involved. The diaries rarely mention individuals by name, with the exception of some references to officers.


War diaries for the Army in the First World War (RG 9 IIID3) are being digitized and can be viewed online by using the Advanced Archives Search. Records not yet digitized are available on microfilm.

  • Select Finding Aid Number in the pull down menu, and enter: 9-52
  • Enter a keyword, for example, the unit name or battalion number: “102nd” or “Royal Canadian Dragoons”

November 11, 2013

“The Canadian Corps … had beaten 47 German divisions since Aug. 8″

Filed under: Cancon,Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 15:55

In the Globe and Mail, J.L. Granatstein wants us to remember the greatest military achievement of the Canadian Corps in World War One (and it isn’t the battle of Vimy Ridge):

On Aug. 8, 1918, the Canadian Corps had secretly moved into position in front of the French city of Amiens. The German army had been on the offensive since March, and the Amiens sector was rather lightly defended. The Canadians, British and Australians struck this sector a surprise hammer blow in the early morning, a hurricane of artillery fire clearing the way for the tanks and infantry that blasted through the defences. Thousands of Germans surrendered, more were killed and within a few hours, the Canadian advance was almost 15 kilometres. This, wrote the German army’s great strategist, General Erich Ludendorff, was “the black day” of the German Army.

Lt.-Gen. Currie’s troops then moved north to the Arras area, where, at the end of the month, they struck toward and then through the Drocourt-Quéant Line, an immensely strong extension of the Hindenburg Line defended by crack troops. In heavy fighting at high cost, the Corps broke the line, forcing the Germans back behind the Canal du Nord, their last position protecting the key supply point of Cambrai.


The Germans now were in full retreat, moving eastward as fast as they could go. The Canadians took Valenciennes, smashing the enemy defences with a massive artillery barrage, and then moved into Belgium. By Nov. 11, they were in Mons, the same small town where the men of the British Expeditionary Force had first faced the invading Germans in August, 1914.

The Canadian Corps, more than a hundred thousand strong, had fought its last battles. As Lt.-Gen. Currie noted proudly, it had beaten 47 German divisions since Aug. 8, a quarter of the German forces in the West. The Corps had accomplished this because of its great fighting spirit, its fine leadership at all levels and its effective reinforcement and logistics systems. The cost in lives and in wounded was terrible — 45,000 casualties, 20 per cent of the total of Canadian losses in the entire war — but for once, the campaign had achieved measurable gains on the ground. More than that, the Canadian shock troops had battered the enemy, forced them eastward and obliged them to seek an armistice that was a de facto capitulation. It had scored its greatest victory, the greatest battlefield triumph ever by Canadian troops.

November 10, 2013

Grave robbers of the western front

Filed under: Britain,Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:05

In the Telegraph, Willard Foxton explains why the growing interest in the centenary of the First World War is also giving a boost to the grave robbers:

Across the UK, there has been a rash of police finds of these First World War explosives, as the online trade in them has boomed. Dealers will often home defuse them, putting themselves and others at risk; some have been maimed doing so. […]

As dangerous as these unexploded devices are, perhaps the ugliest corner of the trade is the sale of other relics — especially dead soldiers’ identification marks. In particular, there’s a premium on British soldier’s spoons, which would often have their owner’s names embossed on them. Helmets can fetch high prices, too — including those bent out of shape by bullets or shells, which gives you some idea of what happened to the poor guy wearing it. As Andy Brockman, a leading conflict archaeologist told me:

“There is a market in all kinds of battlefield memorabilia and in the worst cases this can lead to the sale of identification tags and the removal of personal possessions like spoons and toothbrushes from battlefield burials. These objects can carry identifying marks and their loss can prevent authorities like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from identifying the soldier concerned, robbing them of the chance of a marked grave.

“When it comes to the illegal removal of equipment and personal possessions from the remains of the missing to feed the collectors market, I would agree with Andy Robertshaw of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum who says that it’s like killing them twice.”

August 23, 2013

QotD: Belgium as a sum of its many, many parts

Filed under: Europe,Government,Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The outcome was byzantine in its complexity. Belgium was sub-divided into three “Regions”: Flanders, Wallonia and “Brussels-Capital”, each with its own elected parliament (in addition to the national parliament). Then there were the three formally instituted “Communities”: the Dutch-speaking, the French-speaking and the German-speaking (the latter representing the approximately 65,000 German speakers who live in eastern Wallonia near the German border). The communities, too, were assigned their own parliaments.

The regions and the linguistic communities don’t exactly correspond — there are German speakers in Wallonia and a number of French-speaking towns (or parts of towns) within Flanders. Special privileges, concessions, and protections were established for all of these, a continuing source of resentment on all sides. Two of the regions, Flanders and Wallonia, are effectively unilingual, even with the exceptions noted. Brussels was prounced officially bilingual, even though at least 85 percent of the population speaks French.

In addition to the regional and linguistic Communities, Belgium was also divided into ten provinces (five each in Flanders and Wallonia). These, too, were assigned administrative and governing functions. But in the course of the various constitutional revisions real authority came increasingly to lie either with the regions (in matters of urbanism, environment, the economy, public works, transport and external commerce) or the linguistic community (education, language, culture and some social services).

The outcome of all these changes was comically cumbersome. Linguistic correctness (and the constitution) now required, for example, that all national governments, whatever their political color, be “balanced” between Dutch- and French-speaking ministers, with the prime minister the only one who has to be bilingual (and who is therefore typically from Flanders). Linguistic equality on the Cour d’Arbitrage (Constitutional Court) was similarly mandated, with the presidency alternating annually across the language barrier. In Brussels, the four members of the executive of the capital region would henceforth sit together (and spake in the language of their choice) to decide matters of common concern; but for Flemish or Francophone “community” affairs they would sit separately, two by two.

As a consequence Belgium was no longer one, or even two, states but an uneven quilt of overlapping and duplicating authorities. To form a government was difficult: it required multi-party deals within and across regions, “symmetry” between national, regional, community, provincial, and local party coalitions, a working majority in both major language groups and linguistic parity at every political and administrative level. And when a government was formed it had little initiative: even foreign policy — in theory one of the last remaining responsibilities of the national government — was effectively in the hands of the regions, since for contemporary Belgium it mostly means foreign trade agreements and these are a regional prerogative.

Tony Judt, “The Old Europe — and the New”, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, 2005.

April 27, 2013

The last Beguine

Filed under: Europe,History,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:53

An obituary (and short history lesson) in The Economist:

AT THE heart of several cities in Belgium lies an unexpected treasure. A gate in a high brick wall creaks open, to reveal a cluster of small, whitewashed, steep-roofed houses round a church. Cobbled alleyways run between them and tiny lawns, thickly planted with flowers, grow in front of them. The cosiness, the neatness and the quiet suggest a hortus conclusus, a medieval metaphor both for virginal women and the walled garden of paradise.

Any veiled women seen there now, however, processing to Mass or tying up hollyhocks in their dark habits and white wimples, are ghosts. Marcella Pattyn was the last of them, ending a way of life that had endured for 800 years.

These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance; they were encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade. They existed somewhere between the world and the cloister, in a state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.

Nor, to be honest, was it the first thing Juffrouw Marcella thought of when, as a girl, she realised that her dearest wish was to serve her Lord. But she was blind, or almost so, and no other community would accept her. She wanted to work, too, and was not sure she could in an ordinary convent. The beguinages had originally been famous for taking the “spare” or “surplus” women who crowded into 13th-century cities in search of jobs. Even so, the first community she tried sent her back after a week, unable to find a use for her. (In old age she still wept at the thought of all the rejections, dabbing with a handkerchief at her blue unseeing eyes.) A rich aunt intervened with a donation to keep her there, and from the age of 21 she was a Beguine.

January 11, 2013

British forces to replace venerable Browning 9mm with new Glocks

Filed under: Britain,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:22

Lewis Page on the recently announced retirement of the Browning 9mm from British military service:

The new pistol is the Glock 17 Gen4, which fires the same NATO standard 9x19mm cartridge as its illustrious predecessor. However the Glock holds 17 rounds as opposed to the Browning’s 13 — and even more crucially the new weapon can be carried with a round in the chamber ready to shoot at a moment’s notice due to its modern safety mechanisms, a practice which was normally forbidden with the Browning.

[. . .]

The now superseded weapon was designed way back in the 1920s by the legendary weapons engineer John Browning and first manufactured by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium in 1935. It was known commercially as the “Browning Hi-Power”. It was first issued to British forces during World War II, and gradually replaced all other pistols then in service to become the UK’s standard military sidearm. In its day it was a great weapon, and pistol design has evolved only incrementally since then, but today’s handguns are measurably superior and it was surely time for a change — the more so as the existing Brownings must have been pretty worn out by now.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have enabled the British forces to slowly and belatedly sort out their dire personal-weapons situation of the 1990s. The crappy Royal Ordnance/BAE Systems SA80 (L85A1) rifle was rebuilt in German factories so that it is now a good weapon, and proper belt-fed light machine guns and 40mm grenade launchers were procured. Other popular pieces of kit such as the L115A1 sniper rifle (from the famous Portsmouth firm Accuracy International, perhaps better known under its commercial name Arctic Warfare Super Magnum), the new combat shotgun and the new 7.62mm Sharpshooter rifle have also appeared in response to battlefield needs. Now with the new Glocks, at last, pretty much all the personal weapons carried by British troops today can be said to be first-class.

The Browning 9mm was first handgun I ever fired, and is still one of my favourites:

September 15, 2011

Belgium “without a government may be remembered as an economic and political golden age”

Filed under: Europe,Government,Politics — Tags: — Nicholas @ 12:00

Doug Saunders looks at the situation in Belgium, which has gone without a government for over 450 days so far:

To look around the elegant city of Antwerp, you wouldn’t know that Belgium has now gone longer without a government than any country in modern history.

The trains still run on time, the teachers show up in their classrooms, museums are packed, taxes are collected, welfare is paid, and the country’s F-16 fighter jets are dropping bombs in Libya — even though Belgium has now gone a year and a quarter without a federal government, after the June 13, 2010 elections produced no majority and the feuding parties became locked in perpetual disagreement over coalition plans.

[. . .]

For some, this might sound like a libertarian’s idea of utopia: A country with nobody to raise taxes, or to slash spending, or to introduce major new government programs.

And indeed, Belgium has just managed, despite having only a largely powerless caretaker government, to post second-quarter economic growth rates — of 0.7 per cent — that exceeded neighbouring Germany, France and Britain. The country’s world-leading beer industry, analysts say, has remained aloft as the world drinks away its financial sorrows. And the government deficit has even been cut somewhat.

Well, it’s rather short of an anarchist’s utopia, but it’s a bit closer to a minarchist’s version. The “government” in question is, of course, the political one: the bureaucracy is still ticking over as before (one wonders if they’ve noticed the lack of politicians and their sometimes malign influence over the everyday activities of the bureaucracy).

It should be no surprise that the lack of new political initiatives has had a moderating influence on the business environment: it has reduced some of the “normal” instability of government activity. The European market and the world markets are still providing sufficient distortion and uncertainty, of course, but at least for some businesses they are not having to make business decisions with a wary eye on the current prime minister’s whim.

May 11, 2011

Belgian newspapers win appeal against Google

Filed under: Europe,Law,Liberty,Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:45

Apparently, even a short summary and a hyperlink are considered to be a violation of copyright in Belgium:

A Belgian appeals court has upheld an earlier ruling that Google infringes on newspapers’ copyright when its services display and link to content from newspaper websites, according to press reports.

The search engine giant is responsible for infringing the copyrights of the papers when it links to the sites or copies sections of stories on its Google News service, the Belgian Court of Appeals said, according to a report in PC World.

Google must not link to material from Belgian newspapers, the court said, according to the report (in French). No translation of the ruling is yet available.

[. . .]

The newspapers argued that they were losing online subscriptions and advertising revenue because Google was posting free snippets of the stories and links to the full article on Google News.

Google’s search engine offers links to the websites it indexes but also to “cached” copies of those pages. The copies are stored on Google’s own servers.

April 11, 2011

Political grandstanding at the expense of Muslim women

Filed under: Europe,Law,Liberty,Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:22

Josie Appleton points out the logical inconsistencies of the various European “Ban the Burkha” movements:

In spite of the grave crisis of the Euro, the French cabinet will today (19 May[, 2010]) find the time to discuss a draft law banning the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Spain has just slashed public wages and is on the verge of economic collapse, yet the minister of work yesterday made the effort to visit Lleida and voice his support for the mayor’s plan to prohibit full Islamic facewear in the streets. Last month, Belgium’s coalition government had dissolved and there was talk of splitting up the country, yet the parliament managed to unite 136 out of 138 deputies to vote through a law banning the burqa and niqab.

How is it that European leaders, in such difficult times, have invested such energy in the matter of women’s facewear? Why was a Spanish schoolgirl who insisted on wearing a headscarf so fascinating as to draw the media’s attention away from government cuts? Why such detailed discussions on the intricacies of Islamic veils? Newspapers feature pullouts on the different forms of Islamic veil, and commentators explain why the niqab is so much worse than the shayla or the chandor, and indeed how the hijab is fine and even liberating for Muslim women.

The burqa-ban laws were introduced with such displays of speechmaking that anybody would think the fate of these countries hung on this single point of principle. One Belgian deputy admitted that ‘the image of our country abroad is more and more incomprehensible’, but said this near-unanimous vote banning the burqa and niqab rescued ‘an element of pride to be Belgian’. A French commission on the veil said the veil was ‘contrary to the values of the Republic’ and the parliament should make it clear that ‘all of France is saying “no” to the full veil’. The Spanish work minister said this clothing ‘clashes fundamentally with our society and equality between men and women. The values of our society cannot go into retreat.’

Lovely sounding stuff in front of the microphones, to be sure. Good photo ops for ambitious politicians, to a clamour of general approval and risking the loss of very little: there were so relatively few women wearing these articles of clothing — and few of them or their husbands/fathers/brothers likely have the vote anyway.

Now, pay heed to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Many of these women now have a choice: disobey the family head by going out in public without wearing the niqab/hijab/burkha (and risk beatings or even honour-killing), or follow the dictates of the family head and risk being arrested by the gendarmes.

How, exactly, is this going to benefit those poor women?

Update: The ban in France was passed in October and goes into effect today:

The centre-right government, which passed the law in October, has rolled out a public relations campaign to explain the ban and the rules of its application that includes posters, pamphlets and a government-hosted website.

Guidelines spelled out in the pamphlet forbid police from asking women to remove their burqa in the street. They will instead be escorted to a police station and asked to remove the veil there for identification.

[. . .]

In Avignon, Vaucluse, Reuters TV filmed a woman boarding a train wearing a niqab, unchallenged by police.

“It’s not an act of provocation,” said Kenza Drider. “I’m only carrying out my citizens’ rights, I’m not committing a crime … If they [police] ask me for identity papers I’ll show them, no problem.”

France has five million Muslims, but fewer than 2,000 women are believed actually to wear a face veil.

Many Muslim leaders have said they support neither the veil nor the law banning it.

March 25, 2010

The Belgian version of “asking for it”

Filed under: Europe,Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:34

A recent Belgian court decision is remarkable:

The crime victim, a businessman named only as Laurent, had been living in a suburb of Charleroi, in Belgium’s depressed French-speaking southern region of Wallonia.

He moved north after a series of violent attacks and robberies on his family but was taken to a local court because he had not paid back a grant to renovate his house in 1998.

It sounds fair that you’d be expected to repay a grant for renovations if you leave the area without good reason. I’d have said that these incidents would qualify for the “good reason” criterion:

In 2001, the victim was attacked and his BMW car was stolen. Shortly after it was recovered, armed men stormed his home and stole it a second time.

In 2006, his wife and children were threatened by armed raiders, who stormed his home at night and dragged him away in his pyjamas while his horrified family looked on.

He was later freed and dumped on a industrial estate as the thieves made off with another one of his cars, a Jaguar.

It might be questioned how someone who was able to own multiple expensive cars would be able to qualify for this kind of grant, but that’s a separate issue. But maybe not, as the presiding judge implied:

“It is perhaps not sensible to draw attention to oneself by driving a Jaguar and living in a big house, making an ostentatious display of one’s wealth in a poor and damaged region like Charleroi,” said the judge.

The businessman’s lawyer accused the civil court of supporting “hooligans”.

“In Charleroi, you must drive in a Trabant, wear a tracksuit and live in a slum to be safe from criminals and above reproach from judges,” said Clément de Clety

In other words, the judge really does think he was “asking for it”.

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