Published on 22 Oct 2015
Edith Cavell was a British nurse serving in a nursing school in occupied Belgium. She was executed by the Germans for treason and espionage in Brussels. Her death and the surrounding atrocity propaganda caused a public outcry all over the world. At the same time the First World War continued like never before. The Third Battle of the Isonzo didn’t bring a decision between Austria-Hungary and Italy, in Gallipoli the troops were slowly withdrawn and the the Champagne offensive of the French army was still in full swing.
October 23, 2015
September 28, 2015
Published on 17 May 2015
In 1815, eight miles south of Brussels, two of history’s greatest generals met in battle for the first and only time: Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, and the Duke of Wellington. The result was an epic, brutal battle that would decide the fate of Europe.
June 14, 2015
It is, as the Reg‘s Jennifer Baker puts it, “just a happy side effect”:
Belgium has taken international trolling to the next level by minting a €2.50 coin to celebrate the Battle of Waterloo.
France had objected to the plan to mint a €2 coin to mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat and Belgium duly scrapped 180,000 coins. France said the battle “has a particular resonance in the collective consciousness that goes beyond a simple military conflict”.
But the plucky Belgies didn’t take the French manoeuvre lying down and unearthed an obscure piece of legislation which allows EU countries to unilaterally mint new coins, provided that they are in an unusual denomination.
May 30, 2015
The Economist reviews some of the recent books published to co-incide with the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo:
WITH the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo fast approaching, the publishing industry has already fired volley after volley of weighty ordnance at what is indeed one of the defining events of European history. About that, there can be no argument. Waterloo not only brought to an end the extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambitions had led directly to the deaths of up to 6m people. It also redrew the map of Europe and was the climax of what has become known as the second Hundred Years War, a bitter commercial and colonial rivalry between Britain and France that had begun during the reign of Louis XIV. Through its dogged resistance to France’s hegemonic ambitions in the preceding 20 years, Britain helped create the conditions for the security system known as the Concert of Europe, established in 1815. The peace dividend Britain enjoyed for the next 40 years allowed it to emerge as the dominant global power of the 19th century.
If the consequences of the battle were both profound and mostly benign, certainly for Britain, the scale of the slaughter and suffering that took place in fields 10 miles (16km) south of Brussels on that long June day in 1815 remains shocking. The Duke of Wellington never uttered the epigram attributed to him: “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” What he did say in the small hours after the battle was: “Thank God, I don’t know what it is like to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” Nearly all his staff had been killed or wounded. Around 200,000 men had fought each other, compressed into an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres).
When darkness finally fell, up to 50,000 men were lying dead or seriously wounded — it is impossible to say how many exactly, because the French losses were only estimates — and 10,000 horses were dead or dying. Johnny Kincaid, an officer of the 95th Rifles who survived the onslaught by the French on Wellington’s centre near La Haie Sainte farm, coolly declared: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”
Four errors, partly the result of poor staff work, helped doom Napoleon. The first, entirely self-inflicted, was to deprive himself of his two most effective generals: Marshal Davout, left behind to guard Paris, and Marshal Suchet, put in charge of defending the eastern border against possible attack by the Austrians. The second was Ney’s almost inexplicable hesitation in taking the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, the key to dividing the coalition armies. The third was the aimless wandering in the pouring rain of the Compte d’Erlon and his 20,000 troops between the battle at Quatre Bras against the Anglo-Dutch and the battle at Ligny that the Prussians were losing. Had he intervened in either, the impact could have been decisive. The fourth was the failure of initiative by Grouchy that allowed the regrouped Prussians to outflank him and arrive at the critical moment to save Wellington at Waterloo.
That said, nothing should be taken away from Napoleon’s conquerors. Both commanders were talented professionals — Wellington was unmatched in the art of defence — who had experienced and competent subordinates and staffs. The British infantry and the King’s German Legion (a British army unit) were hardened veterans of the highest quality. Above all, both commanders trusted each other and never wavered in their mutual support, a factor that Napoleon almost certainly underestimated in his strategic calculus.
May 24, 2015
January 17, 2015
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.