Published on 9 Feb 2015
In the run up to the 100 yr anniversary of the end of the First World War Michael Portillo travels across France and Belgium to find out the history of raiways of the past and present….
February 17, 2017
February 6, 2017
There were a lot of generals involved in the campaign in northern France and Flanders that began on June 14, 1815, and culminated in the memorable Battle of Waterloo on June 18th. Altogether there were 240 of them, to command nearly 360,000 troops. And since the troops came from a lot of different armies — British, French, Prussian, Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick, and a few others, telling the generals apart can be a bit confusing.
Note that the rank structure is not really comparable to that prevailing today in the U.S. Army. The functional equivalent of a British major general or a French general de brigade or marechal de camp would actually be brigadier general based on their commands. The French rank system was actually much more complicated than may appear from the table. To begin with, the highest actual rank in the army was general de division. Marechal de l’Empire was technically a distinction, not a rank. Now it gets really complicated. A corps commander who was officially a general de division might by courtesy be designated a general de corps d’armee. However, a general de division might also sometimes be referred to as a lieutenant-general, particularly if he was functioning in a staff position. Meanwhile, the chief-of-staff of the army was designated major general. In addition, an officer commanding a brigade was more likely to be designated a marechal de camp (i.e., “field marshal”) rather than general de brigade, which was reserved for officers with special duties, such as the commanders of the regiments of the Garde Imperial. This complexity had developed as a result of the Revolution, which favored functional titles for military officers, chef de battailon for example, rather than major. Unfortunately, staff personnel often required rank, so the old Royal hierarchical titles of rank survived for a long time alongside the functional Revolutionary ones.
Further complicating matters was the fact that in all the armies an officer’s social rank was often used rather than his military rank. Thus, although Wellington was a Field Marshal he was usually referred to as “His Grace, the Duke” without his military rank. In Wellington’s case this could become quite complicated, as he was a duke thrice over, the Portuguese and Spanish having created him such even before the British, and he was also a Prince of the Netherlands. As each of these gave him a different title, references to him in Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch works can easily become obscure. For example, to the Portuguese he was the Duque de Douro, and one Portuguese language history of the Peninsular War nowhere uses any other name for him. Then there is the problem of multiple ranks. Wellington, for example, was a field marshal in the British, Prussian, Netherlands, and Portuguese armies, as well as being a Capitan General in the Spanish Army. Although none of the other officers in the campaign had so many different ranks, several held more than one. For example, the Prince of Orange was a Dutch field marshal and a general in the British Army, while the Duke of Brunswick, who commanded his division in his capacity as duke, was also a lieutenant-general in the British Army.
Al Nofi, “Al Nofi’s CIC”, Strategy Page, 2000-02-01.
December 6, 2016
Published on 5 Dec 2016
Indy is sitting int he chair of madness again and answers all your questions about the First World War. This week we talk about the Belgians and Hand Grenades.
July 23, 2016
All the current nationalist parties of small nations in Europe — the Scots, the Welsh, the Basque, the Catalans, the Flemish — strongly support membership in the European Union, which is dedicated to, and even predicated upon, the extinction of national sovereignty. One would have thought that these parties wanted, at a minimum, national sovereignty. The contradiction is so glaring that it requires an explanation.
The human mind is not a perfect calculating machine, and no doubt all of us sometimes contradict ourselves. Perfect consistency tends to be disconcerting — but so does glaring inconsistency. It’s possible that the nationalist parties’ leaders don’t perceive the contradiction, being so blinded by ideology that they are simply unaware of it. But another possible explanation exists: by leading their nominally independent countries, they forever will be able to feed at the great trough of Brussels and distribute its largesse in true clientelistic fashion. The nationalist leaders certainly lead their people, but by the nose.
Oddly enough, I have not seen the contradiction between current nationalism and support for remaining in the European Union referred to in the press, though I don’t read every paper in every language. This is surely one of the first times in history, however, that the expression, “Out of the frying pan into the fire,” has become not a warning, but the desired destination of substantial proportions of whole populations.
Theodore Dalrymple, “Nationalist Contradictions in Europe: Why do breakaway political parties want to remain in the European Union?”, City Journal, 2016-06-27.
April 26, 2016
Published on 25 Apr 2016
It’s Chair of Wisdom time again and this week we talk about the experiments with body armor of World War 1, fortress design and the Belgian Armoured Car Division.
December 16, 2015
Published on 14 Dec 2015
King Albert I of Belgium was not by any means a regular monarch. It was already unlikely that he became King in the first place and when he did, he tried everything he could to distance himself from King Leopold II who had reigned before him. After the outbreak of World War 1 he tried everything he could to keep up the morale on the Yser Front, the last part of Belgium not occupied by the Germans.
December 10, 2015
Published on 5 Dec 2015
Indy sits in the chair of wisdom again to answer your questions and this time we are telling the story of German New Guinea and talk about Germans passing through Belgium in 1914.
December 7, 2015
Judging by emerging reports, it almost looks as though the big new international-relations problem highlighted by the latest massacre might end up being the failure of the Belgian state. Some of the perpetrators seem to have fled toward the terrorist-riddled Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, which has sprouted a long sequence of killers involved with everything from the 2004 Madrid attacks to the failed August Amsterdam-Paris train attack that was stopped by American passengers. The Belgian authorities are contrite about the helplessness of their police and security apparatus in a zone that is a giant magnet for Europe’s Muslim creeps and ne’er-do-wells.
This raises further existential questions, and it is not as though they are new, about an ethnically divided country fabricated by 19th-century great powers mostly for geopolitical purposes. Foreign-policy amateurs are fond of saying, with some justice, that most of the world’s problems come from borders badly drawn by Europeans in out-of-the-way places. Belgium’s worsening habit of exhaling spores of Muslim terror on to its neighbours may actually put it on that list, unless its problem is solved pretty quickly.
Colby Cosh, “After Paris, are we sure the map that needs changing is in the Middle East?”, National Post, 2015-11-17.
October 23, 2015
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.
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.