July 29, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part two of a series)

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:25

Yesterday, I posted the first part of this series. Today, I’m dragging you a lot further back in time than you probably expected, because it’s difficult to understand why Europe went to war in 1914 without knowing how and why the alliances were created. It’s not immediately clear why the two alliance blocks formed, as the interests of the various nations had converged and diverged several times over the preceding hundred years.

Let me take you back…

Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (map via amitm.com)

Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (map via amitm.com)

To start sorting out why the great powers of Europe went to war in what looks remarkably like a joint-suicide pact at the distance of a century, you need to go back another century in time. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the great powers of Europe were Russia, Prussia, Austria, Britain, and (despite the outcome of Waterloo) France. Britain had come out of the war in by far the best economic shape, as the overseas empire was relatively untroubled by conflict with the other European powers (with one exception), and the Royal Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world. France was an economic and demographic disaster area, having lost so many young men to Napoleon’s recruiting sergeants and the bureaucratic demands of the state to subordinate so much of the economy to the support of the armies over more than two decades of war, recovery from war, and preparation for yet more war. In spite of that, France recovered quickly and soon was able to reclaim its “rightful” position as a great power.

Dateline: Vienna, 1814

The closest thing to a supranational organization two hundred years ago was the Concert of Europe (also known as the Congress System), which generally referred to the allied anti-Napoleonic powers. They met in Vienna in 1814 to settle issues arising from the end of Napoleon’s reign (interrupted briefly but dramatically when Napoleon escaped from exile and reclaimed his throne in 1815). It worked well enough, at least from the point of view of the conservative monarchies:

The age of the Concert is sometimes known as the Age of Metternich, due to the influence of the Austrian chancellor’s conservatism and the dominance of Austria within the German Confederation, or as the European Restoration, because of the reactionary efforts of the Congress of Vienna to restore Europe to its state before the French Revolution. It is known in German as the Pentarchie (pentarchy) and in Russian as the Vienna System (Венская система, Venskaya sistema).

The Concert was not a formal body in the sense of the League of Nations or the United Nations with permanent offices and staff, but it provided a framework within which the former anti-Bonapartist allies could work together and eventually included the restored French Bourbon monarchy (itself soon to be replaced by a different monarch, then a brief republic and then by Napoleon III’s Second Empire). Britain after 1818 became a peripheral player in the Concert, only becoming active when issues that directly touched British interests were being considered.

The Concert was weakened significantly by the 1848-49 revolutionary movements across Europe, and its usefulness faded as the interests of the great powers became more focused on national issues and less concerned with maintaining the long-standing balance of power.

The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, but within a year, reactionary forces had regained control, and the revolutions collapsed.


The uprisings were led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers, which did not hold together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and many more forced into exile. The only significant lasting reforms were the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, and the definitive end of the Capetian monarchy in France. The revolutions were most important in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire, but did not reach Russia, Sweden, Great Britain, and most of southern Europe (Spain, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire).

The 1859 unification of Italy created new problems for Austria (not least the encouragement of agitation among ethnic and linguistic minorities within the empire), while the rise of Prussia usurped the traditional place of Austria as the pre-eminent Germanic power (the Austro-Prussian War). The 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War destroyed Napoleon III’s Second Empire and allowed the King of Prussia to become the Emperor (Kaiser) of a unified German state.

Russia’s search for a warm water port

Russia’s not-so-secret desire to capture or control Constantinople and the access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean was one of the political and military constants of the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe”, and few expected it to last much longer (yet it took a world war to finally topple it). The other great powers, however, were not keen to see Russia expand beyond its already extensive borders, so the Ottomans were propped up where necessary. The unlikely pairing of British and French interests in this regard led to the 1853-6 Crimean War where the two former enemies allied with the Ottomans and the Kingdom of Sardinia to keep the Russians from expanding into Ottoman territory, and to de-militarize the Black Sea.

The Black Sea in 1856 with the territorial adjustments of the Congress of Paris marked (via Wikipedia)

The Black Sea in 1856 with the territorial adjustments of the Congress of Paris marked (via Wikipedia)

Otto von Bismarck talks with the captive Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870.

Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck talks with the captive Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870.

Russia managed to get revenge on the French for their part in the Crimean War, by striking an agreement with Prussia to stay neutral in any conflict between the Prussians and the French, in exchange for a free hand in the Balkans (or, at least, free from Prussian interference). Bismarck then took the next opportunity to goad the French into declaring war. At the Battle of Sedan, the French army was utterly defeated and Napoleon III himself was captured. When the news of his defeat got to Paris, the Imperial government fell and a new republic was proclaimed.

In the wake of Napoleon III’s fall, France declared that they were no longer willing to oppose the re-introduction of Russian forces on and around the Black Sea. Britain did not feel it could enforce the terms of the 1856 treaty unaided, so Russia happily embarked on building a new Black Sea fleet and reconstructing Sebastopol as a fortified fleet base.

Twenty years after the Crimean War, the Russians found more success against the Ottomans, driving them out of almost all of their remaining European holdings and establishing independent or quasi-independent states including Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, with at least some affiliation with the Russians. A British naval squadron was dispatched to ensure the Russians did not capture Constantinople, and the Russians accepted an Ottoman truce offer, followed eventually by the Treaty of San Stefano to end the war. The terms of the treaty were later reworked at the Congress of Berlin.

The campaigns and major battles of the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 (via Wikipedia)

The campaigns and major battles of the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 (via Wikipedia)

Other territorial changes resulting from the war was the restoration of the regions of Thrace and Macedonia to Ottoman control, the acquisition by Russia of new territories in the Caucasus and on the Romanian border, the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia, Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novi Pazar (but not yet annexed to the empire), and British possession of Cyprus. The new states and provinces addressed a few of the ethnic, religious, and linguistic issues, but left many more either no better or worse than before:

An ethnographic map of the Balkans published in Carte Ethnographique de la Turquie d'Europe par A. Synvet, Lith. E Olivier, Constantinople 1877. (via Wikipedia)

An ethnographic map of the Balkans published in Carte Ethnographique de la Turquie d’Europe par A. Synvet, Lith. E Olivier, Constantinople 1877. (via Wikipedia)

The end of the second post and we’re still in the 1870s … more to come over the next few days.

July 28, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One?

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:47

It’s an easy question to ask, but a very hard one to answer. Traditionally, most people would answer “Germany”, with greater or lesser intensity as the years have passed (for example, here’s Boris Johnson making this particular case). More realistically, you might say Germany, Serbia, Austria, and Russia. Or just Serbia. Or just Russia. Or Britain (according to Niall Ferguson). Or France. Or the inflexible railway timetables for mobilization (Barbara Tuchman and others). Lots of candidates, none of whom can be clearly identified as the prime villain, because you can’t look at the situation in Europe in 1914 as anything other than complexity compounded.

Two recent works (both highly recommended) discuss the origins of the war in great detail and I’ve drawn on them for much of these posts:

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

There have been so many books written about the origins of the First World War because the origins are many, diverse, interconnected, and hard to weigh against one another in any rational fashion. The assassinations in Sarajevo turned out to be the triggering event, but the war could easily have broken out at any of several other potential flash points in the preceding decade — and even then, war could still have been prevented from breaking out in the summer of 1914. In some ways, it’s surprising that the alternative history folks haven’t been more active in exploring that era: the possibilities are quite fascinating (on second thought, having put this post together, the degree of confusion may account for the novelists wisely avoiding the topic after all).

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Although many authors refer to the various monarchs as active participants in the diplomatic and political spheres, this is not always an accurate way to consider their roles. The Tsar enjoyed the equivalent of a presidential veto and could start or stop government activity with a word … but most matters, even high-level military and diplomatic issues, would only come to his attention quite late in the process. This meant the Tsar might want to change his government’s course but because the situation was already well advanced, the costs to do so might well be insurmountable. Tsar Nicholas II was perhaps the worst-equipped of all the leaders of Europe for the task facing him, emotionally and intellectually (and he was aware of his weaknesses). Even Kaiser Wilhelm, who was well-known for his quixotic interference in military and diplomatic matters, was not the sole autocrat of German policy. The chancellor and the foreign secretary could (and did) overrule the Kaiser’s whims on many occasions. On the other hand, King George V was the least directly involved of all the rulers in the actions of his empire, but his public stance may have been somewhat at variance with his private communications with crown ministers (for example, this recent article in the Telegraph claims that the King pushed Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to “find a reason” to declare war on Germany).

A common misconception of the state of Europe in early 1914 was that the preceding century had been a golden age, peaceful and calm (think of all the discussions of the idyllic Edwardian era when contrasted with the chaos and disorder of 1914-1945 and beyond). Europe was only peaceful between 1815 and 1914 by contrast with previous centuries … there were many wars and the map of Europe was redrawn several times in that century. As Christopher Clark wrote:

Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.

But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

Margaret MacMillan shows how easily the calculations could go so wrong, so easily:

As we try to make sense of the events of the summer of 1914, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived a century ago before we rush to lay blame. We cannot now ask the decision-makers what they were thinking about as they took those steps along that path to destruction, but we can get a pretty good idea from the records of that time and the memoirs written later. One thing that becomes clear is that those who made the choices had very much in mind previous crises and earlier moments when decisions were made or avoided.

Russia’s leaders, for example, had never forgotten or forgiven Austria-Hungary’s annexations of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Moreover, Russia had failed to back its protégé Serbia when it confronted Austria-Hungary then and again in the Balkan wars in 1912-13. Now Austria-Hungary was threatening to destroy Serbia. What would it mean for Russia and its prestige if it stood by yet again and did nothing? Germany had not fully backed its ally Austria-Hungary in those earlier confrontations; if it did nothing this time, would it lose its only sure ally? The fact that earlier and quite serious crises among the powers, over colonies or in the Balkans, had been settled peacefully added another factor to the calculations of 1914. The threat of war had been used but in the end pressures had been brought to bear by third parties, concessions had been made, and conferences had been summoned, with success, to sort out dangerous issues. Brinksmanship had paid off.

Part one of a series of posts (I’m still digging deeper, so I’m not sure how many parts there will be…)

July 22, 2014

What happened to the top universities outside the Anglosphere?

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:29

Steve Sailer has an interesting take on the rise of the top universities in the Anglosphere:

The reality is that the top U.S. (and British) universities have been winning the global competition for talent since the middle of the 20th Century. Look at Nobel Prizes. It wasn’t always like this. Go back to the summer of 1914 and the best research universities tended to be German, with other Continental countries in competition.

What happened to bring about Anglo-American dominance of universities?

I’m sure there are many reasons, but I want to fixate on just two. Namely, we won the Big Ones: WWI and WWII. In the postwar era, the losers, such as Germany and Austria (1918 and 1945), Italy (1943) and France (1940) smashed up their great colleges for being epitomizations of anti-democratic elitism.

The Continentals converted their famous universities to open admissions with virtually no tuition: giant lecture halls with a few thousand students taking notes or dozing.

The French government, not being stupid, kept some small, low profile, ultra-elitist Écoles to train the people who actually run France, while trashing grand old names like the Sorbonne. Piketty, for example, did his undergrad at the École normale supérieure, which is immensely prestigious in the right circles in France, but us big dumb Americans hardly know about it because it only has 600 undergrads. And few Tiger Moms in Seoul, Shanghai, or Mumbai care about it either.

For a French culture that believes itself normally superior, this is annoying.

In contrast, the winning Americans poured even more money into Harvard and Yale. When 1968 happened, only CCNY in the U.S. was dumb enough to fall for the reigning ideology rather than just give it lip service. Instead, Harvard devoted ample resources to modeling admissions and perfected a system of affirmative action for buying off complainers (see Robert Klitgaard’s 1985 book Choosing Elites) without damaging Harvard as the prime pipeline to Wall Street.

Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge survived the Socialist governments with elitist prestige largely intact, mostly because Britain, though almost ruined by the expense, was on the winning side in WW I/II. And winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

July 21, 2014

QotD: Algis Budrys on Hitler’s impact on audiences

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:56

Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born in 1931 in Lithuania, but he didn’t stay there long. His father was an official in Lithuania’s diplomatic corps and while A J was still small the family was posted to Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia. A J, who had just about got a good handle on the Lithuanian language, began to learn German. His adult memories of East Prussia — which, like the rest of Germany, had been Nazified with the accession of Adolf Hitler a few years earlier — were troublesome.

He particularly recalled Hitler himself parading right past the Budrys apartment when he was five, he told Mark Williams in an interview shortly before he died. “After the Hitlerjugend walked through, Hitler came by in an open black Mercedes with his arm propped up.” The crowds made “indescribable” sounds. Men lost control of their bowels and had to race for the bushes or writhed and rolled on the ground.

Fred Pohl, “A J”, The Way The Future Blogs, 2010-07-26

July 20, 2014

QotD: The Kaiser and the genesis of the High Seas Fleet

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The 1890s were [...] a period of deepening German isolation. A commitment from Britain remained elusive and the Franco-Russian Alliance seemed to narrow considerably the room for movement on the continent. Yet Germany’s statesmen were extraordinarily slow to see the scale of the problem, mainly because they believed that the continuing tension between the world empires was in itself a guarantee that these would never combine against Germany. Far from countering their isolation through a policy of rapprochement, German policy-makers raised the quest for self-reliance to the status of a guiding principle. The most consequential manifestation of this development was the decision to build a large navy.

In the mid-1890s, after a long period of stagnation and relative decline, naval construction and strategy came to occupy a central place in German security and foreign policy. Public opinion played a role here — in Germany, as in Britain, big ships were the fetish of the quality press and its educated middle-class readers. The immensely fashionable “navalism” of the American writer Alfred Thayer Mahan also played a part. Mahan foretold in The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) a struggle for global power that would be decided by vast fleets of heavy battleships and cruisers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who supported the naval programme, was a keen nautical hobbyist and an avid reader of Mahan; in the sketchbooks of the young Wilhelm we find many battleships — lovingly pencilled floating fortresses bristling with enormous guns. But the international dimension was also crucial: it was above all the sequence of peripheral clashes with Britain that triggered the decision to acquire a more formidable naval weapon. After the Transvaal episode, the Kaiser became obsessed with the need for ships, to the point where he began to see virtually every international crisis as a lesson in the primacy of naval power.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

July 9, 2014

Thoughts on the “blitzkreig of Belo Horizonte”

Filed under: Americas, Europe, History, Soccer — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:59

Colby Cosh, self described as having descended from “multiple generations of German-killers” explains why he’s content with Brazil’s soccer disaster at the hands of the German national team yesterday:

It’s already being called “The Mineiraço. Yesterday’s 7-1 slaughter of Brazil by Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup seemed an awful lot like a historical turning point, and the political ripples are already being discussed. Perhaps they are not even confined to Brazil, although the recriminations there are bound to be awesome: the government spent untold billions on a golden stage for Brazilian glory, and ended up with the sporting equivalent of the Challenger disaster, if Challenger had crashed intact into a packed stadium where the Pope was giving a homily.

What seems most remarkable to me is not the match itself but the prelude. I grew up in a colony of Anglo-Saxon Soccer World in which Germany was inevitably cast as a cartoon villain and Brazil was everybody’s second favourite national side. Brazil were what Canada fancies itself to be in hockey: the native “speakers” of the prestige dialect of the game — a national noblesse, possessing self-conscious power to establish, dictate, and impose its ideal form on lesser breeds. (Even Canadian children who played soccer were dimly aware of this: the rich ones would signify their coolness by wearing Brazil kit to practices, as I’m sure Bulgarian youth hockey players must signify to their mates by flaunting expensive Crosbiana.)


Anglo Soccer World seemed to be very much leaning toward Germany in the run-up to the Mineiraço. No doubt this is partly because we are getting ever further from the Second World War. Germany has been mostly tame, friendly, and progressive for 70 years, the Biblical specification of a human lifetime. The length of this period is approaching the duration of the trouble to which German hyper-German-ness subjected Europe between the Battle of Sedan and the Holocaust. It is hard to see any lingering trace of the old ills of the German national character in contemporary Germany.

Update: Compare the responses to yesterday’s game to the reaction after the 1954 West German team’s victory:

… the West German victory was hardly something that was welcome elsewhere in Europe, particularly to the authorities in East Berlin. Less than ten years after the end of a world war for which the Germans were held responsible, there was understandably little public enthusiasm in Britain and France at the outcome of the competition. Nonetheless the extent of the dismay and even vitriol at the time expressed in the media of both countries requires further explanation and points to deep-seated concerns in Britain and France about the speed of German economic recovery and re-armament in the mid-1950s.

For the East German regime, West Germany’s victory at the World Cup was the worst possible outcome. Communist leaders had been praying for a Hungarian win in order to prove the much-claimed ‘superiority of socialist sport’ and, by implication, the Communist form of government. Hungary’s defeat appeared to prove that the opposite was true, just at a time when East German leaders were trying to promote their state as the ‘progressive option’ for all Germans, as opposed to what they called the ‘Nazi successor state’ of the Federal Republic.


It was two events off the pitch – one immediately after the final and the other a few days later – that were to give ammunition to those keen to link the West German victory to allegations of resurgent German nationalism. First, as a rain-soaked Fritz Walter led his team up to collect the Jules Rimet trophy from the man whose name it bore and a Swiss band played the German national anthem, a boozy section of the German fans began singing the banned first verse of the national anthem – ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles’ rather than the Federal Republic’s officially sanctioned third verse – ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit’ (unity, justice and freedom). Foreign journalists present immediately took note.

A few days later the damage was compounded by a speech given at the official victory celebration in a Munich beer cellar by the President of the German Football Association (Deutscher Fussball-Bund), ‘Peco’ Bauwens. In an atmosphere heavy with alcohol and emotion, Bauwens – who had joined the Nazi Party as early as 1933 – told the reportedly bemused players not only that they had been inspired by the spirit of the Nordic God, Wotan, but that victory had been made possible by their adherence to Der Führerprinzip. By this he appears to have meant unflinching obedience to a strategy worked out by the coach, Josef (Sepp) Herberger. The speech, which was being broadcast live by Bavarian Radio, was mysteriously cut short at this point and the tapes subsequently lost, but foreign reporters monitoring the coverage had already heard enough.

June 22, 2014

A Frisian translation of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt

Filed under: Europe, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Lois McMaster Bujold posted an image to her Goodreads page, showing the cover of a new translation of The Hallowed Hunt into a language I didn’t think was still spoken:

LMB - Hallowed Hunt in Frisian

She also posted a letter from the translator, which discusses some of the problems inherent in translating a fantasy novel into a language which only really became a written language quite recently:

Originally (we’re talking the early Middle Ages here), Frisian was the language closest related to English, but after more than a millennium of being heavily influenced by Dutch and German, this is no longer the case. Over the centuries, Dutch, German and the Low Saxon dialects of the eastern Netherlands and northern Germany have made such inroads into the original Frisian language area (once stretching all along the North Sea coast from what is now Belgium to Denmark), that it has crumbled into several small — or smallish — enclaves, which are still shrinking or at least remain under constant pressure. In the outside world, the term “Frisian” is generally used as if it were a monolithic language, but in fact there are three different Frisian languages, which are mutually quite incomprehensible and have been so for a long time.

• North Frisian is spoken in northern Germany, in an area along the North Sea coast and on the nearby islands directly south of the Danish border, by about 10,000 people.

• East Frisian was once spoken in the German coastal area adjacent to the Dutch border, but has gone extinct there, except for one small inland area, Saterland, which was originally surrounded by almost impassable peat bogs. Saterlandic, or Saterland Frisian, is still spoken today, by some 2,200 people.

• In the Dutch province of Friesland, Frisian is still spoken as a first language by about 350,000 people (out of a total provincial population of c.630,000). It has official status equal to Dutch, here, and some 110,000 inhabitants of the province speak it as a second language. There are a lot of Frisians who for the sake of (better) employment have moved away from Friesland, bringing the total number of native Frisian speakers in the Netherlands to c.450,000. From this point, I will refer to this language, my native tongue, as “Frisian”, which is the name we have for it (Frysk), but FYI, in English it is often called “West Frisian” (a somewhat confusing name, since in the Netherlands, that is what we call a Dutch dialect spoken in northern tip of the province of North Holland).

Today, Frisian is a minority language used by about 3% of the total Dutch population, and although a lot of things have changed for the better since the beginning of the 20th century, when the Frisian language movement first emerged, we still have to fight for our rights more often than not. To give you an impression of the situation we have to deal with, a 1994 survey showed that of the total number of inhabitants of Friesland (now c.630,000), 94% can understand Frisian, 74% can speak it, 65% can read it, and 17% can write it. (These are still the most recent numbers available; I’ve read that they’re in the process of doing a follow-up survey, but apparently the results aren’t in yet.)

On the subject of literary translations, it should be understood that this is a relatively new phenomenon for the Frisian language. The Bible was not published in Frisian until 1943, and Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre appeared in our language in eight big omnibus editions between 1955 and 1976 (although some plays, like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, had already been published separately in the twenties and thirties).

For any native Frisian readers who’d like to read this excellent book in your own language, you can buy the translation here.

June 6, 2014

“Fizzy dishwater” instead of Champagne for the “wine Fuhrer”

Filed under: Europe, History, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:45

Chris Mercer on the various ways the French Champagne producers tried to keep their best wine from being diverted to the use of the Nazis:

By the time the French city of Reims was liberated in August 1944, many Champagne houses and growers had spent four years playing a game of high stakes cat-and-mouse with the local Nazi ‘wine fuhrer’, Otto Klaebisch.

As Julian Hitner writes in a feature published in the July issue of Decanter magazine, it was Klaebisch’s job to keep the Nazi empire topped up with France’s finest Champagnes. At its peak, Klaebisch was demanding 400,000 bottles per week.

In response, many Champenois resorted to subterfuge to try to protect their most precious vintages and cuvees.

As noted in the book Wine & War by Don & Petrie Kladstrup, some built fake walls in their cellar to hide their best stocks, while others intentionally mislabelled bottles.

On more than one occasion, Klaebisch suspected he was being duped. ‘How dare you send us fizzy dishwater?’ he asked 20-year-old Francois Taittinger.

‘Who cares? It’s not as if it’s going to be drunk by anyone who knows anything about Champagne,’ replied the young Taittinger, who was subsequently thrown in prison for several days.

H/T to Brendan for the link.

Mulberries, PLUTO and Hobart’s Funnies

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

Seventy years ago today, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy by the combined British, American, and Canadian armies. A huge fleet of combat and transport vessels, supported by a large proportion of the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force bomber and fighter aircraft were all deeply involved in making the invasion a success. In addition, perhaps the world’s largest disinformation campaign was being run to keep the German high command unsure of the real time and location of the invasion: the Pas de Calais and the Norwegian coast were also potential invasion targets, forcing the defenders to spread their forces thinner and to keep as many as possible out of reach of the real beaches.

In addition to the operational uncertainty of where to expect the blow, the Germans were also split about how best to conduct the defence: Field Marshal Rommel wanted to rush units to the beach as soon as possible, to defeat the Allies before they got inland. General Geyr von Schweppenburg, commander of Panzer Group West (and Field Marshal von Rundstedt, overall commander in the West), on the other hand, preferred to meet the Allies further inland (not taking the full impact of Allied air superiority into account). On 6 June, the defenders fell between the two philosophies, not being able to mass enough force to stop the invaders in their tracks, but suffering higher casualties in the attempt to move units toward the coast in the teeth of RAF/USAAF attacks.

Operation Overlord (detail) Click to see full-sized image at wwii-info.net

Operation Overlord (detail) Click to see full-sized image at wwii-info.net

The invasion beaches were code-named Utah (4th US Division), Omaha (1st and 29th US divisions), Gold (50th British Division), Juno (3rd Canadian Division), and Sword (3rd British Division). Before the amphibious forces landed, three paratroop divisions were dropped behind the beaches to slow down German response (US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to the West and Southwest of Utah beach, and the 6th British Airborne to the East of Sword beach).

One thing to note from the map is that there wasn’t a significant port within the invasion zone: the Allies had learned the bitter lessons of attacking a port in August of 1942 and the 2nd Canadian Division had paid in blood for the tuition. This meant a way had to be found to keep getting supplies to the troops after they moved off the beaches, until a functioning port could be secured. The Allied answer was to bring a port with them from England — two of them, actually — one to support the US forces in the West and one to support the British and Canadian forces in the East. These were the Mulberry harbours:

Mulberry harbour aerial view

Think Defence explains how the Mulberry harbour worked:

In the image above these three components are shown.

A; Breakwater to attenuate waves

B; Pier heads at which to load and unload

C; Causeways that connected the pier heads to the beach

Each of the components was given a code word but fundamentally, they were concerned with either providing sheltered water or connecting ships and the beach.

There have been a number of different theories about how the Mulberry name was chosen, the more fanciful ones being completely incorrect.

Brigadier White recalls the moment he received a memo, unclassified, with the heading ‘Artificial Harbours’ and after recovering from the shock of such poor security immediately consulted with the Head of Security at the War Office. The next code, from the big book of code words, was Mulberry, it was that simple.


There were two complete Mulberry harbours, A for American and B for British, each the size of Dover harbour. Once the task of constructed and assembling the components on the South coast of England was complete they were ordered to Normandy on the 6th of June 1944, D-Day, departing on the 7th

Assembling the components was an effort in itself, requiring 600 tugs drawn from all parts of the UK and USA, all under the supervision of the Admiralty Towing Section commanded by Rear Admiral Brind.

Operational security was paramount, the captains of the block ships were told they were going to the Bay of Biscay and a model of the Mulberry harbour and invasion beaches in the headquarters of the Automobile Association at Fanum House was made by toymakers who were confined to the building until well after the invasion.

Unfortunately, the Western harbour was severely damaged in a storm a few weeks after coming into service, so the Eastern Mulberry had to do double duty after that.

Aside from the need to get reinforcements, rations, ammunition and other supplies forward, the Allied armies were highly motorized, and required vast amounts of fuel. Without a port’s specialized unloading facilities, it was assumed that it would be somewhere between difficult and impossible to keep the armies mobile. To address this, PLUTO was developed: Pipe Line Under The Ocean.

A great solution, although as Think Defence points out, it didn’t actually go into service until a few months after D-Day, and was not quite the war-winner the newsreel portrayed:

Second in daring only to the artificial harbors project and provided our main supplies of fuel during the Winter and Spring campaigns.

What also PLUTO did was allow vital tanker tonnage to be deployed to the Far East theatre.

Despite the understandable over exaggeration of the success of PLUTO it should be noted that fuel did not start flowing until September 1944, well after the invasion and on the 4th of October, BAMBI was closed down and operations concentrated on DUMBO after it had delivered a measly 3,300 tonnes, hardly war winning.

Cherbourg was by then receiving tanker supplies direct from the USA.

Major General Sir Percy HobartGetting across the channel was a major undertaking, but getting the troops ashore with enough firepower to break out of the beach defences required more innovation. The British army established a specialized unit to develop and operate vehicles and weapon systems specifically designed for that purpose. Major General Sir Percy Hobart was the commander of the 79th Armoured Division, and he was exactly the right man for the job (being related by marriage to Montgomery may have helped, too, but before taking command he was acting as a corporal in the Home Guard).

Hobart’s unit developed some of the most interesting armoured vehicles (not all of which were brilliant successes) and it’s safe to say that the Allies would have suffered much higher casualties without Hobart’s “Funnies”. In fact, General Eisenhower said as much himself: “Apart from the factor of tactical surprise, the comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all beaches, except OMAHA, were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed, and to the staggering moral and material effect of the mass of armor landed in the leading waves of the assault. It is doubtful if the assault forces could have firmly established themselves without the assistance of these weapons.” Think Defence has a good summary of many of these odd and interesting vehicles:

Sherman Duplex-Drive tank

Sherman tanks were also converted into amphibious vehicles by the addition of a canvas skirt, propellers and other modifications. These provided vital armoured fire support in the opening phase of the beach assault although a number were lost to the heavy seas when they were launched too far from the beach. It is widely thought that as these losses were particularly heavy on Omaha beach it was this that contributed to the very high losses in that area.

Sherman AVRE Flail tank

Mine clearance was carried out by a number of means but the preferred method was to use rotating chain flails to detonate the mines thus clearing a path the width of the tank. The flails were mounted on the front of the tank and were called Sherman Crabs. A number of Churchill based designs using rollers and ploughs were also employed, although this image shows one mounted on a Sherman.

Churchill AVRE Bobbin tank

The beach surveys had revealed the existence of large patches of clay that would not bear the weight of heavy vehicles and artillery. To overcome this the ‘bobbin’ tanks were used that laid a continuous reinforced canvas mat over the soft ground, thus spreading the load over a wider area.

Canadian paratroopers on D-Day – “he thought we were battle hardened and we were as green as green could be”

Filed under: Cancon, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Lance Corporal John Ross tells the Ottawa Citizen about his D-Day experiences with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion:

“We attacked the strong point; there was an all-night fire fight. We had casualties and the Germans did too. At about 10 o’clock in the morning they surrendered. There were about 30 of us there, 42 Germans surrendered to us. They outnumbered us and they out gunned us,” describes Capt (Ret) John Ross, now 93 years-old recalling his time as a paratrooper who dropped several kilometers inland of Normandy on D-Day.

“We took off on the 5th of June, one day before D-Day. C Company was given the job to go in 30 minutes ahead to clear the drop zone of any enemy and attack the German complex.”

Capt (Ret) Ross served as a Lance Corporal in C Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 3rd Airborne Brigade, 6th British Airborne Division. He was dropped from an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle, a small two engine paratroop transport aircraft.


When thinking back to his time in Normandy Capt (ret) Ross remembers how Canadian soldiers were thought of as, seasoned warriors.

“I read an excerpt written by a German General after the war. He was in that area that we dropped in and he said that the reason they were overcome was because they faced battle hardened Canadians. I’d like to write a letter to him and say none of those Canadians had ever heard a shot fired in anger; he thought we were battle hardened and we were as green as green could be.”

May 28, 2014

The oddly neglected Battle of Amiens, 1918

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:28

In History Today, Nick Lloyd wonders why the allied victory at the Battle of Amiens does not have the same degree of recognition that the British disaster at the Battle of the Somme does:

For the historian John Terraine, who fought a long and lonely battle to rescue the reputation of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig – commonly caricatured as a ‘butcher and bungler’ – the Battle of Amiens was his vindication. In his article for History Today, written in 1958, Terraine revisited the scene of the infamous ‘black day’ of the German army on August 8th, 1918. As Terraine reminds us, this battle was a far cry from the barren, bloody results of the first day on the Somme, July 1st, 1916, when the British army suffered its worst day. According to Terraine, Amiens was a triumph of ‘planning and method … of co-ordination and cunning; of the valour and efficiency of the British artillery and tanks; and of the courage, initiative and dash of the infantry’.

Much of what Terraine wrote still stands. Amiens was a decisive moment, kicking off Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s ‘series of movements’ that would end with the German government appealing for peace negotiations on October 3rd (an essential prelude to the Armistice on November 11th). Amiens was a perfect demonstration of not only how effective British and Commonwealth forces had become by 1918 – developing an embryonic blitzkrieg – but also how the German army had no answer to this kind of combined, all-arms approach to warfare.

Purists will be offended by Terraine’s failure to explain the role of the French army at Amiens (which extended the attack to the south), but more intriguing is the sidelining of Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps. Indeed, Terraine’s focus on generals Rawlinson and Monash (although not incorrect in itself) seems to miss how important the Canadians were to the battle; it would be true to say that they made the Battle of Amiens. Their four divisions in line, deployed in the centre along the Amiens-Roye Road, formed the spearhead of the assault. At the end of the day they had driven eight miles into the position of the German Second Army.

May 4, 2014

The Battle of the Atlantic

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

On the first Sunday in May every year, we remember the Battle of the Atlantic, one of the major contributions to allied victory in World War 2, and the Canadian part in that multi-year battle:

The Battle of the Atlantic campaign was fought at sea from 1939 to 1945 with the strategic outcome being sea-control of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was the longest, largest, and arguably the most complex campaign of the Second World War. Over the course of 2,075 days, Allied naval and air forces fought more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single ship actions against the submarines and warships of the German and Italian navies. Enemy vessels targeted mainly the convoys of merchant ships transporting material and troops vital to safeguarding the freedom of the peoples of North America and Europe.

On any given day, up to 125 merchant vessels were sailing in convoy across the North Atlantic. It was during these treacherous, stormy crossings that Canada’s navy matured and won the mantle of a professional service. Our navy escorted more than 25,000 merchant vessels across the Atlantic. These ships carried some 182,000,000 tonnes of cargo to Europe — the equivalent of eleven lines of freight cars, each stretching from Vancouver to Halifax. Without these supplies, the war effort would have collapsed.

Thousands of Canadian men and women – members of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Merchant Navy (MN) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), mostly volunteers from small town Canada – had to face situations so perilous they are difficult for us to imagine. As Canadians, we should be proud of their courage.

Although largely unprepared for war in 1939, Canada’s navy grew at an unparalleled rate eventually providing 47 percent of all convoy escorts. Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, who as Commander-in-Chief Northwest Atlantic from March 1943, would become the only Canadian to hold an Allied theatre command during the war and direct the convoy battles out of his headquarters in Halifax.

During the Second World War the RCN grew from 13 vessels to a strength of nearly 100,000 uniformed men and women and nearly 400 vessels, the fourth largest navy in the world. It had suffered 2,210 fatalities, including six women, and had lost 33 vessels. It had destroyed or shared in the destruction of 33 U-Boats and 42 enemy surface craft. In partnership with Canada’s maritime air forces and merchant navy, it had played a pivotal and successful role in the contest for seaward supremacy.

Merchant ships of Convoy HX188 en route to Britain. Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA-115006

Merchant ships of Convoy HX188 en route to Britain.
Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA-115006

April 10, 2014

Policing the language, German style

Filed under: Europe, Law — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:24

Matthias Heitmann on the odd things that happen to avoid any hint of Nazi contamination in allowable letter combinations on license plates and to mandate equal gender presence in job titles and place names:

In Germany today, you see, there is a palpable desire to cleanse society of views officially deemed unacceptable or politically incorrect. This is most obvious when it comes to words or views associated with fascism or the far right. It’s likely that even the most liberal of Germans would oppose the right of members of the right-wing National Democratic Party to voice their strange views in public. Indeed, having embarrassingly failed to ban the party in 2003, the federal government is currently trying to outlaw the party once again. Anyone attempting to defend free speech or freedom of association in this context will find themselves accused of being a fascist sympathiser, an apologist or, even worse, disrespecting victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.

The popular fear of being accused of being a Nazi sympathiser has resulted in some strange regulations. Since the 1980s, for instance, the letter combinations ‘NS’, ‘KZ’, ‘SS’, ‘SA’ or ‘HJ’, which all potentially allude to fascist symbols or institutions, have been banned from use on car licence plates. In the past few months, there has been a heated debate about whether letter or number combinations like ‘HH’ or ‘88’ (which both allude to ‘Heil Hitler’), ‘18’ (meaning ‘Adolf Hitler’), 204 (meaning Hitler’s birthday) or even ‘GV’ (which is short for sexual intercourse) should be banned from licence plates, too. This poses something of a problem for Hamburg car owners, whose licence plates all start with ‘HH’.


It’s not only on the traditional minefield of racism and fascism that free speech has suffered in Germany. Free speech has also been knocked about by feminists, too, with their determination to impose new language and behaviour regulations. Last summer, for instance, the University of Leipzig announced plans to address its staff using only the feminine forms of words. ‘Professorin’ is due to replace older formulations like ‘Professorinnen und Professoren’ or ‘Professor/innen’. Schröder, meanwhile, admitted during a recent interview that not even the Bible is immune from linguistic tinkering. When talking to girls, for instance, the masculine ‘der Gott’ could simply become the neutral ‘das Gott’.

Interestingly, when feminist language control clashes with anti-fascist dogma, feminism seems to prevail. In the German capital, Berlin, a local parliament, heavily dominated by green and left-wing politicians, voted against naming a square in front of the Jewish Museum after the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. This decision was made on the grounds that as Mendelssohn was a man, he would break the rule established in 2005 to only name streets and squares after women. This was deemed necessary in order to achieve sexual equality on the city map. As a compromise, the local parliament used Mendelssohn wife’s name alongside his own, creating ‘Moses-und-Fromet-Mendelssohn-Platz’. Although Fromet wasn’t a historic figure, she at least was a woman.

March 24, 2014

The Great Escape (with bonus Canadian content)

Filed under: Cancon, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:06

It was 70 years ago today that the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III took place:

March 22, 2014

Night Bombers, 1943

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Published on 30 Dec 2012

A unique record of the nightly air raids made on Germany during World War II. Archive colour footage from No. 1 Group, Royal Air Force operating Avro Lancaster bombers, in action, winter 1943. In the winter of 1943, RAF Bomber Command was sending massive raids almost every night into the heart of Germany. This is the story of one of them, an attack on Berlin. Although certain scenes had to be re-created for technical reasons, make no mistake, the raid is a real one and there are no actors.

Made by Air Commodore H.I. Cozens while station commander at Hemswell. This is the Only known colour record of the Bomber Command during WWII documenting a bombing raid targeting Berlin.

Another great find from the folks at Think Defence.

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