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First World War

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Turn the Page

25 July 2009

Turn the Page

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago this month, there were twenty-four left. Now they are all gone, and there is nobody alive who fought in the First World War. Well, there is still Jack Babcock, who joined the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1917 but got no closer to the fighting than England, and American veteran Frank Buckles, who drove an ambulance in France as a 17-year-old in 1918. But the last real combatant, Harry Patch, who was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, died on Saturday.

They’ve been going fast. Erich Kaestner, the last German veteran, died in January, 2008. Tony Pierro, who fought with the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918, died in February. Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the generation of French men who fought in the trenches, died a month later. (One-third of French males who were between 13 and 30 in 1914 did not survive the war.)

Yakup Satar, who joined the Turkish army in 1915 and fought in Iraq, died in April, 2008. Delfino Borroni, the last Italian veteran, died in October. Australia’s last veteran, Jack Ross, died last month, and Henry Allingham, the grandest old man of all, died a week ago.

Henry Allingham was almos t twenty in 1916 when he took part in the Battle of Jutland, the last and greatest clash of armoured steel battleships. (He saw the giant shells “skipping off the water.”) As a mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Service, he flew missions over the freezing North Sea in 1917 in seaplanes that he described as “motorised kites.” And he spent 1918 in France trying to recover British planes that came down in No Man’s Land.

“We were moving forward at night,” he recalled about the Western Front. “It was dark… I fell into a shell hole. It was full of arms, legs, ears, dead rats – a lot of dead, rotten flesh… I lay there in the dark, not daring to 20move, cold and with my uniform stinking. I was frightened.” Sixty million men had the same memories, but they are no longer with us.

Harry Patch was an apprentice plumber when he was conscripted in 1916, and nineteen years old when he arrived at the Western Front in 1917. He lasted four months before a German shell burst overhead, killing three close friends and wounding him in the groin. He was evacuated to England, and never saw the war again.

He married in 1918, had children, followed his trade of plumbing, and served as a volunteer fireman during the bombing raids on Bristol during the Second World War. He died on Saturday, at the age of 111. So what have Har ry Patch of Somerset and his sixty million comrades (for it no longer matters which side they were on) left behind for us?

One thing they would have been quite clear about: we can’t do this any more. In the First World War we crossed a threshold. All the advances in science and technology came together and created a kind of industrialised warfare that is simply unsustainable in human terms. It consumes soldiers, civilians, whole cities at a rate that endangers civilisation itself.

All the technological innovations that have been added since the First World War – armoured divisions, bomber fleets, nuclear weapons – only deepen the lesson, they don’t chan ge it. Human beings have fought wars since we were all hunter-gatherers, and those who were good at it tended to prosper. Now, if you are really good at war, you will be destroyed.

Europe is just where industrialised total war first appeared. You can send expeditionary forces into the weaker parts of what we used to call the Third World and bash them to your heart’s content, but if you get into a serious fight with another fully industrialised country, you will be both be destroyed. (This is a lesson that emerging industrial countries like India, China and Brazil can learn cheaply from history, or very expensively from experience.)

What else did the sixty million l eave us? Inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where I taught “war studies” as a much younger man, is the first line of Horace’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:” How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. But we don’t believe that lie any more.

Wilfred Owen was killed crossing the Sambre canal a week before the war ended. He never got any older than 25, but he put the wisdom that the millions bought with their lives into his poem “Dulce et decorum est.” It’s about a poison gas attack, and the last lines run: If you could hear..the blood come gargling from the froth- corrupted lungs…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It’s almost a century now since anybody but fascists and fools saw war as glorious. The government may tell us that our “glorious dead” have “fallen”, but we know that they were only teenagers, and that they died in agony and lost all the rest of their lives. Sometimes we even worry about the fact that we have sent them to kill people for us.

In 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Harry Patch was manning his machine-gun when a German got close enough that he looked lik e a real person – and suddenly Harry realised that he didn’t want to kill him. Shouldn’t kill him, in fact. He shot the German in the shoulder, which made him drop his rifle, but he kept coming.

So Harry shot him again, first above the knee and then in the ankle. God knows if the German survived all this, but at least Harry was trying. So are the rest of us. Most of the time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3, 4 and 5. (“They’ve been…with us”)

The Wicked Poles

12 June 2000

The Wicked Poles

By Gwynne Dyer

In the old Soviet Union, the future was always certain; only the past was liable to change without notice. The signal that it had changed was often the publication of a pseudo-scholarly article that denounced the “Falsifications” of the existing version of history.

Here we go again. Last week Colonel Sergei Kovalev, the director of the scientific research department at the Institute of Military History, published an article on the website of the Russian Ministry of Defence entitled “Fictions and Falsifications in Evaluating the USSR’s Role On the Eve of the Second World War.” He says it was the Poles who started the war in 1939, not the Nazis.

The British and the French were to blame too, because earlier in 1939 they guaranteed Poland’s independence if it stood up to Hitler’s demands. That gave the Poles “delusions of grandeur,” unfortunately, and misled them into rebuffing Germany’s “very modest” requests.

Germany only made two demands to Warsaw in 1939. One was the return of Danzig, a German-speaking city that had been separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. The other was a German road and rail corridor across the strip of territory (the “Polish Corridor”) that gave the Poles access to the Baltic Sea, but separated eastern Germany from the rest of the country.

Kovalev is right about one thing: Hitler’s demands were reasonable enough. By 1939 almost everybody agreed that the Versailles treaty had been wrong to blame the First World War on Germany, and that the five million Germans whose lands had been handed out to neighbouring countries under that treaty had been treated unfairly. But most historians also think that Hitler’s demands were just an opening bid.

The conventional wisdom is that Hitler was determined on world conquest from the start, and that if Poland had accepted his terms in 1939 it would just have faced further demands not much later. But the conventional historians may be wrong, for Hitler also offered Poland a secret alliance against the Soviet Union when he made his demands.

Poland’s military rulers rejected the whole package, trusting in the Anglo-French guarantee to protect them. From the day that the guarantee was issued in March, 1939, they refused even to discuss it with the Germans. That may have been a mistake, for when war came in September Britain and France were unable to help them militarily, and Poland was overrun in a month.

But this hardly explains why Kovalev blames Poland for causing the war, and why the Russian Ministry of Defence put his article on its website. The reason for that, most likely, lies with their need to rewrite the history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

That was the secret agreement of August, 1939 in which Germany and the Soviet Union carved up eastern Europe between them. The Russians got eastern Poland, all of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and parts of Romania. The Finns fought back and managed to save most of their country, but all the rest succumbed.

This deal has always been hard for the Russians to defend, especially since the Nazis attacked them two years later anyway. They usually say they were just trying to win time, but Stalin clearly fooled himself into believing that he had a real deal with the Nazis. He was recovering almost all the lands that had won their freedom from the Russian empire after the First World War (and he wasn’t interested in the opinions of the residents).

The Soviet secret police killed or deported hundreds of thousands of “politically unreliable” people in the newly conquered territories.

(Twenty thousand Polish officers who had surrendered to the Russians were murdered in Katyn forest to decapitate any resistance movement.) So it’s not surprising that some people in the Baltic states welcomed German troops as liberators in 1941, and that very few people anywhere in Eastern Europe saw Red Army troops as liberators when they came back in 1944.

This has always infuriated the Russians, who see the Red Army as heroes and liberators. Col. Kovalev’s article blaming the Poles for the war was bound to appeal to Russian patriots just as much as it would appal Poles, Estonians, and all the other Eastern Europeans who had to live for decades under the Soviet yoke.

The Polish ambassador in Moscow protested and Kovalev’s article has now been removed from the Ministry of Defence’s website, but the broader trend in Russia is clearly to rewrite history in ways that rehabilitate the Soviet past. Indeed, last month Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ordered the creation of the Commission to Counteract the Falsification of History to the Detriment of Russian Interests.

That sounds slightly less weird in Russian, but not much. And there’s now legislation before the Duma (parliament) that would outlaw any portrayal of the Red Army as invaders EVEN ON THE TERRITORY OF FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS. Of course, Moscow could not enforce that legislation without invading (sorry, liberating) them again, so it has little practical effect, but it is indicative of the mood in the country.

Russia isn’t planning to invade anybody, but it is feeling spectacularly touchy and grumpy at the moment. So far Medvedev (and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) are managing to ride the tiger, but if they fall off they could be eaten up in a flash.______________________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Kovalev…demands”)

Islam and the Idiotic Autocrats

30 August 2007

Islam and the Idiotic Autocrats

By Gwynne Dyer

It was not a tactful way to start out in his new job as a Turkish government spokesman, but Suat Kiniklioglu did cut to the heart of the matter. The reaction to the outcome of the recent Turkish elections (22 July) in other Muslim countries, he said, “can be roughly summed up as asking: What the hell did the Turks do right that we didn’t do? How come they can manage a predominantly Muslim population, negotiate (for membership) with the European Union, and have a workable democracy while we’re stuck with these idiotic autocrats.”

Idiotic autocrats? Could he be referring to the generals who rule so many Muslim countries: the three generals in direct succession who have run Egypt for over fifty years, the shadowy Algerian generals who have dominated their country for just as long, the generals who currently rule Bangladesh and Pakistan, the son of a general who runs Syria, and the “colonel” who has ruled Libya for 38 years?

Might he even be including the kings and sheikhs who rule most of the rest of the Muslim world, from Morocco to Brunei, sometimes with a parliamentary facade, sometimes without it? Idiotic autocrats? That’s a bit strong, especially from a Turk, since the Turks ruled most of the Arab world for centuries, with not the slightest nod to the notion of democracy until shortly before the empire collapsed in the First World War.

Kiniklioglu may lack tact, but his question does weigh on the minds of people elsewhere in the Muslim world. They wonder why so many Muslims are indeed still ruled by autocrats (not all of them idiots). Some even wonder if there is a basic incompatibility between democracy and Islam. The “Islamist” extremists not only believe this; they perversely proclaim it as a virtue. What they all forget is that the Turks have been working on this agenda for a hundred years.

Turkey is an exception among the larger Muslim countries: a functioning democracy with a booming economy that is a candidate (although a controversial one) to join the European Union. But then, Turkey was never a European colony, while almost all other Muslim countries were conquered by the European empires and lost their statehood for generations.

The Turkish state has existed for six centuries, whereas most other Muslim countries have scarcely been independent for six decades. And for almost a hundred years, starting with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, the country has been ruled by people with a deliberate project to modernise the Turkish state. The Young Turks were army officers who believed that if Turkey did not modernise quickly in a European style, it too would be conquered by the European empires.

It took fifteen years, many blunders, and a lot of lives, and the Arab parts of the empire were lost to Britain and France in the process, but they did save their country. It was mostly the work of one of the Young Turk officers, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who first rose to fame by stopping the Anglo-French attempt to capture Istanbul in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Turkey was on the losing side in the First World War, but in 1919-22 Kemal led a resistance war that stopped the victors from carving the country up as colonies.

By 1923 the Sultan was deposed, Turkey was a republic, and Mustafa Kemal (who took the surname Ataturk — “Father of the Turks”) was in charge. He created a militantly secular state that rejected any public role for Islam, and set about imposing European systems and norms in every domain of life. It was formally a democracy by the 1950s, but it was really still run by a modernising, secular elite who monopolised the officer corps, the judiciary and the higher ranks of the bureaucracy.

The old elite believed that if Islam were not rigidly confined to the private sphere, it would drag Turkey back into a Middle East that they saw as being run by “idiotic autocrats,” but they were wrong. The problem is not Islam, but the people who use it to justify autocracy. And what has now happened in Turkey is that the Muslim democrats of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party have won a key confrontation with the army and elected their man, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency.

When the leaders of the AK party say that they support the secular state, the old elite think they are lying, and fifteen years ago some of them probably were. But the leaders and the party have both matured, and now believe that the best way to protect Islam in a modern state is to have the state absolutely neutral, neither for religion nor against it. Kiniklioglu himself, like many of AK party’s new stars, is a “not very religious” liberal who joined the party because he saw it as the best vehicle for completing the democratisation of Turkey.

What does this mean for other, less fortunate Muslim states? If they don’t have time machines, not much of practical use, for their history over the past hundred years has been very different. Turkey’s value to them is as living proof that economic success, democracy and freedom of religion are all fully compatible in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Other Muslim countries will have to follow different routes to the same destination, but it shouldn’t take them nearly so long to get there.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Might…war”; and “It took…colonies”)