Turkey’s ‘Coup’…?

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No sooner had news of the terrible attack in Nice broken than the Military-led coup in Turkey began and ended in remarkably quick fashion. The attempted deposition itself did not attract my attention too much; it failed very quickly and was obviously poorly organised. What has provoked my interest, however, is the aftermath of this failed putsch. I have come to consider a few questions in particular: Why has Erdogan responded so swiftly? Was the coup even genuine or not? If not, why was it staged?  These questions pertain to a number of theories flying around vis-a-vis why the coup happened.

Erdogan’s Response

Turkish President Erdogan Recep Tayyip immediately aimed to ‘purge state bodies of the “virus” that caused the revolt’, including thus far the arrest of – as I write – 6,000 people. Surely a political coup involving so many people should have worked? If so many high-ranking officials were involved than we would surely not be talking about a failed coup? The detention of such a large number of important figures – from judges to senior soldiers, including one of Erdogan’s top military aides, Colonel Ali Yazici – strongly suggests that Erdogan has nefarious motives behind this unambiguously-termed “purge”. Perhaps then, it was staged. Others ostensibly arrested include General Erdal Ozturk, commander of the Third Army; General Adem Huduti, commander of the Second Army; and Akin Ozturk, the former Chief of Air Staff; and one of Turkey’s most senior judges, Alparslan Altan.

Additionally, the quick apportion of blame to US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen is really quite convenient. Although, Erdogan has targeted Gulen as an opponent of his regime for some time now. It is also believed that Gulen has had the support of various Turkish military chiefs and ‘mid-level bureaucrats’ over the years since his self-imposed exile to America in 1999. The big picture is as yet unclear, despite all the attempts by myriad News channels and websites to fully summarise this debacle.

Regardless of what the situation really is, the brutal murder by members of the public of Turkish troops, the ghastly evidence for which is already circulating online,  highlights how bloody this fiasco has been. There are photos of men being beaten to death, beheaded and hanged. Therefore, saying that the situation has gone awry would be a pretty obnoxious understatement. We know that 290 people have so far been officially confirmed dead, 100 of which as a result of the coup. But how many soldiers, amongst others, have died since. Again, is it too early to tell? Almost certainly. Despite the rapid speed at which news can now travel over the internet, what happened in Istanbul and elsewhere is still extremely obscure. But the political machinations behind this series of events seems to me to be quite apparent.

President Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen

The Turkish President is a very shrewd politician, who clearly has little regard for transparency and nomocracy. Indeed President Obama, amongst other world leaders, has recently called for ‘all parties in Turkey to “act within the rule of law”‘ over the failed coup and response thereto. By the same token, Erdogan recently suggested that Turkey’s parliament would ‘consider a proposal to restore the death penalty.’ But what is even more damning, in my view, is a particular quote from a speech Erdogan made to mourners at the Fatih mosque in Istanbul:

“We will continue to cleanse the virus from all state institutions, because this virus has spread. Unfortunately like a cancer, this virus has enveloped the state…”

Such rhetoric is not accidental. If Erdogan’s motives for greater personal power are to be believed, this failed regime change seems like the perfect excuse for him to attain greater control of the affairs of the Turkish state. A BBC News article published on Saturday (16th) noted that Erdogan is “a political Islamist who has rejected modern Turkey’s secular heritage” and who “has become increasingly authoritarian and is trying to turn himself into a strong executive president.” Whatever the true cause of the coup, Erdogan has been quick to act upon it.

Fethullah Gulen was, as mentioned earlier, blamed for the attempted coup. Aged 75, Gulen heads the popular Hizmet movement, whose imam* promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, hard work and education. Its immense popularity in Turkey – there are believed to be millions of followers, including some in the Armed Forces and high-end politics – appears to be a point of concern for Erdogan. A rival ideology, it seems. Indeed, Gulen’s ostensible followers were involved in 2010 in the trials of 300 army officers who, seven years earlier, were accused of plotting to overthrow the AKP government. The evidence put forth to condemn them was later found to have been fabricated. Interestingly, as Turkish journalist and academic visitor at Oxford University Ezgi Basaran has recently remarked, the Gulen movement’s presence in the state structure is “deep-rooted and hard to trace”.

It could thus be argued with some conviction that Erdogan is using the coup as an excuse to cement his near-absolute power and remove endemic Hizmet opposition from the government and the military. Hence his quick and aggressive response. But it is still way too early to tell, which is somewhat irritating. Whether or not Erdogan has used the coup for his own ends, was the coup itself genuine?

Was The Coup A Genuine Attempt?

The failed overthrow certainly seemed to have the backing of a large range of people, many of whom held high civic and/ or military office. Furthermore, the seizure of various broadcasting headquarters, as a well as the bridge over the Bosphorus, indicates that this was carried out with genuine purpose. But the speed at which this coup collapsed suggests otherwise.

The soldiers occupying the Bosphorus Bridge were easily dispersed by the crowds and the Police, the latter of which was armed with a water cannon; this despite the troops having trucks and tanks with them. They also panicked and shot at civilians. But this incident is understandable; they were facing an unruly, aggressive mob that Erdogan himself had urged onto the streets. Yet when one sees the images of confused and scared soldiers being beaten up by locals – and in too many cases being horrifically executed by the people whom they are meant to be serving – it leads him to believe that these poor servicemen had little clue as to what they were really meant to be doing. On the other hand, one could remark that they just didn’t expect such violent civilian opposition. It is still too early to tell. Concurrent with both possibilities is that the whole coup smacks of complacency.

Additional to this is that it certainly lacked key supporters. The plotters clearly failed a basic requirement for a successful coup – to obtain strong backing. Currently, it is believed that only the gendarmerie and air force personnel were behind the putsch. The chief of the armed forces and two generals from the naval forces were reportedly taken hostage by the “junta” behind the operation. Was the lack of support down to incompetence? Turkey has had four previous military coups – in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 – so surely they have learned how to conduct one successfully? But this could also imply that little thought was invested as the coup was meant to fail. Damn ambiguity.

The lack of support, in part with the poor quality of the planning, suggests that it was not a sincere attempt to seize power, but instead part of Erdogan’s ruse to carry out a “purge” of opposition. I must admit that this is quite a leap to make. Plus it is still possible to say that the coup was just shit. I am not helping you at all here. Indeed, I am in danger of confusing myself. I am not fully convinced that it was fake. Perhaps I am just too unimpressed with the whole thing to accept that it’s handling really was just down to utterly incompetent planning. Perhaps History can help… *dramatic music*

Examples From History  

Aside from whether Erdogan used the failed coup for his own ends or not, there are essentially two opposing theories here: Erdogan was behind a “fake failure”, or it was genuine but poorly organised. Perhaps one theory holds more weight when put under further scrutiny. The recent events remind me of two situations from Nazi Germany (of all places): the Night of the Long Knives, and Operation Valkyrie, which might shed some light on the two theories.

I know it is imprudent to draw links with the past, but I very much agree with Mark Twain when he said that “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.” It is, therefore, worth looking back to recent history (in this case, German) for lessons to learn about the events in Turkey. These parallels, bear in mind, are merely examples from history that might help to explain the theories I have underlined. Please don’t have a go at me for being a cheeky git and trying to solve the World’s woes by bringing History into this.

Theory A, a “fake failure” – a fake plot masquerading as a real one: The Night of the Long Knives was carried out in June 1934. It was, essentially, a ruse by Hitler to dispose of various members of the militaristic SA in order to cement his power and win the Wehrmacht’s favour. The facade put forward was that the victims were actually attempting to overthrow him, which was untrue. There are parallels here with Erdogan, no doubt about it. Various themes and machinations can manifest themselves again and again in the political arena. Perhaps, therefore, the coup was artificial. However, Basaran says that this whole “false flag” theory – where Erdogan created a fake plot to use as an excuse for a political and military ‘cleanse’ – goes beyond common sense because of the blood that has already been shed. His point is prudent, and his superior knowledge on the subject is worthy of note.

Theory B, a poorly-organised but genuine coup: Operation Valkyrie was a botched attempt by Tom Cruise (Von Stauffenberg) and various other army officers to assassinate Hitler and put Nazi Germany under military control. Conducted on 20th July 1944, it was a last-gasp attempt to save Germany from a military situation that was rapidly deteriorating. Turkey’s engagements with the Kurds and ISIS have both not been extremely successful, it is worth noting. Perhaps military dissatisfaction vis-a-vis the aforesaid conflicts was a causal factor? This is highly unlikely; the comparison is I admit extremely tenuous. Indeed, the fact that the coup failed to obtain support from a number of generals strongly suggests that the military situation had no pertinence. As Basaran says, political instability is the last thing Turkey needs given the situation with regards the Kurds and ISIS. But the general theory still stands  – that, like Operation Valkyrie, this was a poorly organised military putsch.

If it was genuine, Basaran has highlighted two further theories:

  1. “…a theory embraced by the Kurdish movement is that Kemalists – secular followers of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – in the army tricked the Gulenists into staging a coup. They knew it would fail and that it would lead to a long-awaited cleansing of Gulenists from the military…”
  2. “…another theory stems from a police source, who said that the AKP government had been planning to arrest Gulen-supporting army officials on 16 July. The source claims that when the coup-plotters learned about this, they went ahead and initiated the coup earlier than planned – hence the sloppiness.”

Make of those what you will.

Concluding Thoughts…if any

Basaran has said that “there is a lot that does not add up”, to which I say ‘no shit’. Overall what has happened in the last day or two does not yet make much sense. It is simply too early to tell what has happened. But what I hoped to have achieved is to have made the picture a tad clearer. The News bombards us viewers with information, true or otherwise, and leaves us to make heads or tails of it all by ourselves. I hope I have managed to burrow through this morass and highlight circulating theories for you.

* The person who leads prayers in a mosque; a title of various Muslim leaders, especially of one succeeding Muhammad as leader of Shiite Islam. 

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Thoughts from the Somme – 2nd July 2016

IMG_2566Day Three saw a return to the battlefield, and another place to which I had never yet been. One of the most northern points on the 1916 front line, I had read about the events which took place at Gommecourt before. By the end of 1st July the fields around the first cemetery we visited – Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery (pictured) – were covered with the bodies of thousands of British soldiers who had suffered appallingly from German machine gun and artillery fire, a picture that was similarly manifest from field to field and ridge to ridge along the banks of the River Ancre.

The fact that I was on the Somme battlefield in 2016 allowed me to process this information with a much sharper focus. I believe I could understand far better what had happened one hundred years ago, now that the fateful opening day had passed the aforesaid significant milestone. It is hard to satisfactorily articulate what I mean by this. But in literal terms, I can explain it thusly. The old battlefield was now in appearance very similar to what the soldiers of both sides would have known a century heretofore: the fields were covered in thigh-deep corn; the crests of the myriad sloping ridges were accentuated by dark-Green woods; and the Sun was out with confidence, gleaming overhead and casting our thick shadows deep into the soil. All that was missing was the battle itself, and the chalk-white outlines of the vein-like trench systems. Since this early-July landscape was so similar, I felt I had a better understanding of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

IMG_2709Of course, the fighting itself is almost impossible to replicate in one’s mind with any degree of accuracy. But for me understanding an old conflict requires one to build up a mental picture of it; this may come about through reading books, learning survivor testimony or, in my case with this tour, standing on the old battleground in person. I now had a very good image of the terrain of 1st July. Previous trips had not generated such a vivid idea for me. Thus, as I said at the start, this trip touched upon my thoughts of the Somme with much greater precision than previous tours had done hitherto. I was walking on the battlefield much as the men of 1st July had seen it.

A member of the tour group then spotted some shrapnel on the side of the cemetery, which further highlighted what had happened around us one hundred years ago. Needless to say, I took it home with me.

IMG_2592Thereafter we ventured to Serre, where a number of famous Pals Battalions, including the Accrington Pals, went over the top on 1st July. This was another well-known site to which I had never been. The previous day had seen a service here, which included the erection of two new memorials to the men of Accrington and Barnsley who died in the fields in front and around the old trench system, much of which remains extant. On the walk up the ridge towards this old trench – now covered with grass, memorials and vegetation – our tour group straddled the side of the road looking for shrapnel. Once Gary started to find the odd piece of iron, we all went to it with great haste (pictured). I had already started my collection, back at Gommecourt, and was not to be dissuaded from sitting this one out. We started to trample on the plants – accidentally, I might add – and the fact that we annoyed only one French farmer is in my opinion somewhat of an achievement.

The number of nearby cemeteries illustrated hauntingly how bloody these fields had been one hundred years ago. There were at least four within eyesight, and on the coach journey here there had been another two only a minute away. The whole region of Picardy is full of these stark reminders of the maelstrom that devastated the land generations ago; the countless perfectly preserved graveyards mark the terrain like a nest of ants. In addition, they highlight very literally how much progress, or lack thereof, was made in over four months of fighting.

IMG_2586If (one day) I have enough time I will walk through every cemetery, look at every gravestone, and read every name. If I could put a face to each one I would be able to personalise the experience. But I can’t. Not only do so many gravestones mark the burial of an unknown soldier, but time is simply moving on. Alas, as the war has now left living memory these multitudes of headstones begin to lose the connection they once had with the living. It is a very real danger that this generation, which was decimated on battlefields like the Somme, are lost to the History books. You can imagine my delight, therefore, when I later heard about the sudden, highly emotive and striking appearance of over 1,400 men dressed in contemporary uniform hanging around stations and town centres across Britain.

What I saw on the Somme during these few days also warmed my heart. On the side of the path leading up to the preserved trenches lay 19,240 wooden crosses, each one representing a British life lost on 1st July. Later, at the Sunken Lane near Beaumont Hamel, a group of reenactors appeared and posed for photos with the group. This brings me on to the next destination – the Sunken Lane.

IMG_2696Two of the most well-known pieces of footage of 1st July 1916 came from the camera of an Army photographer Geoffrey H. Mallins. Both clips were taken within two hundred metres of each other. The more infamous of the two has recorded for perpetuity the detonation of the mine underneath Hawthorn Ridge. Ignited at 7:20 a.m. the mine was ominously ineffective at destroying the German lines. Such was its magnitude, numerous accounts exist from men who witnessed it explode that morning. But the greatest piece of evidence is by far and away the film of this blast. Unlike with regards most of the Battle of the Somme – 1st July and thereafter – this recording doesn’t require us to imagine what happened, thereby distorting the past and our perceptions thereof. Instead, it gives us what is essentially a first-hand account; it shows us the explosion; there are no historical interpretations to cloud our eyes. As such it is, in my opinion, one of the most important videos to come from the entire war. The crater is now surrounded by a cluster of trees on the ridge (pictured), but thanks to the film it is easy to find the spot from which Mallins filmed it. Unfortunately this is almost certainly on private land.

IMG_2691The other recording was made by Mallins a couple of hundred metres to the left of the aforesaid film, an hour or so earlier. It shows men of the Lancashire Fusiliers relaxing in a sunken lane not long before they were to go over the top; the field on which many of these Pals were soon to be killed or wounded was atop the bank just behind them. It is a profoundly evocative piece of film, and one of the very few to show the first wave of British troops just before they attacked, on the morning of 1st July. I had been to this place once before, but I hadn’t had the time to walk up the old lane and turn to view it from the very location wherefrom Mallins took his famous footage. Now I could and of course, I did. I also took the time to climb out of the old front line trench and walk onto the old No-man’s Land (pictured). Except the cemetery one-hundred metres ahead of me, nothing visible remained to highlight what happened on this field a century ago. Indeed, without prior knowledge of what landmarks such as the Sunken Lane and Hawthorn Ridge were, one would have absolutely no idea of what took place in this area. It is very easy for even a seasoned traveller to get disoriented on this battlefield.

Next, we went to the Ulster Tower Memorial Park near Theipval for lunch, during which an Army Band appeared and performed to a rapidly-growing audience. They seemed to be dressed in contemporary clothing. The music was very moving and played effortlessly. Just prior to getting off the coach to watch this, I stood in a nearby field and took myriad photos of the blooming Poppies. I did this throughout the tour. Poppies had sprouted everywhere, making this trip even more evocative than usual.

IMG_2842Thereafter we ventured to one of the most infamous parts of the Somme battlefield and a place to which I had been many times before. The earth of Beaumont Hamel would see bitter fighting from 1st July all the way to 13th November. But undoubtedly the most tragic episode was the very first. Attached to 88th Brigade for the attack on 1st July was the Newfoundland Regiment. They found their first-line trench, and all the routes thereto, full of the bodies of the first wave. As a result, the men of the Newfoundland Regiment were forced to launch their attack from the second-line trenches. Alongside this, the 1st Essex – the other assaulting battalion – were delayed. The Newfoundlanders thus attacked alone, and further back from their designated starting point. They attacked at around 7:30 a.m. and after two hours the whole attack of 29th Division had failed. The Newfoundlanders had lost 710 men, the second-highest casualty rate of any British battalion on 1st July. Along the freshly-cut path tourists now take across the old killing field is a small tree – the ‘Lone Tree’ (pictured). It is believed that no soldier made it beyond this stump on 1st July – a very sobering thought since the tree is only a stone’s throw away from the front-line trench. The German lines meanwhile are at least a hundred metres away ; the aforementioned Hawthorn mine crater lies just behind.

I have been three times before this latest visit, and so I was very familiar with the site. That notwithstanding, I was still eager to walk around the old trenches. You always learn something new when you visit the battlefields. One can never visit too many times.

As we arrived we saw that the stands and tents from yesterday’s centenary commemorations were still up. Unfortunately, we spent too much of our allocated time in the on-site Museum, which we visited first and which I have also been to before. Our guide, Gary, liked seeing as much as possible, often to the detriment of larger spots such as Beaumont-Hamel. We thus had too little time to get around. Although we didn’t help ourselves in this regard. Gary clandestinely ushered us towards a marquee tent that had been left behind from yesterday’s centenary commemorations, and in his perfectly pertinent cockney swagger pointed to a number of cardboard boxes, in which there lay a number of ‘free’ items we could purloin. The pens and pencils were undoubtedly acceptable to take, but the tablecloth probably wasn’t. This is what happens when British people find free stuff. Heck, the tent itself would have seemed a decent acquisition with the right numbers of thieves present (the scene of this heinous crime is not pictured). By the time we had awarded ourselves with these gifts we had to leave for the next site, which was Albert itself.

IMG_2908.JPGThe main road that bisects the Somme battlefield links the towns of Albert and Bapaume, which were always behind the British and German lines respectively during the 1916 battle.

Even in 1915, the Golden Virgin on top of the Basilica could be seen from almost the whole battlefield. The British came to believe that if she fell, whoever occupied Albert at the time would lose the war. The Germans also attributed great importance to the statue, as they believed it offered the British an excellent artillery observation post. Therefore they shelled the Basilica, and the town of Albert, throughout the battle. In order to prevent the statue from falling, engineers fixed it down with scaffolding, thereby securing it and reassuring British soldiers. In the spring of 1918, during the Germans’ last major offensive, Albert fell into their hands. British artillery then deliberately targeted the basilica and the statue fell. The statue, along with the Basilica, has since been fully restored (pictured).

After quickly eating my late ice-cream I rushed to the coach, which was parked near to Albert train station. Gary had again given us a restricted amount of time. We drove along the road up to Bapaume, and stopped off at Pozieres Cemetery, as one of our number needed to search for a couple of names inside. I had only been there once before, so I quickly jumped off to have a look too. There are 2,760 burials in this cemetery, 1,382 of which are unidentified. Many who lie here died in the fighting around the area in 1917 and 1918. Additionally, the surrounding Memorial lists the names of over 14,000 men who died in France during the Fifth Army’s retreat on the Somme from 21st March to 7th August 1918, and who have no known grave. Many men died in the nearby village of Pozieres, which was attacked on 23rd July 1916 by the 1st Australian and 48th (South Midland) Divisions, and was taken on the following day. It was lost on 24th-25th March 1918, during the German advance, and recaptured by the 17th Division on the following 24th August.

IMG_2985.JPGAfter roughly ten minutes we were back on the coach and off to ‘the Windmill’, which is unsurprisingly the site of an old Windmill that used to stand on the battlefield. There was fierce fighting around it in July and August 1916; it was finally taken by the Australians on 4th August. More Australian soldiers died in the fields around the Windmill than anywhere else in World War One, including Gallipoli. The preserved Memorial included what was left of the building, surrounded by shell holes and craters. Across the road lay a statue that commemorated the first use of the Tank, which took place nearby on 15th September 1916. This was perhaps the last stop at a prominent site on our journey, and indeed the whole tour. Tomorrow we were going home.

 

 

Thoughts from the Somme – 1st July 2016

Day Two – 1st July – began at 4:30 a.m. and with a large number of coaches; we were going to receive a police escort to the memorial, which was frankly quite exciting. But before that, we would have to get past securi-I mean, go through security. I was a tad nervous, and this was only compounded by the security guard addressing me sternly in French, which I didn’t understand at all.

IMG_2338But just before this – as the coach pulled up to the makeshift security centre – the clock reached 7:30 a.m. It was now exactly one hundred years since the men of the first waves went over the top, to be met with a hail of machine gun fire and artillery shells. We all know only too vividly what would happen next. The Somme; the first day; the day; 1st July 1916; the most infamous battle in British history; the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army; the most prominent case for the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ argument that has pervaded British culture for over fifty years, was a hundred years old. The very moment of looking at my watch, coupled with realising the magnitude of what that minute meant, was a strange sensation. It felt surreal on the one hand and coolly simple on the other. Everyone around me seemed ignorant of the significance of 7:30 a.m. – a somewhat ironic state of affairs when one considers where we were all going. It was understandable I guess; we were all concerned with the imminent security checks. Nevertheless I felt prompted to announce the time, and the significance thereof. I don’t know whether it fell on deaf ears or not. It certainly had not for me.

After we returned to our coaches a group of four French Policemen on large, flashing motorbikes chaperoned us to the ceremony at Theipval. It was quite cool to get our own escort from the Gendarmerie. Within ten minutes of leaving we could see the dominating Memorial outside our windows. Being an imposing forty-five metres high, it can be seen from almost anywhere on the old battlefield.

IMG_2356Our whole day would be spent here, even though the ceremony itself would last from just 12 to 1 p.m. Due to the busy schedule we arrived at the site a good two hours beforehand. There were already a few thousand people when we arrived, and huge marquee tents had been set up; there were, more importantly, free goodie bags – I’m sure pretentious folk would have preferred to have them called ‘Informative luggage’ or something to that very boring effect. Free stuff always interests me – none more so than unrestricted access to Muffins and Tea. Although the latter was temporarily unavailable due to a lack of hot water, so I immediately took what I was led to believe was a beverage of a Hot Chocolate variety. It was not. It was Coffee, which was and certainly still is disgusting. My sustenance-related woes would not end there unfortunately.

Off we went to the seating area. Soldiers from all corners of the Commonwealth were here, including a Giraffe from Newfoundland who was about nine miles tall. I’m a reasonably lofty chap but this guy just took the piss; he could catch anti-aircraft missiles from that altitude. The seats were essentially first-come-first-serve and my Dad and I had been too engrossed in our free Muffins and Tea to acknowledge the massive queue. We managed to jump half of it (which I don’t regret!), but still we found ourselves firmly in the back half of the seating complex.

It was difficult to see much from where we were situated. The Memorial looked much cleaner than it had been when I visited it last year; and the British and French flags adorned the two flagpoles at the top, no doubt the work of our Newfoundland friend.

IMG_2371.JPGPrior to the official ceremony starting, we observed a number of clips from the August 1916 film of the battle, which at the time was seen by twenty million people back in Britain. Two bands then entered the park – one from the Welsh Guards and the other from an unknown French regiment. They then proceeded to conduct what I could only think of as a music-off. One band would perform a flawless tune, whereupon the other prepared their instruments and proceeded to do the same. This went on for a good ten minutes or so. It was splendid to listen to, but given the position of our seats one could see bugger-all. Many people grew frustrated and stood up to have a look, despite it all being shown on the large screens nearby.

Afterwards, when the dignitaries and various heads of state had arrived, the ceremony began. There were three key speakers – Charles Dance, Joely Richardson and Jason Isaacs. They appeared on the aforesaid large screens to the side of our seating areas. There is not much point in me going over the minutiae of the rest of the ceremony, since it was broadcast live on the BBC and is as I type still on BBC IPlayer. Besides, my experience will not be that much different from those of you who watched it on Television or online. However, I will comment on the tone of the occasion. In the BBC’s live coverage of the ceremony, Dan Snow said that there was present a rather special atmosphere. I myself didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary with the air around me, but it was without a doubt much more formal than my battlefield tour had so far been. That was to be expected I guess. I

IMG_2440I did however notice a greater degree of patience amongst much of the audience. When some of us started to stand up on occasion in order to see for ourselves what was going on up front, there were no audible complaints from people behind. Then again most attendees were British; and we tend to grumble incoherently and silently when faced with a grievance, which I find to be the best form of discontent. That reminds me; on the initial walk towards the seating area, a middle-aged French couple openly judged me for taking photos. That really irritated me. They were giving me the eye for no apparent reason other than that I was documenting my experience, to them like a common Tourist, nay a Pleb. Near the end of the ceremony, it started to rain heavily. Unfortunately it was during a slideshow of faces of the missing that we were forced to scramble for our Ponchos, and consequently miss it all.

The ceremony itself was very well organised and certainly left a profound mark on many of us in the audience. That being said, it was lunchtime now; and our priorities soon changed. I started to tuck into what I quickly noticed was an oddly-tasting meal. To my father’s great delight, and my deep chagrin, we soon discovered that I had been eating from a Gluten-free meal bag. After giving my stomach something to think about, we walked around the Memorial once again, visiting the cemetery round the back and, in my case at least, getting distracted by the French 75mm guns on display near the BBC Television box. I took countless photos, and at one point looked down the ridge towards the long-gone trenches from which 32nd Division launched their attack up the hill on 1st July. I imagined again what the day must have been like.

I had created for myself a great deal of hype in the lead-up to 1st July 2016. The day was one of the most thought-about of my life; that is without a doubt not an exaggeration. I had been determined to be on the Somme on this day for at least four years, if not longer.

Thoughts from the Somme – 29/30th June 2016

IMG_2468I returned from my tour around the Somme battlefield over a week ago and thus have had some time to reflect upon what I observed during my three days there.

I have been to the Somme before, but the thoughts and feelings that have stuck with me after this latest trip are much more vivid and emotive than they have been before. Whenever I visit the Somme I have always thought about a few things, including the lay of the land; the first day and how men reacted to what they witnessed; and what the corn-covered fields of today must have looked like all those years ago.


Yet this recent journey, with the centenary of 1st July at the forefront of practically everything that I visited and thought about, has touched upon these feelings with much greater precision than before.

For at least four years – if not slightly longer – I have been determined to be present on the Somme battlefield on 1st July 2016. I didn’t care where I would be; at the side of some random road would have done me just fine. It didn’t matter, so long as I was there. Fortunately, not only was I on an official battlefield tour, but my Dad had procured tickets for the Theipval ceremony! (I do very much mean to boast; this had been a life goal of mine for years.) I had been looking forward to this trip for almost six months. Finally, it was imminent.

Before we left home on 29th June I had packed my bags with as many books on the 1916 battle that I possibly could, thereby ensuring that I was fully prepared to engross myself totally in the events of a century ago. I needn’t have worried, however, as our tour guide held a wealth of knowledge about the battle behind his cockney swagger; every nook and cranny of every field, wood, and ridge – he would know intimate details of who did what, when and where they did it, and often why they had to do it. As a result even when we were between designated sites on our journey, driving around the fields and slopes of Picardy in our rather tight coach, we were being asked to look left and right, right and left; to “our three-o’clock” and ”our nine o’clock”. Gary, a veritable encyclopaedia, didn’t let us fall foul to boredom or apathy. I did fall asleep a few times I must admit. But when you wake up at 4:30 a.m. what do you expect is going to happen?

We were very fortunate with the weather for much of the trip, Theipval downpour notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, the region was brimming with tourism; the tour company that my Dad and I were with had fourteen coaches on this particular trip alone. More often than not, however, we managed to avoid the bulk of this traffic and visit everything that had been scheduled for this tour. Indeed we were often able to take the leisure of stopping off at a few extra sites.


 

IMG_2176On Day One – 30th June – we visited a number of sites with pertinence both to 1st July and the battle as a whole, the first of which was Lochnagar Crater. Detonated at 7.28 a.m. on 1st July, this man-made depression stuck out like a sore thumb in the landscape – a rather incongruous bowl circled by a rim of shell-holes and baby craters. I had been here before, most recently last July when I took charge of a group of Year 10 students during my old school’s two-day battlefield trip, wherein we visited sites around Ypres and the Somme. Twelve months ago I had the immense joy of teaching others about the battlefields I once again stood upon.

Although I was meant to be a learner rather than the Teacher this time, I spent most of the 45 minutes we had at the site doing my own thing. I don’t mean to appear arrogant, but I knew what happened here, and I was more interested in observing the ongoing preparations for tomorrow’s commemoration. A huge Poppy, for instance, now lay at the bottom of the crater. The grass around the crater had been freshly cut; numerous cars and vans straddled the side of the thin road; a van was selling tea and snacks; a camera crew was setting up; and a camera-equipped helicopter flew overhead. All this, just for tomorrow. I was impressed, nay delighted. I had feared that the Somme’s centenary would be overlooked by the British public, what with it being so controversial and ostensibly irrelevant. Indeed, with recent political events in mind, I had been persuaded that remembrance of the Battle of the Somme of 1916 had been completely forgotten about at home.

Suitably enthralled by what we had seen, the tour group jumped onto the coach and off we went. Well, I use the word ‘jumped’ very loosely; the average age was at least 60. Indeed, we had a D-Day veteran in our company.

Another noteworthy stop on our journey was the Devonshire Trench cemetery. I had visited before and this particular site, I feel, is emblematic of what happened on 1st July. These men had attacked the German lines from the ridge behind this cemetery but had been mown down. Many others had been in the jumping-off trench, which was where these graves now lay, but were killed before they passed their own barbed wire. Enfilading fire from German positions on the ridges to their right and left had cut the men down. Hence the cemetery has outside it a memorial inscribed with the words:

“The Devonshires Held This Trench

     The Devonshires Hold It Still.”

IMG_2219The first time I visited this place I wasn’t surprised by the story. It was as I say characteristic of what took place all along the line. But this time I thought about it in much more graphic detail. I thought about the men, many of whom lying in the ground in front of me were my own age. I imagined what they must have been thinking about just before the attack. We know for a fact that many felt confident, but what about the final seconds before the whistles blew? The sudden realisation that for some or indeed many of them this was it. This thought would gradually attain prominence in my mind during the early stages of the trip, as we got closer to the centenary of that fateful morning.

Thereafter we moved on to another place I had never visited before – Delville Wood. Now a South African Memorial Park, this wood was further behind the German lines; fighting didn’t reach here until 14th July. A large cemetery of 5,500 graves is situated outside this park, and 3,500 of the men lying in it remain unidentified. They are also predominantly not South African; the wood is one mass graveyard for the undiscovered thousands of South African troops who died in it long ago. This is a very sobering image to hold in your mind as you walk across the freshly-cut grass.

IMG_2264 (1)Since I had never visited Delville Wood before I was taken aback at just how big both the memorial and the wood were. Stones marking the old trench lines littered the grass paths, stretching off into the distance almost as far as the eye could see. I came across the ‘Last Tree’, which as the name suggests is the last surviving original tree in Delville Wood from 1916. Seeing this tree suddenly made the past seem much more tangible and real to me than it had been before. The rows and rows of headstones one sees around the battlefield do not make such a connection. They detail names, ranks, ages and the occasional tribute, but not personalities or anything else to that effect. Our connection with the dead is no longer personal in this regard. Yet the tree did give the impression that the past was still within reach. Many of the men who fought and died over the ground on which I was standing would have seen this tree in 1916. I subsequently began walking through the old trenches, now much smaller and greener than they had used to be.

Upon leaving Delville Wood we ventured up the Albert-Bapaume road and returned to the hotel in St. Quentin – the day was over. Tomorrow was the day – 1st July. The vast majority of us – all bar an unlucky three – would be at Theipval…

Bystanders To History: A Lesson From The Holocaust

The Migrant Crisis, which has unfolded over the past few weeks and months and about which I wrote three weeks ago, has reminded me of what I once learned whilst participating in the Lessons From Auschwitz Project: the role of the bystander. Recent events warn us that we may again become guilty of merely standing by and watching another humanitarian catastrophe unfold. History, in a way, could repeat itself.


During my time on the Lessons From Auschwitz Project I learned about distinguishing between different types of people regarding their positions within the Holocaust. There were the perpetrators, who meaningfully and consciously participated in the mass murder of 11 million people; there were the victims themselves; and there were the bystanders, who witnessed but did not intervene in the myriad atrocities committed by the Nazis and their associates around Europe.

According to the Collins English Dictionary & Thesaurus of 1996, a bystander is “a person present but not involved; onlooker; spectator”. Interestingly, the entry directly underneath – the bystander effect – concerns “the phenomenon that when many people observe a crime or someone in trouble, each of them is less likely to intervene than when only one person is present”. It is arguable that this was manifest to a certain degree during the Holocaust. Perhaps it also pertains to the present day.

Many people, for a variety of reasons, were bystanders during the Holocaust. They did not intervene and protect the lives of the persecuted, whether the latter were Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Political prisoners or others. But it is worth noting that this was due to a number of reasons, most prominent among which are: prejudices such as antisemitism, fear of Nazi reprisals, and the lack of wherewithal to help. It was without doubt highly dangerous to help anyone targeted by the Third Reich. The whole issue surrounding bystanders is still one of great debate among Historians of the Holocaust.


But we are not restricted by such barriers, at least not to the same extent. Prejudice does still exist, unfortunately. Although antisemitism isn’t as widespread as it used to be, a fear of foreigners, immigrants and other such people will always perpetuate. There are, on the other hand, no authoritarian regimes to be concerned about, and today it is much easier for one to help through, for example, a simple donation to a charity.


I am not aiming to compare the current Migrant Crisis with the Holocaust. But it is worth remembering that we must be aware of repeating, if not mirroring, the events of the past. The humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Middle East is not on the same scale as that of the events that took place over 70 years ago; it has not cost the lives of 11 million people. But many millions have fled their homes, including up to 7.6 million Syrians; another 4 million have left that country altogether. Furthermore,roughly 240,000 Syrians have died since 2011 alone. It is clearly a major disaster. Thus the sheer scale of this crisis indicates that if Europe, America and, well, much of the rest of the world does not intervene to a significant extent, then we are effectively bystanders to one of the worst crises in modern times. We have the capability to act decisively, yet may remain as spectators. Such behaviour was indeed manifest to a great extent during the Holocaust.

Thus we don’t have much of an excuse to not intervene. If we don’t, we are hypocrites. That sounds harsh, but I bet that many us were ready and willing to condemn those who stood idly by whilst the Nazis murdered people in their millions. Our descendants will do the same to us, for many years hereafter.

The Holocaust can teach us a lot about human behaviour, but as a period of the past it also reminds us of the dangers of inaction. The current Migrant Crisis is, although certainly not a genocide, a major humanitarian issue about which we should all be concerned.

Lawrence Rees: Talking To Nazis

One of the main conferences I attended during the Lessons From Auschwitz Ambassador Conference, which took place on Monday 6th July, was held by British historian and former Creative Director of History Programmes for the BBC, Lawrence Rees. Called ‘Talking to Nazis’, in it Rees recounted his experiences of interviewing perpetrators of the Holocaust. He analysed the beliefs and motivations behind them; based on a few main factors, he cited five relevant examples of Nazis and/or Nazi accomplices. During the conference he played clips of the interviews, which have all appeared in the documentary ‘The Nazis: A Warning From History’.


Scapegoats

german-communistsDefinition: a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency, which is the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral; convenience.

Case in point: Fridolin von Spaun 

  • The Jews and Communists were linked to Germany’s defeat in World War One.
  • Many Germans hated the Communists. The Jews were seen to be behind Communism. Thus many hated the Jews.
  • A fear of change resulted in the targeting of scapegoats; for example, Hitler’s speech of April 1922: the Jews are responsible for all aspects of modernity you don’t like.
  • Also the Jews were seen to be at fault for the excesses of Capitalism (despite also being blamed for Communism).
  • In 1928 the N.S.D.A.P. win 2.6% of the vote; 5 years later Hitler is Chancellor. This is due to: the economic crisis caused by the Wall Street Crash, and the failure of Germany’s banks.

The Jews had been the scapegoats for much of Germany’s woes since 1918. Thus, when the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, they were able to capitalise on extant deep-seated hostile feeling towards the Jews.

Conspiracy 

Definition: a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.

Case in point: Johannes Zahn

  • Moves against the Jews made in the early 1930s.
  • The general opinion was that the Jews “had gone too far in Germany” and that they must be driven back. (Zahn noted that 3,600 out of 4,300 Lawyers were Jewish)

Such beliefs were not caused by ignorance, as many of us would believe. Indeed, Zahn himself had two doctorates, and many member of the Wannsee Conference, which was held on 20th January 1942 and which decided upon the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’, also held Phds. The only valuable information to such people was that there was a large, if not worldwide, Jewish conspiracy:

  • World conspiracy – this was a crucial part of Nazi fantasy. The Jews were the dominant, ruling first class, and all national citizens followed. The Jews were behind a transnational plot. They were thus considered to be parasites. For example: 1916 poll finds that many believe that the war is going badly because too few German Jews were in the army, doing their bit. Another survey was conducted to prove these findings, but it has been lost. This must be due to the fact that it’s results proved otherwise. It didn’t suit contemporary prejudices, and was thus discarded.
  • Hitler: the Jews are a race, not a religion. This implies that the Jews cannot change religion in order to become normal citizens.

It should come as no surprise therefore that the Nazis conducted tests to analyse ‘Jewish blood’. They ended up deciding whether a German was Jewish or not based on, for example, how many Jewish grandfathers they had.

judeMoreover, Lawrence Rees pointed out that many German Jews were routed out by their neighbours, rather than the Gestapo. He asserted that this was evidence of a human temperament. We focus on differences, especially when we are annoyed. Rees gave the example of somebody aggrieved by something taking out their anger on a smaller person: “push off dwarf!”. We as a species focus on differences, and when we have a grievance, genuine or otherwise, we focus on a different characteristic of our scapegoat. Hence the Nazis highlighted prejudicial myths such as that that all Jews have large noses; this is why many of their propaganda posters characterise Jews in such a fashion.

Denunciation

Definition: public condemnation of someone or something/the action of informing against someone.

Case in point: Resi Kraus

Resi KrausThis was a particularly interesting case. Kraus declared that she could not remember reporting a Jewish neighbour to the Gestapo, the letter of which was and is on record. She said in the interview that she “didn’t murder anyone”. When shown the letter she had written, Kraus said that it “incriminates me”, adding that she had no idea where it came from.

Even after 50 years (all these interviews were conducted in the late 1990s) Kraus didn’t believe that she had done something wrong. Indeed, she said that the conduct of the interview was done in bad taste, and that she had behaved as a good neighbour.

Hate

Definition: intense dislike.

Case in point: Petras Zelionka

  • Zelionka, a Lithuanian, participated in the round-up and shooting of Jews in the Baltics, in the late Summer and Autumn of 1941.
  • The Jews were responsible for Communism.
  • In the Baltics’, 80% of the killers were local volunteers; when given alcohol (Vodka), they were “braver”.
  • It’s hard to explain “whether to shoot or not to shoot.”
  • The Jews were seen as selfish.
  • It was a “tragedy, a big tragedy” – when asked about killing children. It was a “kind of curiosity” – what humans are like.
  • He served 20 years in prison; he believes he has done his time.
  • Refused to answer a question regarding his conscience, and refuses to answer any more questions.

Zelionka and many others believed that it was the right thing to do. Hatred of the Jews was manifest throughout eastern Europe. Thus it is hardly surprising that so many were willing to assist the Nazis.

d981a141fafc7303cfbf169f5121ada3In trying to explain to the audience the rationale behind such behaviour, Rees then talked about the impact of one’s culture, and how it shapes people. Zelionka’s culture shaped him, and many others, into detesting the Jews. Our culture has also shaped us in many different ways. Rees then illustrated his point with the example of an Aztec baby. If we had been born among the Aztecs, regardless of what we would like to think, we would have tolerated human sacrifice. Whereas today, in Britain’s modern culture, we don’t. The culture causes the hatred.

Additionally, Rees remarked that, during the Holocaust, many would have been fine to go with the flow. Hence resistance was so small.

Racism 

Definition: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Case in point: Oskar Groening oskar-groening

  • Known as the ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, he was in the summer of 2015 convicted of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 people, and at 94, has been sentenced to four years in prison: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32336353.
  • One advantage of the gas chambers was that it provided psychological protection for the killers. In other words, they didn’t witness the killing process, as they had done when the primary method of murder was shooting.
  • Many were convinced that Germany had been betrayed by the entire world and the world Jewish conspiracy.
  • Reason for the murder of Jewish children – the enemy was the blood in the children, not the children themselves. The Nazis had to kill them otherwise they would, according to Heinrich Himmler, become “a race of avengers” if left alive whilst their parents were killed. Thus the Nazis were protecting their own children.

I have always been fascinated by the thoughts and feelings of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Over the past 70 years they have been demonised to such an extent that we don’t think of them as ordinary humans, which they were. Indeed, many of the most prominent Nazis were clearly intelligent people. How they were capable of such atrocities has baffled many people. Their actions open up a myriad questions concerning the human conscience, alongside a careful interpretation of history. But, as Lawrence Rees shows, only when talking with the people themselves do we start to get an understanding of their mindset. This is important not only for studying the Holocaust, but for preventing such an atrocity from happening ever again.

Walking The Somme Battlefield: A Worthwhile Pastime

One thing I really enjoy doing is walking around battlefields, believe it or not. This may sound nerdy and peculiar but it is a genuinely worthwhile thing to do, for everyone. That’s right, regardless of whether you have an interest in Military history or not you can learn so much about the experiences of our ancestors by just walking around a few fields. Battlefield tours, whether with tour groups or your own friends and family, have something for all. Enthusiasts will develop a greater understanding of the topography of the battlefield, thereby improving their perspective of the battle; those with no special interest will get a better idea of what they were/are taught in school. I most definitely fall in with the former.

One battlefield which I have visited the most, and which I find most intriguing and emotive, is the Somme. I have visited this battlefield more times than any other, and in July (2015) I accompanied my old schools’ Year 10 trip to the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. I had the privilege of leading my own group, which meant I was able to talk about battles to people who had to listen, whilst walking around the battlefields themselves. I was not used to this, as hitherto my audience had often just walked away. I was nervous at first. But as the first day went on I managed to relax and many, teachers and students alike, were impressed with my pin-board battlefield map, which I used to illustrate the bigger picture, as well as highlight our specific positions on the battlefields.

somme-3Of all battles Britain has fought in the past century, indeed the past millennium, the Battle of the Somme of 1916 is perhaps the most infamous. The staggering loss of life on the first day – the worst in the history of the British Army – has become the focal point for many for the whole First World War. Just as a reminder: on 1st July 1916, the opening day of the offensive, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were killed. To put this into perspective: as of 24th July 2015, the number of British military personnel killed during the 13-year-long war in Afghanistan (2001 – 2014) numbers 454. Of course, this comparison is tenuous; warfare has come along away since 1916. But in recent years the British press’ reactions to ‘yet another death’ overseas has rather frustrated me. Such an out-roar regarding British causalities that are nowhere near as bad as those of the First World War is simply over the top (if you’ll pardon the pun).

IMG_1253During the school trip in July, I was rather pleased with how I managed to get across to the students exactly how the various factors they had been taught in the classroom contributed to such an awful loss of life. Simply from looking at their expressions I knew not only that they had grasped the facts, but that they now had a much better picture of 1st July 1916, and indeed of the whole of that battle, than they had before. They truly understood why the battle turned out in the way it did.

Such an important lesson cannot, I believe, be successfully taught in a classroom. Walking around the battlefield, and seeing the topography of the area, helped bring home to the students exactly why the British suffered such awful casualties. Furthermore, teaching them about the Germans’ hold of the high ground – for example – will in a classroom not disseminate information as effectively as a battlefield tour. Going outside, and visiting such places of interest, makes a great difference. To a great extent, this applies to all forms of history, and many other subjects too.

IMG_1112But the Somme battlefield, and many others like it, holds much more than that which meets the eye – literally and figuratively. One can learn a lot as one travels around the old front line, now blanketed with the freshly-coloured fields on which a myriad farms and villages have managed to prosper again; visiting cemeteries, of various sizes and national make-up, often hidden amongst the undergrowth that has for nearly a century now returned these killing fields to mother nature; visiting the memorials, all of which recognise the efforts and sacrifice of men long dead. It paints a romantic, yet equally tragic picture.

IMG_1130

I do not wish to glorify war, far from it. But battlefields are moving and haunting places, especially if one is aware of the significance of the ground on which they stand. When you realise that hundreds of thousands of men fought and died in pretty countryside, in an area dotted with hamlets and valleys, you get a sense of the magnitude of the place and the tragedy of it all. You feel small and insignificant, and you feel sad: sad, for the death that once roamed these fields; sad, for the rows upon rows of gravestones that litter this terrain; sad, that so many died for such insignificant gains. You wish to learn more about every individual soldier, and every single action.

IMG_1257Such feelings are similar for many battlefields, of both wars. But the Somme, for me, and I’m sure for many others, is quite different. It symbolises the death of a generation, and the savage slaughter of youthful innocence. Many Pals battalions were decimated in these fields; many cities, towns and villages around Britain were forever scarred within a matter of hours.

So, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. I guarantee that you will get a lot out of it.