On September 1, 1939 German troops crossed into Poland and the Second World War began. Britain and France, having guaranteed Poland's borders, would declare war on Germany in two days' time. The Soviet Union was, at that stage, Germany's ally and would, itself, invade Poland on September 17. Nobody guaranteed the country's eastern borders.
This is a well known picture: German soldiers move Polish border fences to open the road to tanks, armoured vehicles and for the troops to march in.
Below is a more optimistic picture: Poland for years under German and Soviet occupation became independent again in 1989. Today they were commemorating the German invasion and the tragedies that followed for many years.
On August 24, 1814 Washington burned.
Soldiers and marines under Major-General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn put Washington’s public buildings, including the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, the Treasury building, the State and War Departments, the historic Navy Yard and the President’s House (as the White House was then known), to the torch.Mr Madison's war seemed of little importance to the British who were fighting Napoleon and many Americans have preferred to forget what was a serious national humiliation created by a series of misjudgements on the part of the President and the Secretary of War.
An interesting account and analysis in History Today, as ever.
It is possible that the remembrance season we entered two days ago will last the four or five years until it will be time to commemorate the tragic peace that followed the unusually tragic war but it is much more likely that there will be a complete exhaustion of commemoration all round and even politicians and media hacks will stop reminding us about the need to remember those who died for us and to draw the necessary lessons.
It seems very unlikely that people will remember the dead of the various wars of the last century on a day to day basis but equally unlikely that they will forget them completely. We are, after all, reminded of them every year at the moving and solemn Remembrance Day events. Is that not enough? In recent years, because of Britain's involvement in two major wars in Iraq (at an end for several years) and Afghanistan (coming to an end) there has been a revival of interest and emotion connected with that solemn moment of the Eleventh Hour on the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, which has become a time when we recall all the other wars as well and their various heroes and victims. It is my great fear that the multiplication of remembrance and the outright gorging on sentimentality of the last few days will take away attention from Remembrance Day. People may well feel quite bloated with remembrance by the time we get to the right day.
And so, on to August 4, 1914, generally seen as the beginning of the First World War, the horror unleashed on Europe and the world that, in its turn, precipitated further horrors. On that day Britain declared war on Germany. While there is evidence that politicians and diplomats felt that they had failed in solving the crisis, the public in both countries was enthusiastic about the war but, as is natural, lost that enthusiasm in years to come.
In Britain, when Asquith addressed a packed House of Commons, he said:No reply came and the Foreign Office released the following statement:
“We have made a request to the German Government that we shall have a satisfactory assurance as to the Belgium neutrality before midnight tonight. The German reply to our request was unsatisfactory.”
Asquith explained that he had received a telegram from the German Ambassador in London who, in turn, had received one from the German Foreign Secretary. Officials in Berlin wanted the point pressed home that German forces went through Belgium to avoid the French doing so in an attack on Germany. Berlin had “absolutely unimpeachable information” that the French planned to attack the German Army via Belgium.
Asquith stated that the government could not “regard this in any sense a satisfactory communication.”
“We have, in reply to it (the telegram), repeated the request we made last week to the German Government that they should give us the same assurance with regard to Belgium neutrality as was given to us and to Belgium by France last week. We have asked that a reply to that request and a satisfactory answer to the telegram of this morning, should be given before midnight.”
Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by His Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium would be respected, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin has received his passport, and His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4th.The nightmare began and has lasted to this day. Two days ago, on August 4, 2014, a great deal of commemoration went on.
We cannot argue with the importance of the date or the fact that the centenary should, in some way, be remembered. But one cannot help thinking that it was all overdone to an almost nauseating extent. Military parades, restrained speeches, the laying of wreaths (will they all be laid again in November?), beautiful services in various cathedrals are all solemn and, up to a point, moving. Photographs and newsreels of the period are enormously interesting and a number of exhibitions around the country have been fascinating.
But did we really need the call for darkness and the lighting of candles? Sir Edward Grey's famous comment about the lamps going out in Europe was not a literal description of what happened. Did we really need all the commentary, the endless sentimentality, the glorification of Britain's decision to go to war? Let me make it quite clear: I am not, in this posting, discussing either that or the various military campaigns, merely the surfeit of remembrance. We must remember! We must learn our lessons! But what must we remember? That war is hellish? Who doesn't know that? Given the fact that most of what was repeated in those endless comments was the old old myths about the war and the trenches, as if there had been no naval war, no air war, no fighting elsewhere in Europe and the world, nothing much seems to have been learnt about the actual events outside the pages of such magazines as History Today.
Those lessons we must learn? What are they exactly? That war is a bad thing? Well, who knew? That war is sometimes unavoidable? I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. The slightest suggestion that perhaps British generals were not quite as stupid as the mythology would have it, that many people came back from the war and got on with their lives, that British casualties were not as high as other countries', that, perhaps, signing those treaties with France and Russia was not such a good idea when we look at what they led to, that maybe it was not simply Germany's fault though they were hardly victims and of other not very controversial matters was greeted with hysterical outbursts about visiting battle fields (I have not done that but have visited at least one military cemetery and it was very moving) and the need to remember. Not to understand, not to keep a stiff upper lip but to remember.
It is one of the curious developments of the last few years that as Britain becomes less and less of a military power for psychological as well as practical reason, so there is a greater proliferation of memorials and remembrance festivities, till they have become a season, whose end is not in sight.
I should like to quote relevant comments from two writers, both, as it happens conservative. Dorothy L. Sayers's novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club which starts on Remembrance Day (and raises an interesting question about the wearing of the poppy) has a number of characters who had gone through the war and had been affected by it in a greater and lesser degree. Lord Peter Wimsey who, as readers of Sayers's books know, had suffered from shell-shock but had more or less overcome it meets at the beginning of the novel George Fentiman who seems to have been gassed and shell-shocked. He is in a bad state and seems unable to recover from his experiences. (There is a sort of a happy solution at the end of the novel but it does not ring true. Sayers's own marriage to a man who had never really recovered from the war was not happy.)
Listening to George Fentiman's complaints, Wimsey diagnoses the problem:
Cheer up. All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don't it? It's my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn't run it for all it's worth. However, it don't do to say so.That was written in 1928.
My other quotation is from John Dickson Carr, a writer who was more than a conservative, positively a Tory, and it refers to the period immediately after the Second World War. Carr was in Britain at the end of the war and was not particularly happy by the regime imposed on the country by the Labour government (a good many people were unhappy about it, feeling justifiably that war-time rationing and regulations should not intensify once the war was over).
In November 1945 he went back to the States and together with Frederick Dannay (one half of Ellery Queen) scoured the second-hand bookshops for the detective fiction of his youth. He emerged with what must have been a remarkable haul, including a complete set of novels by Carolyn Wells, an extremely popular writer in her day but almost forgotten now. Carr wanted to bring the books back to Britain but found it an incredible chore, it being necessary. apparently, to obtain a licence for the process from a government that rather sniffily discouraged, according to what Carr quoted in a letter to Dannay, the importation of fiction. (Who but a socialist government would think of that?)
As Douglas G. Greene quotes in his superlative biography of Carr and as Curtis J. Evans re-quotes in his essay on Carolyn Wells in the recent collection Mysteries Unlocked, Carr wrote to Dannay in May 1946 that the British government has finally (after six months) agreed to grant that licence though he also received "a stern letter saying it is not customary to allow importation of fiction". Carr goes on:
The regulations in this country go more and more damnable. One more war for liberty and we shall all be slaves.Something to mull over in this remembrance season.
The point is that the WSPU, though it is extraordinarily well known and has had a great deal of attention devoted to it by the journalists, writers and the entertainment industry, was only one of several organizations and not a particularly popular one among suffragists in general. (The word "suffragette" was first coined by the Daily Mail as an insult and has been used as a sort of rough distinction from "suffragists" who wanted to achieve votes for women through peaceful means and rational arguments.)
Looking at the undoubtedly fascinating collection of photographs, some known but mostly not, and documents issued by the police and the Home Office I was reminded that I still have not written sufficiently about Conservative suffragists, which I shall do very soon.
However, it was undoubtedly annoying to see some of the old myths being peddled if only indirectly. The introductory comments explained that the fight for women's suffrage had been going on for almost a century before the WSPU was formed but with no success. Therefore, some of the suffragists, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, especially the lawyer Christabel, decided on ever more violent action. This made the cause well known though divided opinion, added the note. The implication, unstated because it would not be true, that the militant activity of the Pankhursts was successful in the way previous peaceful campaigning had not been.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Women did not get the vote until 1918 and that was the result of their supreme war effort that really destroyed the argument that women cannot be trusted to think about bigger issues than their homes.
It does seem to me that the myth of the victorious violent and often left-wing (certainly as far as Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were concerned) should be laid to rest. Would the National Portrait Gallery consider an exhibition of portraits of Suffragists, many of whom were Conservative?
Having just read one of E. C. R. Lorac's novels, These Names Make Clues, (not one of her best, as it happens though it strengthens my suspicion that Edith Caroline Rivett, a. k. a. E. C. R. Lorac, a. k. a. Carol Carnac, was a crossword addict who would not have dreamed of starting her day's activity without finishing the one in the Times first) I have once again noted a curious aspect to Golden Age Detective (GAD) novels. The characters, if they happen to be educated literate ones, which they often are, always seem to have read every single recently published book.
When did they have time to do all that and do their own work as well as other activities and keep up with their knowledge and reading of the various classics? Were there fewer books published in the thirties? There certainly were in the forties because of paper shortage but it all picked up again in the fifties. Were there more hours in the day, more days in the week? Books were certainly cheaper but not that cheap, relative to income, so there is the financial consideration to be taken into account. Or was it simply the fact that they did not have to do the washing up and there was no TV to watch?
While we are on the subject of detective fiction characters' reading, I may add that one aspect of P. D. James's novels have always bemused me. Her hero, who rises through the higher ranks of the Metropolitan Police is Adam Dalgliesh, Commander, I believe, towards the end of the series (so far) and a well-known and highly regarded poet. Now, I happen to be acquainted with poets and know about the extent of poetry reading in this country. Actually, extent is not really a word one would use, so negligible it is, when it comes to newly published poetry. Yet, whenever Adam Dalgliesh with whatever rank turns up to investigate a crime and interview the various suspects and people involved, among them he always finds a number who have read his poetry and have acquired his latest book. This is not remotely realistic.
Before TH moves to a discussion of the two titles, the collection as a whole and of its astonishing author, let us look at the curious conundrum raised by Bryan Morgan (himself a railway enthusiast, author of books on the subject and editor of The Railway Lover's Companion as well as of an exellent collection, entitled Crime on the Lines):
The nexus between railways and the clergy (today including at least two bishops, and extended to include such fringe churchmen as organists) has been often remarked upon but never fully explained. Should one, for instance, accept the view of a current professor of scripture that the organisation of a railway is a microcosm of God's organisation of the universe, or agree with that vicar and author of popular children's books who claims that despite their faults the railways and the church are the best ways of transporting a man to his final destination? Or should one look to the late Canon Roger Lloyd's opinion that railway-lore is 'morally good in the sense that it healthily occupies the mind and so becomes a subsidiary and indirect cause of that self-forgetfulness which is at the root of all virtue'?Most certainly there is a link between railways and spy stories, at least those of that period as well as detective ones. But why the clergy should find itself so enamoured with trains and all matters to do with them remains a mystery and if Bryan Morgan cannot solve it, nobody can.
Certainly, though, the clerical or lay enthusiast of the early years of the present century was a happy man; for Britain's railways were then at their peak of glory. 'Brief years, from the death of Queen Victoria to the outbreak of war', as Mr Hamilton Ellis has written, 'were proud years. Enormous coal-trains rumbled and handsome expresses rushed about the country. Maintenance was high and locomotives were often painted in gorgeous colours.' Bradshaw ran to nearly 1200 pages (a figure never preceded or exceeded) and in many a country rectory stood as a work of reference beside Crockford's. Numerous parsons stumped while drafting a sermon must have relaxed intellectually by working out the quickest route between Saxmundham and Blisworth.
Whitechurch was an astonishingly prolific author of detective and other novels and short stories as well as books of topography and autobiography. As Mr Morgan says, his duties in the Church could not have been particularly onerous.
His knowledge of the railways seems to have been outstanding and several of the short stories have pages of incomprehensible detail about the various activities, which does not, oddly enough, detract from the actual plots that are usually very straightforward, sometimes of the detective, sometimes of the thriller variety.
Nine of the fifteen are concerned with the activities of the "first railway detective" as acknowledged by no less an authority as Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Thorpe Hazell, who shares his creator's knowledge of trains and railways but is also something of a diet and exercise weirdo. TH has wondered idly whether Mrs Ariadne Oliver's creation, the vegetarian Finn, Sven Hjerson might not have been influencd by the character of Thorpe Hazell, though the latter sticks to a seriously unhealthy diet of milk, lentils, macaroni and Dutch cheese with nary a piece of fruit or vegetable. He also eats Plasmon biscuits and chocolate and does quite ridiculous exercises before and after meals. But give him a problem such as how to stop a German messenger from taking a stolen document out of the country or how to ensure that an important diplomatic meeting takes place or what happened to a valuable picture and, indeed, the carriage it was in and Hazell is in his element.
There are also six non-Hazell stories and these are all thrillers with the villains ranging from German agents to Russian police officials and violent union leaders. All in all, quite interesting but not altogether thrilling. According to Bryan Morgan, the British Library catalogue renamed the collection from Thrilling Stories of the Railway to just Stories of the Railway, and that is how they were reprinted in 1977. As indicated above the Australian on-line version restores the original title as did the BBC when it recorded Benedict Cumberbatch reading inexplicably abridged versions of the stories.
Even better, this was a new edition, published by John Murray (sadly now a part of Hodder and Stoughton) in 2006, sixteen years after the original, during which time many things happened in Central Asia and a new Great Game started. Mr Hopkirk acknowledges this by a new Preface and a whole new map. TH is lost in admiration. There were five maps before and now there are six, with an extra one that depicts The Battlefield of the New Great Game. Excellent.
Equally excellent is the conclusion of the new Preface:
For the collapse of the Russian rule in Central Asia has tossed the area back into the melting pot of history. Almost anything could happen there now and only a brave or foolish man would predict its future. For this reason I have note attempted to update my original narrative beyond adding this brief foreword. Among all the uncertainties, however, one thing seems certain. For good or ill, Central Asia is back in the thick of the news once more, and likely to remain there for a long time to come.Eight years on, that remains true.