Tag Archives: world war one

The High Cost of Two Battleships: Churchill, Turkey and a Decision that Still Effects us Today

churchill1914

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more interesting and overlooked factors in the days leading up to the First World War, which had significant ramifications in the Middle East involved Winston Churchill. Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and made a decision which ensured the Ottoman Empire would be pushed into an alliance with Germany.

For many years Britain had been the chief supplier of ships for the Ottoman Navy. In fact in the years leading up to World War One the Ottomans had purchased over 40 ships from Great Britain and on August 2nd 1914 was expecting to take delivery of two, extremely modern Dreadnoughts, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh. The Sultan Osman was armed with fourteen 12” guns, the Reshadieh with ten 13” guns, making them the equal or superior to most battleships afloat. The Turkish Government had paid over 4 billion Pounds for the ships and made the final payment on August 2nd shortly before the Turkish Captain and 500 crew members were to come aboard for a ceremony formally handing over the ship to the Turkish Navy.

HMS_Agincourt_1915

HMS Agincourt 

Much of the money the Turks used to pay for the ships came from the donations of ordinary Turkish citizens. Money came from taverns, from cafes, schools, Mosques and markets. Those that donated were awarded a commemorative medal, the ships were the pride of Turkey and the empire. The nation awaited the delivery of the ships which would ensure the superiority of the Turkish Navy against its traditional foe, Russia.

HMS_Erin

HMS Erin

As War approached Churchill began to prepare, keeping many of his plans and actions even from the government. Less than an hour before the ceremony Churchill ordered the ships seized and and the Royal Navy kept the Turkish Captain and crew locked aboard a nearby transport. The Turkish Captain later wrote:

“… We paid the last installment (700.000 Turkish liras). The manufacturer and we agreed on that the ships would be hand over on 2 August 1914. Nevertheless, after we made our payment and half an hour before the ceremony, the British declared that they have requisitioned the ships… Although we have protested, nobody paid attention.”

Churchill had gained two modern Dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy, and the British shipyards kept the money, the Turks were never compensated for the loss. The ships were renamed HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin. Both served throughout the war and at the Battle of Jutland, and bother were scrapped in the early 1920s due to the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty.

SMS_Goeben-ptbow3

SMS Goeben

But in the process whereby the British gained the ships, ensured that Turkey would ally itself with Germany. The positive effects were mitigated by the Germans providing the very modern dreadnought type  Molkte ClassBattlecruiser Goeben and Light Cruiser Breslau to the Turks, giving them the edge over the Russians. Breslau was mined and sunk in 1918 but Goeben served in the Turkish Navy as the Yavuz Sultan Selim until she was decommissioned in 1954, and scrapped in 1973.

Likewise, Churchill’s decision meant that when Turkey entered the war that the strategically important Bosporus strait which was Russia’s only year round access to foreign shipping was closed, keeping Britain and France from being able to supply their Russian ally. The ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, launched by Churchill was the attempt to break the Turkish stranglehold, and the costly failure of that operation helped ensure the defeat of Russia and the overthrow of the Czar..

In the long term it had affects that we are still feeling the today. The entry or Turkey into the war and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the catalyst for the arbitrary borders drawn by the allies across the Middle East. We still suffer the result today.

Had Turkey remained neutral throughout the war, or even sided with the allies the course of history might be far different. We don’t know, but the Ottoman Empire might have endured or it might have peacefully morphed into something different.

Churchill’s decision turned out to be one of the more important, and less known events before the war broke out, and certainly we still feel the ramifications today. Actions have consequences, and sometimes what seems expedient to give a tactical edge, sometimes has far reaching strategic consequences. Consequences that sometimes linger for generations. In particular, the Trump administration needs to wake up to how their present policies will effect the world for the next century or more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, Military, national security, Navy Ships, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war one

Veteran’s Day 2016: They Thanked us Kindly and Made Their Peace…

Remembrance_Day___Poppy_Day_by_daliscar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Ninety-eight years ago the war that was supposed to end all wars came to an end. Barely two years later, T.E. Lawrence wrote of its end:

We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

That seems to be the way that it always is.

In November 1914 millions of soldiers were fighting in horrible conditions throughout Europe. From the English Channel to Serbia, Poland and Galicia; French, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian and Russian troops engaged each other in bloody and often pointless battles. Often commanded by old men who did not understand how the character of war had changed, millions were killed, wounded, maimed or died of disease.

481801_10151367001287059_1003164983_n-1.jpg

Grave of a British Airman in Habbinyah Iraq

After four years, with the Empires that were at the heart of the war’s outbreak collapsing one after the other there was an armistice. On the eleventh  hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month the shooting stopped and the front lines quieted. By then over 20 million people, soldiers and civilians alike had died. Millions more had been wounded, captured, seen their homes and lands devastated or been driven from there ancestral homelands, never to return.

The human cost of that war was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well.  France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.

lawrence-of-arabia

T.E. Lawrence

It was supposed to be the War to end all War…but it wasn’t, it was the mother of countless wars, wars which continue to this day in the vast expanses of desert where Lawrence served.

It has been a century since that bleak November of 1914, and ninety-six years since the time where for a brief moment, people around the world, but especially in Europe dared to hope for a lasting and just peace. But that would not be the case…

The victors imposed humiliating peace terms on the vanquished, be it the Germans on the Russians, or the Allies on Germany and her partners. The victors divided up nations, drew up borders without regard to historic, ethnic, tribal or religious sensibilities. But then, it was about the victors imposing themselves and their quest for domination, expanding colonial empires and controlling natural resources rather than seeking a just and lasting peace. The current war against the Islamic State is one of the wars spawned by the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East between the French and the British at the end of the war. It was a war that keeps on giving.

Of course we have known the disastrous results of their hubris, a hubris still carried on by those who love and profit by war…war without end which continues seemingly with no end in sight.

img_0220

I am a veteran of Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as the Bosnia mission and the Cold War. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who enlisted during the Korean War. I serve because it is the right thing to do, not because I find war romantic or desirable. It is as General William Tecumseh Sherman said “Hell.” If called to go back to Iraq, where I left so much of my soul, I would in a heartbeat.

Today we pay our day of homage to our honor veterans, especially in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. But sometimes it seems so hollow, for in all of our countries those that serve are a tiny minority of those eligible to serve, who are much of the time ignored or even scorned by those that feel that providing for them after they have served is too much of a burden on the wealthy who make their profits on the backs of these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

memorial-day1-300x225

I have walked about since returning from Iraq often in a fog, trying to comprehend how a country can be at war for so long, and there is such a gap between the few who serve and the vast majority for whom war is an abstract concept happening to someone else, in places far away, and whose experience of war is its glorification in video games. Personally I find that obscene, and feel that I live in a foreign world. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front: 

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

Similarly Guy Sager wrote in his classic The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

Major General Gouverneur Warren wrote to his wife two years after the American Civil War:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

Sometimes I find it obscene that retailers and other corporations have turned this solemnity into another opportunity to profit. But then why should I expect different? Such profiteers have been around from the beginning of time, but then maybe I still am foolish enough to hope for something different. Please don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the fact that some businesses attempt in at least some small way to thank veterans. I also know there are many businesses and business owners who do more than offer up tokens once a year, by putting their money where their mouth is to support returning veterans with decent jobs and career opportunities; but for too many others the day is just another day to increase profits while appearing to “support the troops.”

As Marine Corps legend and two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler Wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

But the marketers of war do not mind, almost Orwellian language is used to lessen its barbarity. Dave Grossman wrote in his book On Killing:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

There is even a cottage industry of war buffs, some of who are veterans seeking some kind of camaraderie after their service, but most of whom have little or know skin in the real game, and at no inconvenience to themselves. As far as the veterans I understand, but as for the others I can fully understand the words of Guy Sager, who wrote:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

It was to be the War to end all war” but I would venture that it was the war that birthed countless wars, worse tyrannies and genocides; That war, which we mark the end of today, is in a very real and tragic sense, the mother of the wars that have followed. War without end…Amen.

As so to my friends, my comrades and all that served I honor you, especially those that I served alongside. We are a band of brothers, no matter what the war profiteers do, no matter how minuscule our number as compared to those who do not know what we do, and those who never will.  We share a timeless bond and no-one can take that away.

I close with the words of a German General from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel today. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching the general address his troops after their surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

In hopes of peace,

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, Military

Brexit Stage Right: Unintended Consequences Matter


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today we woke up to a different world, a world that will not resemble what we have grown up with, and that may usher in more inequity and violence than we could ever imagine. Yesterday, the people of Great Britian voted to leave the European Union. Now to many Americans that may not seem like a big deal, but it is, the unintended consequences of a vote based on very real grievances will most likely beget unimaginable conflicts and turmoil that will effect the entire world. I do not say that lightly. 

Total major economic markets crashed on the news of Brexit, the British Pound Sterling collapsed, and if it were not for the intervention of major banking and currency houses, the collapse may have been worse. Billions of worth of Dollars, Pounds, Euros, and other currency’s values were erased within hours. These losses are not just paper, they are the investments of many people, including men and women who have invested their savings in various retirement programs tied to the stock markets and financial markets, and sadly those initial losses may be the least incurred by people, especially by the mostly English (as opposed to Scottish and Northern Irish) citizens of the United Kingdom who voted to leave the European Union intended. 

As I mentioned last night, I can understand why so many working class Englishmen voted to leave the E.U. In fact, I have never been a big fan of the E.U., but that being said, despite its flaws which I think are legion, I believe that Europe and the world, including the United States are now better with it than without it. We so often forget that the international alliances of the Eurpoean Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations have done for stability and peace in Europe. People too often forget the disastrous great World Wars of the Twentieth Century, the genociadal regime of Hitler, and the Soviet Communists which led to its creation in the early 1950s. The European Union may need substantive reform, and even to restrict some of its bereaucratic initiatives, but on the whole it has been a force for good. With the exception of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars in the Balkans, the European continent has been free of war since 1945. In light of that I would have counseled the people who voted to leave to instead have worked inside the system to reform it, but just as in the United States, people tend to be more motivated by fear than by reason when it comes to government. 

Sadly, there will be unintended consequence, the first of which on the economic front are already being felt, the U.S. Dow Jones lost over 600 points today, the largest loss in over four years. Other stock markets and financials are continuing to fall in value. In the hours following the vote to “leave” the E.U., there is the very real threat that the United Kingdom may collapse as the people of Scotland as well as possibly Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar begin preparations to leave the U.K. If that happens it will have major economic and security effects in the U.K. Much of British industry, including shipbuilding, petroleum and other  energy are concentrated in those parts of the U.K., as is the major British Trident submarine base and nuclear weapons facility at Faslane Scotland. The United Kingdom is not just England. If Scotland leaves the U.K., and if Northern Ireland follows suit it will be disastrous to the very working people in England who voted to leave the E.U., both in terms of economics and national security. The truth is that the world’s economic and security interests are much more interconnected and dependent than most people who follow the dictates of “my country first,” or “my interests first” fail to understand. 

Believe me, I get the anger, I get the frustration that is found in the United States among the supporters or Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the British citizens who voted to leave the E.U. I do not condemn them, at the same time I would politely disagree with the way to solve the problem. In the aftermath of Brexit, anti-European Union parties in France, and the Netherlands are threatening to do what they can to break up the E.U. Likewise, there are other movements in Europe which after having taken the financial resources of the E.U., are willing to quit it regardless of the economic and security consequences. Unfortunately, to paraphrase the words of one of my readers for the U.K., that they may have opened Pandora’s Box in voting for this.

But another consequence will be felt by the ethnic and religious minorities whose ancestors fought for these nations when they were colonial empires; Indians, Asians, Arabs, North Africans, and sub-Saharan Africans who fought and often died for the British, Dutch, French, and Belgian colonial empires in wars that did little to benefit them. The abject racism that has been displayed by some people of the Brexit movement, as well as the right wing movements in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and other nations is frightening to comprehend. The fact that race and religious hatred can emerge from the ashes of the Holocaust is hard to imagine, and the sad thing is that those who propagate race and religious hatred against Muslims, Hindus, and others would do the same to the Jews, if there were enough left in Europe to make it worthwhile. 

Unfortunently, the real terrorists that those in the Brexit movement and other right-wing European movements fear are those whose world view is their mirror image, radical ideologues that are unwilling to compromise with or accept those  who are different from them; not those who have tried to adapt and assimilate in a world where they are still, after generations of work and sacrifice for their former colonial masters are still not welcome. Sadly, that has resulted in some of these people embracing the cause of groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaida. 

Since I am neither the Prophet, nor the Son of the Prophet, I cannot say what will finally happen in the near future, but I know that last night was a watershed and that the world that we have known for decades, and that the people of the United Kingdom have known for over two centuries will never be the same again. In light of history, that is not a good thing. 

I know that most of the people who votes to leave the European Union meant well, but sometimes the best of intentions lead to consequences which are more terrible than what the people thought they were intending. That is another fact that history demonstrates. 

Have a good night. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, News and current events

Reading, Reflecting and Verdun


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is now Wednesday following the long Memorial Day holiday weekend. As I mentioned I did not do much writing the past few days, instead I spend the time with Judy, our two Papillons, and friends. Likewise I did a lot of reading and reflection and took the time to watch the classic film A Bridge Too Far and the first four episodes of the HBO series  Band of Brothers.

But anyway…

It was good to take some time that was not directly related to the research and writing of my Civil War and Gettysburg text, even though some of my reading prompted me to do some more research and writing on that text which should prove beneficial to the end product, but as always I digress…


Gun turret at Fort Douaumont 

Over the weekend I caught up on some reading. I was able to read Colonel Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power,  Alistair Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, Nate Braden’s American Renegade Marine: The Life and Times of Smedley Butler USMC, and I re-read Eric Hoffer’s classic work, The True Beleiver, and Walter Lord’s classic history of the Battle of Midway, Incredible Victory. All of these books are well worth weeding regardless of one’s political or ideological viewpoint because they deal with the human condition. Of course I have a number of other works in the que and will continue to read simply because all of these works help me make sense of the incredibly nonsensical world that we live in.

I also did some reading about the Battle for Verdun in the First World War and plan on re-reading Horne’s book on it, The Price of Glory. That battle began in 1916 and lasted 303 days. During that time about 750,000 French and German Soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Other more recent estimated place that number at 976,000 with about 1.25 million lost there during the course of the war. When it appeared that the Germans might take the forts surrounding the city and break the French line, General Petain issued the order “they shall not pass.” The battle made a tremendous impact on the French military and political psyche after the war, due to the French policy of rotating units through Verdun during the battle close to three-quarters of the French Army served there. Those who did never forgot the hell that was Verdun. 


If you go there you will find a battlefield unlike any other, it has a significance in France like Gettysburg, but unlike Gettysburg there are not legions of monuments dotting the battlefield commemorations men or units dotting an otherwise pristine battlefield. Yes, there are some, but what impresses is the fact that the land itself, a century after the battle still bears the scars of it. The landscape is still cratered by the immense number of artillery shells fired there. There are areas that are off limits because of the amount of unexploded ordnance, and residue of Mustard Gas. In the areas one can visit there are the remains of the great forts, two of which, Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux can be toured. The village of Fleurey, which changed hands sixteen times during the battle can be walked through. A path paved with small pieces of shrapnel goes through a quit wood, small markers denote where each house, or shop in the village stood. At the center of the town, a small chapel built from the bricks and stones of destroyed buildings stands as a reminder. 

There are other monuments on the battlefield such as the Trench of Bayonets where the tips of rifles with bayonets affixed to them mark the location of a French squad buried when the trench collapsed. Of course there are the cemeteries, including one that contains the bodies of thousands of Algerian Muslim troops. But then there is the ossuary, a massive structure in the center of the cemeteries. Crowned by a tower shaped like an artillery shell which serves as a place where one can survey the battlefield, it has a great hall commemorating the units tha fought there. Underneath that great hall are interred the bones of about 130,000 unknown soldiers who were pulverized by the artillery. More are added every year, in fact while shuffling my feet around Fort Vaux in 1984 I unearthed what appeared to be part of a tibia. I contacted one of the staff so it could be properly interred. 


Fort Vaux 

Verdun has become a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany over the years. It is a place where French and German leaders come, to honor the dead and to pledge themselves to continued reconciliation and peace. Last weekend President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel renewed that pledge. 

When I visited Verdun I was a young Army Second Lieutenant stationed in Germany, constantly training and preparing for the day the Soviets would cross the Fulda Gap and bring about a war that would have devastated Europe, and maybe led to a nuclear holocaust. The battlefield, the vast cratered landscape where little grows; dotted by forts, gun turrets, wire, pillboxes, ruins, cemeteries, and occasional monuments is still etched in my mind some thirty-two years later. To read the accounts of the men who fought a Verdun is to see the fact that war is brutal and dehumanizing, the sights, and smells of death, of rotting flesh, of men shattered, is sobering. I have been to war, I have seen those sights, smelled those smells, thankfully not on such a scale, for what I did see and experience in Iraq changed me for life, but I cannot imagine carnage and death on the scale of Verdun. 

So anyway, until tomorrow, 

Peace,

Padre Steve+



Leave a comment

Filed under History, Military, world war one

Fighting Germans and Jim Crow: African-Americans in the First World War

Harlem_Hell_Fighters

Harlem Hellfighters in Action

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the things about history is that we tend to forget the sacrifices of men who fought for the ideals of liberty, even when they were denied it themselves. That was the case with the African American men who served in the Army after the Civil War and well into the 1960s, fighting the external enemies of the United States, while being subject to the discrimination of Jim Crow and the Black Codes at home.

They were Americans who in spite of prejudice and in spite of intolerance and persecution loved their country. They were men who labored under the most difficult circumstance to show all Americans and the world that they were worthy of being soldiers and citizens of the United States of America.

They were all volunteers and many of them were veteran soldiers had already served full careers on the Great Plains. They were the Buffalo Soldiers, and when the United States entered the First World War, they were not wanted. Instead, the veterans were left on the frontier and a new generation of African American draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two new infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd.

However in the beginning they too were kept out of action. These men were initially regulated to doing labor service behind the lines and in the United States. But finally, the protests of organizations such as the NAACP and men like W.E.B.DuBois and Phillip Randolph forced the War Department to reconsider the second class status of these men and form them into combat units.

Despite this the leadership of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force of General John Pershing refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Somehow the concept of such men serving alongside White Americans in the “War to end All War” was offensive to the high command.

Instead these divisions were broken up and the regiments sent to serve out of American areas on the Western Front. The regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division.

The 370th “Black Devils” were detailed to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments were assigned to the French 157th (Colonial) Division, which was also known as the Red Hand Division.

These units performed with distinction. The 371st was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur and Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 1st Battalion 371st was the only African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War. The 372nd was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur for its service with the 157th Division.

The 157th (Colonial) Division had suffered badly during the war and been decimated in the unrelenting assaults in the trench warfare of the Western Front. It was reconstituted in 1918 with one French Regiment and two American regiments, the Negro 371st and 372nd Infantry. On July 4th 1918 the commanding General of the French 157th Division, General Mariano Goybet issued the following statement:

“It is striking demonstration of the long standing and blood-cemented friendship which binds together our two great nations. The sons of the soldiers of Lafayette greet the sons of the soldiers of George Washington who have come over to fight as in 1776, in a new and greater way of independence. The same success which followed the glorious fights for the cause of liberty is sure to crown our common effort now and bring about the final victory of right and justice over barbarity and oppression.”

220px-Red_Hand_Division

While many white American soldiers depreciated their French hosts and attempted to sow the seeds of their own racial prejudice against the black soldiers among the French, Southerners in particular warned the French of  the “black rapist beasts.” However the French experience of American blacks was far different than the often scornful treatment that they received from white American soldiers.

“Soldiers from the four regiments that served directly with the French Army attested to the willingness of the French to let men fight and to honor them for their achievements. Social interactions with French civilians- and white southern soldiers’ reactions to them- also highlighted crucial differences between the two societies. Unlike white soldiers, African Americans did not complain about high prices in French stores. Instead they focused on the fact that “they were welcomed” by every shopkeeper that they encountered.”

Official and unofficial efforts by those in the Army command and individual soldiers to stigmatize them and to try to force the French into applying Jim Crow to laws and attitudes backfired. Villages now expressed a preference for black over white American troops. “Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans,” wrote one village mayor after a group of rowdy white Americans disrupted the town.”

Stowers

The citation for Corporal Stowers award of the Medal of Honor reads as follows:

Corporal Stowers, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on September 28, 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.

Corporal Stowers is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The award of the Medal of Honor was not made until 1991 when President George H. W. Bush presented it to Stowers’ two surviving sisters.

The contrast between the American treatment of its own soldiers and that of the French in the First World War is striking. The fact that it took President Harry S. Truman to integrate the U.S. Military in 1948 is also striking. African Americans had served in the Civil War, on the Great Plains, in Cuba and in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in the Second World War and were treated as less than fully human by many Americans.

770px-369th_15th_New_York

Men of the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments of the French 157th Division Awarded the Croix d’Guerre

Even after President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, African Americans, as well as other racial minorities, women and gays have faced very real discrimination. The military continues to make great strides, and while overt racist acts and other types of discrimination are outlawed, racism still remains a part of American life.

Today things have changed, and that in large part is due to the unselfish sacrifice in the face of hatred and discrimination of the men of the USCT and the State Black Regiments like the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Home Guards who blazed a way to freedom for so many. Those who followed them as Buffalo Soldiers and volunteers during the World Wars continued to be trail blazers in the struggle for equal rights. A white soldier who served with the 49th Massachusetts wrote “all honor to our negro soldiers. They deserve citizenship. They will secure it! There would be much suffering in what he termed “the transition state” but a “nation is not born without pangs.”

Unfortunately racial prejudice is still exists in the United States. In spite of all the advances that we have made racism still casts an ugly cloud over our country. Despite the sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldiers, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others there are some people who like the leaders of the AEF in 1917 and 1918 cannot stomach having blacks as equals or God forbid in actual leadership roles in this country.

A good friend of mine who is a retired military officer, a white man, an evangelical Christian raised in Georgia who graduated from an elite military school in the South, who is a proponent of racial equality has told me that the problem that many white people in the South have with President Obama is that “he doesn’t know his place.” Yes racism is still real and rears its ugly head all too often.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under civil rights, History, Military, Political Commentary, world war one

Busting National Myths

In light of the many historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by pseudo “historians” like the infamous David Barton it is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens. Some myths can be positive and inspiring, but others can lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents. They also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.

Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive. Such was the case in Germany following the First World War.

After the war the certain parts of the German political right posited that the German Army was not defeated by the Allied powers, but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left. But such was not the case the German Army was on the verge of collapse.

Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth. It is true that there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II, including the mutiny  of the German High Seas Fleet, as well as Army units stationed in Germany. However, in truth, the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918, the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.

The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the crisis which Ludendorff suffered what could be called an emotional collapse and  was relieved of his duty. His successor, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted that the Kaiser Wilhelm abdicate his throne.

The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages because to not sign was to have the Allies resume the war against Germany.

The treaty required the Germany to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle, and pay massive reparations to the Allies. The  legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany during the chaotic years of the Weimar Republic.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to battlefield losses or the entry of the United States.  He made the “stab in the back” a staple of his attacks on the Republic. This was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.

The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.

Thus for Hitler, the Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey noted Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.” (Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel wrote about the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295)

Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth.

Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events.

The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.

The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world. Sadly in the case of the United States, a portion of the political Right,  mostly found in the conservative Christian elements of the Tea Party movement are spreading their own version of the “stab in the back.” They blame Democrats, liberals, atheists, racial and religious minority groups, educators, labor unions and a host of others for the calamities that those that they have supported: the big banks and financial instructions that collapsed the economy in 2008, the politicians of the Republican Party who took the country into an unwise, unjust and illegal war in Iraq that not only cost many American lives and treasure but brought on the crisis that has led to the advance and power of the Islamic State, and the list can go on and on, and includes social issues, race, education, and even religion. But ignoring the responsibility of those they support,mother create myth, and cast blame on everyone but themselves.

That myth that they preach has become a staple of our political crisis. It is little differnt in tenor and intent of those who promoted the stab in the back myth during the Weimar Republic.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Night the Lights Went Out in Europe: August 3rd 1914

grey-bastard

Sir Edward Grey addressing the House of Commons 

The mobilization of millions of soldiers across Europe was moving rapidly as the sun set on the night of August 2nd 1914 when the German Ambassador to Belgium Klaus Bulow-Selaske delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian government. The ultimatum gave the Belgians 12 hours to decide if they would allow the German armies free passage through the country. The Belgians, treasuring their independence and led by a truly heroic leader, the young and humble King Albert refused the German ultimatum and vowed to fight.

The next morning the British House of Commons met and for the first time since 1893 every member was present, with many spectators in attendance, Britain’s participation in a war on the European Continent in nearly 100 years was being contemplated. Britain was divided between interventionists and non-interventionists, and the pressure was on the government.

The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey urged giving support to France. He told the assembled Members of Parliament about, British military understandings with France, and the German ultimatum to Belgium. Grey asked them whether Britain “would quietly stand by and witness the perpetration of the dirtiest crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become participators in the sin.” He added that “we are going to suffer, I am afraid in this war, whether we are in it or stand aside.” If Britain dis stand aside, forfeiting her “Belgian Treaty obligations” the she would “sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world.” Grey had not convinced everyone, but he had carried the day. However, the Germans did not believe that Britain would go to war over Belgium.

At seven that evening the German Ambassador to France Baron Schoen delivered a declaration of war against France, his counterpart in Berlin, the French Ambassador was given his passports.

As Grey pondered the content of an ultimatum to be sent to Berlin he returned to his office in Whitehall. “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The next morning the German army began its assault on the Belgian fortress city of Liege. That afternoon Poincare and Foreign Minister Viviani addressed the combined houses of the French Parliament, asking for war credits, discussing German violations of French territory and “implored the deputies, and the French people “to help us in bearing the burden of our heavy responsibility, the comfort of a clear conscience and the conviction that we have done our duty.”

The members of all parties, from the nationalists, the Catholic right and the Socialists overwhelming committed themselves to a sacred union. Poincare recalled later “Never has there been a spectacle as magnificent as that which they have just participated….In the memory of man, there has never been anything more beautiful in France.”

kw31_reichstagsprotokolle_bild

Bethmann-Hollweg address the Reichstag 

In Berlin Prime Minister Bethmann-Hollweg accused the French of violating German borders and of the Russian mobilization. He asked the Reichstag deputies “Were we to wait in further patience until the nations on either side of us chose the moment for their attack?” He was interrupted with cries of “No! No!”

Bethmann went on and admitted that Germany had violated Belgian territory and that it was a “breach of international law” ironically what he had just accused the French of doing, but Bethmann promised that “this wrong- I speak openly-the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.” Grand Admiral Tirpitz considered the admission of wrongdoing “the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman.”

Bethmann called the nation to stand behind the military and as in France “Reichstag party leaders rose as one to vote war credits.”

A similar ultimatum was delivered to Russia by the German Ambassador and a similar scene repeated as Russia declared war.

That evening the British Ambassador to Germany Sir Edward Goschen paid a visit to Foreign Minister Jagow with a British ultimatum for the Germans to withdraw from Belgium within twelve hours, or face war. Bethmann, who had helped lead his nation into war believing that the British would remain neutral was stunned. Likewise, none had counted on the Russians to fight. The Germans had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” and that nation’s leaders cashed it with grave consequences for the world. Austria’s actions led to Czar Nicholas making the fateful decision to mobilize on July 29th, which set Europe on course for war.

There was no turning back, in four hours the two greatest military powers in the world, Great Britain and Germany would be at war.

All all of the leaders in their speeches had left out information that would be embarrassing to their claims in their addresses, duplicity was the order of the day. The lights were going out across Europe. And the leaders of all of the nations, with the exception of Belgium shared some degree of responsibility.

The questions for us today are similar: Will all of our leaders allow the lights to go out again, not just in Europe but the Middle East and Asia? and will world leaders allow some foolish action somewhere to bring about more war?

Admittedly the situation is not identical, but there are troubling similarities. It is something to think long and hard about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, history, national security, Political Commentary, world war one