I am the enemy you killed – Wilfred Owen’s solemn testament

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Poet Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918 – seven days before the guns fell silent in the war that people though would end all wars – as it turned out, the Treaty of Versailles became the peace that ended all peace.

That “old Lie,” from which his most famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est takes its title, comes from the Roman poet Horace. No bitter irony was intended, though, as Horace beseeched Romans to embrace the cleansing fire of a noble death.

In a brief article in the e-zine Quillette, titled The End of War Poetry, Simon British stand-up comic, satirist, writer, and broadcaster Simon Evans wrote:  “Privately, I still find the idea of young men gladly ploughing themselves back into the earth of their homeland unbearably moving. But after Owen, recreating such an ecstatic embrace of death in the service of a greater cause became as impossible as nailing Christ back onto the cross, or rather, nailing that cross back onto the wall”.

As Evans observes, the First World War at least gave us some of the most cherished and painfully beautiful verse in our history. “Poetry bubbled from the trenches in France as abundantly as methane, oaths, and blisters … [and] central to earlier war poetry was the tension between the terror, devastation, and death on one hand, and the opportunity for virtues like loyalty and honour on the other”.

Contemplating explanations, he writes that a junior officer’s prospects of survival were considerably worse than those of his men. According to one account, as little as six weeks. That might explain the poetry. Such a violently diminished life expectancy must have focused the mind wonderfully. World War Two was—on that score at least—considerably more democratic and egalitarian … By 1939, the culture had shifted for officers and men alike. The practice of soldiers carrying a slim volume of Browning or Keats, and of aspiring to emulate whoever was in their pockets, had passed. In 1914, the available persona of the poet was still vital—or seems so now, in sepia vignette. He was the sensitive man quietly scratching a wet match against sandpaper and putting it to a candle, careful not to wake the slumbering cattle. Ignoring the grotesque shadows that leapt in the dug-out, he would unfold his notebook, its neat ruled lines like trenches in which the words would hunker, later pressed against his breast as a Talisman once returned to his pocket. Working slowly through his exhaustion and his tobacco ration, setting down his impressions in bottled ink, striving with purpose to resolve the lunacy and the oceans of spilt blood just a few dark yards away”.

Second lieutenant Wilfred Owen, 25 years of age, was one of the last to die in a war that claimed 20 million dead and 20 million injured.  At least for the past half-centur­y, his poems have served as a prism through which the so-called Great War is viewed. But, despite being anthologised by his friend Siegfried Sassoon in 1920 and Edmund Blunden a decade later, they did not enter popular parlance until pacifist composer Benjamin Britten incorporated some of Owen’s most pot­ent verses in his War Requiem, written for the 1962 inauguration of the restored Coventry Cathedral

Gassed, John Singer Sargent 1919

Owen entered Britain’s national curriculum during the 1960s, and eventually the high school curricula of Commonwealth nations, which is where I first encountered him – and I was shocked by his viscer­al descriptions and implicit denunciations of war. He did not dwell on the causes but seemed to suggest that the sheer awfulness of military conflict between nations had stripped away all justifications.

“There had been many wars before, of course, but none where the poet was the soldier and, therefore, the intimate witness. This war was the rendering of wounds, both flesh and spiritual, by words”.

We republish below two excellent articles on Wilfred Owen and the poets of the First World War.

Othe posts in In That Howling Infinite: Dulce et Decorum est – the death of Wilfred Owen. A Son Goes To War – the grief of Rudyard Kipling and November 1918 – the counterfeit peace

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Qurba-n قُرْبان

Sacrifice -Rayner Hoff, Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney

War poet Wilfred Owen: sweet and honourable lie 

Artwork: Sturt Krygsman.

Artwork: Sturt Krygsman.

Mahir Ali, Weekend Australian, 10th November 2018

During a visit to London in 1920, Bengali poet, philosopher and polem­icist Rabindranath Tagore receive­d an unexpected letter from a Mrs Susan Owen. She wished to share some information about her favourite son.

“It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time,” she wrote, “and the day he said Goodbye to me … my poet son said these wonderful words of yours … ‘when I leave, let these be my parting words: what my eyes have seen, what my life received, are unsurpassable’. And when his pocket book came back to me — I found these words written in his dear writing — with your name beneath.”

Tagore was something of a celebrity in Britain at the time, a white-bearded Indian sage who bore a resemblance to the then recently ­deceased Leo Tolstoy. He had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 on the strength, essentially, of Gitanjali, a collection of poetry he had translated from the original Bengali with the assistance of William Butler Yeats, which is the source for the aphorism that appealed to Owen’s son. That son, Wilfred, is likely to have perceived rather differently from Tagore the context of what each of them considered “unsurpassable”.

It is equally likely that the young Englishman was unfamiliar with Tagore’s thought-provoking critique of nationalism as well as the poem, compos­ed on the last day of the 19th century, that demonstrates a remarkable prescience about the maelstrom that sneaked up on Europe shortly afterwards:

The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance The hungry self of Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding For it has made the world its food …

A plate from <i>Poems by Wilfred Owen </i>(1920).

               A plate from Poems by Wilfred Owen (1920)

Wilfred Owen’s final foray into that maelstrom came in August 1918. He won a Military Cross shortly afterwards. But while the Armistice Day bells pealed on November 11, his family received a telegram informing them that Wilfred had been killed a week earlier — 100 years ago last Sunday — while leading the men under his command across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors.

The second lieutenant was 25, his longevity abbreviated by a year even in comparison with the life span of his favourite predecessor poet, John Keats.

Unlike all too many of his contemporaries, though, Owen did not exactl­y die in vain. At least for the past half-centur­y, his poems have served as a prism through which the so-called Great War is viewed. But, despite being anthologised by his friend Siegfried Sassoon in 1920 and Edmund Blunden a decade later, they did not enter popular parlance until pacifist composer Benjamin Britten incorporated some of Owen’s most pot­ent verses in his War Requiem, written for the 1962 inauguration of the restored Coventry Cathedral.

Coincidentally, about the same time, a fellow composer appropriated a contemporary young poet’s verses as the centrepiece of his 13th symphony: Dmitri Shostakovich immortalised Yevgen­y Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar, which catapults from a reflection on an egregiously atrocious component of the Judeocide that accompa­nied World War II into a searing condem­nation of anti-Semitism. It also serves as a reminder that the “war to end all wars” not only did nothing of the kind but in fact sowed the seeds for an even more outrageous bloodbath.

Owen entered Britain’s national curriculum during the 1960s, and eventually the curricula of Commonwealth nations, which is where I first encountered him and was blown away by his viscer­al descriptions and implicit denunciations of war. He did not dwell on the causes but seemed to suggest that the sheer awfulness of military conflict between nations stripped away all justifications.

The alliteration and onomatopoeia of the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth made a powerful impression, but so did the realisat­ion that “those who die as cattle” were by no means restricted to Gallipoli or the Somme, and that “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” continued to “patter out” all too many “hasty orisons”.

Dulce et Decorum Est stands out not only for nailing Horace’s destructive untruth about the value of patriotic sacrifice but also because gas attac­ks against unsuspecting victims remain par for the course on Middle Eastern battlefields — notably in Syria, where chlorine, used to such devastating effect in World War I, continues to serve as a favourite weapon for the Assad regim­e and some of its opponents.

Owen pictured a gas attack on a retreating column of comrades in which just one fails to fit “the clumsy (helmet) just in time”. “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning,” he declares, comparing the soldier’s “hanging face” to “the devil’s sick of sin”, before going in for the kill, so to speak:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin translates as “it is sweet and honoura­ble to die for one’s country”, and Owen’s oeuvre offers incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

He goes much further in Futility, whose title has been cited by scholars as a key to framing contemporary conceptions of the conflict. Yet in this poem Owen is questioning not just the war but the very point of life on earth. Again, it’s based on a single casualty, a human being the sun can no longer manage to revive after having roused it for so many years. “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” the poet asks: “O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth’s sleep at all?”

Then there’s Strange Meeting, a reinforcement of the trope whereby warriors in the battlefield come up against a foe who is a doppel­ganger, as in Bob Dylan’s relatively obscu­re early song John Brown, where the narrat­or informs his mother: “But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close / And I saw that his face looked just like mine.” In Owen’s case, the resemblance is not physical but spiritual, in a poem replete with the half-rhymes that distinguished his style; groined/groaned, moan/mourn, spoiled/spilled, mystery/mastery and so on.

He escapes “down some profound dull ­tunnel” to a “sullen hall”, and by the “dead smile” of an inmate who greets him “with piteou­s recognition in fixed eyes” knows that “we stood in Hell”. Back in the day, those socia­l democrats (synonymous at the time with socialists and communists) who had not fallen into the patriotic trap tended to describe a bayonet as “a weapon with a worker at both ends”. Owen sees a blade with a poet at both ends: “Whatever hope is yours, / Was my life also,” his new acquaintance tells him. “I went hunting wild / After the wildest beauty in the world … For by my glee might many men have laughed, / And of my weeping something had been left, / Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled­.” The poem concludes thus:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now …

In The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, meanwhile, Owen subverts a key narrat­ive from the Old Testament to formul­ate his angst. An angel intervenes as Abraham prepares to murder his firstborn, Isaac, and offer­s a ram instead. “But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe one by one.” It’s unlikely he would have quarrelled with American “singer-journalist” Phil Ochs’s declaration almost a half-century later: “It’s always the old to lead us to the war / It’s always the young to fall / Now look at all we’ve won with the sabre and the gun / Tell me is it worth it all …”

It wasn’t, of course, just the seed of Europe that perished in the early 20th-century carnag­e. We never cease to be reminded how Australia answered the call — and paid proportionat­ely a higher price than any other country in what purportedly served as a nation­-building cull. Its effort was voluntary, a precursor to almost every Western-waged war through the 20th century and beyond — from Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — to which our nation has contributed its young blood, chiefly as a means of ingratiating itself with its imperial “protectors”, and partly by regurgi­tating “the old Lie”.

But plenty of countries that were still colonie­s in 1914 also contributed their spawn — a million men in India’s case, as reflected in Trench Brothers, a play premiered in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. Besides, the Ottoman Empire was a participant, on Germany’s side, in the Great War, so substantial parts of the Middle East were not immune to the conflict. And the war’s last shots were fired in southern Africa, where the imperial urge had drawn several European nations, including Britain and Germany.

Owen wasn’t a conscientious objector by nature. As a Shropshire lad he was deeply religio­us, to the extent that initially the liturgy trumped his second love, poetry, and for a time he was expected to join the clergy. But better sense prevailed, and he was teaching in France when the war broke out. He returned home, joined up and underwent training, but wasn’t cast into the cauldron until January 1917. He was back home by midsummer, after having been blown out of a trench into a well. He recuperated at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, a facility for the shell-­shocked, or those with what today would be designated as post-traumatic stress disorder.

It was there that he encountered Sassoon, an army captain who had been dispatched partly as means of silencing his increasingly trenchant anti-war propaganda.

Owen was familiar with the poetry of Sassoon, who was six years older, and tentatively approached him for an autograph before sharing his own efforts at wartime verse. In response, Sassoon combined constructive criticism with a great deal of encouragement, and soon enough the pent-up poems began pouring out of Owen.

Almost all of his best-known poems surface­d during the year or so between then and his demise, most of them emotions re­collected during the relative tranquillity of sojourn­s in his homeland. Among the first was The Send-Off, in which he compares soldiers on an outward bound train, their “faces grimly gay”, with “wrongs hushed-up”. He goes on to ask: “Shall they return to beating of great bells / In wild train-loads? / A few, a few, to few for drums and yells, // May creep back, silent, to villag­e wells, / Up half-known roads.”

In Exposure, we encounter frozen corpses as: “The burying-party, picks and shovels in ­shaking grasp, / Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, / But nothing happens.” In Mental Cases, there is the devastating verse: “Surely we have perished/ Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?”

In a draft preface to a planned 1919 collection of his verse, Owen wrote: “Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry. The subject of it is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All the poet can do to-day is to warn.’’

Less than 30 years later, Wilfred Burchett, the Australian who became the first Western journalist to witness the devastation of Hirosh­ima, prefaced his accoun­t with the words: “I write this as a warning to the world.”

Unheeded warnings remain one of the drivin­g forces of history’s chariot wheels, clogged as they are with much blood, but who can sensibly argue that they ought not to have been articulated? Who can say when we will ever learn, but it’s unlikely Owen would have disputed his contemporary Robert Graves’s reflectio­n on November 11, 1918:

When the days of rejoicing are over,
When the flags are stowed safely away,
They will dream of another ‘War to end Wars’
And another wild Armistice Day

Poets in action: How writers captured the horrors of the Great War

Warwick McFadyen, Sydney Morning Herald 2nd 

One hundred years ago today, Wilfred Owen, poet and soldier, had 24 hours to live. On November 4, 1918, Owen and his men were trying to cross a canal near Ors in France. As Owen was walking among his men, offering encouragement, German machine guns burst into action. Owen fell. He was one of the last to die in a war that claimed 20 million dead and 20 million injured. He was promoted to lieutenant the next day.

In the cruellest twist, Owen’s mother in Shrewsbury received the telegram of his death on November 11, Armistice Day, as the bells were ringing for peace.

A generation of young men marched to the front in World War I, often singing and with cheerful abandon, at least in the beginning, to be slaughtered.

Poetry would mourn the loss of a singular talent, whose star was just beginning to light the sky. Owen had seen but a handful of his poems in print before his death, aged 25. He had written all we have, in little more than 12 months, from August 1917.

The first collection, edited by Siegfried Sassoon, was published in 1920, and then in 1931 appeared an expanded collection. In the latter edition, editor Edmund Blunden wrote that Owen “was a poet without classifications of war and peace. Had he lived, his humanity would have continued to encounter great and moving themes, the painful sometimes, sometimes the beautiful, and his art would have matched his vision.”

Wilfred Owen had seen but a handful of his poems in print before his death, aged 25.

Apart from what are regarded as classics such as Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce Et Decorum Est, it is Owen’s preface to the collection that is as famous as the poems: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry/ My subject is War, and the pity of War/ The Poetry is in the pity/ Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory/ They may be to the next/ All a poet can do today is warn/ That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”

The First World War was a charnel house. A generation of young men marched to the front, often singing and with cheerful abandon, at least in the beginning, to be slaughtered. Poetry, unlike any time before or since, was the vehicle for their voices and those of bystanders. At first, it was celebratory, but as the days of carnage rolled on and on, truth came to be heard.

There had been many wars before, of course, but none where the poet was the soldier and, therefore, the intimate witness. This war was the rendering of wounds, both flesh and spiritual, by words.

Robert Giddings, in The War Poets, writes that “before 1914, when poets dealt with war it was to render it exotically or historically removed from immediate experience. War, in the hands of Macaulay, Tennyson, Arnold, Newboult and Aytoun, had all the conviction of modern television costume drama. There were two outstanding exceptions – Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy.”

<i>Anthem for Doomed Youth</I> by Wilfred Owen is regarded as a classic.
    Anthem for Doomed Youth, World Archive 

The primacy of the poet in people’s lives a century ago can be seen in the immediate bringing into action of writers to support war aims. On September 2, 1914, only five weeks after war was declared, The Times, published a letter from the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, in which he likened the good soldiers of empire fighting the Devil. The image of the soldier as Christ was popular in these early stages, as was the theory that war was a necessary purification of nations. The government’s Propaganda Bureau enlisted writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton to promote Britain’s war aims. It took the pre-eminent war poet Sassoon to use the figure of Christ in a heightened awareness of spirit, flesh and suffering that had nothing to do with patriotism.

Professor Tim Kendall, in Poetry of the First World War, writes that during the war “poetry became established as the barometer for the nation’s values: the greater the civilisation, the greater its poetic heritage”. He believes that the “close identification of war poetry with a British national character persists to the present day”.

Siegfried Sassoon was among the poets who showed that there was art in death and suffering.
Siegfried Sassoon 

As to Australia’s war effort in poetry, despite more than 415,000 men enlisting (from a population of fewer than 5 million) with 60,000 killed and more than 150,000 injured or taken prisoner, the results hardly trouble the margins of anthologies.

As Geoff Page noted in Shadows from Fire: Poems and Photographs of Australians in the Great War, the literary efforts of those Australians with direct experience in the war were less than memorable. His intention with the book was to juxtapose recent poems “with Australians poems actually written during the conflict”.

“On closer examination, however, I found the quality of these latter poems to be depressingly low – especially when contrasted with those of the English war poets: Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg . . . It rapidly became apparent that a much more appropriate and powerful record of the conflict could be found among the contemporary photographs held by the Australian War Memorial. These speak with a directness and truth seldom attempted, at that time, by our poets.”

By the end of 1914, two anthologies of wartime verse had been published. Many poets in the early years were no more than writers of patriotic doggerel. The Georgian movement, of pastoral whimsy, and gentle beauty, had found a cause in which to celebrate England. The modernism that had slowly been growing in Europe had not permeated English literary minds, but in the aftermath of the war it blossomed, seen no more so than in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922.

Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, in their book The Winter of the World, cite the work of historian Catherine Reilly in which she records 2225 British writers who experienced the war, and published poems of their experience. A quarter of the writers were women. By contrast Westminster Abbey honours 16 poets of WWI, all men: Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke (“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England”), Wilfred Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Owen, Sir Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Sassoon, Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas.

Since suffering and death were universal there were no frontiers in the writing of it, geographically, with Austrian Georg Trakl, German Alfred Lichtenstein, Italian Giuseppe Ungaretti, Canadian John McCrae and Frenchmen Guillaume Apollinaire and Henri Barbusse, or in gender, Edith Sitwell, Margaret Sackville, Alice Meynell and Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth is regarded as a masterpiece of the period.

This was the flowering that has not been captured again. The poets of the Second World War do not go much beyond Keith Douglas and Paul Celan.

It seems curious and strange now, but the biggest barricade to the acceptance of the war poets in the immediate years after came from the towering figure of Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats.

The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935, published in 1936, was edited by Yeats. It contained nothing from the war. Yeats defended his decision thus: “In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made suffering their own. I have rejected these poems . . . passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies, in Greece the tragic chorus danced. If war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering, as we do the discomforts of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell.”

Yeats was wrong, comprehensively so. But the glory was that Owen, Sassoon, Thomas, Rosenberg et al showed that there was art in death and suffering. The war poets found in the desolation of France and in the ruined bodies and spirits in hospital wards, a voice transcendent. Theirs was the fundamental expression of what it meant – still means – to be human. And there was a warning, but as history turned, no one was listening.

“Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death;/ Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,/ Pardoned his spilling mess tins in our hand./ We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,/ Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe./ He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed/ Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;/ We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.” (The Next War, Wilfred Owen)

Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary of November 11: “The war is ended. It is impossible to realise. I got to London about 6.30 and found masses of people in streets and congested Tubes, all waving flags and making fools of themselves – an outburst of mob patriotism. It was a wretched wet night, and very mild. It is a loathsome ending to the loathsome tragedy of the last four years.”

That was the year that was – don’t stop (thinking about tomorrow)

The prophet’s lantern is out
And gone the boundary stone
Cold the heart and cold the stove
Ice condenses on the bone
Winter completes an age
WH Auden, For the Time Being – a Christmas Oratorio, 1941

I considered using a line from the above as the title of this retrospective of 2022.  It was written during 1941 and 1942, though published in 1947, when the poet was in self-exile in the United States and viewing the war in Europe from afar – although the long poem from which it has been extracted does not in itself reflect such pessimism. A more fitting title could be taken from another long poem that was published in another (very) long poem published in 1947 – Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and of foreboding for the impending armed peace that we now look back on as the Cold War, with its oft-repeated mantra: “many have perished, and more most surely will”.

The year just gone was indeed a gloomy one, meriting a dismal heading. There are few indications of where it might take us in ‘23 and beyond, and my crystal ball is broken. Pundits reached for convenient comparisons. Some propounded that it was like the 1930s all over again when Europe constantly teetered on the brink of war. Others recalled 1989 with the fall of the aneroid Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, beware of false analogies. In 2022, things were more confused. The tides of history have often resembled swirling cross-currents.

Things, of course, might have been worse. There are, as I’ve noted in successive posts on my own Facebook page, many qualified “reasons to be cheerful”. The  year could have ended with Ukraine under Russian control. An emboldened China might have been encouraged to launch an assault on Taiwan. A red wave in the midterms would have buoyed Trump. And here in Australia, Scott Morrison might have secured another “miracle” election victory. The West could have retreated on all fronts.

Instead, therefore, I have selected a title that hedges its bets, because, to paraphrase the old Chinese adage, and the title of an earlier retrospective, we certainly live in interesting times and in 2023, and a lot of energy will be spent endeavouring to make sense of them – or, to borrow from Bob:

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn that he not busy being born
Is busy dying

B Dylan

The year in review 

Christine McVie, longtime and founder member of Fleetwood Mac departed the planet on 30th November this year. And contemplating this year’s posts in In That Howling Infinite, I could not help thinking about one her most famous songs. I recalled that it featured on newsreels of the revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran in 1979.

Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone

The song seemed quite apposite as the soundtrack of a revolution that had overthrown one of America’s many friendly autocrats. At the time, no one could predict what would happen, but, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was a time optimistic expectation. And yet its shock waves have reverberated and ricocheted in ways unimagined at the time.

As 2022 ends, with blood flowing on the streets of Iran and in the mullahs’s torture cells as young people rise up against a hypocritically brutal theocratic tyranny, we see again and again how that which goes around comes around.

Women, Freedom, Life

If the malign hand of history has literally reached out and gripped Iran’s young women and girls by their hair, it has also endeavoured to strangle the thousand year old Ukrainian nation in the name of an atavistic irredentism. Russian troops invaded the Ukraine on February 24, causing what has since become the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. Out if the spotlight of the world’s easily distracted attention. intractable conflicts lumbered mercilessly on – in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, the Congo and many other “far away  places with strange sounding names”.  

On the far side of the world, the USA continued to struggle with the reverberations of January 6th 2021. Donald Trump, like Dracula, has not gone away, and whilst his 2024 presidential run is looking increasingly shaky, he continues to poison the atmosphere like radioactive dust. The unfortunate folk of the United Kingdom endured three prime ministers during the year, including the shortest ever in the history of the office, and after two years of pandemic, are facing a bleak economic winter as well as a frigid actual one.

In Australia, it was the year of the teal – at least according to those who study the evolution of language, the year we lost a queen, our long-serving foreign head of state, and a king of spin, the down-fallen and disgraced Scott Morrison. And a sodden La Nina saw incessant rain drown large swathes of eastern Australia, visiting misery on thousands. COVID-19 mutated, the Omicron variant surging from beginning of the year, ensuring no end to the pandemic – today, it seems like everyone we know has had it, including ourselves (and we were soooo careful for a full two years!). As restrictions were cautiously lifted, we as a nation are learning to live with it. 

Politically, it’s been a grand year for the Australian Labor Party. With our stunning Federal election win in May and in Victoria in November, the Albanese government’s star is on the ascendant and it’s legislative record in six months has out run nine years of Tory stagnation on climate, integrity and equality – a neglect that saw the rise of a new political force in the shape of a proto-party, the aforementioned “teal”, named for the colour of the candidates’ tee shirts. The opposition has been reduced to a bickering and carping crew, and whilst Labor continues to ride high in the polls, the Coalition bounces along the bottom of the pond.

Lismore, northern NSW, March 2023

Flooded house aflame, Lismore March 2022

Christine McVie was just one of many music icons who checked out this past year. The coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, crooned her last, as did rock ‘n roll bad boy Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie “the Hawk” Hawkins, who gave the boys in The Band their big break. Rock heavyweight (literally) Meatloaf took off like his bat out of hell and keyboard evangelist Vangelis boarded his chariot of fire.

Acclaimed British author Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall trilogy inspired back to back posts in In That Howling Infinite in 2020 found “a place of greater safety”, and French author Dominique Lapierre also joined the choir invisible. I had first learned about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinians’ al Nakba in his O Jerusalem, and about the bloody tragedy that accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan, in Freedom at Midnight, both books featuring in past posts. 

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

One could argue that the most significant departure was that of Britain’s longest serving monarch. Queen Elizabeth II had been on the throne for almost all of my life, as has the now King Charles III who was born four months before me, and of whom, as a nipper, I was jealous. I recall how I watched the queen’s coronation on a tiny black and white television in the crowded and smokey parlour of the boarding house run by a friend of our family. By happenstance, Netflix served up two over the top regal sagas to binge on: the penultimate season of The Crown, which whilst entertaining, was a disappointment in comparison with earlier seasons, and Harry and Meghan which was whilst excruciatingly cringe-worthy, was nevertheless addictive viewing. The passing of Her Maj reminded me that in my lifetime, I have witnessed three monarchs and eighteen British prime ministers (and incidentally, eighteen Australian prime ministers).  The public outpouring of grief for the Queen’s ascent to the choir invisible was unprecedented – the picture below demonstrates what the Poms do best …

The Queue along the Thames to pay respect to Her Maj

There were farewells much closer to home. My mediation colleague, aspiring author and friend John Rosley, and Beau Tindall, the son of my oldest Bellingen friend Warren, took off on the same day in May. Peter Setterington, my oldest friend in England – we first met in 1972 – died suddenly in London in March, and our friend and forest neighbour, the world-famous war photographer Tim Page, in August, after a short but nasty illness. Pete is memorialized in When an Old Cricketer Leave His Crease whilst Journey’s end – Tim Page’s wild ride,is an adaptation of the eulogy I gave for Tim in September, one of many on that sunny afternoon day in Fernmount. It is a coda to Tim Page’s  War – a photographer’s  Vietnam journey, a story we published a year ago.

Tim Page by Joanne Booker

What we wrote in 2022

The ongoing Ukraine War has dominated our perception of 2022, from the morning (Australian time) we watched it begin on CNN as the first Russian missiles struck Kyiv, to the aerial assault on infrastructure that has left Ukrainians sheltering through a cold, dark winter. Two posts in In That Howling Infinite examined the historical origins of the conflict: Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism and The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism. “Because of …” Iran’s voice of freedom looks at the song that has become the rising’s anthem. None can predict the outcome – whether it will be a doomed intifada, the Arabic word that literally means a shaking off – historically of oppression – and figuratively, a rising up, like that in Ireland in 1798 and 1916, Warsaw in 1943 and 1945, and Hungary in 1956, or an Inqilab, another Arabic word meaning literally change or transformation, overturning or revolution.

The run up to May’s Australian elections inspired Teal independents – false reality in a fog of moralism.; and Australia votes – the decline and fall of the flimflam man. 

More distant history featured in Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure, the story of the Suez crisis of 1956 that historians argue augured the end of the British imperium, and the role played therein by longtime Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies. Johnny Clegg and the Washing of the Spears is a tribute to the late South African singer, dancer and songwriter, and a brief history of the war that destroyed the great Zulu nation, setting the scene for the modern history of South Africa. And journeying further back in time to sixteenth century Ireland, there is O’Donnell Abú – the Red Earl and history in a song, a discussion of the origins of a famous and favorite rebel song.

Then there are the semi-biographical “micro-histories” in In That Howling Infinite’s Tall tales, small stories, obituaries and epiphanies. In 2023, these included: Folksong Au Lapin Agile, the evening we visited Montmarte’s famous folk cabaret; Ciao Pollo di Soho – the café at the end of the M1, the story of a café that played a minor part in my London days, as described in detail in an earlier travelogue, Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days; Better read than dead – the joy of public libraries; The quiet tea time of the soul, an ode in prose to a favourite beverage; and The work, the working, the working life recalling the many jobs I took on in the sixties to keep myself in music, books, travel and sundry vices. 

We cannot pass a year without something literary. We celebrated the centenary of three iconic literary classics in The year that changed literature, and with the release of The Rings of Power, the controversial prequel to The Lord of the Rings, we published a retrospective on the influence of JRR Tolkien. One ring to rule us all – does Tolkien matter? – a personal perspective with an opinion piece by English historian Dominic Sandbrook, an informative and entertaining chronicler of postwar British history and society which featured, in Unherd, an online e-zine that became a “must read” in 2022. A Son Goes To War – the grief of Rudyard Kipling recalls the death in battle on the Western Front in 1917 of the poet’s only son, it’s influence upon his subsequent work, whilst Muzaffar al Nawab, poet of revolutions and sorrow is an obituary for another poet, who seen a lifetime speaking truth to power.

And that was that for what was in so man ways a sad year. Meanwhile, In That Howling Infinite already has several works in progress, including a review of historian Anthony Beevor’s Russia – Revolution and Civil War, what King Herod really thought about the birth of baby Jesus, and the story of a famous and favourite British army marching song.

Best wishes for 2023 …

Death of a Son

That was the year that was – retrospectives

Life in Wartime – images of Ukraine

A Son Goes To War – the grief of Rudyard Kipling

These were our children who died for our lands: they were dear in our sight.
We have only the memory left of their home-treasured sayings and laughter.
The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it. That is our right.
But who shall return us the children?

In an excellent article commissioned by Vanity Fair in 1997, and republished below, the late author and celebrated contrarian Christopher Hitchens told a poignant story of the British poet Rudyard Kipling and the death in battle of his son John in France in 1915.

 He prefaced his tale with a scene-setting prelude:

“A ghost is something that is dead but won’t lie down. Those who were slaughtered between 1914 and 1918 are still in our midst to an astonishing degree. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, the British alone posted more killed and wounded than appear on the whole of the Vietnam memorial. In the Battle of Verdun, which began the preceding February, 675,000 lives were lost. Between them, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Russia sacrificed at least 10 million soldiers. And this is to say nothing of civilian losses. Out of the resulting chaos and misery came the avenging forces of Fascism and Stalinism”.

Hitchens referred to many of Kipling’s poems in his article, particularly those relating to the First World War, the jingoistic ones that greeted, indeed welcomed the beginning of hostilities, and the melancholy ones that marked their end, reflecting his personal loss and also that of tens of thousands of other parents and partners and siblings.

He does not mention however, Kipling’s post war short story, The Gardener, which directly addresses the grief and the loss felt by so many. John Kipling’s body was never found, but the poet and his wife made fruitless inquiries as to his fate and his whereabouts and, as patrons of the War Graves Commission, made many visits to the military cemeteries of Flanders.

British War Cemetery in Flanders

The Gardener tells the tale of a woman’s search for a loved one who fell. It is told from the woman’s point of view. Is the missing solder her her nephew or or son? Kipling is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting perhaps the morality of his times. It is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. The ending is likewise opaque. Unlike the author, she does indeed find her lost soldier, but only with the the help of a kind, anonymous stranger. Again it is for the reader to judge – although Kipling himself left little room for ambiguity. The story ends in some editions with an asterisk in the text that links to a line from the Bible, John 20:15: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou has borne him hence, tell me where thou has laid him.’”

The Gardener is is republished below, following Hitchens’ article.

In 1992 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced that it had identified an Irish Guards lieutenant’s body in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) near Loos as that of John Kipling. Seven years later authors Tonie and Valmai Holt published a book My Boy Jack, named for Kipling’s poemwhich disputed that the body in St Mary’s ADS is that of John Kipling. They based their case on two separate arguments: John Kipling was a 2nd lieutenant not a lieutenant when he died, and his body was found six kilometres away from where he fell. My Boy Jack is the story of a father in pursuit oh his son whose body was never found. Although Kipling’s poem, quoted by Hitchens in his piece, was a tribute to a 16 year old sailor, Jack Cornwell, who perished at his post during the Battle of Jutland in 1915, becoming the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, the book and the play and film adapted from it tell the story of Kipling and his son.

For all their money, fame and connections, the Kiplings were just another one of the 415,325 British and Irish families whose sons were killed during the first World War and were left with no place to grieve. It was Kipling who gave us the headstone words “known unto God”.

The Death of Son

American novelist Scott Spencer wrote about The Gardener in an opinion piece in The Atlantic in June 2017. He wrote:

“It’s hard to talk about a Kipling story without talking about Kipling, a shameless apologist for English imperialism who coined the phrase “the white man’s burden” and who was the first person to refer to the Germans as Huns. He was a man who glorified war without ever having fought in one—and that’s where you get into the intense mix of grief and shame that Kipling surely brought to this story. Like so many young men at the time, Kipling’s son John was frantic to get into the war, but was at first turned down for duty because of weak eyes. His father, a person of almost unimaginable influence for a writer—the youngest Nobel prize winner, a darling of the English military and the British aristocracy—intervened, greasing the wheels and getting his son into the war, with the result that the younger Kipling was killed almost instantly.

When all hope of finding his son alive or dead was at last abandoned, Kipling, in his famous “Epitaphs of the War,” wrote: “If any question why we died / tell them, because our fathers lied.” You sense this same self-implication in “The Gardener.” After all, why were those boys clamoring to go over and get themselves blown up like that? Because a culture had been created that glorified that military sacrifice, and encouraged you to feel that your life was incomplete if you hadn’t fought for your country. Millions of English boys like John Kipling (and like the fictional Michael) were raised in this atmosphere of almost rabid patriotism, an atmosphere that Rudyard Kipling had not only exploited in his writing but also helped to create. And when war was declared, some six million Englishmen, many of them little more than boys, were put to battle; nearly one million were killed, and still more were grievously injured.

The Gardener gets to the grief and futility Kipling must have felt by the end of it all.

In Kipling’s case, he never found that grave. But in Helen’s case, Jesus leads her right to it. Was Kipling himself looking for an expiation of the shame he felt for his share of the responsibility for the loss of his son in such a useless and meaningless way—and all the other hundreds of thousands of wartime deaths? It could be said that all armed conflicts are a ludicrous and shameful waste of lives, but World War I has a special place in the history of futility—a war without clear purpose, a war whose resolution would ultimately make the world a far worse place. What moves me in “The Gardener” is the way Kipling so artfully seeks relief from his own complicity in the myths that led to war

On his 18th birthday, Michael enlists in the British Army, and is slaughtered shortly after, his body covered over by debris and unable to be located. Much, much later Michael’s body is discovered and finally Helen is able to travel to his grave in a military cemetery in France to pay her last respects. The story, which is not very long, moves with the efficiency of a fable—years go by in a half sentence. The tone is almost matter-of-fact, but we are being set up by a master craftsman for the story’s devastating climactic scene. Helen wanders through a vast expanse of graves, all of them marked with a number, not a name, each individual soldier located only through a painstaking process of record-keeping. (It was Kipling who lifted the phrase “known unto God,” out of the Bible and into the cemeteries and the monuments for unknown soldiers.) Then, while searching the endless sea of crosses, helpless, Helen comes upon a gardener. Kipling describes the exchange this way:

[The gardener] rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”

“Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”

“The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”

The story ends in some editions with an asterisk in the text that links to a line from the Bible, John 20:15: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou has borne him hence, tell me where thou has laid him.’”

See also in In That Howling Infinite, November 1918 – the counterfeit peace and  Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling and the Great War

© Paul Hemphill 2022. All rights reserved

Young Men and War

Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, February 1997

Recently, amid the legions of anonymous W.W.I grave sites that cover northern France, the body of Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, was identified, almost 80 years after he died in the Battle of Loos. His tragic story explains the guilt and rage that consumed his father, England’s immortal Bard of Empire

Fin de Siècle

In Regeneration, the opening book of Pat Barker’s “Ghost Road” trilogy, about the First World War, one of the characters summons the waking nightmare of the trenches: “I was going up with the rations one night and I saw the limbers against the skyline, and the flares going up. What you see every night. Only I seemed to be seeing it from the future. A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls. And I seemed to be in that time and looking back. I think I saw our ghosts.”

A ghost is something that is dead but won’t lie down. Those who were slaughtered between 1914 and 1918 are still in our midst to an astonishing degree. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, the British alone posted more killed and wounded than appear on the whole of the Vietnam memorial. In the Battle of Verdun, which began the preceding February, 675,000 lives were lost. Between them, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Russia sacrificed at least 10 million soldiers. And this is to say nothing of civilian losses. Out of the resulting chaos and misery came the avenging forces of Fascism and Stalinism.

One reason for the enduring and persistent influence of the Great War (as they had to call it at the time, not knowing that it would lead to a second and even worse one) is that it shaped the literature of the Anglo-American world. Think of the titles that remain on the shelves: Good-Bye to All That, by Robert Graves, Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen. The poetry of Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. Translations from German and French, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse. By enlisting in the Great War, a whole generation of Americans, including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, and John Dos Passos, made the leap from small-town U.S.A. to 20th-century modernism. Loss of moral virginity and innocence is the burden of Sebastian Faulks’s elegiac novel, Birdsong, written in this decade, but as full of pain and poetry as if composed in his grandfather’s time. We owe the term “shell shock” to this period, and it sometimes feels as if the shock has never worn off.

I’ve been passing much of my time, over the past year or so, in trying to raise just one of these ghosts. On September 27, 1915, during the Battle of Loos, a young lieutenant of the Irish Guards was posted “wounded and missing.” His name was John Kipling, and he was the only son of the great Bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. Kipling never goes out of print, because he not only captured the spirit of imperialism and the white man’s burden but also wrote imperishable stories and poems—many of them to the boy John—about the magic and lore of childhood. And on that shell-shocked September day, the creator of Mowgli and Kim had to face the fact that he had sacrificed one of his great loves—his son, whom he called his “man-child”—to another of his great loves: the British Empire. You can trace the influence of this tragedy through almost every line that he subsequently wrote.

Go to the small towns of northern France today if you want to discover that the words “haunted landscape” are no cliche. Around the city of Arras, scattered along any road that you may take, are cemeteries. Kipling called them “silent cities.” (I came across an article in a French tourist magazine that recommended Arras to those who wished to pursue “de tourisme de necropole”—mass-grave tourism. Indeed, there isn’t much else to see.) This used to be the coal-bearing region of France, and great slag heaps and abandoned mine works add an additional layer of melancholy to the scenery. But otherwise it’s graveyards, graveyards all the way. Some of them are huge and orderly, with seemingly endless ranks and files of white markers stretching away in regimental patterns. But many are small and isolated, off in the middle of fields where French farmers have learned to plow around them. These represent heaps of bodies that simply couldn’t be moved and were interred where they lay. Huge land grants have been made by the government and people of France, in perpetuity, to Britain and Canada and India and the United States, just to consecrate the fallen.

His is one of the few parts of France where the locals are patient with Anglo-Saxon visitors trying to ask directions in French. And those French plowmen know what to do when, as so often happens, they turn up a mass of barbed wire or a batch of shells and mortars or a skeleton. (“A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls.”) They call the police, who alert the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And then the guesswork can begin. There’s a good deal of latitude. Of the 531,000 or so British Empire dead whose remains have been fertilizing the region for most of the century, about 212,000 are still unidentified.

“Every now and then we have a bit of luck,” I was told by Peter Rolland of the commission, which runs a large and quiet office just outside Arras and which is charged with keeping all the graves clean. “Last year we dug up 12 corpses. Most of their dog tags and uniforms were eroded or decayed hopelessly. But we did manage to identify one Australian chap called Sergeant J. J. White. We even found his daughter, who was two years old when he was killed, and she came over for the funeral.”

And a few years ago, almost eight decades after he went missing, they found Kipling’s son, John. His body had lain in no-man’sland for three years and then been hastily shoveled into an unmarked grave. Kipling and his wife made several desperate visits to the area in the hope of identifying him, touring battlefield after battlefield. But this was in the days before proper dental records and DNA, and they gradually gave up. In 1992, thanks to painstaking record-keeping and the amateur interest taken by a member of the commission staff, one anonymous grave in one small cemetery was finally commemorated as John’s.

This means that a new marker has been erected. The old one read, A LIEUTENANT OF THE GREAT WAR. KNOWN UNTO GOD. The wording is actually that of Kipling Sr., who in order to atone for John’s disappearance became a founding member of what was then called the Imperial War Graves Commission, and helped design its monuments and rituals. As another atonement, he took on the unpaid job of writing the wartime history of the Irish Guards. In that work, he coldly summed up the regiment’s toll of 324 casualties in a single battle and noted that “of their officers, 2nd Lieutenant PakenhamLaw had died of wounds; 2nd Lieutenants Clifford and Kipling were missing. … It was a fair average for the day of a debut.”

John Kipling’s body had lain in no-man’s-land for three years and then been hastily shoveled into an unmarked grave.

Kipling’s autobiography, Something of Myself, is even more eerily detached. “My son John arrived on a warm August night of ’97, under what seemed every good omen.” That’s the only mention of the boy in the entire book. Kipling had already lost a beloved daughter to influenza. He seems to have felt that if he wrote any more he wouldn’t be able to trust himself.

For a father to mourn or to bury his son is an offense to the natural order of things. Yet another reason for the endless fascination of the Great War is the reverse-Oedipal fashion in which, for several lunatic years, the sight of old men burying young men was the natural order. And this in a civilized Europe bred to the expansive optimism of the late 19th century.

John Kipling was only 16 when the war broke out. Pressed, by his father to volunteer, he was rejected on the grounds of poor eyesight. (Those who have read “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” Rudyard’s chilling story derived from his own childhood at the mercy of sadistic guardians, will remember the horror of the small boy being punished for clumsiness and poor scholarship when actually he has an undiagnosed myopia.) The proud and jingoistic father used his influence with the high command to get young John commissioned anyway. His mother’s diary recorded that “John leaves at noon. . . . He looks very straight and smart and young, as he turned [sic] at the top of the stairs to say: ‘Send my love to Dad-o.’ “

He didn’t last more than a few weeks. The village of Loos, where he disappeared, was also where the British found out about modern warfare; it was at Loos that they first tried to use poison gas as a weapon of combat. (It blew back into their own trenches, with unimaginable results.) In a neighboring sector a short while later, the British became the first to deploy a tank. But in late 1915, war was mainly blood, mud, bayonets, and high explosives.

Accounts of the boy’s last moments differ, but Kipling’s friend H. Rider Haggard (creator of King Solomon’s Mines and She) took a lot of trouble interviewing witnesses. He recorded in his diary that one of them, a man named Bowe, “saw an officer who he could swear was Mr Kipling leaving the wood on his way to the rear and trying to fasten a field dressing round his mouth which was badly shattered by a piece of shell. Bowe would have helped him but for the fact that the officer was crying with the pain of the wound and he did not want to humiliate him by offering assistance. I shall not send this on to Rudyard Kipling—it is too painful.”

Indeed it would have been: a halfblind kid making his retreat under fire and in tears, with a devastating wound. No definition of stiff upper lip would have covered it. And almost the last of John’s letters home had said, “By the way, the next time would you get me an Identification Disc as I have gone and lost mine. . . . Just an aluminum Disc with a string through it.” Probably it’s a good thing that the poet of the Raj never knew his boy died weeping. At one point he wrote, in a cynical attempt to brace himself, “My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew / What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.”

To a friend he wrote, “I don’t suppose there is much hope for my boy and the little that is left doesn’t bear thinking of. However, I hear that he finished well. . . . It was a short life. I’m sorry that all the years’ work ended in one afternoon, but lots of people are in our position, and it’s something to have bred a man.” His wife, Caroline, wrote more feelingly to her mother, “If one could but know he was dead …”

Haggard may have wished to spare Kipling pain, but one has to say that Kipling did not try to spare himself. His whole personality as an author underwent a deep change. At different stages, one can see the influence of parental anguish, of patriotic rage, of chauvinistic hatred, and of personal guilt. A single couplet almost contrives to compress all four emotions into one: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

These Spartan lines are anti-war and pro-war to almost the same extent. The fathers had lied, not just by encouraging their sons to take lethal risks, but by not preparing enough for war and therefore letting the young people pay for their complacency. Kipling’s longer poem “The Children” possesses the same ambiguity:

These were our children who died for our lands: they were dear in our sight.

    We have only the memory left of their home-treasured sayings and laughter.
    The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it.    That is our right.
        But who shall return us the children?
At the hour the Barbarian chose to disclose his pretences,
    And raged against Man, they engaged, on the breasts that they bared for us,
    The first felon-stroke of the sword he had long-time prepared for us—
Their bodies were all our defence while we wrought our defences.
They bought us anew with their blood, forbearing to blame us,
Those hours which we had not made good when the Judgment o’ercame us.
They believed us and perished for it.    Our statecraft, our learning
Delivered them bound to the Pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honour—
Nor since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her.
Nor was their agony brief, or once only imposed on them.
    The wounded, the war-spent, the sick received no exemption:
    Being cured they returned and endured and achieved our redemption,
Hopeless themselves of relief, till Death, marveling, closed on them.
That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven—
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled in the wires—
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes— to be cindered by fires—
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater.    For that we shall take expiation.
        But who shall return us our children?

After a few lines of expressive loathing about the German foe, Kipling returns to the idea that the massacre of the innocents has an element of domestic responsibility to it:

(Chalk Pit Wood was the last place his son was seen alive.) And then, giving vent to all the ghastly rumors he and his wife had heard about what happened to bodies caught in no-man’sland, he continues:

Uncertainty was torturing Kipling here into imagining the worst and most obscene fate for his son. At other times he was more resigned and more wistful, as in the short poem “My Boy Jack” (1915):

“Have you news of my boy Jack? ”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

The impression that the seeker in the poem is a woman. Odd to think of Kipling as having a feminine aspect, but perhaps the verse is meant as a tribute to his American wife, who was driven almost out of her mind with grief. On the other hand, one might throw sentiment to one side and remember that Kipling famously wrote (in a poem designed to tease a daughter who favored female suffrage) that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.” And this is most certainly true of the main character in a subsequent short story of Kipling’s entitled “Mary Postgate.” Angus Wilson once described it as evil; at all events it is a paean of hatred and cruelty and shows Kipling banishing all his doubts and guilts in favor of one cathartic burst of sickening revenge.

Mary Postgate is a wartime spinster who looks after an elderly lady in an English village. One day, a German airman crashes in her garden and lies crippled in the laurel bushes. Mary Postgate decides to see how long it will take him to die. She tells nobody about the intruder and makes no effort to summon help. She waits and watches “while an increasing rapture laid hold on her.” As the young man finally expires, she “drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot.” Then she takes a “luxurious hot bath before tea” and, “lying all relaxed on the other sofa,” startles her employer by looking, for once, “quite handsome!”

It’s really seriously creepy to find Kipling—normally rather reticent in such matters—writing a caricature of a female orgasm and wallowing in the voluptuousness of sadism. The justification for it all is that a child has been killed by a bomb in the village. “I have seen the dead child,” says Mary Postgate to the dying airman. So the link is unmistakable. And the story—published in 1917—is closed by one of the worst sets of verses that this splendid poet ever composed. Its refrain is the line “When the English began to hate.” Omitted from most anthologies, it is a vulgar and bullying rant, which promises that “Time shall count from the date / That the English began to hate.”

I first became aware of the poem when it was dished out as a leaflet by a British Nazi organization in the 1970s. (David Edgar makes use of it in Destiny, his incisive play about the mentality of Fascism.) I have often thought it very fortunate that Kipling died in 1936. He had already begun to praise Mussolini by then, and God knows what he might have said about the manly new Germany-even though his visceral dislike of all Germans would perhaps have kept him in check. He certainly disliked Germans (whom he habitually called “Huns”) even more than he did Jews (whom he generally called “Hebrews”).

His letters are fiercer than his poems and short stories, and like them they took a turn for the worse after John’s disappearance. To his old friend L. C. Dunsterville he wrote, at the height of the bloodletting in September 1916, that things seemed to be going jolly well on the Western Front. “It’s a scientific-cumsporting murder proposition with enough guns at last to account for the birds, and the Hun is having a very sickly time of it. He has the erroneous idea that he is being hurt, whereas he won’t know what real pain means for a long time. I almost begin to hope that when we have done with him there will be very little Hun left.”

The word for this, in or out of context, is “unseemly.”

Most interesting, though, was his extensive wartime correspondence with Theodore Roosevelt. One has to remember that Kipling at that time was the best-known living writer in the English language. His following in the United States was immense. His famous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” more often quoted than read, had actually been written for Roosevelt in 1898 and was addressed to the U.S. Congress. It urged that body (successfully) to “take up the white man’s burden” by annexing the newly conquered Philippines. Such was Kipling’s ability to sway public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic that in 1914, when the Liberal British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, heard that Kipling was planning a trip to America, Grey told the Cabinet that unless he was assured that this dangerous Tory poet was going in an unofficial capacity he would resign at once.

Teddy Roosevelt, of course, favored American entry into the Great War, and Kipling made a point of supplying him with ammunition. The poet didn’t hesitate to make very emotional appeals, and as a result gave a few hostages to fortune. In December 1914 he wrote to T.R. telling him encouragingly that the Germans “have been sending up their younger men and boys lately on our front. This is valuable because these are prospective fathers, and they come up to the trenches with superb bravery. Then they are removed.”

The letter goes on, “Suppose my only son dies, I for one should not View with equanimity’ Mr Wilson (however unswayed by martial prejudice) advising or recommending my country how to behave at the end of this War.” Kipling really despised Woodrow Wilson and his hypocritical neutrality, and after John’s death he gave his contempt free rein, describing Wilson as equivalent to an ape looking down from a tree. “My grief,” he wrote, “is that the head of the country is a man unconnected by knowledge or experience with the facts of the world in which we live. All of which must be paid for in the lives of good men.”

This relentless drumbeat, which also urged T.R. in menacing tones to beware of the millions of potentially disloyal German-Americans, helped breed a prowar atmosphere in the United States. Many of the Americans who went to fight in Europe did so as volunteers, preparing the ground for later, full-scale intervention. And when the American Expeditionary Force got going, it took heavy casualties. Among these was Quentin Roosevelt, son of Teddy, who was killed while serving as a pilot. T.R.’s response was almost Kiplingesque in its gruffness. “My only regret is that I could not give myself,” he said. But of course he could not have given himself, any more than Kipling could. This was an opportunity open strictly to sons.

The creator of Mowgli and Kim sacrificed one of his great loves-his son-to another of his great loves: the British Empire.

The current tenant of Headstone Two I in Row D of Plot Seven in St. Mary’s I Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery never had any idea of what a titanic conflict had snuffed out his life. Nor had he any notion of the role his death would play in his father’s poetry or his father’s propaganda. His is just one of 1,768 British and 19 Canadian graves in St. Mary’s ADS, 1,592 of which are unidentified and likely to remain so forever.

The gardener, Ian Nelson, met me at the gate and took me around. He was a working-class type from my hometown in Hampshire, just one of the many hundreds of people who live and work in northern France, stranded in time, preserving a moment and observing the decencies. He wasn’t the garrulous type, preferring to roll his own cigarettes and to say briefly that he was “old-fashioned” and “felt we owed something” to the fallen. His main enemies were the moles, which spoil the flower beds and lawns. He explained to me how certain alpine and herbaceous plantings protect the headstones from mud splashes in the winter and mowing machines in the summer. Floribunda roses were in profusion, and baby maple trees, and there was the odd Flanders poppy.

The register and the visitors’ book were kept in a metal-and-stone safe in a corner of the cemetery, and as we got there we found an old metal button in the dirt. It was a standard-issue Great War soldier’s button, with a faded lion-and-unicorn motif, and Mr. Nelson let me keep it with a look that said, Plenty more where that came from. Most of the names in the register are printed and have been for decades, and it is reprinted every few years. But a handwritten addition had just been made, showing that John, only son of Mr. and Mrs. Rudyard Kipling of Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex, England, had made the supreme sacrifice while serving as a lieutenant in the Irish Guards. The visitors’ book had a space for remarks, and many visitors had done their best to say something. I didn’t want to let down the side, so I put in the last few lines of Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”

Owen was killed in a futile canal crossing skirmish just a few days before the end of the war, in November 1918 (his mother got the telegram just as the church bells were pealing for victory and a general rejoicing was getting under way), but before he died he composed the most wrenching and lyrical poetry of the entire conflict. Nearly 50 years later, it furnished the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. In Owen’s rewriting of the story of Abraham and Isaac, the old man is about to press the knife to the throat of his firstborn:

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one. □

British women tending war graves, Abbeville

The Gardener

By Rudyard Kipling

Every one in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and were not surprised to be told that, after many fresh starts given and thrown away he, an Inspector of Indian Police, had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died of a fall from a horse a few weeks before his child was born.

Mercifully, George’s father and mother were both dead, and though Helen, thirtyfive and independent, might well have washed her hands of the whole disgraceful affair, she most nobly took charge, though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France. She arranged for the passage of the child and a nurse from Bombay, met them at Marseilles, nursed the baby through an attack of infantile dysentery due the carelessness of the nurse, whom she had had to dismiss, and at last, thin and worn but triumphant, brought the boy late in the autumn, wholly restored, to her Hampshire home.

All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing then up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money, and, as George had always turned to her in his scrapes, she felt herself justified – her friends agreed with her – in cutting the whole non-commissioned officer connection, and giving the child every advantage. A christening, by the Rector, under the name of Michael, was the first step. So far as she knew herself, she was not, she said, a child-lover, but, for all her faults, she had been very fond of George, and she pointed out that little Michael had his father’s mouth to a line; which made something to build upon.

As a matter of fact, it was the Turrell forehead, broad, low, and well-shaped, with the widely spaces eyes beneath it, that Michael had most faithfully reproduced. His mouth was somewhat better cut than the family type. But Helen, who would concede nothing good to his mother’s side, vowed he was a Turrell all over, and, there being no one to contradict, the likeness was established.

In a few years Michael took his place, as accepted as Helen had always been – fearless, philosophical, and fairly good-looking. At six, he wished to know why he could not call her ‘Mummy’, as other boys called their mothers. She explained that she was only his auntie, and that aunties were not quite the same as mummies, but that, if it gave him pleasure, he might call her ‘Mummy’ at bedtime, for a pet-name between themselves.

Michael kept his secret most loyally, but Helen, as usual, explained the fact to her friends; which when Michael heard, he raged.

“Why did you tell? Why did you tell?” came at the end of the storm.

“Because it’s always best to tell the truth”, Helen answered, her arm round him as he shook in his cot.

“All right, but when the troof’s ugly I don’t think it’s nice.”

“Don’t you, dear?”

“No, I don’t and” – she felt the small body stiffen – “now you’ve told, I won’t call you ‘Mummy’ any more – not even at bedtimes.”

“But isn’t that rather unkind?” said Helen softly.

“I don’t care! I don’t care! You have hurted me in my insides and I’ll hurt you back. I’ll hurt you as long as I live!”

“Don’t, oh, don’t talk like that, dear! You don’t know what – “

“I will! And when I’m dead I’ll hurt you worse!”

“Thank goodness, I shall be dead long before you, darling.”

“Huh! Emma says, ‘Never know your luck’.” (Michael had been talking to Helen’s elderly, flat-faces maid.) “Lots of little boys die quite soon. So’ll I. Then you’ll see!”

Helen caught her breath and moved towards the door, but the wail of ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ drew her back again, and the two wept together.

At ten years old, after two terms at a prep. school, something or somebody gave him the idea that his civil status was not quite regular. He attacked Helen on the subject, breaking down her stammered defences with the family directness.

“Don’t believe a word of it”, he said, cheerily, at the end. “People wouldn’t have talked like they did if my people had been married. But don’t you bother, Auntie. I’ve found out all about my sort in English Hist’ry and the Shakespeare bits. There was William the Conqueror to begin with, and – oh, heaps more, and they all got on first-rate. ‘Twon’t make any difference to you, by being that – will it?”

“As if anything could – ” she began.

“All right. We won’t talk about it any more if it makes you cry”. He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skilfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up tot the appointed one hundred and four he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make any difference between them.

The terms at his public school and the wonderful Christmas, Easter, and Summer holidays followed each other, variegated and glorious as jewels on a string; and as jewels Helen treasured them. In due time Michael developed his own interests, which ran their courses and gave way to others; but his interest in Helen was constant and increasing throughout. She repaid it with all that she had of affection or could command of counsel and money; and since Michael was no fool, the War took him just before what was like to have been a most promising career.

He was to have gone up to Oxford, with a scholarship, in October. At the end of August he was on the edge of joining the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line; but the captain of his O.T.C., where he had been sergeant for nearly a year, headed him off and steered him directly to a commission in a battalion so new that half of it still wore the old Army red, and the other half was breeding meningitis through living overcrowdedly in damp tents. Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.

“But it’s in the family”, Michael laughed.

“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that story all this time?” said Helen. (Emma, her maid, had been dead now several years.) “I gave you my word of honour – and I give it again – that – that it’s all right. It is indeed.”

“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did”, he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the show earlier if I’d enlisted – like my grandfather.”

“Don’t talk like that! Are you afraid of its ending so soon, then?”

“No such luck. You know what K. says.”

“Yes. But my banker told me last Monday it couldn’t possibly last beyond Christmas – for financial reasons.”

“I hope he’s right, but our Colonel – and he’s a Regular – say it’s going to be a long job.”

Michael’s battalion was fortunate in that, by some chance which meant several ‘leaves’, it was used for coast-defence among shallow trenches on the Norfolk coast; thence sent north to watch the mouth of a Scotch estuary, and, lastly, held for weeks on a baseless rumour of distant service. But, the very day that Michael was to have met Helen for four whole hours at a railway-junction up the line, it was hurled out, to help make good the wastage of Loos, and he had only just time to send her a wire of farewell.

In France luck again helped the battalion. It was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured; and enjoyed the peace of the Armentières and Laventie sectors when that battle began. Finding that it had sound views on protecting its own flanks and could dig, a prudent Commander stole it out of its own Division, under pretence of helping to lay telegraphs, and used it round Ypres at large.

A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was noting special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.

By this time the village was old in experience of war, and, English fashion, had evolved a ritual to meet it. When the postmistress handed her seven-year-old daughter the official telegram to take to Miss Turrell, she observed to the Rector’s gardener: “It’s Miss Helen’s turn now”. He replied, thinking of his own son: “Well, he’s lasted longer than some”. The child herself came to the front-door weeping aloud, because Master Michael had often given her sweets. Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after one with great care, and saying earnestly to each: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope end prophesied word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends, too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored. Other people urged her to communicate with infallible Secretaries of organizations who could communicate with benevolent neutrals, who could extract accurate information from the most secretive of Hun commandants. Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her.

Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to the all but finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin”, she told herself, as she prepared her documents.

In due course, when all the organizations had deeply or sincerely regretted their inability to trace, etc, something gave way within her and all sensations – save of thankfulness for the release – came to an end in blessed passivity. Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her – in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy.

In the blessed realization of that relief, the Armistice with all its bells broke over her and passed unheeded. At the end of another year she had overcome her physical loathing of the living and returned young, so that she could take them by the hand and almost sincerely wish them well. She had no interest in any aftermath, national or personal, of the war, but, moving at an immense distance, she sat on various relief committees and held strong views – she heard herself delivering them – about the site of the proposed village War Memorial.

Then there came to her, as next of kin, an official intimation, backed by a page of a letter to her in indelible pencil, a silver identity-disc and a watch, to the effect that the body of Lieutenant Michael Turrell had been found, identified, and re-interred in Hagenzeele Third Military Cemetery – the letter of the row and the grave’s number in that row duly given.

So Helen found herself moved on to another process of the manufacture – to a world full of exultant or broken relatives, now strong in the certainty that there was an altar upon earth where they might lay their love. These soon told her, and by means of time-tables made clear, how easy it was and how little it interfered with life’s affairs to go and see one’s grave.

So different”, as the Rector’s wife said, “if he’d been killed in Mesopotamia, or even Gallipoli.”

The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometres from Hagenzeele itself, where one could spend quite a comfortable night and see one’s grave next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a board and tar-paper shed on the skirts of a razed city of whirling lime-dust and blown papers.

“By the way”, said he, “you know your grave, of course?”

“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and showed its row and number typed on Michael’s own little typewriter. The officer would have checked it, out of one of his many books; but a large Lancashire woman thrust between them and bade him tell her where she might find her son, who had been corporal in the A.S.C. His proper name, she sobbed, was Anderson, but, coming of respectable folk, he had of course enlisted under the name of Smith; and had been killed at Dickiebush, in early ‘Fifteen. She had not his number nor did she know which of his two Christian names she might have used with his alias; but her Cook’s tourist ticket expired at the end of Easter week, and if by then she could not find her child she should go mad. Whereupon she fell forward on Helen’s breast; but the officer’s wife came out quickly from a little bedroom behind the office, and the three of them lifted the woman on to the cot.

“They are often like this”, said the officer’s wife, loosening the tight bonnet-strings. “Yesterday she said he’d been killed at Hooge. Are you sure you know your grave? It makes such a difference.”

“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and hurried out before the woman on the bed should begin to lament again.

Tea in a crowded mauve and blue striped wooden structure, with a false front, carried her still further into the nightmare. She paid her bill beside a stolid, plain-featured Englishwoman, who, hearing her inquire about the train to Hagenzeele, volunteered to come with her.

“I’m going to Hagenzeele myself”, she explained. “Not to Hagenzeele Third; mine is Sugar Factory, but they call it La Rosière now. It’s just south of Hagenzeele Three. Have you got your room at the hotel there?”

“Oh yes, thank you, I’ve wired.”

“That’s better. Sometimes the place is quite full, and at others there’s hardly a soul. But they’ve put bathrooms into the old Lion d’Or – that’s the hotel on the west side of Sugar Factory – and it draws off a lot of people, luckily.”

“It’s all new to me. This is the first time I’ve been over.”

“Indeed! This is my ninth time since the Armistice. Not on my own account. I haven’t lost anyone, thank God – but, like everyone else, I’ve lot of friends at home who have. Coming over as often as I do, I find it helps them to have someone just look at the – place and tell them about it afterwards. And one can take photos for them, too. I get quite a list of commissions to execute.” She laughed nervously and tapped her slung Kodak. “There are two or three to see at Sugar Factory this time, and plenty of others in the cemeteries all about. My system is to save them up, and arrange them, you know. And when I’ve got enough commissions for one area to make it worth while, I pop over and execute them. It does comfort people.”

“I suppose so”, Helen answered, shivering as they entered the little train.

“Of course it does. (Isn’t lucky we’ve got windows-seats?) It must do or they wouldn’t ask one to do it, would they? I’ve a list of quite twelve or fifteen commissions here” – she tapped the Kodak again – “I must sort them out tonight. Oh, I forgot to ask you. What’s yours?”

“My nephew”, said Helen. “But I was very fond of him”.

“Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death? What do you think?”

“Oh, I don’t – I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing”, said Helen, almost lifting her hands to keep her off.

“Perhaps that’s better”, the woman answered. “The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well I won’t worry you any more.”

Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs Scarsworth (they had exchanged names) insisted on dining at the same table with her, and after the meal, in the little, hideous salon full of low-voiced relatives, took Helen through her ‘commissions’ with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room.

Almost at one there was a knock at her door and Mrs Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.

“Yes – yes – I know”, she began. “You’re sick of me, but I want to tell you something. You – you aren’t married, are you? Then perhaps you won’t… But it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to tell someone. I can’t go on any longer like this.”

“But please -” Mrs Scarsworth had backed against the shut door, and her mouth worked dryly.

“In a minute”, she said. “You – you know about these graves of mine I was telling you about downstairs, just now? They really are commissions. At least several of them are.” Here eye wandered round the room. “What extraordinary wall-papers they have in Belgium, don’t you think? … Yes. I swear they are commissions. But there’s one, d’you see, and – and he was more to me than anything else in the world. Do you understand?”

Helen nodded.

“More than anyone else. And, of course, he oughtn’t to have been. He ought to have been nothing to me. But he was. He is. That’s why I do the commissions, you see. That’s all.”

“But why do you tell me?” Helen asked desperately.

“Because I’m so tired of lying. Tired of lying – always lying – year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ’em and I’ve got to think ’em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t to have been – the real thing – the only thing that ever happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word I said, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!”

“How many years?” Helen asked.

“Six years and four months before, and two and three-quarters after. I’ve gone to him eight times, since. Tomorrow I’ll make the ninth, and – and I can’t – I can’t go to him again with nobody in the world knowing. I want to be honest with someone before I go. Do you understand? It doesn’t matter about me. I was never truthful, even as a girl. But it isn’t worthy of him. So – so I – I had to tell you. I can’t keep it up any longer. Oh, I can’t!”

Next morning Mrs Scarsworth left early on her round of commissions, and Helen walked alone to Hagenzeele Third. The place was still in the making, and stood some five or six feet above the metalled road, which it flanked for hundreds of yards. Culverts across a deep ditch served for entrances through the unfinished boundary wall. She climbed a few woodenfaced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her. She went forward, moved to the left and the right hopelessly, wondering by what guidance she should ever come to her own. A great distance away there was a line of whiteness. It proved to be a block of some two or three hundred graves whose headstones had already been set, whose flowers were planted out, and whose new-sown grass showed green. Here she could see clear-cut letters at the ends of the rows, and, referring to her slip, realized that it was not here she must look.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”

“Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.

The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”

When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

Folksong Au Lapin Agile

It was a cold wet windy night in May as we wound our way up to Montmarte, arriving at our destination, an old stone building on the steep and cobbled Rue des Saules. It was after nine o’clock and we were late – the evening’s entertainment had commenced. The man who greeted us at the door asked us to wait until a song had finished and then ushered us into a a dimly-lit cellar-like room, its walls festooned with an eclectic collection of pictures, wooden tables and chairs, and stout benches pushed against the walls.

A bad start! The master of ceremonies, an eccentric chap with the air of an impatient headmaster gave us a stern look of disapproval as we took our seats in a corner at a wooden covered with initials that had been carved into its surface over decades – as if to say “bloody tourists!” A friendly chap bad us “bon soir” and served us glasses of the obligatory, sweet house red; and thenceforward, he, Le Maître, and the audience, who all appeared to be old pals, ignored us completely. Nevertheless, the evening was a hoot as our headmaster led the room in songs which everyone sang loudly and with gusto. All in French – we sang along when we knew the words. There were a couple of what us folkies would call “floor acts”, one a young man who reminded us of a friend of ours back in Oz, and a chirpy accordionist who seemed to have come straight out of French cabaret central casting.

 

Le Maître,

Welcome to Au Lapin Agile, the famous and venerable Parisian cabaret cum folk club in the centre of  Montmartre (in the 18th arrondissement not far from the Basilica Sacre Coeur), where people gather and sing old French songs accompanied by guitar, piano and accordion. The musicians encourage the audience to join in with the singing so it helps if you speak French or are a quick learner – or if, like us, you remember the choruses from school days, including the famous Allouette, Frère Jacque and Les Chevaliers du Table Ronde (it’s about boozing and not King Arthur).

It’s been going literally forever – the mid-nineteenth century, anyway – and was originally called Cabaret des Assassins. So named, ‘tis said, because a band of assassins broke once in and killed the owner’s son. It had also been called Rendezvous Des Voleurs or “Thieves Meeting Place – which says something about the provenance of the punters back in the day.

It was over twenty years old when, in 1875, the artist Andre Gill painted the sign that suggested its permanent name – the picture of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan. Locals started calling their neighborhood night-club Le Lapin à Gill, or “Gill’s rabbit’, and in time, this evolved into Cabaret Au Lapin Agile, or “The Nimble Rabbit Cabaret”.

Befitting its early reputation, Au Lapin Agile became popular with dubious Montmartre characters,   including pimps, eccentrics, simple down-and-outers, a contingent of local anarchists, and students from the Latin Quarter, a sprinkling of well-heeled bourgeois out on a lark. and show business types like Parisian cabaret singer and comedian Aristide Bruand, the subject of a popular painting by Montmartre artist Toulouse Lautrec. When, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Au Lapin Agile was facing closure, Bruand bought the joint and handed the tenancy to Frédéric Gerard, known to all as Frédé.

It became a great venue for budding musicians to make their debuts and also a regular haunt for impoverished artists. Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo would spend their evenings immersed in philosophical debate and music. Often Frédé would accept paintings from the artists in payment for their drinks – Picasso gave Frédé an artwork actually called Au Lapin Agile which portrayed himself dressed as a harlequin sitting in the cabaret with a female companion. Frédé is also in the picture, playing the guitar in the background. In 1912, Frédé sold the painting for $20. In 1989, it went to auction at Sothebys and sold for $41 million. A replica of Picasso’s painting is on the far wall in the interior image below – the walls are covered with similar stuff. The original is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The painting helped to make the cabaret world famous. The cabaret was also captured on canvas by Maurice Utrillo.

Au Laoin Agile – Arelquin tenant un verre by Pablo Picasso

Since the place was at the heart of artistic Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, it became a mecca for visiting artists and writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, who would play his violin there. There was much discussion at the cabaret about “the meaning of art”, which inspired American comedian and entertainer, Steve Martin to write a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1993) imagining a meeting there between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. We saw it at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre and thought it so good, we returned the following week to see it again – and bumped into film star Ralph Fiennes in the foyer during pre-play drinks (though we weren’t introduced).

We never imagined that the place actually existed and that one day, we’d one day go there!

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

See also in In That Howling Infinite, Ciao Pollo di Sohomemories of a classic café ; The Incorrigible Optimists Club – Jean-Michel Guenassia’s debut masterpiece; and Tall Tales, Small Stories, Eulogies and Obituaries 

Back when Le Maître,was much younger

Little has changed

 

Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure

Many historians claim that the Suez Crisis of late 1956 was the end of the beginning of Britain’s retreat from Empire and its decline as a Great Power. Britain’s divestment of its non-Anglo-Celtic empire began with its withdrawn from Palestine and the independence of India in 1947 and 1948 and proceeded apace through the sixties and seventies until today when but a handful of dependencies remain.

Why Britain reacted as it did to the rise of Gamal Abd al Nasser and his seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 has long fascinated scholars. Watching ‘The Crown’, recently, and its portrayal of Sir Anthony Eden, and recalling Dennis Potter’s marvelously surreal take on the Suez Crisis in ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, I discovered one possible explanation (though It doesn’t quite explain the decision of France and Israel to join Britain’s last imperial adventure). 

The Suez Crisis had far-reaching consequences – though none as catastrophic on a political and human scale as when Britain and Australia joined America’s Iraq crusade in 2003. The humiliating withdrawal from Suez accelerated Britain’s slow decline from “great power” status, and the US’ steady ascent to world leadership. It was the harbinger of the end of an empire on which the sun never set. It burnished Nasser’s revolutionary credentials and gave rise to an anti-western, secular, and socialist Arab nationalism that challenged and, in many countries, toppled the established order in the Middle East. It led, in a short time, to the rise of the Ba’ath regimes in Syria and Iraq, which, it can be argued, set these countries on the road to ruin half a century later. And what might have been the consequences for Eastern Europe is “the West” had not been so distracted on the canal during Hungary’s quixotic revolution and its brutal suppression by the Soviet Union.

The Suez Crisis in brief

The Suez Crisis came to a boil with what Arabs called the Tripartite Aggression, and Israelis, the Sinai War. Historians refer to it as the Second Arab–Israeli war –  between the war that commenced with the conclusion of Britain’s mandate over Palestine, and ended with the establishment of the state of Israel and expulsion of over a quarter of a million Arabs from within the battle-won borders of the new state, and the Six Day War which has changed utterly Israel’s geography, politics, culture, society, identity and international standing.

It commenced with an invasion of Egypt in October 1956 by Israel, followed immediately by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain control the Suez Canal a majority British owned strategic international waterway for the Western nations who depended upon it their oceanic commerce, and also, to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, which administered the canal. After the fighting had started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. It humiliated the United Kingdom and France and enhanced the reputation of Nasser. Although the three allies had attained a number of their military objectives, the Egyptians scuppered forty ships in the canal rendering it useless. As a result of the conflict, the United Nations created the UNEF Peacekeepers to police the Egyptian–Israeli border, British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned, and the Soviet Union, taking advantage may have been emboldened to invade Hungary.  

Fun in the sun

As with all international conflicts, the causes are much more complex than the actual casus belli that precipitate it, and beyond the intention and scope of this article.  Issues geopolitical, strategic, tactical, historical, cultural and indeed, psychological proliferated, aggregated and aggravated, converging on one or more ignition points. The Cold War, the rise of Arab nationalism, the Arab Israeli conflict, the decline of the British Empire and Britain’s need to hang onto its status as a world power, and the personalities of the players, particularly the Egyptian leader and the British prime minister.

Sir Anthony greets his troops

And into this complex and volatile maze stepped longtime Australian Prime Minister monarchist and empire loyalist Sir Robert Menzies.

But first …

The view from Down Under 

When many British folk of a certain age remember the Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956, they think of the “ Gyppos”, the jumped-up Arabs who defied then embarrassed Great Britain, brought down a prime minister, and dropped the curtain on the empire on which the sun never set. They might also at a stretch imaging a connection from this to Dodi al Fayyad and his dad, Muhammad, the one time owner of Harrods and the creator of that infamous shrine to his lad and the people’s princess who both perished in the Paris car crash that launched a thousand conspiracy theories – one of which was the the establishment’s fear that Diana would would bring forth an Egyptian baby.

As a youngster in Birmingham, the events in Egypt passed me by – I was however quite excited by the revolution in Hungary and the Soviet invasion that followed soon afterwards, and would spend hours drawing pictures of street battles, of tanks and fighters and security services men strung up on lampposts. But many young men doing their compulsory national service, including the sons and brothers of my friends and relatives, were fearful of being sent off to a foreign war, the last one being barely over a decade. This anxiety, and also the imperial angst of crusty ex-army civil servants, is beautifully portrayed in Dennis Potter’s brilliant Lipstick On Your Collar, and also the very commendable drama series The Hour. I have friends and acquaintances of British, Italian, Maltese and French descent who had been born in Egypt but had to leave with their families in during and after the crisis as the Egyptian government, vindictive in its victory, showed them the door.

When Aussies remember the Crisis – well, probably very few do. But way back then, in the days of the White Australia Policy (yes, we really did have that) and the early closing Six O’clock Swill (and yes, we had that too!), apart from many former soldiers who had memories of Egypt in both world wars, we just got on with the matters that preoccupied us in a year that Australian academic and author Hugh Richardson recounts in his highly informative and very entertaining 1956 – the year Australia welcomed the world. Richardson recreates the events of the year surrounding the Melbourne Olympics of November and December 1956,  including the introduction of television in Australia, the arrival of Rock Around the Clock, the British nuclear test in the South Australian outback, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, and immediately before it, the Suez debacle.

Nowadays, many commentators and writers looking back on the fifties paint Australia as an insular, inward-focusing and churlish nation which many now internationally famous Australian abandoned for greener, more cerebral and creative British pastures. Richardson acknowledges this too, but contends that the country was in fact changing, in the early stages of our development into the worldly-wise, technologically connected, creative, cosmopolitan and multicultural nation that we imagine ourselves to be today. Undoubtedly, we are, but some disreputable skeletons still rattle around at the back of our national cupboard and sometimes fall out into the public space to the embarrassment of ourselves and the discomfort of our friends and neighbours.

This is not to say that Australia was detached from world affairs. Our innate conservatism, and religiosity, a traditionally strong emotional attachment to Great Britain, the homeland of most immigrants to Australia in the since the days of the first settlement, and a firm commitment to our alliance with the UK and the US, saw us drawn into the mindsets and machinations of the Cold War.

We signed up for the United Nation’s euphemistically termed “police action” in Korea, a war that concluded with a forever armistice, and contributed troops to the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960 in today’s Malaysia and Singapore. Australia’s commitment lasted 13 years, between 1950 and 1963 and until Vietnam and Afghanistan, was the longest continuous military commitment in our history.

 On the home front, Robert Menzies endeavoured to ban the Communist Party in an Antipodean echo of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition in America. There were other similarities with the USA as an adolescent ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Agency, encouraged dobbers and snitches to shop their neighbours and colleagues. The actual extent and effectiveness of this is unknown to this day. The Labor Party fractured as fervent anti-communist Catholics walked out to establish the Democratic Labor Party, a rift than kept Labor in the political wilderness where it had  … for a  further sixteen years. And in April 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet security officer in the Canberra embassy defected to the West with his reluctant, patriotic wife, Evdokia, a valued cryptographer at the embassy, much to the ire of Comrade Khrushchev. In 1956, therefore, Australia was very much on the radar of what President Robert Reagan would later call The Evil Empire.

When Robert met Gamal

In Richardson’s narrative, it appears that unbeknownst to the ordinary man or woman on the Bondi bus, Australia played a significant role in the Suez Crisis, and indeed,  there might’ve been a fair chance that our government would have volunteered our soldiers to join the party, much as we’d answered the old country’s call oft times before. But, as far as we know, Britain never asked and Australia never offered. It would appear that longtime Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies main preoccupation that summer and fall was Britain’s imperial anguish, and how he might help assuage it.

The following narrative is quoted directly from Richardson’s book.

“During the build-up to the Crisis, British prime Minister Anthony Eden became consumed with an obsessional hatred for Nasser, and from March 1956 onward, was privately committed to the Nasser’s ousting. The American historian Donald Neff has written that Eden’s often hysterical and overwrought views towards Nasser almost certainly reflected the influence of the amphetamines to which he had had become addicted following a botched operation in 1953 together with the related effects of sustained sleep deprivation (Eden slept on average about 5 hours per night in early 1956).

Increasingly Nasser came to be viewed in British circles—and in particular by Eden—as a dictator, akin to Benito Mussolini. Ironically, in the buildup to the crisis, it was the actually the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the left-leaning tabloid newspaper The Mirror that first made this comparison. . Anglo-Egyptian relations would continue on their downward spiral.

US President Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser

During World War II British prime minister Winston Churchill asked Anthony Eden who was foreign minister, to help him identify an appropriate candidate for to be minister of state in Cairo, Egypt. The position was strategically important because of the war in North Africa, but the candidate did not have to be British. Robert Menzies by this time had lost the prime ministership in Australia to John Curtin and was therefore able to be considered. He did not get the job. Eden actually even admitted later Menzies had not been accepted because “he probably would not get on with the people of of the Middle East, being a somewhat difficult person“. Now, Eden as British Prime Minister, was about to send Menzies on a far more difficult assignment.

Edens original observation was perhaps born out several years later when Menzies was in Cairo on a different mission – an international delegation sent to meet Colonel Nasser himself in an effort to persuade him that the canal to be placed under United Nations stewardship). “These Gyppos are dangerous lot of backward adolescents, full of self-importance and basic ignorance”, Menzies wrote in his diary. The attitude, not uncommon at the time, extended beyond the Egyptians. A former Australian High Commissioner to India Indonesia Italy and Kenya, Sir Walter Crocker, noted in 1955: “Menzies is anti-Asian; particularly anti-Indian… he just can’t help it”.

… While race proved challenging for Menzies, perhaps the more confronting charge was his apparent lack of curiosity about other nations, his unshakable faith in English superiority, and his lack of engagement with European languages.

Menzies believed that a strong response might be required to get Nasser to appreciate Britain’s point of view. Menzies was, in the public eye, a “Commonwealth man”. He had walked that stage, found a spot of obeisance near the crown, and felt like a valued elder statesman within the Commonwealth club of nations. But this mission to Egypt propelled him into a new kind of universe where the old verities no longer applied. He was about to embark on a delicate international mission of diplomacy, trying to negotiate with a new leader who was driven by forces Menzies could not fully comprehend, in a region about which had little interest ….

… Menzies had worked assiduously in London to get command of the brief for his mission. He and four advisors had nine meetings exploring the finances of the canal, and had spoken to the canal’s directors and even an engineer who was an expert in the area. Yet there was no discussion about the social and personal elements he needed to understand: why the Suez Canal was so important to the Egyptians, and why Nasser felt it now is the time to express his independence of thought and action.

The consequences of this shortsightedness became clear early on during Menzies meetings with Nasser. Menzies conducted the discussions like the barrister he once was, laying out the evidence, interrogating opinions, prosecuting a case, just as us Secretary of State Dulles had expected him to do. Nasser, Menzies confided to his staff, was naive and uncertain. Menzies believed he could influence him. Menzies base view was far less hospitable. He told Eden that Nasser was “in some ways a likable fellow but so far from being charming, he is rather gauche … I would say that he was a man of considerable but immature intelligence”. Menzies had more generalizations to make: “like many of these people in the Middle East (or even India) who I have met, his logic doesn’t travel very far; that is to say, he will produce a perfectly adequate minor premise , but his deduction will be astonishing”.

Nasser had his own description of Menzies – he was ‘a mule’.”

Coda – “I did but see her passing by …”

Robert Menzies love affair with Britain has opened him to posthumous ridicule in some quarters. Many would not know remember that in 1952, he  ordered charges against the communist journalists Rex Chiplin for criticizing the coronation. That came to nought but Chiplin was later hauled before the Royal Commission on Espionage (1954-55), a copycat version of Senator McCarthy’s Committee of in-American Activities

usually connected to his public comment during the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth and her consort to Australia in 1952 when quoting 17th century poet John Ford, he said: “I did but see her passing,  and yet I’ll love her ‘til I die”.

And yet, Sir Robert was not alone in his adulation. As the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on the fiftieth anniversary if the Royal tour:

“Royalty can have a strange effect on people who come into contact with it. It had an extraordinary effect on an estimated 7 million Australians who flocked to see the young Queen Elizabeth 50 years ago …The estimated figure was about 70 per cent of the Australian population of nearly 10 million. Nearly one million people were thought to have crowded Sydney’s foreshores and streets when the Queen arrived on February 3, when the city’s population was 1.8 million. About 150,000 crammed around Sydney Town Hall and neighbouring streets when she attended the Lord Mayor’s Ball. A newspaper reported that 2000 collapsed in the crush”.

Until the abolition of royal honours by the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-76, Australian worthies were rewards with British knighthoods and were also entitled to sit in the British House of Lords as life-peers. It was Menzies’ fervent wish that he be accorded that honour, and after his retirement in 1966, prime minister William McMahon endeavoured to grant it – but he lost office to Gough Whitlam before he could satisfy Sir Robert’s hearts desire.

Sir Robert Menzies, monarchist, Empire Royalist,and consummate politician kept his hand on the steering wheel of a conservative and complacent Australia from 1949 until his retirement in 1966. Some believe that it was a stultifying hand. Others praise him – and praise him still – him for upholding traditional Australian values, and keeping us relaxed, comfortable and prosperous. But in his influential 1964 book The Lucky Country, academic, social critic and public intellectual Donald Horne wrote: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

But the times they were a’changin’. Political, cultural and social change was already in motion at the time of the Melbourne Olympics, and continued apace through the sixties, reaching top speed with the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.

I first arrived in Australia in December 1976 for a month’s vacation in my first wife’s home country, and immigrated a year later. Gough had gone by the time I landed, inauspiciously sacked by the Governor General at the instigation of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies’ creation. But the country that became my home of over forty years was no longer that of 1956. That past was, to quote the much-quoted LP Hartley, “another country”.

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For posts in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East, see A Middle East Miscellany, on Australian history and politics, Down Under, and on history generally, Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s pages.  

A House Divided – the nature of civil war

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln

The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came. Jefferson Davis

Perhaps is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading an article in the New York Review of Books in 2017 reviewing Civil Wars: A History in Ideas byDavid Armitage, and another in the Times in January 2022 reviewing a new book by american political scientist Barbara F Walter called How Civil Wars Start – And How To Stop Them. The review are reprinted in full below, but first, some of  of my own observations.

Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, a perception defined nowadays as an existential threat, as happened historically, one could argue, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.

So often, casus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. The idea of what people are fighting about often looks different from the perspective of those actually engaged in it to his outside observers, both contemporarily and retrospectively. Indeed, sometimes, reasons are tacked on afterwards, and indeed, actually mutate progressively as matters escalate.

Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the southern slave states that sought to secede from the Union in 1861, and the English parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. Many civil wars have arisen from the ashes of a prior war, when there are what are perceived as existential issues unresolved and the availability of weapons and materiel and experienced and discontented men to use them. The Russian Civil War which followed on from The First World War and the Chinese and Vietnamese civil wars which followed the second spring to mind, and historically, the Paris Commune which raised its red banner after the Franco-Prussian War whilst the victorious Prussian Army was still camped outside the city. Ireland’s civil war bled out of its independence struggle against British rule after  the Anglo-Irish Treaty left Ireland divided and dependent with the six Ulster counties excised as Northern Ireland.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England in the mid seventeenth century. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a relatively peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. And yet, the deposition of James III and the ascension of Queen Mary and her husband,the Dutch Prince William of Orange, was preceded by what can be described as the last invasion of England by a foreign force. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting In the streets of Paris in much the same way as Byzantine emperor Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization  of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address in 1863 on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born.

 And finally, to conclude this conversation, let us briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the  fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).

 The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.

Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

© Paul Hemphill 2017, 2022.  All rights reserved


This is a revised version of the original post of June 1st 2017

See also: Rebel Yell. Pity the Nation, Sic Semper Tyrannis, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Now, read on…


What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

Linda Colley, New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,  by David Armitage (Knopf) 

The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.

Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.

But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.

Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.

How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”

But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.

Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.

Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.

 At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.

For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo,  recaptured by government forces, March 2017

As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.

In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.

Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?

A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.

To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.

In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.

The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.

At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,

And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,

Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,

Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:

Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,

…Nature all out of course to checke our course,

Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.

Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.

As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.

Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.

But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? 
. (June 2017)

Is America’s second civil war brewing? All the signs are all there

The Balkans conflict gives an ominous glimpse of potential future strife in the US. A democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory

David Aaaronovitch, The Times,  January 21, 2022

It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call “civilwarology” – the study of the factors that lead to civil war. It exists in think tanks and universities, and its experts are consulted by state agencies anxious to better understand the world in which they operate.

Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the US State Department.

In other words, she knows what she’s talking about – which makes this book rather scary.

The discipline is based on observation and measurement over time. Out of these have emerged a series of data sets and analytical tools relating to the progression towards or away from the conditions likely to lead to civil war. And it adds a word to the list of possible-ocracies.

Anocracy, disappointingly, is not government by assholes, but a troubling middle point between democracy and autocracy. An anocracy may exist during the transition from authoritarianism to full democracy, or the other way round, but it is less stable than either. Right now some states that lay claim to being democracies are in fact anocracies.

If anocracy is a key precondition for the outbreak of a civil war, “factionalisation”, Walter says, is another. Not to be confused with polarisation, this is “when citizens form groups based on ethnic, religious or geographic distinctions – and a country’s political parties become predatory, cutting out rivals and enacting policies that primarily benefit them and their constituents”. Winner takes all. Or loser loses all.

The postwar conflict that features most prominently in this book happened in the territories that had once been Yugoslavia. For 35 years the communist autocrat Marshal Tito had suppressed any latent ethnic rivalry between a series of closely related peoples. When he died in 1980 this settlement died with him.

As the component republics of the old state began to agitate for more autonomy, one group – the Serbs – saw themselves as losing out. This sense of loss on the part of a large group, Walter says, is a significant element in creating the conditions for war.

She reminds us that the election of Abraham Lincoln as US president in 1860 meant slaveholding Southern states no longer exercised a veto on federal policy; the other states could outvote them.

In Yugoslavia the new anocracy opened the way for what experts call “ethnic entrepreneurs” – a breed of politician that mobilises around ethnic grievances or anxieties. These included most notably Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs.

At a more local level ethnic politics became exploited by “violence entrepreneurs” – the men who formed and armed militias to take control and to kill their enemies. These militias do not need to be large. In the town of Visegrad one man with 15 gang and family members carried out a local genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.
Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.

A common dimension in civil war development, Walter tells us, is a rural/urban divide, in which resentful “sons of the soil”, organising away from the supervision of the authorities, see themselves at cultural war with the more cosmopolitan town-dwellers. In Bosnia this was embodied in the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo, with the Serb hicks from the hills mortaring and sniping the occupants of the city.

One of Walter’s reasons for reminding us of the horrors of the former Yugoslavia is to point out that to the population of these lands, civil war had never seemed likely until it happened and suddenly, one day, their good neighbours turned into their executioners.

And here we come to the nub of it. The title of the book is misleading. It isn’t really about civil wars generically, but about one conceivable conflict in particular: the Second American Civil War. Roughly at the halfway point, having established how fratricidal conflict occurs, Walter turns her attention fully to her own country. Naturally, she knows how absurd such a possibility will seem to many readers as they take the subway to their downtown offices or listen to the audiobook as they drive the children to school.

“No one wants to believe,” she writes, “that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war; the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice it or understand it, even as they’re experiencing it.”

Yet objectively the danger signs are there. So that “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

My psychological disposition inclines me against claims such as these. In the Great Journalistic Division between the hysterics and the phlegmatists, I tend to side with the latter. But happenings in the US since 2016 – and especially the events of the past two years – have shaken my complacency.

There has been the loss of conventional politics from much of the national discourse, so that sharp political difference no longer concerns taxes or the environment, but (for one side at least) is almost entirely about ethnicity, identity, culture and loss. The Kyle Rittenhouse court case arose from armed men stalking the ungoverned streets shooting at each other in pursuit of political, not criminal objectives. Militias line statehouse steps openly carrying weapons of civil war lethality.

Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP
Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP

Then there was January 6, 2021, and the storming of the Capitol, in which political thugs sought to prevent the accession of a democratically elected president. Even more alarming than the mere fact of this act of what the CIA classified as “open insurgency” has been the way the Republican Party and its supporters have minimised this attempt at insurrection.

Walter shows how developments in the US match the conditions for other civil wars.

The sense of loss among many white-identifying voters (the US as a whole will follow where California and Texas have led by becoming minority white by 2045), the rural-urban divide, a failure of trust in politicians and other citizens, the factionalisation of politics, the rise of grievance-exploiting “ethnic entrepreneurs” (in this case most obviously Donald Trump), and all of this hugely exacerbated by the catalyst of that great creator of anxiety, social media.

Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP
Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP

The psychological fuel for civil war, Walter reminds us, is not hate, but fear. Between January and October 2020 a record 17 million firearms were sold in the US. In December 2020 one poll showed that 17 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.”

Walter admits that in light of all this she and her husband, children of European migrants to the US, considered leaving the US last year. A useful rule of thumb could be that when your experts on civil strife start moving abroad you may be in trouble.

Yet for all that, Walter is not fatalistic. If the forces of division have a playbook, then, she writes, “we have a playbook too”. She advocates better civics lessons in schools, prosecuting armed militias as terrorists, reform of what is a terribly inefficient and patchwork voting system, tech regulation and much greater attention to developing policies that benefit the majority of citizens. The threat can be averted. To which the watching Brit, otherwise powerless, can only whisper a heartfelt: “Amen.”

How Civil Wars Start – And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter (Viking)

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

Free Speech, One Each

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain.  Paul Monk

Every once in a while, The Australian commissions an articulate and respected conservative commentator to pen a piece on a topic dear to its editorial heart. He (these worthy souls are invariably old, white blokes) duly oblige, for kudos or cash or both, and yet are careful not to become ensnared in the NewsCorp echo-chamber that houses the more virulent and predictable of its opinionistas. Historian Geoffrey Blainey recently managed such as arabesque when writing about the controversial Ramsay Centre (see The Oz’s Lonely Crusade). Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson did likewise in a tribute to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see Ghosts of the Gulag).

Australian author Paul Monk has done likewise when invited to ruminate on free speech in western universities. Instead of laying into left-wing uni students and the so-called Green Left, the bêtes noir of columnists like Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen, Monk refused to sing their song. Instead, he reminds us of our history and of our responsibility as democrats and reasonable folk to maintain dialogue with and endeavour to understand the reasoning (or its dearth) of our ideological opponents. History has shown us that once the shouting stops, the shooting often starts.

Often, I am disappointed, saddened even, by the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices.

Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation.

Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

Monk’s piece is a timely reminder as he enjoins is to teach our children well.

Five Rules for Civil Engagement

Paul Monk, The Australian, 8th December 2018

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government ­require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted.

Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards ­anarchy and violence.

Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.

Ever since the Greek city-states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them.

Our present debates about freedom of speech, “hate speech”, censorship and “deplatforming” belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athen­ian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”; but we tend to admire him rather than those who condemned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace, are five in number.  1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and patient discourse is to elicit the truth. 2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth. 3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion. 4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions. 5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under the above four rules, not shut them down.

These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st-century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — accepting that there is such a thing as truth — is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources.

Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which ­obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases.

Anarchic social media exacerbates these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral “road rage” and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.

There are also deliberate ­attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, in his ­gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this ­regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time: ­Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas. George Orwell famously wrote: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise ­objectionable.

Are we obliged to listen, much less agree? And if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next?

That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are ­violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.

It is for this reason and not ­because one has any sympathy for bigoted or harebrained ideas that many of us are dismayed by the rise of “grievance studies”, the ­insistence on “safe places”, “trigger warnings” and the suppression of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our universities.

There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be ­allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?

I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 60s.

I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or ­religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could concerning where these different ­beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No political correctness or ideological straitjacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.

I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I ­recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that “come the revolution” people who thought as individualists like me “will all be shot”.

He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the university for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not intimidated. I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not ­merely some strange fantasy on his part.

Pol Pot had been overthrown in Cambodia only very ­recently, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for — as the trial judge put it — “using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble”. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well known to me.

But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough to absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.

This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which several well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment.

David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (Labor Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address. The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: “Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.”

There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of ­inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist.

Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech. “Albert,” I said to him, “let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organise the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?”

“That’s a good question,” ­Albert responded.

“Sure, it’s a good question,” I ­replied, “so what’s your answer?” He remained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalisation, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would you do then?”

“Oh,” he said airily, “we’d have to have another revolution … And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun.”

We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist”, which struck me as absurd and ­objec­tionable but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able to take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organise an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.

The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals such as Langer, I undertook an honours thesis on the student ­rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite ­anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. “All power to the imagination,” was one of their most fetching slogans.

From a conservative point of view, they were assorted imbeciles, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles de Gaulle ­derided them as “bed wetters”.

I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les evenements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.

The Free Speech Movement as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was ­incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities.

There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such ­activism in the early 60s, not least through the nationwide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society. As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution. They formed the Weather Underground Organisation, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Mari­ghella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 80s when it was still a matter of recent history; during doctoral studies on American counterinsurgency strategy throughout the Cold War.

I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and ­empathised with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and The Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but ­appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.

Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, romanticises the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good ­introduction to what happened back then.

Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence(2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and “radical” wing threw away those rules and opted for violence of the kind Langer extolled.

Such would-be revolutionaries, like neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-­informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance — when we confront one kind or ­another of what Churchill called “the fanatic”: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?

Well, that’s exactly when ­defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important.

Nadine Strossen, the first female national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unimpeachable “liberal” on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly: “On many campuses … students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been ­invited to campus. This false ­equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with ­violence.”

For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.

Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realised in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.

Plato, Aristotle and the School of Athens

As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athenian Revolution: “Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most ­attractive form of practical (as ­opposed to utopian) political ­organisation yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability — the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform ­itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.”

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practise it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself ­demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realisable “utopia” be worth striving after? Martin ­Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.

Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the author of 10 books. The most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018).

November 1918, the counterfeit peace

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.  John 3:16

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly:  British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders,  South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.

The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as  gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.

The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating  ,  with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.

The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.

And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.

For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.

Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.

The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.

The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.

In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary  temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.

We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.

 As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:

 “In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.

Qurba-n قُرْبان

Sacrifice  – Rayner Hoff, Anzac Memorial, Sydney

On the occasion of the centenary, read also, Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, 


World War I Relived Day by Day

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Gavrilo Princip arrested after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Sarajevo, June 28, 1914

Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.

In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.

Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

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Russian infantry marching to battle, Poland, August 1914

The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.

I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.

Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchill plans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.

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French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun, 1916

The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.

The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A woman munitions worker operating a machine in an armaments factory, Britain, circa 1915

Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout at Caporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.

The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.

The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Leon Trotsky with the Soviet delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, Brest-Litovsk, 1918

Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.

Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.

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Boys wearing bags of camphor around their necks to ward off influenza, 1917

Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.

In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

British artillery at the Somme, France, 1916

Dulce et decorum est – the death of Wilfred Owen

Poet Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918 – seven days before the guns fell silent. The centenary of his death was marked in the village where he died by a ceremony in which the Last Post was played on a bugle Owen took from a German soldier killed during the battle to cross the nearby Sambre-Oise.

A poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon of Liverpool to all the “doomed youth” of all wars. Lest we forget …

On the road to the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

Ors Communal Cemetery, the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

See also in Into That Howling Infinite,: In the dark times, will there also be singing?, a selection of poetry compiled by Gerry Cordon around the theme of “undefeated despair”