Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Related links

George Orwell in Barcelona

In chapter 10 of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes how street fighting broke out in Barcelona in 1937. I happen to have been in Barcelona recently and so used Orwell’s account to track down and photograph the buildings he describes.

Background

On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. This sounds like a simple case of right and wrong but early 20th century Spain had had a troubled history. It only became a republic when King Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1931. Spain was deeply polarised between the forces of reaction – powerful landowners, the Catholic church, the police and army – and of the republic – the urban working class, some peasants. There had been an attempt to mount a left-wing revolution in 1934, which was repressed but left all sides convinced the other side was planning huge conspiracies.

In July 1936 the generals had planned and hoped that their coup would take the entire country. But the uprising failed in barracks in the major cities (Madrid and Barcelona) and in the east generally, and in the two provinces of Spain which have always prized their independence, the Basque country in the north-west and Catalonia in the north-east.

Both sides took steps to round up and disarm opponents in their part of the country, often with bloodshed. Thousands died in the early days and it was in these early days that the trade unions acted with decisiveness to raise huge militias. They begged the cautious government for arms and just about managed to put enough troops in the field to stall the nationalists’ advance. By September both sides – generally referred to as nationalists and republicans – were looking abroad for help. The nationalists quickly gained support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans were subject to a (controversial) arms embargo by France and Britain and forced to rely entirely on arms and advisors from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Within a few months sympathisers in the democracies began to volunteer to fight for the republic (and a handful for the nationalists). For many idealistic young men and women in Britain, France, America and elsewhere, the outbreak of the war in Spain represented a tipping point in history, the moment when fascist forces came out into the open and had to be defeated. If Spain fell to fascism, went the argument, with Italy and Germany already fascist and Fascist parties powerful or in power in many east European countries, then France and Britain would be next.

Among the many volunteers from Britain was George Orwell, author up to that point of three novels and his documentary books, Down and out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell approached the British communist party but they were (rightly, as it turned out) suspicious of his independent attitude, so he ended up wangling an introduction to the Independent Labour Party representative in Barcelona, John McNair. Having travelled across France and crossed the border into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, and was channeled away from the Overseas Volunteers – the International Brigades which were being administered by communists – and into the militia of the anti-communist revolutionary party, the POUM (the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista).

Orwell writes vividly of the egalitarian atmosphere in Barcelona when he arrived in december 1936: everyone dressed in workers’ clothes, prostitution, begging and tipping had been banned, revolutionary banners hung from all the buildings and from passing lorries full of cheering militia.

After some primitive training and armed with antique rifles without much ammunition, Orwell was despatched to the ‘front’. He sat out the winter in the freezing trenches, opposite Fascist ones 1,000 yards away and, with one or two exceptions, was rarely involved in any fighting. He was at the front for 115 days solidly and eventually given leave to return to Barcelona to meet his wife – who had by this stage also come to Barcelona – in late April.

He was shocked to find the atmosphere of the city completely transformed. The bourgeoisie had emerged from hiding, luxury restaurants had opened up, bootblacks and tipping were again in evidence. More oppressively, though, was the atmosphere of tension and suppressed violence. In his absence the relatively small Spanish communist party had lost no time imposing its influence on the central government and in all the republican areas. they were able to do this because Stalin was now the only outside power supplying the government with arms and ammunition. And with advisors. Not only military advisors but political advisors who, not surprisingly, advised the government that they could never win with a hodge-podge of voluntary militias raised from a kaleidoscope of different unions and parties. All of them must come under one central dominant control – Comrade Stalin said so.

From the start the republican side was riven by factions and feuds. the Civil Guard, who continued to police the republican areas, had long been the traditional enemy of the working class. The republican government was an uneasy alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists. In Catalonia especially, the working class was represented by anarchist trade unions who advocated the worker takeover of the means of production and distribution, but via decentralised federations – the opposite of the centralised Stalinist model.

If Stalin, through his commissars and advisors was just imposing one model instead of another it would have been one thing. But there was worse. Stalin, looking at the map of Europe, with a central band of antagonistic Fascist powers, and Spain now at risk of going Fascist, realised that he must make allies with the French and, hopefully, with the more reluctant British. If war was to break out he desperately needed all the allies he could get. But what would scare Briain and France away from him and into the arms of the anti-Bolshevik Fascists faster than anything else? A full-scale workers revolution in Spain. Therefore, Stalin instructed his advisors and commissars, as they infiltrated themselves further into government departments and into every level of the republican administration – to repress the genuinely revolutionary instincts and achievements of the anarchists and the other non-Stalinist communist parties.

It was this rolling back of the revolution, and the slow insidious propaganda which criticised and blamed the anarchists for every military defeat – in other words, the same techniques of insulting, vilifying and outlawing your opponents that Stalin was using at the very same time in Russia – that Orwell got back from the trenches to find being used in Barcelona. Nobody knew who would attack whom first but the atmosphere was heavy with violence.

The May fighting

On 3 May Orwell was crossing the foyer of his hotel when a friend told him ‘it’ had started. the Catalan government had sent Civil Guards to take control of the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluna, and the anarchists who controlled it had fired back. I looked long and hard in the modern-day Catalonia Square but couldn’t identify the Telephone Exchange.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side – street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower – a church, I think – that commanded the side-street.

I’m not sure but this church, Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, is half way down the Ramblas, has an octagonal tower and is opposite an alley running off the other side of the Ramplas.

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Then:

At this moment an American doctor who had been with us at the front ran up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He was greatly excited. ‘Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcon.’ (The Hotel Falcon was a sort of boarding-house maintained by the P.O.U.M. and used chiefly by militiamen on leave.) ‘The P.O.U.M. chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.’

The Hotel Falcon is down towards the sea end of the Ramblas. It is now a library, named after the anarchist leader Andreu Nin.

Biblioteca Gòtic - Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Biblioteca Gòtic – Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Here’s the precise Google maps location.

With some kind of historical irony, I found three or four derelicts sleeping in the ground floor window alcoves, while the hordes of rich tourists hurried by on their way top spend money at the monster shopping centre on the seafront.

Orwell went across the Ramblas to the building opposite, a disused cabaret theatre which had been taken over by the POUM. He spent hours with a colleague exploring it and also looking for arms, eventually spending the night there rolled up in a curtain he tore down for the purpose. The building is still there and is now the Teatre Principal. 

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Next morning POUM and their associated trade union, the CNT, start building barricades outside the Hotel Falcon and the theatre. Orwell nips up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where his wife is staying, dropping in on the moasly closed market to buy some cheese. This covered market is very much still there and very popular with tourists.

Orwell then walked a hundred yards or so to the POUM Executive Building. This is now the Hotel Rivoli at number 128 Ramblas. He’s inside when he hears firing nearby and discovers that the Café Moka next door had been seized the day before by 20 or 30 Civil Guards.

Next door to the P.O.U.M. building there was a cafe with a hotel above it, called the Cafe Moka. The day before twenty or thirty armed Civil Guards had entered the cafe and then, when the fighting started, had suddenly seized the building and barricaded themselves in. Presumably they had been ordered to seize the cafe as a preliminary to attacking the P.O.U.M. offices later. Early in the morning they had attempted to come out, shots had been exchanged, and one Shock Trooper was badly wounded and a Civil Guard killed. The Civil Guards had fled back into the cafe…

But when an American tourist walked down the street they had opened fire. Both sides now erect barriers outside their buildings and have an armed stand-off. Eventually Orwell’s commandant in the POUM militia, the Belgian George Kopp, bravely organises a truce. Both Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka are still there side by side. It is a little hard to conceive how either side could have built a barricade outside without being riddled with bullets from their opponents.

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

The Cafe Moka, captured by Civil Guards in May 1937.

Naturally they had looted everything drinkable the cafe possessed, and they made Kopp a present of fifteen bottles of beer. In return Kopp had actually given them one of our rifles to make up for one they had somehow lost on the previous day.

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Immediately opposite there was a cinematograph, called the Poliorama, with a museum above it, and at the top, high above the general level of the roofs, a small observatory with twin domes. The domes commanded the street, and a few men posted up there with rifles could prevent any attack on the P.O.U.M. buildings. The caretakers at the cinema were C.N.T. members and would let us come and go… There were generally about six of us up there. We placed a man on guard in each of the observatory towers, and the rest of us sat on the lead roof below, where there was no cover except a stone palisade.

This building is still there, along with its two domes. Difficult imagining being up there with a couple of comrades and some rifles, ready to snipe at any Civil Guards who fire at you.

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

By the Thursday the Catalan government – the Generalite – was trying top patch things up. Nobody wanted a civil war within a civil war. The CNT and POUM wanted the Civil Guard to retreat from the Plaza de Catalunia and lay down their weapons. Their newspaper advised peace and taking down the barricades. Orwell’s mood going into that Thursday night was one of frustration, disgust and extreme hunger. On the Friday the barricades began to be dismantled,. the Civil Guards in the cafe Moka came out to sit in the sunshine dandling their rifles on their knees.

Peace had sort of broken out. That night the city was flooded by Assault Guards who were meant to be a neutral force between the anarchists and the Civil Guards, and the next day they are patrolling the city in squads, reassuring the population and all the political factions. Orwell is most impressed by their shiny new rifles, far better than anything he or his comrades have at the front. The May fighting had profound consequences. it marked the triumph of the central government – backed up by Stalin’s communists – over the truly revolutionary forces of the POUM and its trade union, the CNT.

The Barcelona fighting had given the Valencia Government the long — wanted excuse to assume fuller control of Catalonia. The workers’ militias were to be broken’ up and redistributed among the Popular Army. The Spanish Republican flag was flying all over Barcelona — the first time I had seen it, I think, except over a Fascist trench. In the working-class quarters the barricades were being pulled down, rather fragmentarily, for it is a lot easier to build a barricade than to put the stones back. Outside the P.S.U.C. buildings the barricades were allowed to remain standing, and indeed many were standing as late as June. The Civil Guards were still occupying strategic points. Huge seizures of arms were being made from C.N.T. strongholds, though I have no doubt a good many escaped seizure. La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored until the front page was almost completely blank. The P.S.U.C. papers were un-censored and were publishing inflammatory articles demanding the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The P.O.U.M. was declared to be a disguised Fascist organization, and a cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off” a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated all over the town by P.S.U.C. agents. Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the P.O.U.M.

From now on the POUM would be blamed for everything, for every military failure and political setback. He heard stories of POUM officials being snatched in midnight raids, of secret prisons being created and quickly filling up with ‘Fascist saboteurs’. Orwell returned reluctantly to the front, but was wounded four weeks later, shot in the throat. He was treated at several hospitals before finally being returned to Barcelona in mid-June and being reunited with his distraught wife.

After only a few days they were both horrified when the logic of the May Fighting came to its logical conclusion and on 16 June 1937 the POUM was banned for being a traitorous organisation. Orwell has to go on the run, sleeping rough at nights and hanging out in obscure parts of town by day, until his wife can make the arrangements to have them both smuggled across the border into France. His brave commander, Kopp, was in prison. Andreu Nin and almost the entire POUM leadership was arrested and tortured. Nin was executed.

As soon as he was back in England Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia, the eye-witness account of his experiences at white-hot speed. It was published in April 1938 and was a commercial flop. More than that, it was solidly attacked in Britain’s communist-sympathetic press for defending ‘Trotskyite saboteurs’ etc etc.

The entire experience opened Orwell’s eyes about a) the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism; it made him realise it was just a national totalitarian party which used the communist parties of other countries simply as extensions of its entirely self-interested foreign policy. And b) it showed him at close quarters how political and military events could be completely distorted and ‘history’ rewritten to suit the interests of a totalitarian government which controlled all the organs of communication.

This, of course, was to be Orwell’s most central theme in the war years and afterwards, finding its apotheosis in the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Away from the Ramblas, which is where Orwell’s eye-witness account of the May Fighting mostly takes place, there is a sweet little square in Barcelona named after him

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell

It is home to vegetarian restaurants, bars and boutiques. the bar which we ate at had an Orwell-themed menu with 1984 pizza and an Animal Farm fry-up. I modestly suggested that they should add Victory Gin to their menu.

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938)

Potted biography

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair to a civil servant in India in 1903. The family moved back to England in 1907 and sent young Eric, first to prep school near Eastbourne, then to Eton, where he met other boys who were to be among the literary luminaries of his generation. In other words he was brought up to be the toffiest of the toffs. However, unlike most of his literary contemporaries, Eric decided not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge but instead enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police and returned to Burma. Here he served from 1922 until 1927, wielding great responsibility for large provinces and huge numbers of ‘natives’.

Slowly he lost his faith in the Imperial mission, and came to dislike his role. One contemporary said he had an unusual sympathy for the natives and went to the unprecedented lengths of learning their language. He had a taste for the underdog and a dislike of power.

So he quit the Imperial Police and moved back to Europe, staying with friends and family and trying to make a living as a writer. In the late 1920s he spent two years in Paris, struggling to write and working in the kitchen of a big hotel; and he developed a taste for dressing in rags and going on the tramp, sleeping in the roughest parts of London and investigating the capital’s poorest doss houses and hostels. He converted these experiences into his first book, a long work of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). There followed a novel based on his time in Burma – Burmese Days (1934) and another which recycled his experiences sleeping rough in London and working in the hop fields of Kent – A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935). Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) exaggerates Orwell’s own taste for slumming it into the caricature of the alienated intellectual, Gordon Comstock, a failed poet consumed by bilious hatred of the modern world.

By the mid-1930s Orwell was established as a novelist, an essayist and a writer of reportage, a presence, a name, contributing overtly political left-wing articles to a variety of magazines and journals. No sooner had he delivered the manuscript of Keep the Aspidistra Flying in January 1936, than his publisher, Victor Gollancz, suggested he write a book on the social conditions in the north of England, badly affected by the international Depression.

Orwell readily agreed and set off to live among working class people in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield from January to March 1936. He spent the summer working up his diary and notes of the trip into the first part of Wigan Pier, which consists of documentary reportage of the conditions he saw, the wretched housing and the unbelievably tough life of a coal miner. Then he turned to writing part two of the book,ich is an odd autobiographical account of his own personal development as a Socialist followed by a quirky set of ‘arguments’ in favour of ‘Socialism’. I recently reviewed this and made clear, I hope, that, as contemporary critics pointed out, Orwell nowhere in his hundred-page defence of Socialism actually defines what socialism is – a major Fail – beyond some high-sounding truisms about it representing Justice and Decency.

So Orwell brought with him to Spain:

  • the self-confidence of the Eton-educated Englishman
  • the hard-headed experience gained from being an officer in the British Imperial police for five years – which meant a familiarity with weapons, drill, commanding men, and swift decision-making
  • his abilities as a writer, in particular his talent for detailed factual description and for vivid pen portraits of individuals
  • his passionate support of Socialism which was, however, ideologically and politically naive and undeveloped

The Spanish Civil War

While he was working on the manuscript of Wigan Pier there was a military coup in Spain against the left-wing democratically elected government. On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army co-ordinated military risings in Spain’s African colony of Morocco and throughout barracks on the mainland. However, not all the risings worked, some were repressed or didn’t take place, so after a confusing few days the generals were left in control of Morocco and the western half of Spain, leaving the capital, Madrid, the second city, Barcelona up in Catalonia, and most of the south and east of the country in government or ‘republican’ hands. Both sides thought the thing would be over in days, either the coup would be suppressed or it would succeed, but in the event it did neither. In both parts of the country there began to be reprisals against the ‘opponents’: in the parts controlled by the ‘nationalist’ generals, trade unionists, communists, writers and subversives were rounded up and executed; in ‘republican’ zones rumours soon abounded of churches being burned down, priests executed and nuns raped (though the raped nuns stories have to this day never been proved).

Both sides hardened their positions, with the generals leading military assaults designed to expand their territory. But the government was hampered from the start by fear of their own supporters; they delayed handing out arms and ammunition to whatever forces remained loyal. It was the anarchist and socialist trade unions which immediately rallied their members, and armed them with whatever was to hand.

The generals had risen because they were terrified that the republican government was going to push through socialist and even communist reforms. They mounted the coup against the leftists and in the name of the Catholic Church and a mystical idea of an older, nobler Spain. But their coup had the unintended consequence of triggering the very revolution they feared: in republican areas workers rose up, seized their farms and factories, implemented workers’ council and collectivisation. In the cities bourgeois dress and even forms of speech disappeared, socialist, communist and anarchist flags appeared everywhere. Young men and women dressed like revolutionaries and addressed each other as comrade.

Almost immediately the conflict was internationalised when fascist Italy and Nazi Germany spotted the potential of having an authoritarian ally in the western Mediterranean and the Germans, in particular, with their methodical approach, saw the opportunity for testing out the military hardware they had been developing – tanks and planes. For their part the two western democracies, France and Britain, shied away from involvement. I’ve recently read Antony Beevor’s outstanding history of the Spanish Civil War where Beevor he makes it shamefully clear that many in the highest political circles in England supported the military coup. Thus it was that England led the democracies (including America) in imposing a ban on arms exports to the Spanish government. In the long run this lack of foreign support for the elected government was to guarantee the success of the military coup – but it turned out to be an extremely long-drawn-out conflict, a bitterly fought civil war which lasted three long bloody years, until April 1939, costing upwards of a million civilian and military lives.

The international brigades

Quite quickly the Left in England responded to the outbreak of the war. They lobbied the government to intervene (futilely, as it turned out), but many left-wing organisations also called on volunteers to go out to Spain and ‘fight fascism’. In fact, volunteers streamed in from all across Europe and by just a month into the war, had begun to be organised into what became known as the International Brigades.

While he was finishing the manuscript of Wigan Pier Orwell was also making enquiries about volunteering. The main conduit for volunteers, the British Communist Party, was doubtful about his party loyalty, so Orwell secured a letter of recommendation from the Independent Labour Party to their representative in Spain, John McNair, who was co-ordinating British volunteers in Barcelona. Thus it was that, instead of being channelled into one of the communist-backed International Brigades, Orwell found himself being steered towards the Spanish militia associated with the British Independent Labour Party – the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (in Spanish the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or POUM).

This was to be decisive in Orwell’s experience of the war, in his subsequent account of it, and in all his subsequent writings. For although the generals’ rising had triggered a revolutionary situation in the cities of republican Spain, what nobody knew at the time was that Stalin’s Communist International had instructed the communist party in Spain to suppress the genuine workers’ revolution which had happened on the streets.

The reason is simple. By 1936 Stalin was very concerned at the rise of Hitler and the formation across central Europe of the Fascist axis of Germany and Italy. He was scared of being attacked. He needed allies. Stalin had been assiduously cultivating the French with a view to making an alliance and was also feeling out to the more reluctant British. It was true he wanted the proto-Fascist Spanish generals to be defeated, but he was just as concerned that a true Bolshevik revolution in Spain would scare France and Britain further to the right, forcing them to come to some kind of understanding with the Fascist powers, and thus effectively setting all of Europe against him.

It was vital to Stalin not to scare France and Britain. Thus from the first the communist machine put out the message that a limited and bourgeois revolution was to be supported, but that all genuinely revolutionary elements should be suppressed. In the context of Spain this largely meant the very large political and social movement of Anarchism. In Spain Anarchism meant, in practice, that workers controlled loose federations of farms or industries which they organised individually. It was form of socialism but completely and proudly without the idea of one, authoritarian, central control: which was, of course, the form Stalin’s totalitarian regime took in the USSR.

Orwell in Spain

This was the complex and cynical political situation Orwell found himself in when he crossed the French border and arrived in Barcelona, introduced himself to McNair and was inducted into the POUM militia. His book describes the astonishing atmosphere in revolutionary Barcelona, the lack of beggars, prostitutes or ostentatious luxury in the streets. A whole host of issues around poverty and decency, which readers of his novels and reportage would have been familiar with, had here come true. He was dazzled.

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senior’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving.

Orwell describes conditions in the militia barracks (which had been renamed the Lenin Barracks), the pathetic training and almost complete lack of arms. Then the journey up to the ‘front’ near Zaragosa, and the squalor, cold and boredom of life in a trench zigzagging along ridges about a mile away from the fascist trenches.

Orwell was at the Aragon front for 115 days without break during which there was little or no fighting and certainly no campaigns by either side. His eye for the filth and squalor (human excrement everywhere) and descriptions of everyone’s attempts to keep warm would ring bells with anyone who’s read Down and Out or Clergyman’s Daughter.

We were near the front line now, near enough to smell the characteristic smell of war – in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food.

In February Orwell was sent with other POUM militiamen 50 miles to join the army besieging Huesca. The main struggle is with the cold and, once Spring arrives, with the infestation of lice. Throughout the book there are those characteristic sparkles of Orwell’s grim humour.

I have had a big experience of body vermin of various kinds, and for sheer beastliness the louse beats everything I have encountered. Other insects, mosquitoes for instance, make you suffer more, but at least they aren’t resident vermin. The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

There is one sizeable military manoeuvre, when his troop were ordered into a ‘holding attack’ on Huesca, designed to draw the Fascist troops away from an Anarchist attack on the Jaca road. Orwell vividly describes the tension and confusion as his group of fifteen captured a Fascist position, are disappointed to find no guns or much-needed ammunition but stumble across a beautiful telescope, when the fascists counter-attack and Orwell and his men are forced to pull back to their own lines in such confusion that they leave the telescope behind.

Afterwards we learned that the action had been a success, as such things go. It was merely a raid to make the Fascists divert troops from the other side of Huesca, where the Anarchists were attacking again. I had judged that the Fascists had thrown a hundred or two hundred men into the counter-attack, but a deserter told us later on that it was six hundred. I dare say he was lying – deserters, for obvious reasons, often try to curry favour. It was a great pity about the telescope. The thought of losing that beautiful bit of loot worries me even now.

Finally, in April 1937, he was granted leave to return to Barcelona where he rendezvoused with his still-new wife (they’d only got married in June of the previous year) on the 27th April. Orwell was horrified by the change that had come over the city. Gone was the revolutionary zeal, back were top hats and fur coats and bootblacks and tipping. On a superficial street level, the revolution seemed already to be defeated.

The street fighting of May 1937

Also there was a poisonously tense atmosphere. The political rivalry between the anarchists, including the related group of the POUM, and the steadily power-grabbing communists was coming to a head. On 3 May 1937 Orwell was crossing the foyer of his wife’s hotel when a friend told him that ‘it’ had started.

‘It’ was a week or so of street fighting that broke out between the various left-wing factions when a contingent of Civil Guards tried to storm the Barcelona telephone exchange, which was held by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT union. Shots were fired and suddenly barricades went up all over town and communists, anarchists, socialists and Civil Guards all started shooting at each other.

From a journalistic point of view, Orwell was extraordinarily lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He hurried down the Rampla, the central avenue on Barcelona, to POUM headquarters and was handed one of the handful of rifles available, and then took his place on the barricades. He describes how the cafe next door to POUM headquarters had been occupied by Civil Guards who build their own barricade and how, after an exchange of fire, Orwell’s respected superior, Georges Kopp, negotiated a ceasefire. Later Orwell was posted to the cinematograph opposite POUM headquarters, a building which had two ornamental domes on its roof which commanded a good view up and down the Rambla. Rumours fly around, and at night there is the sound of gunfire and distant explosions. Eventually, a ceasefire of sorts is negotiated and the barricades begin to come down. Orwell’s eye witness account is a priceless piece of social history, not only of events, but of mood and atmosphere.

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues, and prowling gangs of armed men.

Being shot

With a tense semblance of normality restored, Orwell is ordered to return to the front. Here, just a week or so later, on 20 May, Orwell, back in the republican trenches, was shot through the neck by a nationalist sniper. He gives the most extraordinarily vivid account of being shot.

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock — no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into immense distance. I fancy you would feel much the same if you were struck by lightning. I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space of time much less than a second. The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.

There is a long, sober and fascinating description of what happens to you as a casualty in war: the panic of friends and colleagues; the scrabbled medic doing what he can; being carried  by sweating men down terrible paths to the field hospital. All the time he was convinced he was going to die. But he doesn’t. The wound is cleaned and dressed and he is transferred on to several hospitals before arriving back at Barcelona.

But God, all the politics apart, Orwell has such an eye for detail and such a vivid forceful way of expressing himself.

At Monzon Hospital the doctor did the usual tongue-pulling and mirror — thrusting business, assured me in the same cheerful manner as the others that I should never have a voice again, and signed my certificate. While I waited to be examined there was going on inside the surgery some dreadful operation without anaesthetics – why without anaesthetics I do not know. It went on and on, scream after scream, and when I went in there were chairs flung about and on the floor were pools of blood and urine.

On the run

Here he arrived in a town transformed out of recognition. In his absence, on 16 June 1937, the POUM had been declared an illegal organisation. Its leaders had been arrested and, though Orwell didn’t know this when he wrote, taken off by the Soviet NKVD to a newly established prison, and tortured before being executed. His wife tells him all this in a hurried sotto voce conversation in the hotel foyer before hustling him out and Orwell has to go on the run. They make an attempt to free his former commander, Georges Kopp, from prison where he is now confined, Orwell going to the lengths of personally tracking down and pleading with the colonel commanding engineering operations in the Army of the East in his office – but with no success. Anyone connected with the POUM is condemned. They have to look for their own safety.

After a week or so hiding with other fugitives, his wife manages to get the help they need to smuggle them both onto a train, on 23 June 1937, and straight to the border with France, where, mercifully, they are allowed to cross and are free.

Back to sleepy England

And so slowly back to England, recuperating from the physical and mental exertions of his 6-month trip. And there to face the biggest challenge of all when the orthodox communist party of Great Britain, along with all its allied writers and editors and magazines, refuses to believe his eye-witness account about the communist suppression of revolution in Spain. He saw at first hand, the lying and deceit practiced by numerous left-wing magazines and intellectuals and realised how totalitarian regimes don’t just lie, the systematically control reality – and, worse, many educated people who should know better, go along with their systematic distortions.

This was the seed, the germ, from which the horrifying total mind control depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was to grow.

The lasting impact

Soon after arriving home Orwell’s health broke down and he wrote part of Homage to Catalonia in a sanatorium in Kent, some in Morocco where he was advised to go to escape the damp English climate. It was here that he followed the classic Stalinist show trial held for the POUM leaders (and himself and his wife) in Barcelona, all of whom were accused of Trotskyism, sabotage, treason and so on.

Victor Gollancz, founded of New Left Books, refused to publish Catalonia thus damning him in Orwell’s eyes as a member of the Stalinist intelligentsia. It was published by Warburgs in April 1938. The Spanish Civil War still had one long bloody year left to run but already it was clear to informed opinion that the republicans would lose. Like most of Orwell’s books Catalonia didn’t sell well, shifting only 900 copies by the time the Second World War broke out.

From now onwards his writing would have a much more informed sense of what socialism could mean in practice, but also of the terrifying reality of a totalitarian society, the reality of repression, torture and execution and of pitiless political struggle, which threatened all the common decencies he held so sacred.

This sense of fighting for what was good and decent in English society and culture was to underpin many of the essays he subsequently wrote, especially once the great European war everyone had been fearing finally broke out in September 1939.

And Spain…

After describing his perilous mission to meet the senior army officer who might be able to release his friend Georges Kopp from prison, Orwell recalls how, when he finally admits that both men served in the POUM, the officer stepped back with alarm on his face. Absolutely everyone was being brainwashed by communist propaganda that the POUM were traitors, Trotskyites and fascist spies. However, right at the end of the interview, though he has visibly failed in  his mission to get Kopp released there is a slight pause… and then the Spanish officer shakes his hand. It is a small but moving gesture. And it reminds Orwell of the many acts of generosity and nobility he has seen among the Spanish and Catalans.

I record this, trivial though it may sound, because it is somehow typical of Spain – of the flashes of magnanimity that you get from Spaniards in the worst of circumstances. I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century. It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form. Few Spaniards possess the damnable efficiency and consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs.

General Franco’s regime was to endure until the dictator’s death in 1975, but although conservative and repressive in the extreme, Orwell was right in that it never approached anything like the genocidal horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

George Orwell in Catalonia with POUM militia

George Orwell (the tall one) in Catalonia with POUM militia


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006)

Franco did not so much win the war: the republican commanders, with the odds already stacked heavily against them, squandered the courage and sacrifice of their troops and lost it. (p.476)

This is a wonderfully sensible, thorough, intelligent and powerful history of the Spanish Civil War.

The war started on 17 July 1936 when the Spanish Army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected Republican government. The coup, although carefully planned and co-ordinated between units of the Spanish Army in Spain’s colony in Morocco and on the mainland, managed to seize key towns and areas across western Spain but failed in its bid to swiftly overthrow the government. Instead republican forces, spearheaded by socialist and anarchist trade unions, seized villages, towns and cities in central and eastern Spain, including the capital Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s second city, and capital of the separatist region of Catalonia.

Both parts of divided Spain then undertook a quick holocaust of enemy supporters, the nationalist army executing large numbers of ‘reds’ and trade unionists in their territory, the ‘republicans’ doing the same in their parts. Beevor analyses these numbers in some detail and hesitantly concludes that the nationalists ending up killing as many as ten times the number as the republicans, especially when you factor in that the execution of ‘reds’, trade unionists and anyone who opposed them continued long after the war finished on 1 April 1939, continued through the Second World War (in which Spain was neutral) and right up to the death of General Franco in 1975. Possibly as many as 200,000 Spaniards were killed by Franco’s forces in non-military executions, suicides, tortures to death and so on (p.450).

Meanwhile nationalist propaganda exaggerated and invented republican atrocities, quickly putting out stories about churches being burned to the ground (often true since the Catholic church was seen as the number one defender of the entrenched, exploitative, landowning aristocracy), priests being murdered (true in some numbers, apparently) and nuns systematically raped (this story, though salaciously retailed across the world’s media, appears never to have happened).

By the winter of 1936 battle lines had hardened across a divided Spain (the book has plenty of maps showing the general battle lines and detailed maps of specific battles) and both sides settled in for what looked like becoming a protracted war.

At this point Beevor’s account tends to alternate between detailed accounts of specific (bloody) battles, analyses of the complicated internal politics on both the nationalist and republican sides, and explanations of how the war was internationalised.

1. International war

Immediately the two Fascist dictators in Europe, Hitler and Mussolini, grasped the significance of the war and saw ways to exploit it. Mussolini sent airplanes and pilots and his fleet patrolled the Mediterranean coast of Spain to prevent arms getting to the republican east of the country. He wanted to crush communism in Spain, establish a western ally, and assert the Italian navy’s power in the Mediterranean. Hitler shared the same motives and was in addition delighted at the opportunity to give his Luftwaffe and army real war experience, in advance of his plans for conquest in Europe. German military advisors, and especially the notorious Condor Legion of planes and pilots, gave the nationalist invaluable help. It was the Condor Legion which carpet bombed Guernica, capital of the Basque country in the north, on 26 April 1937, and machine gunned men, women and children fleeing from the burning city.

The legitimate republican government appealed to the western democracies, namely Britain, France and America but – and this makes shameful reading – Britain, terrified of both Hitler and Stalin, led the way in creating the spurious and one-sided ‘Non-Intervention Committee’, arranging with the French and Americans not to supply arms or support to either side, so long as the Axis powers didn’t either. This deprived the republican government of much needed weapons and material, and the British stuck to their non-intervention, even when documentary proof was presented showing without doubt the huge amounts of aid the nationalists were receiving from Germany and Italy.

Worse, Beevor shows (in chapter 13 ‘Arms and the diplomats’) that there were many active fascist-sympathisers at the highest levels of the American and British governments and that, although the majority of the populations of both countries supported the republicans, key leaders in business and politics were both mortally afraid of a socialist/communist victory and actively sympathised with the nationalists’ aims of re-establishing order and religion. Credit, oil and business facilities were made available to the nationalists. In fact, Beevor quotes a Spanish diplomat who claimed, after the war, that

‘without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the civil war.’ (quoted page 155)

Worst of all, the hypocritical refusal of the democracies to help a fellow democracy, forced the Spanish government into total reliance on aid from Stalin’s Soviet Union, which certainly sent tanks and airplanes, along with drivers, pilots and military advisors – but the price of this aid was submission to the communist way of doing things, planting commissars and secret police into every unit of the ramshackle popular army and the anarchist and socialist militias.

2. The battles

In the entire war the republicans only won one major engagement. In every other military engagement they were hamstrung by lack of arms, ammunition, lack of experience and training, lack of discipline and coherence across a hodge-podge of different forces but probably, as Beevor shows in harrowing detail, appalling military incompetence and terrible decision-making. In the second half of the war republican military decisions tended to be made on the basis of what would provide big, propaganda-friendly victories, largely at the command of the Soviet Union and its military advisors.

But Beevor shows how the war coincided with the height of Stalin’s paranoia, which was finding expression in the series of show trials taking place in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, in which hundreds of old Bolsheviks, having been tortured into submission, were forced to admit that they were anti-Soviet spies, tools of international imperialism, or Trotskyite saboteurs and so on. Partly these were a way of focusing the attention of the Soviet public away from the very obvious failures of Soviet economic policy such as the disastrous famine in the Ukraine in 1933 and the ongoing food shortages and lack of goods. Partly it was an almost medieval response to the failure of the Soviet experiment which had an almost medieval aspect – if there’s a famine, blame the witches or the Jews, and burn them. Partly Stalin was clinically paranoid and believed there were endless conspiracies against him.

A vital element of the general madness was that the Red Army had in the 1930s under the innovatory General Mikhail Tukhachevsky been developing a new modern way of fighting which integrated fast-moving tank forces, supported by airplane attacks and accompanied by well-organised infantry. As part of his mad purges of the Red Army Stalin had Tukhachevsky and everyone who propounded these new theories executed, and labelled the whole approach Trotskyist deviationism etc.

In fact Tukhachevsky was developing the same Blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving co-ordinated attacks which Hitler was to use to such effect in the Second World War. But his execution led to all thinking in that direction being banned, and Soviet military advisors fell back on the old, tried and completely discredited tactics of the Great War – big set piece battles where 19th century artillery barrages softened up the enemy before floods of infantry advanced over no man’s land to be slaughtered in their thousands.

Tragically, because the Western democracies effectively abandoned republican Spain, these discredited tactics along with the paranoia, the universal presence of the secret police who arrested huge numbers and carted them off for interrogation, torture and execution, were imported lock, stock and two smoking barrels into the republican forces.

The result was that the Soviet advisors again and again bullied the republicans into launching unnecessary and grandiose set-piece battles (in a bid to win glory and curry favour with Moscow) using out-of-date tactics, which the hodge-podge of republican forces were badly-suited to carrying out (because they required immaculate military precision) and in which they were invariably slaughtered in wave after wave of futile head-on attacks. Thus the massive defeats at the battles of Brunete and the Ebro.

And when wretched defeat and withdrawal (often simple routs when the bloodied survivors turned tail and ran) inevitably occurred, the commissars and Soviet advisors and NKVD secret police all blamed the defeat on Trotskyite traitors, fifth columnists, saboteurs etc and intensified their persecution of their own side.

Beevor gives scores of examples of the political commissars just lining up surviving troops and shooting a set number (in the back of the head) in punishment for their ‘cowardice’ i.e. their refusal to follow obviously incompetent and suicidal orders.

Beevor points out several times that the best way to use the scattered, less organised and badly equipped republican army would have been to mount an organised defence of existing republican territory while despatching large numbers of guerrilla fighters to harass and wear down nationalist forces from the sides and rear. This more unconventional approach might have kept the situation in a stalemate until the general European war – which everyone was expecting – broke out and the republican side could have hoped for a change in the position of Britain, France and America to open support.

3. Internal politics

Alongside the lack of international support, probably the key factor for the republican side was how splintered it was. Beevor spends a lot of time clearly explaining the nature and aims of the different factions. In fact the first fifty or so pages give a history of Spain from the Napoleonic Wars onwards which show how the fundamental divide between Catholic, landowning, aristocratic Spain grew apart from urban, working class, often atheist Spain, increasingly influenced by new socialist ideals crossing the Pyrenees from France and then, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, from Russia. The three years from 1918 to 1920 saw a wave of political strife in the Asturias and Catalonia which became known as the ‘three years of bolshevism’ (p.17) In 1932 the army in the form of General Sanjurjo tried to stage a coup against the republican government, but it was poorly planned, led to massive strikes by the left and was easily quashed.

A strike of Asturian miners in October 1934 quickly spread across northern Spain, turning into a general strike and then an attempt at the revolutionary government. The most intense political mobilisation took place in Catalonia and its capital Barcelona and led to street fighting, before being crushed by 19 October.

The nationalists, the army, the upper classes and the small fascist groups all feared that another attempt at revolution was just a question of time and it was this fear which lay behind the army coup of August 1936.

But in fact the republican side was hopelessly divided. There were regional differences, with both Catalonia and the Basque country thinking that the war would lead to their independence, while conservative socialist groupings in the central government wanted to resist any such independence.

And then the left was amazingly divided, between socialists, who had their own trade unionists, anarchists ditto, an initially small communist party, the larger liberal parties representing the middle classes, and a wide variety of colourful splinter groups, as well as various parties in the would-be independent nations of Basque and Catalonia.

Trying to reconcile the widely divergent aspirations of all these groups was probably impossible right from the start, but it was fatally injured by something which George Orwell and other foreign visitors realised straightaway: which is that the army coup didn’t just prompt the socialists and anarchists to rise up to defend the essentially bourgeois government; it triggered the very social revolution they feared. The anarchists of Catalonia were the fiercest revolutionaries and they burned down churches, abolished bourgeois forms and terminology in the towns (no more senor and senorita, no more ties and posh hats) and in the countryside instituted a wide-ranging policy of forming workers’ collectives. All this had been tried and planned for some time and happened very quickly.

But meanwhile the central government contained bourgeois liberal elements who were terrified of this revolution and sought in countless ways to undermine and defeat it.

The situation would have been complicated enough, without the heavy-handed intervention of the Soviet Union. The main thrust of George Orwell’s classic account of his time spent as a volunteer fighting on the republican side was that he saw at close quarters the surprising fact that Stalin’s communist party formed a reactionary element in this mix. This is easily enough to explain but devastating in its implications:

The struggle between two of the founding Bolshevik leaders, Stalin and Trotsky in the late 1920s, was that Stalin was convinced the new communist state must consolidate its existence and pursue ‘socialism in one country’. Trotsky, in contrast, advocated permanent and global revolution, arguing that one communist nation just couldn’t exist when surrounded by a sea of capitalist opponents. Trotsky lost the argument, he and his followers fled Russia, in Trotsky’s case to Mexico, where he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin became (justifiably) concerned about the spread of overtly anti-communist Fascism in Europe, with Fascist governments in Germany and Italy and authoritarian government in East European countries like Romania and Poland. Given this line-up of ideologically opposed and militarily strong enemies, Stalin realised he needed to cultivate friends wherever he could find them and so pursued a policy of friendship with France and as much friendship as he could muster with Britain. If it came to war, he would need them as allies (as indeed happened). Therefore Stalin did NOT want there to be a successful communist revolution in Spain; that’s the last thing he wanted, as it would terrify France and Britain to have a revolution on their doorstep, push them away from Russia and towards the Axis powers. Therefore Stalin used his centralised organs of state, the Communist International (the Comintern), his military advisors, the political commissars, his ambassadors and the NKVD secret police, to all promulgate the Party line that Spain was NOT ready for a proletarian revolution but must work unite in a ‘Popular Front’, a broad alliance of all left-of-centre parties to oppose Fascism. (The same line being peddled by the Stalin-controlled communist party in France.)

It took some time for the idealistic workers and peasants of Spain, for the anarchist and socialist politicians, activists and trade unions, and for the tens of thousands of volunteers who came from across Europe and America to fight for liberty and revolution etc, to grasp the fact that the full weight of Stalin’s communist machine was aligned against them. Sure, the party kept on spouting communist slogans but, on the ground, it worked tirelessly to seize control of the key ministries, to outflank Spanish politicians, taking every opportunity to suppress the genuinely revolutionary anarchist movement.

The repression of genuine revolutionary spirit took a step forward when the nine or so security and counter-intelligence agencies on the republican side were consolidated into the Servicio de Investigacion Militar or S.I.M. which quickly came under the control of the communists and carried out the latest Soviet tactics i.e. setting up secret prisons in Madrid and Barcelona, arbitrary late-night arrests of suspects who were then tortured using beatings, mock executions, disorientation and sensory-deprivation techniques. (p.340)

From this perspective, the history of the war is the story of the relentless rise to power, on the back of threats, violence, torture, secret police and also thanks to the being the only viable source of invaluable planes, tanks and munitions – of the anti-revolutionary communist party.

But although he was good at gaining power, Stalin was far from being all-wise, as his track record in the USSR showed. Just as his policy of forced collectivisation led to mass starvation in the Ukraine and elsewhere across the one-time bread baskets of Russia, so the implementation of anti-revolutionary repression in Spain had counter-productive effects. Not only did communist advisors force the republican army into wrong-headed tactics (as explained above), but the stranglehold of communist policy and terror had the effect of demoralising the huge numbers of socialists and anarchists who formed the backbone of the militias which originally formed so enthusiastically to combat the coup back in August 1936.

Thus morale plummeted as military defeat was followed by communist witch hunts, tortures, imprisonments and executions. Scattered mutinies were put down with mass executions. Volunteers from abroad found they couldn’t return to their home countries, anyone who tried was executed. In fact, the Soviets implemented far and wide the only way they knew how to run anything which was to execute anyone who opposed them or might oppose them or gave voice to any criticism of them. Or just anyone they didn’t like.

This parlous plight was well established by late 1937 and only got worse as the war lumbered into 1938, via the catastrophic battle of Teruel (December 15, 1937 – February 22, 1938) a strategically unimportant town which saw ferocious street fighting in sub-zero temperatures during which the place changed hands several times. The eventual loss of Teruel, with the loss of over 60,000 men, permanently undermined republican morale.

There was still a lot more fighting to go but, psychologically, many republicans of all stripes had given up; many leftists were horrified and disillusioned at witnessing Stalinist lies, violence, torture and pointless executions from close up. Beevor describes how this loss of morale led to defeatism even at the highest levels – from the spring of 1938 the republican minister of war Indalecio Prieto began telling all his colleagues the war was lost; and Beevor details the futile attempts of the Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, to formulate negotiating positions for a peace settlement. None of the republicans realised that Franco didn’t want peace. He wanted complete, unconditional, crushing victory.

After the terrible Battle of Teruel over Christmas 1937-8, the next main military event was the nationalists’ storming campaign through Aragon which brought them to the Mediterranean sea, cutting Catalonia off from the rest of republican Spain, in March-April 1938. Catalonia, with its capital Barcelona, was now isolated.

Beevor then hangs his head and describes the republican effort to score a big propaganda victory by launching the Battle of the Ebro, which lasted 113 days from July to November 1938, a mad folly which led to the virtual obliteration of the popular army amid the usual round of recriminations.

To attack a sector so close to the bulk of the Army of Manoeuvre meant that the enemy could counter-attack rapidly; to choose to fight with a large river behind your front line when the enemy had a crushing air superiority to smash your supply lines was idiotic; and to refuse to pull back after a week when it was clear that you had no chance of achieving your objectives was bound to lead to the useless sacrifice of an army which could not be replaced. It was beyond military stupidity, it was the mad delusion of propaganda. (p.400)

Long before this bitter battle was over, republicans of all stripes realised that they had lost.

4. The nationalists

This summary has tended to ignore the nationalist side, partly because the republican story is more complex and fraught. Suffice to say that the nationalists were also divided among various parties. Supported by the Catholic Church (and with the express blessing of the Pope), the big landowners, all business owners and hugely helped by the backing of Italy and Germany, nonetheless there were still complex rival factions among the nationalists which Beevor explains with clarity and persuasiveness.

I was particularly struck by the ferocity of the Carlists, a party loyal to a very old vision of a Catholic monarchist Spain, originally founded to support the royal line descended from Don Carlos, Count of Molina (1788–1855), after disputes over the succession laws and widespread dissatisfaction with the Alfonsine line of the House of Bourbon. The Alfonsine line had in fact come to an end with the forced abdication of king Alfonso XIII in 1931, the abdication which created the Spanish republic and gave the Carlists hope that their man would one day be restored. (In the event this wasn’t to be and Alfonso XIII’s son, Prince Juan met Franco after the war, when Franco needed to broaden support for his regime, and they agreed that Juan’s ten-year-old son, Juan Carlos, should become Franco’s ward and heir. Indeed the little boy would become King Juan Carlos upon Franco’s death, in 1975.)

Beevor also explains the origin of the Falange – Spanish for Phalanx – a frighteningly violent, extreme right-wing party, founded in 1934 and led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera. These and other right-wing parties had their own leaders, rivalries and differing ideologies. Beevor describes them in careful detail and then explains how Franco cleverly played them all.

Beevor shows how cautious, canny and ruthless General Francisco Franco was. Franco had seen action in the 1934 revolution, but the main thing about him was he had been in charge of the Spanish Army in Morocco, and the important thing about this was that the Moroccan force was the only part of the Spanish army which had any kind of battle experience. The army in mainland Spain had never fought a battle, never fired a shot in anger, for Spain did not take part in the First World War. Only the African Army had experience of maintaining discipline under fire and of close-quarters fighting. This gave rise to a mystique surrounding the africanistas, something Franco exploited militarily and politically (p.16).

Beevor shows how Franco never moved until he was completely confident of victory. This goes for his political manoeuvres as much as his military campaigns. Essentially the war was won because the nationalist chain of command was centralised and efficient, and worked smoothly with its German and Italian supporters. But Franco still had to wait patiently until the time was right for him to assert his authority as the leading general among all the others who had staged the coup. This he did by ensuring it was his forces who led the liberation of Toledo. Toledo contained the Alcázar fortress, held by nationalist but besieged by republican forces since the start of the coup. Like Mafeking during the Boer War, its eventual liberation led to widespread rejoicing. And enthusiastic hailing of Franco as its saviour.

On 21 September 1936, at a meeting of his fellow generals at Salamanca airport, Franco, with preparatory work done by his devoted brother-in-law and other supporters, managed to get himself appointed chief military commander with the title Generalísimo.

On 29 September, after the final relief of the Alcázar, Franco proclaimed himself Caudillo (meaning ‘chieftain’, the Spanish equivalent of the Italian Duce and the German Führer). At the same time the disparate nationalist forces – falangist, Carlist, Alfonsist – were amalgamated into one governing nationalist party.

A few days later, on October 1, 1936 Franco’s title of Caudillo was confirmed at a big parade of army and state in the nationalist capital of Burgos. Although some nationalist parties demurred at this rapid consolidation of Franco’s power, their leaders were quickly dealt with, and the entire nationalist mind-set in any case valued strong central authority, so most of the officers and soldiers on the nationalist side were predisposed to accept one strong central command. From now on, that command was Franco’s.

5. Defeat and aftermath

The last 100 pages of this large-format, 470-page book make hard reading because it is so depressing to watch the republican side slowly being ground down, losing territory, pushed back, fighting among themselves, with Stalin’s SIM arresting, torturing and executing anyone who queried what turned out to be the hopeless Russian tactics.

The nationalists regrouped and re-equipped after victory in the Battle of the Ebro in November 1938. Then launched a swift campaign to seize Catalonia in January and February 1939. Nationalist forces entered one-time revolutionary Barcelona on 26 January, and by the end of February all Catalonia was in their hands. (It is interesting to learn that Franco hesitated before attacking Catalonia, convinced right to the end that the French were planning to invade and seize it, against all the advice of his own generals and to the frustration of the hard-headed Richtofen. Of course, the terrified French never had any such plan.) This left only Madrid and the area to the south-east still in republican hands.

In March, what was left of the republican army in Madrid staged a coup against prime minister Juan Negrín, who fled to France. But communist forces around Madrid staged a counter-coup against the army, so, once again, the republicans were fighting among themselves when the nationalists launched their final military assault, capturing Madrid on 28 March. By 31 March the nationalists controlled all Spanish territory. Franco proclaimed victory in a radio speech aired on 1 April 1939, as the final republican forces surrendered, and it is that day which goes down in history as marking the end of the war.

What began as a military coup designed to quickly seize power ended up lasting two years and 254 days, with as many as a million deaths, if you combine civilian with military casualties.

General Franco was installed as dictator of Spain and immediately began issuing laws rolling back all the reforms of the republican regime and brutally centralising all aspects of Spanish life. The Basque and Spanish languages were banned. All media became state controlled, as did all industry, railways and other infrastructure. Secret police were everywhere. Even a few unwise words of criticism in conversation could land you in prison or worse.

Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Beevor’s book follows the aftermath of the war, with sections on the wretched conditions refugees to France endured in miserable transit camps.

I thought Franco cannily kept Spain out of the Second World War so was surprised to learn here that he in fact made repeated overtures to join the war on the Axis side. However, he made such extortionate demands for weaponry from Germany, and also demanded to be given France’s colonies in Africa i.e. the rest of Morocco as well as west African colonies – that the Nazi regime was put off and repeatedly refused the offer.

Once the Axis powers began to lose, in 1943, Franco shifted his official position back from Axis support to neutrality (much to Hitler’s disgust).

At the end of the war his regime, so clearly authoritarian and militaristic and with all kinds of ties to the defeated Axis, might have struggled to survive, had it not been for the start of the Cold War between America and Russia. Ironically, it was (the threat from) communist Russia which led the West (i.e. America) to consider an authoritarian but stable Spain better than a chaotic and possibly communist one.

Thus Spain remained in a state of suspended animation until the old dictator’s death in 1975. The country took a generation to recover from the devastation of total war, with cities, towns and villages laid waste, its people, infrastructure and culture scarred for decades. Arguably, many these scars last to this day.

Footnotes

Spanish boasting Criticism of the overweening and unfounded arrogance of the Spanish on both sides crops up in several places. Beevor more than once quotes foreign military experts as well as Spanish officers, who all agree that the Spanish were too proud to dig trenches i.e. holes in the ground. Having not experienced the Great War, most Spanish thought war consisted of valiant charges and heroic stands and refused to hide in holes. The result, especially on the republican side, was that they were mown down or strafed to pieces in their tens of thousands.

The Germans, with their emphasis on efficiency, were particularly appalled at the discrepancy between Spanish vainglory and their chaotic practice. Beevor goes right back to the Duke of Wellington who led the British forces in the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon (1807-1814) and who remarked of the preening Spanish officers assigned to his staff, that ‘the national weakness was boasting of Spain’s greatness’ (quoted page 158). For Richtofen, writing in his war diary, nothing at all had changed in 130 years.

New version, new sources Beevor wrote and published an earlier version of this book in 1982. This new longer version benefits from the opening of archives across Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. Thus accounts of battles and political struggles are backed up by extensive quotations especially from newly accessible Soviet sources.

Still, the most gripping single source is Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen who was sent as an air force adviser to the nationalists and wrote a daily diary commenting on all aspects of the war. He is scathing about the incompetence of the Spanish and Italians and exults in the destructiveness of the German forces, especially his beloved Condor Legion.

Beevor points out that Richtofen pioneered the close co-ordination of armoured forces, infantry and air planes, and developed a new technique of close ground-to-air communications which proved vital in Nazi victories of the Second World War. He was a great destroyer of cities. In Spain his Condor Legion destroyed Durango and Guernica. He went on to be responsible for the destruction of Rotterdam, Belgrade, and Heraklion in Crete, before co-ordinating the bombing of Stalingrad in which some 40,000 civilians died (p.212).

The twentieth century was the great era of mass murderers. It is like looking out over a limitless expanse of burned and bleeding bodies. How can anyone possibly claim that human beings are a rational species?

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

War art The war saw an outburst of art and propaganda on both sides. Beevor points out it was the first war in which control of telegraph, telephone and radio were important. The republican side produced many stirring posters, poems and songs. But no amount of art could make up for a) the lack of foreign backing b) the consequent lack of guns, artillery and planes c) the lack of military training and experience d) the vicious, self-destructive in-fighting led by the communists and e) the idiotic military decisions which led to defeat after defeat.

Related links

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958, solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by both the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, and as the Soviet bloc became friendlier with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that France withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the levels of wanton brutality to revolting new heights, as French fanatical right-wingers launched attacks in mainland France and in Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful in rounding up the O.A.S. leaders but, ironically, this only increased the level of murder and terrorism because the psychopathic ordinary members were now headless and unchecked.

In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood), Horne shows how the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent.

Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… and then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve this chaos was through random outrages, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect, in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities. And this had toe effect of destroying forever any hope that the pieds noirs would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Ever since the French Revolution back in the 1790s, the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War, France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. with arms and munitions (they and everyone else were given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notably unhelpful in the early part of the war, refusing to supply the rebels anything – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the (supposed) supplier of their enemy in Algeria. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed public opinion, all realised – with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt – that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to do in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was an electrified fence stretching along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line formed a barbed-wire barrier lined with minefields and a sophisticated alarm system which alerted rapid response units to attempts to breach it, and who could be quickly helicoptered to the breach to intercept and kill F.L.N. fighters.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. Seeing themselves as sold down the river, abandoned by their fatherland, and terrified of the reprisals in store once an F.L.N. government took over, the result was panic and a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in a matter of weeks! There were many heart-breaking and panic-stricken scenes which Horne describes. Because of the demand on ships and planes, the pieds noirs were only allowed to take two suitcases of belongings with them. So they made bonfires of all their other goods, mementoes and belongings, then left their homes, which had often been the homes to families for many generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. The refugees arrived in a France which was completely unprepared for them and which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years to come.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French Army and administration. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline being called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to escape to France. The rest, over 200,000, were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N. which means that very many of thyem were tortured and murdered.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes a few of the horror stories which later emerged. Hundreds were used to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and get blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In some barracks French officers were ordered to take away the harki‘s weapons, promising them replacements, but then departing the next day, leaving the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. As you’d expect, many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror – but reading it gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give a proper account of the Algerian side, but there is page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and to disentangling the hugely complex machinations both among the F.L.N. leadership, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups.

Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could track down. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians under French colonialism and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system, which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks by all sides, and the execution of ‘traitors’ within the F.L.N. or to the civil war between Arab and Kabyle. But he accompanies these with clear-headed explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t view the conflict as an academic would (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures – but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent plea, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channelled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘It’s all the West’s fault’, that ‘There are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, machine gunning sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France out of a total population of 67 million. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many are temporary migrant workers, and many are refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheaply built high-rises and equally high unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


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Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

Related links

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (1998)

One should never underestimate the disruptive force of haphazard actions. (p.104)

A decade or so ago I set out to spend a year reading only books by women authors. Among them, I read half a dozen or so novels by Beryl Bainbridge and loved them all. Having just worked through several books about the Crimean War (Victoria’s Wars by Saul David and Crimea by Orlando Figes) prompted me to dust off my old copy of Master Georgie, Bainbridge’s novel set during the Crimean War.

‘Quirky’ is a quick way of establishing where in the ballpark Bainbridge belongs, but doesn’t begin to capture her depth or complexity or strangeness.

Master Georgie, like most of her novels, is deceptively short and, in this Abacus paperback, has quite large print, resulting in the page having a light, airy feel. The text is divided into six sections and, since several of the protagonists are involved in the then-newfangled trade of photography, the book uses the conceit of naming each section after a ‘plate’ or early-style photograph. Hence:

  • Plate 1. 1846 Girl in the presence of death
  • Plate 2. 1850 A veil lifted
  • Plate 3. 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe
  • Plate 4. August 1854 Concert party at Varna
  • Plate 5. October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice
  • Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile

Each ‘plate’ or section is narrated by a different character. Thus:

Plate 1 – 1846 Girl in the presence of death (Myrtle)

This is told by a young girl named Myrtle (named on page 73), who was found as a toddler next to her mother, dead from smallpox in a slum in Victorian Liverpool, and taken into the household of wealthy if dissolute Mr Hardy. Myrtle is still pre-adolescent when she tells her tale. She has a mad crush on the son of the house, young Master George Hardy (the Master Georgie of the title), who is a medical student, with an amateur interest in phtography. George is wooing young Annie, and he has a friend, a would-be writer named Potter, who is enamoured of George’s sister, Beatrice.

The text is packed with uncanny detail, odd anecdote and strange insights – one of the oddest being that the child Myrtle is side-tracked from her task of accompanying George around town into watching a street performance of a Punch and Judy man. This is told with all the surreal oddity the subject encourages, but with the added twist that a passing horse shies, starts and backs into the Punch and Judy booth, knocking it and the performer inside sprawling. Disgruntled the performer packs his stuff into his gaudily painted van and trots off.

But the main event of this section is that, while George is strolling back from a run-of-the-mill chore, followed by the puppy-like Myrtle, he comes across a house outside which a wretched drunken harridan is wailing about a sick man. Reluctantly, medical student George feels compelled to investigate, is led up to the first floor, where, to his horror, he finds the half-naked body of his father with his trousers down on a bed. Pretty obviously Mr Hardy senior had a heart attack while having sex with the drunk woman, although we see all of this through the eyes of pre-sexual Myrtle who thinks he must have just been sleeping an a funny position.

Keeping his self-possession, George arranges for a street urchin, whose name we later discover is Pompey Jones, to fetch any conveyance he can beg or borrow. This, with typical Bainbridgean bizarreness, turns out to be the wagon used by the local Punch and Judy man we saw in an earlier scene – and, along with Myrtle, the trio dress Mr Hardy’s body, carry it into the Punch & Judy van, rattle back to the Hardy residence, sneak it through the family orchard and upstairs into Mr Hardy’s house, dodging the servants, Mrs Hardy and sister Beatrice. The guilty trio lay the stiffening corpse out on its bed as if he’s had a heart attack, perfectly natural-like. Then they go their separate ways, leaving the body for a maid to find that evening – which results in general hysteria among wife, daughter and servants. Myrtle swears eternal silence to George. Pompey is heavily paid off for his silence.

Plate 2 – 1850 A veil lifted (Pompey)

Section two is narrated in the voice of Pompey Jones (as we learn on page 63), the street urchin who did Master Georgie the immense favour of helping him carry his dead father home four years back. We learn that George subsequently packed Myrtle off to boarding school to ensure her absence/silence. And that George sent Pompey with money to buy the silence of the drunk harridan/prostitute. But the latter is such an alcoholic she’d forgotten the incident anyway, so Pompey kept the money and spent it on a set of his own photographic equipment, figuring to pick up the craft from Mr George and eventually set up in his own right.

We learn that Pompey once scraped a living as a street performer, eating fire, which is how he badly burned his lip, which George tended to free of charge. Through one thing and another, Pompey has become a kind of favoured servant, a fixer and gofer for George, running occasional errands as and when required.

On the day covered by this section, Pompey arrives bright and early as requested by George at the Hardy house. Here, he tells us, while waiting for George to awaken, he’s got into the habit of performing little tricks before anyone’s up, namely moving bits of furniture around, swapping paintings, moving fire irons and so on. Today he carries out his boldest exploit yet by rearranging the living room tiger rug, draping it over the back of a chair so it appears almost lifelike. He takes a glass of the family port and surveys his work with pride. He is a cheeky chappy, an artful dodger, a streetwise kid.

George finally appears and commands Pompey into the waggon with his medical equipment because they are setting off on a bizarre medical exploit where Pompey will be needed, namely assisting at an operation George is carrying out along with a fellow surgeon, Dr Rimmer, to remove the cataracts from the eyes of an aging ape kept in the collection of the eccentric millionaire owner of Blundell Hall.

This requires Pompey to drive George and his boxes of equipment in a lumbering horse and cart on a circuitous route along the seashore out of Liverpool and through what are presumably – nowadays – heavily built up inhabited areas but which were, back in the 1840s, empty countryside or sparse hamlets, thus giving a frisson of recognition to any Liverpudlian readers of the novel. (Bainbridge was Liverpool born and bred.)

Pompey assists at the bizarre operation by applying ether in a rag to the mangy old ape and keeping it unconscious while the two surgeons cut into its eyes! I defy you to think of a weirder fictional scene. Afterwards Rimmer and George celebrate with a drink, the latter overdoing it (since his father’s death, George has become a heavy drinker) so that Pompey has to manhandle him into the cart and drive it back into Liverpool along the wide beach as the sun sets. They stop so George can have a drunken conversation with an old hermit who they find on the shore.

We learn, through Pompey’s quick cynical thoughts and memories, that, on the fateful day of Mr Hardy senior’s death, George made a pass at young Pompey. He makes another, drunken, pass now. So, George is what we would nowadays call bisexual, although it is one of the many appeals of Bainbridge’s books that she imagines people in the past thinking according to their own culture, mindsets, psychologies and categories – which are often remote and strange. Maybe this – George’s wandering sexuality – is the veil which is lifted in this section.

When they arrive back at the Hardy household, and Pompey has helped drunk George up to bed, he is accosted on the way back downstairs by George’s friend Potter, who sternly tells Pompey that his stupid jape of rigging up the tiger rug to look lifelike has caused George’s wife, Miss Anna, opening the door in the dim dawn light, to cry out, turn, trip, stumble and hurt her wrist but, more importantly, it brought on a miscarriage. Surprisingly, Pompey isn’t beaten or whipped but that is the end of his merry japes.

Plate 3 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe (Potter)

This first-person narrative is in the voice of Potter (as we learn on page 70), an older friend of George’s who was a geologist. In the earlier sections I had got the impression he was another medical student but now it becomes clearer that he is a geologist – not least because he gives several long descriptions of rocks and geological formations, as well as describing the shock he received on reading Charles Lyell’s epoch-making textbook, the Principles of Geology. Alas Potter has tried – and failed – to make a living by writing and now, sheepishly, lives to a large extent on the generosity of his old friend George.

George, we begin to realise, is the unspeaking central figure around whom all these other lives circle.

Potter is now married to Beatrice and narrates how they, George and his wife Annie, ‘the children’, and Myrtle – now educated and grown up but still slavishly devoted to George – have decided to take a cruise through the Mediterranean to Constantinople. The initial idea was for the two men to revisit some of the locations Potter first visited as a young man (and which he wrote a not-very-successful travel book about) but first one and then other wife asked to come and the whole expedition just snowballed. Thus they are all together in Malta as they hear rumours of approaching war, and by the time they reach Constantinople it is confirmed that Britain and France have gone to war with Russia in support of the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War has begun. George reports to the British consulate and volunteers as a surgeon, and is assigned to the newly established military hospital up the Black Sea coast at Varna.

Potter’s voice is much the most enjoyable of the three, with his cynically humorous take on his wife, his friend, their families, hangers-on. He gives deliciously acid thumbnail portraits of fellow passengers on the ship and then of fellow Brits in Turkey.

Both George and Potter are particularly irritated when a pompous fellow passenger, Naughton (a bumptiously jingoistic violin maker), becomes infatuated with Myrtle who, of course, has eyes only for George. George and Potter spontaneously start a joke which is to pretend to Naughton that Myrtle is already engaged. Pushed on the identity of her fiancé, they invent a dashing cavalry officer, all of which Naughton believes. Things get complicated later on, when Myrtle gets caught up trying to extricate the family puppy from street dogs in Constantinople, and is helped out by a passing cavalry officer. Naughton sees them returning from this incident and completely misinterprets it to think that this officer is Myrtle’s (entirely fictitious) lover.

And so when Naughton spies this same officer, innocently snogging a local woman in the box next to our chaps at the opera – and Myrtle weeping (entirely because the of the music) – Naughton completely misinterprets the scene to think the officer is behaving outrageously and making the poor aggrieved Myrtle weep. Naughton storms along the passageway, into the box and attacks the officer, who promptly defends himself and accidentally knocks Naughton clean out of the box and onto the stage beneath. George attends Naughton, who is not as injured as you’d expect, leaving Potter to feel sheepishly guilty, while reflecting on the absurdity of life, its randomness and chance complications.

Plate 4 – August 1854 Concert party at Varna (Myrtle)

Section four is narrated by Myrtle, eight years older than her first appearance and a woman of the world. George has volunteered to work as a surgeon up at Varna, where the British soldiers are dropping like flies from the cholera epidemic. The wives – Annie and Beatrice – and the children have been packed off back to Blighty, and Myrtle and Potter have accompanied him to Varna.

This section gives us a sense of the sights and smells of the allied camp at Varna, especially the drunkenness of the British troops. It also slowly becomes clear that George’s relationship with Myrtle is now sexual. Myrtle goes for a horse ride with another Brit they met on the ship over, a Mrs Yardley who openly admits to being in an unmarried relationship with a colonel in the Guards. There is a typically bizarre scene where the pair of English ladies find themselves straying too close to a Turkish farm and being hussled into it by peasants, who promptly offer them bowls of none-to-clean milk while the exhausted peasant mother suckles a baby and a nearby pregnant goat gives birth messily, to the ladies’ horror.

But the main event in this section is a performance by a British concert party, chaps dressing up as women and singing each other sentimental songs. The climax is an explosive display by a handsome young fire-eater. Fire eating ring any bells? Yes, it turns out this performer is none other than Pompey Jones from Liverpool. He had become a photographer’s assistant in Liverpool, the photographer received a commission to come out and take pics of the army in Turkey, so that’s how he’s here in Varna; then one of the performers in the concert show went sick and someone had heard Pompey talking about his fire-eating days so he found himself being dragooned onstage. In other words, it is a staggering coincidence that Myrtle, George and Potter should bump into Pompey like this. But, as various characters reflect throughout the text, life is full of haphazard accidents and random chances.

Before the concert show George had asked Myrtle to prepare for a sexual encounter with him, so she had washed her armpits and ‘other places’. Alas, she waits and waits till dawn but he doesn’t come. She goes over to his tent and is upset to find George asleep in the arms of the handsome, fit young fire-eater. Myrtle is distraught, and finds herself pouring her heart out to Mrs Yardley – but Mrs Yardley and all the others believe in the cover story that George and Myrtle are brother and sister, and so thinks Myrtle is upset merely at the lower class and homosexual nature of George’s affections – she doesn’t realise Myrtle is upset because she feels a lover’s betrayal- and Myrtle, even in full flight of sobbing, realises she mustn’t reveal the truth.

Later, once George has woken and gone about his tasks at the barracks hospital, Myrtle and Pompey sit and talk about old times. Pompey startles her by revealing that Georgie has told him ‘about the babies’. It is via this conversation that we learn the startling revelation that Myrtle is the mother of George and Annie’s babies! After George’s wife Annie’s fourth and final miscarriage – the one caused by Pompey rearranging the tiger rug – Annie was declared infertile and so… and so the trio agreed that Myrtle should be impregnated and bear the children which she now helps to bring up but which George and Annie treat as theirs. She is the mother of George’s children. No wonder she is so besotted by him.

But in the way which I so admire about her historical novels, Bainbridge captures the way all involved acquiesce in the event but keep it hidden, coping with it, rationalising it, in a way inaccessible to our modern politically correct sensibilities.

Annie accepts the situation and the children and Myrtle. George conceals any public displays of affection for Myrtle and keeps her at a distance – and sleeps with young men. Which upsets Myrtle but doesn’t repel her: the homosexuality isn’t an issue. She even wonders whether George’s mother, old Mrs Hardy know but keeps quiet about the ‘scandal’.

The story feels so Victorian, so very much about love and desire twisted and reconfigured in unexpected, secret, repressed ways. People were different in the past. Really profoundly different, in the way they thought about life, lived, in their values and decisions, and Bainbridge’s novels wonderfully capture this difference on every page.

After Pompey leaves her, Myrtle tells Potter that Pompey knows about the babies. Foolish for George to have told him, Potter says. He could do you both harm. An ominous note is sounded. Will the story end in some kind of blackmail?

Plate 5 – October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice (Potter)

This is the second narrative told in the voice of by Potter, in which he comes over as significantly more of a bore than in the first one. Shame. I liked his affable cynicism. Now we know, from remarks of George’s to his face, that George is finding him rude and offensive and he is boring everyone with his endless classical quotations.

It is through Potter’s eyes that we see the allied task force of 64,000 soldiers set sail from Varna, cross the Black Sea and land at Eupatoria, on the west coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Potter describes the unopposed landing, the assembly of the troops and then the nightmare march of the soldiers south, without food or drink through the intense heat of a blistering summer’s day, when thousands of soldiers dropped out of line and hundreds died of exhaustion and dehydration, the terrible march I’ve read about in the historical accounts by Saul David and Orlando Figes.

And so the soldiers straggle on to create the armed camp south of Sevastopol. Bainbridge is not a historian and so we only hear about the epic battles of the river Alma and of Balaklava peripherally, as throwaway remarks by Potter who is more concerned about the facilities in the camp where he finds himself, and the relationship with George and Myrtle.

It is a relief we are not shown these battles (as we might be in a more macho, male narrative). Instead the charge of the Light Brigade is only referenced insofar as some of the returning riderless horses ride on in among the hospital tents where Potter was assisting George. He stops one of the fleeing horses and commandeers it, albeit the poor thing has been deafened by the cannon.

There are drunken dinners with soldiers (officers, of course) at which Potter tactlessly prattles on about death and displays his classical and/or geological learning, to the others guests’ boredom or dismay. According to Potter’s narrative he is having more and more intense visions of his wife, Beatrice, who was wise enough to depart Constantinople and return to peaceful Wales, but now appears to him in visions by day and night. Most embarrassingly she appears to Potter when he’s attending a funeral of some officers they knew. Her spirit leads him away to pick an intensely blue cornflower. I suspect these feverish hallucinations are intended to be the symptoms of cholera or typhoid. Maybe Potter is going to die.

A photographer is present to pose the mourners at this funeral, to show ‘the folks back home’ – hence the section’s title, Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice.

Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile (Pompey)

The sixth and final section is narrated by Pompey. His boss, the photographer, has gone back top Constantinople for supplies, leaving Pompey to hang out with the gang – George, Myrtle, Potter – and give us our last sight of them.

Pompey isn’t in the army – he built on the photography equipment he bought with the money he sidelined from George, as per chapter two, to get a job as a photographer’s assistant. We learn that the photography van, painted bright white and containing shelves of cameras, lenses and development equipment, is none other than the Punch and Judy van which Myrtle described back in section one, eight years earlier, and which was used to carry the corpse of naughty Mr Hardy home. Thus do accidents and coincidences litter our lives.

The climax of the book comes when all four are called into action to reinforce British troops being attacked. I think this is an account of the Battle of Inkerman, a bloody battle in which Russian troops again and again stormed British strongpoints on a day of dense fog, in which the fighting was reduced down to bleak and horrific hand-to-hand bayoneting in muddy pits.

Pompey, the tough street urchin, finds himself commandeered into combat but – like the survivor he is – kills his quota of Russians and survives. These last few pages convey the horror, terror and mindless violence of battle and Pompey, the tough survivor is the perfect pair of eyes to see it through.

Then the battle is all over and Pompey and Myrtle are helping injured soldiers back towards a dressing station where George is working, specifically an officer who’s had both feet blown off and whose comrades put his stumps into a barrel of gunpowder to stanch the bleeding. George lends a hand and,when Myrtle calls out because she’s stumbled on a stone, George turns to look at her and at that moment an injured Russian soldier, who had been lying nearby and has propped himself up on a rock, takes one shot at the stretcher party and shoots George dead.

Myrtle cradles George’s head. Pompey staggers off to inform Potter, a man now much reduced from his former witty self, plastered in mud, malnourished, babbling classical quotes while tearing the pages of his precious books to stuff into the stove to keep warm. So much for intellectuals.

In the final act, Pompey returns to the British camp to discover his boss, the photographer, has returned and is taking a photo of five survivors for the folks back home. They need another figure to complete the composition. Pompey jogs off and returns bearing the corpse of George. Not fazed by dead bodies, the soldiers prop George up to look like one of themselves, one of the happy chaps defending ‘Justice’ and ‘Liberty’ and ‘Empire’, as the photographer says, ‘Smile, boys, smile.’

Finis.


The photos

By the end the reader realises that each section contains the taking of a photo: in section one George practices his new hobby by asking the young Myrtle to pose touching the corpse of his father (hence ‘Girl in the presence of death’), and each of the subsequent sections is named after a particular photograph which for one reason or other is taken during the action. Thus the photo of the funeral party in the penultimate section (the one where Potter shames himself by wandering off half-delirious to pick a cornflower) and, of course, the final posed and utterly deceitful photo which ends the text.

As I noted in my review of Crimea, which describes how the newfangled photographs of the war were almost all carefully posed and arranged – the camera always lies.

Literary effects

Humour, often very dry humour, is never far away in Bainbridge’s novels. One simple but effective result of the way the book uses multiple viewpoints is that the impression and story told by one narrator can then be humorously undercut by the next one.

Thus when we see George through Myrtle’s eyes it is through the mind of a lovelorn girl who describes him as a handsome, wise and good young man. It is a shock to have the same George described by Potter as an overweight drunk. Similarly, Potter’s own text narrative is shrewd and witty, so we (well, I) was won over to his witty character. It comes as a shock, then, to have Myrtle, at the beginning of her next section, describing him as an intellectual bore, irritating everyone by quoting ancient poetry in the original, maybe -as Myrtle reflects – as an escape from the brutal realities of the present.

Conclusion: We are mysteries to each other. The world is a mystery to all of us.

Disconcerting

Bainbridge is the Queen of Disconcertment. The broad shape of her narratives, the vivid vignettes which stud her stories, and even passing similes and phrases, all contain the potential to unnerve, ruffle and discomfit the reader. For example, Potter describes their ship setting off from Constantinople:

In our wake flew a swarm of small birds, no bigger than robins, which are never seen to settle, but must always be in flight. The Turks, so I was told, suppose them to be the souls of women whom the Sultan has drowned. (p.106)

Not what you expected from a description of sea birds. Potter describes how the extended group spend an evening at the filthy Istanbul opera house, where the big passionate music of Verdi made Myrtle cry. But the reader is distracted from this straightforward situation by the discombobulating comparison which Myrtle’s weeping brings to Potter’s mind.

Then, some moments before the interval, I heard a strange mewing sound, which instantly brought back memories of Mrs O’Gorman’s kitchen and the cry of the stable cat prowling the bucket in which its kittens lay drowned. (p.100)

Wow. Yes. An endless ability to unsettle and unnerve.

Quite apart from the unsettling drift of the overall narrative, the text is laced with moments where the everyday is transformed into bewildering strangeness. Sometimes the incongruities can be very funny, like the extended deception Potter and George play on poor Naughton about Myrtle’s fictional lover. But mostly they’re weird and discomfiting. And sometimes poetic and evocative, coming and going in seconds, like the flow of experience. A tiny example: in the final section Pompey is sharing a cosy mug of tea with Potter, both of them shrouded in the impenetrably thick fog.

Close by, a horse pissed, its splatterings diminishing as it trotted on. (p.197)

This is a marvellous book, laced all through with the weirdness and poetry of life.


Related links

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


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The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2012)

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

1. Silbey is an American – he is Associate Professor of History at Alvernia University, Pennsylvania – so for a start it’s nice to read someone who is not a Brit and therefore does not go on and on about the wickedness of the British in a tediously self-hating manner (compare and contrast with the tediously anti-British tone of recent China books by Rana Mitter or Robert Bickers).

Instead, Silbey treats the Brits sensibly, as the dominant imperialist power until later in the 19th century, when more and more European powers began hovering around China like vultures – but as only one among a pack of imperialist nations who all shared the same values and assumptions and, moreover, by 1900, one that was very much losing its European dominance to Germany, its global industrial dominance to America, and, in Asia, was nervously aware of the growing rivalry between Japan and Russia.

2. This is a great read – at a slender 240 pages it’s half the size of most of the other China books I’ve been reading, and is written in a clear style with short declarative sentences retailing facts and events in a lucid, forceful way, not drowning them in political correct attitude or an over-fancy prose style.

To begin with Silbey skips briefly over the prior history of the Qing Dynasty (which was founded way back in 1644), and through the more recent two opium wars with Britain (1839-42 and 1856-60). These passages lack the depth or detail of a John Keay or Jonathan Fenby, but they are well judged as an introduction to the main theme. Slowly the detail builds up along with the pace, until I found myself genuinely gripped and excited by his narrative. I read the whole book in less than a day.

Background

Before he even gets to the account of the Boxer Rebellion itself, I found one early section particularly memorable, mainly because it chimes with my own obsessions/concerns.

For me everything any human being does or says or thinks is secondary to the basic fact that we are breeding like rabbits and destroying the planet. Our ‘cultural’ achievements – much though I spend time and effort enjoying and analysing them – are ultimately trivial compared to the one Big Story of our time, that we are degrading the natural environment wherever we go, driving huge numbers of plants and animals extinct, fouling our own nest and bequeathing our children a poisoned planet.

So I sat up a bit when Silbey himself early on introduced an environmental explanation for the rise of what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Basically, overpopulation was the fundamental cause for the social instability which plagued China throughout the 19th century and beyond:

  • Population China’s population was 150 million in 1700, around 350 million by 1800, and maybe 430 million by 1850!
  • Environment, flood and famine This explosive population growth was supported by the immense fertility of China’s huge river valleys – specially the Yellow River in the north and Yangtze to the south. But the Chinese didn’t have the kind of ‘agricultural revolution’ that we in the West benefited from during the 1700s. By 1850 even these huge fertile river plains could barely support the galloping population. Thus, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, China’s population was extremely vulnerable to agricultural disaster, caused by drought or torrential rain leading to floods, or when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic massive shifts of route, leaving devastation in its wake (as it did in 1855). China lived on an environmental and agricultural knife-edge which was almost guaranteed to produce periodic disasters, mass starvation, huge population dislocations. (Silbey doesn’t mention it but Jonathan Fenby’s more overarching account of China 1850 to 2000 describes, in often gruesome detail, repeated outbreaks of cannibalism in famine-stricken areas of China.) Even at the best of times, many millions were reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of their villages, or became migrant labourers roaming the countryside and easily transitioning into the ‘bandits’ who plagued much of non-coastal China – angry young men looking for food/justice/a better life.
  • Secret societies Chinese culture was drenched in respect for authority, for the family dead, for parents, local authority figures and for the Big Daddy of them all, the emperor. There were no political parties. There was no legal way to express opposition or dissent. Anyone who got on the wrong side of the emperor – and, in the second half of the 19th century, that meant anyone who crossed the all-powerful Dowager Empress Cixi – was liable to be beheaded. Hence it was a country alive with ‘secret societies’, cults and underground movements, the more so as so many of the dispossessed migrant workers, deprived of the traditional home, support and constraints of a settled village community, sought safety and validation elsewhere – in what were, basically, gangs.

So unlike Rana Mitter – who centres his (admittedly later) history on the diary of China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or Robert Bickers – who quotes extensively from British traders and officials throughout the nineteenth century – i.e. unlike both those accounts which focus on surviving texts left by high-level, literate social leaders – Silbey digs deeper to put his finger on the key structural forces which help to explain the chronic instability of 19th century China.

And in particular he applies them to the rise of the so-called Boxer movement in the last years of the 19th century: population explosion, poverty, secret societies and then – a catastrophic natural disaster. In 1898 the Yellow River broke its banks, flooding millions of acres and reducing millions of peasants to starvation; the following year, in a cruel irony, there was drought. Huge numbers of peasants took to the road seeking food.

Exterminate the foreigners

The Boxers were mostly illiterate peasants, which explains why we have no manifesto or documentation from, for or about them. There are hardly any photographs of ‘Boxers’, even though their numbers at their peak ran into the millions. They didn’t have a leader, so we have no diaries or correspondence to pore over, no high level meetings to eavesdrop on, no strategies to weight and assess.

Almost the only thing we know about the Boxers is their one, simple, peasant slogan –

Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners

What seems to have happened is that disparate groups of young men across northern China but especially in Shandong Province, just to the south of the capital Peking (as it was then called), became superstitiously convinced that it – the disaster, the poverty, the starvation -was the fault of the foreigners.

In particular, they blamed the only foreigners that the average peasant ever met or knew about – the interfering missionaries, missionaries from all the European nations, who arrived one day out of the blue in your village and not only began preaching un-Chinese nonsense about a tortured god, but made converts often among the lowest dregs of society – criminals and losers – who promptly used their powerful western backers to start winning village feuds and gaining the upper hand.

Silbey quotes numerous missionaries and journalists who were uncomfortably aware of this trend at the time. Missionaries appealed most to renegade members of society who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by acquiring powerful new western sponsors, but were often despised and scorned by their peers.

So the Boxer phenomenon first manifested itself, to western eyes anyway, as attacks on the Chinese converts to Christianity. Reports of scattered attacks, some murders, some atrocities, filtered into the European legations in Peking in 1898. And then came reports – sporadic at first – of attacks on the European missionaries themselves, which filtered in during 1899.

Occasional attacks on remote mission settlements were not unknown already, so it took a while for anyone to realise something new was happening, something more organised. Silbey reports the scepticism among consular officials in Peking, and even more so among hard-pressed imperial civil servants back in Britain and and the European nations.

The missionaries had always been a problem for imperial officials because they were always wandering far beyond the protection of our minimal military forces and then getting into trouble. For a long time the Boxer thing seemed like more of the same.

The Boxer movement

The Boxers are so-named because they grew out of secret societies and groups who were reviving China’s native traditions of martial arts. In Chinese the name was Yi-he quan, roughly translated as ‘Righteous Fists of Harmony’ or ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. Boxers was short and snappy, so that’s what caught on with the British and has stuck to this day.

To their martial arts the Boxers added the voodoo belief that the correct rituals and spiritual exercises, for example swallowing bits of paper with magic phrases on them, would make them invulnerable to bullets – something we’ve seen in our own time among some African fighting groups.

Their discipline, their cult-like conviction, the righteousness of their cause, all spread like wildfire among half-starving angry young men in the drought summer of 1899, and through into the spring of 1900. They attacked missionaries and got away with it, they coalesced into larger bands, they stole guns and weapons where they could find them – and then they began to infiltrate the big cities.

The fighting

As 1900 progressed, consular officials wrote reports about the increase in attacks. In the spring Boxers – wearing their trademark red sashes – began to appear in towns frequented by foreigners, intimidating them with hard stares and displays of martial arts.

In April and May reports arrived of Chinese converts being murdered in ritualistic ways, tied to trees, having their arms chopped off and their intestines hacked out.

On June 1 two missionaries were ambushed, tortured and murdered. In late May the first surly, aggressive, red-sashed young men arrived in the streets of Peking, terrifying the Europeans. On May 27 a bloodied Belgian engineer staggered into the Peking embassies to announce that the train line to the coast was being destroyed by Boxers. On 31 May the British ambassador called a meeting of all the foreign consuls and they telegraphed to the coast for help and soldiers. The menfolk of the legations began building defences, reinforcing the existing wall surrounding the European quarter, adding barbed wire and trenches. On 9 June a racetrack just outside Peking was attacked and burned down. Some young Westerners who rode out to see the fun got caught in a firefight and came scampering back. On 11 June the Japanese ambassador, Sugiyama Akira, went with a servant to the train station to check on the arrival of the reinforcements but was shot dead in the streets. On June 13 the last telegraph line was cut. On 14 June several hundred Boxers with flaming torches attacked the legation but were beaten back by a picket of marines. By June 17 the legation quarter was surrounded and the Westerners were besieged, cut off from food, water, ammunition and help.

Thus Silbey shows how a trickle of scattered events slowly snowball into a major historical event -the siege of Peking – without anyone realising.

Several points are worth making about Silbey’s approach:

1. Day-to-day detail

There are numerous different ‘types’ of history writing, but nothing replaces a straightforward account of what actually happened.

Silbey’s narrative covers every available strand of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the European part of which, the bit which is well-documented and understandable, took place in three or four locations simultaneously. By taking you carefully through it on a day-by-day basis, Silbey helps the reader understand the pressure the players were under, the limits of what they knew, the decisions they faced, why they did what they did – even if, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to have been the wrong decision.

Like a video game, this approach puts you in the game

  • Should the European forces set off to relieve Peking by train (quicker but vulnerable) or by river (safer but a lot slower)?
  • Should the Empress Cixi back the Boxers, hitching her star to this unpredictable uprising because it’s the best chance in a generation to kick the Europeans out of China?
  • Or are the Boxers a flash in the pan which the Europeans will crush, in which case she should declare war on them?

Silbey shows how at the start of June contingents of the Chinese army were stationed all along the train track and river from the coast via the city of Tianjin and along the route on to Peking – waiting for orders from the court: were they to make an alliance with the foreign armies in order to attack the Boxers – or ally with the Boxers against the foreigners?

Silbey’s day-by-day approach means that you, the reader, get involved in these decisions and find yourself taking sides, making gambles, taking part. The result is vastly more involvement, commitment and understanding than in the usual run of higher-level histories, which might make throwaway references to this or that battle, generalising, summarising etc.

But in Silbey’s account we are right down in the nitty gritty. When Able Seaman McCarthy is shot down in open ground in front of the fortified walls of Tianjin, Basil Guy a midshipman stays with him to bind the wound, under heavy fire, runs to get a stretcher team which he brings back, then helps the stricken McCarthy to safety. This takes half a page to describe and the reader is shaking at the intensity of the experience; you wonder whether you would have the nerve to do that, to stay with a comrade under heavy rifle and sniping fire, taking every measure to save their life. Guy was awarded the Victoria Cross (p.154).

During the same battle, the allies struggled to take the heavily defended inner wall of the city. Late at night the Japanese, closest to the inner wall, under cover of darkness planted tins of gunpowder against the south gate and set a fuse. Three times they set it and three times the Chinese defenders saw it flaring and shot it out. Until finally a Japanese engineer grabbed a box of matches, ran to the pile of gunpowder, and lit it. Boom! Up went the gate and the engineer was blown to smithereens. Wow – what bravery, fanaticism, madness!

On August 13 the Boxers made what was to be their final assault on the Peking legations, including an attack on the so-called Tartar Wall, an ancient fortification which they’d included in their defences. The section under attack was defended by just two men, Captain Newt Hall and Private Dan Daly of the U.S.Marines. As the attack intensified, Hall left Daly to go get reinforcements. Now alone, Daly, five feet six inches tall and ‘the most prolifically profane man in the history of the armed services’, held off waves of attacks. If he had given in or run away the Boxers would have made a breach, swarmed in and massacred the 500 plus Europeans. For his sweary bravery Daly was later awarded the Medal of Honour.

The day-by-day approach puts this book (for me) in the same league as Simon Schama’s monumental history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), or Orlando Figes’ epic account of the Russian Revolution (1996) or – going back earlier – Veronica Wedgwood’s masterpiece narrative of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, The King’s War (1958).

By dealing with each day at a time, these historians convey not only the events, but something important about the very nature of human behaviour, of time and free will. The outcome of entire wars are shown to hang by a thread. The Chinese had held off the Europeans at Tianjin – if the Japanese engineer hadn’t sacrificed his life to blow the gate, would they have continued to hold out long enough to force the Europeans to run out of ammunition and be forced to retreat? Would the European legations in Peking have been stormed? Would Chinese forces in the rest of China, hesitating about which side to join, have come in on the side of the Empire and the whole thing turned into a genuine war of liberation against the Europeans? Would the Empress Cixi have gone down in history as the woman who liberated China and guaranteed the future of the Qing Dynasty for another century? And China never have fallen to Mao’s communists?

The day-to-day approach shows how truly contingent human affairs are, how people are forced to take all kinds of decisions on the basis of inadequate or zero information, decisions which only later assume huge importance.

All of this – the specificity of human agency and free will, the importance of individuals, the contingency of human affairs, heroism and cowardice, luck or good planning – come over brilliantly in this thrillingly detailed and exciting history.

And all of this is precisely what is lost as you write higher and higher level history, which deals in broader and broader brushstroke, misleading generalisations, giving a profoundly misleading sense that human history is somehow fated, predictable or purposeful.

2. Revealing the precise scope of the war

The day-by-day approach helps you understand a whole range of things. For a start, by the end of the book you’ve grasped the odd shape of the ‘conflict’. Basically, the European legations in Tianjin and further up the river, at Peking, found themselves unexpectedly besieged. A train of troops led by Admiral Seymour set off from the coast to rescue them, but found the track dug up by Boxers and came under repeated attack until eventually they had to retreat in disarray. So, next the Europeans tried the river route up the River Hai to get to Tianjin. But the seaward entrance to the Hai River was guarded by two forts on the north and south banks. So Silber gives us a nailbiting description of the European assault on the forts, infantry fighting their way across the mudflats, while the Royal Navy planned to bring two ships alongside two moored Chinese battleships and storm them – a plan Silber righttly describes as ‘insane’.

But it worked.

And so, having secured the forts, the riverborne relief troops set off up the river and, next, had to take Tianjin to free the besieged Europeans inside. This was a long hard fight in which the Europeans nearly lost. Eventually, they took the city, freed the Europeans and sailed on into another battle, to take the next settlement up the river, Beicang. Silber describes this battle in punishing detail, as he does the next encounter at Huangcan.

The Dagu Forts are significant because it was this which forced the Empress Cixi to make a decision. Support the Europeans against the illegal rebel Boxers, or support the Boxers against the far-from-invulnerable Europeans? She took option B, executed all the advisers who had been pushing for option A (there really not being space in Chinese politics for opposition or political parties – your argument loses, you die), and ordered the Chinese army to engage the foreigners.

At Beicang and again at Huangcan the Chinese army proved tougher and better organised than the foreigners expected. The Chinese lost, but they fought hard, and they withdrew in good order, not just scarpering and abandoning their kit.

The great mystery at the heart of the story is what happened next: after the battle of Huangcan the Chinese opposition suddenly and completely melted away. Before Huangcan the allies had been sniped at and ambushed at every bend in the river; afterwards, it was plain sailing through an empty landscape to Peking.

Why?

Silber invokes the same causes he gave at the beginning of his account: it started to rain. Plenty of journalists had been accompanying the expedition and they, and accounts from soldiers, paint a searing picture of the scorching summer heat of July and August in the north China plain. Dead crops, abandoned villages, bodies of animals and humans scattered across the barren plains. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Crops needed tending, fields looking after, animals shepherded back into health, families needed supporting, flood defences reinforcing. The Boxers disappeared back to their villages. And the Chinese army hesitated.

At Peking, it’s true, the allies did encounter stiff resistance – but this was patriotic: after all, who would want their capital city assaulted and razed by foreigners? The Dowager Empress Cixi and her court had long fled into the western provinces (where, in Fenby’s account, she for the first time in her life witnessed the squalor her subjects endured, living in mud huts or holes in cliffs, suffering malnutrition and starvation in their hundreds of thousands).

After hard fighting, the allies took Peking and liberated the legations who, to their surprise, were generally in better shape than many of the troops – not having spent the previous two months marching through a parched landscape and fighting tough battles. A peace settlement was imposed on the Chinese government. The war was over.

Thus Silbey’s account allows you to really understand the shape and scope of the actual events. It wasn’t a ‘war’ as we think of European wars; it was really a glorified relief expedition which, at several key moments, very nearly failed.

3. Imperial shame

Because Silbey’s account has soaked us in the day-to-day struggles and suffering of everyone concerned – the starving peasants, the angry Boxers, the murdered missionaries, the officials and soldiers on both sides, because it has all been made imaginatively alive and important to us – this makes the atrocities that he describes all the more shocking.

The taking of the three towns (Tianjin, Beicang and Huangcun) was followed by Western reprisals and, because the Boxers were essentially civilians, only sometimes marked out by their red sashes, the reprisals are shockingly indiscriminate. An American contingent came across a group of French soldiers who had corraled about 300 Chinese men, women and children down towards the river and were firing indiscriminately into them – mass murder.

High level historians like Mitter and Bickers use words like racism very freely, so freely that after a while they lose their power. Silbey, by contrast, rarely uses the word – he shows you the thing in action – and this is infinitely more shocking, repellent and shameful.

Plenty of correspondents, even senior army officers and European officials, were horrified at the behaviour of their troops and – crucially – realised that they undermined if not destroyed any claim whatsoever that European ‘civilisation’ possessed any kind of superior values.

Having ‘liberated’ Peking, the allied troops went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting. Officers and officials tried to prevent it, and Silbey recounts the story of one American soldier who was tried and convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment; and this attempt at keeping control contrasts with, say, the behaviour of Japanese troops in China 30 years later who were given complete freedom to murder, rape and torture the Chinese at will. There was a real difference in attitude, with the best of the allies trying to prevent atrocity. But all too often they failed, and they certainly failed when it came to the wholesale ransacking the Peking.

Silbey doesn’t judge, he just shows. And by taking us so thoroughly into the feel and pressure of the time, by taking us so close to the sweating, fearful people of those days, makes us experience the atrocities with a similar visceral intensity – more powerful than any amount of name-calling or political correctness. Less is more.

4. Patriotic hate and the fall of the Qing

The Empress Cixi came back to Peking, her tail between her legs, and appointed the aged statesman Li Hongzhu to negotiate a crushingly humiliating peace treaty with the allies. A huge indemnity was forced on China, which she was still paying off 40 years later. The Western rapes, murders and looting shook the  Chinese intellectual class to the core; quite obviously ‘Western values’ were about as humane as Genghis Khan’s. They smile and invite you to tea with the vicar but, given half a chance, will ransack your capital city and rape your women. 

Cixi’s gamble had failed. She had backed the wrong side. More starkly than in some of the other accounts I’ve read, Silbey highlights how her failure condemned not only her dynasty, but the entire tradition of imperial rule, to the dustbin. Patriots and intellectuals growing up during this crisis not only saw at first hand that Westerners were violent, exploitative hypocrites – but just as clearly that the entire structure of imperial rule had failed and had to go.

5. The allies

So far I haven’t mentioned one of the dominant threads in the story which is that the expedition to relieve the besieged legations was strikingly multinational. Forces from Britain, British India, France, America, Japan and Russia took part. Again, by drilling down to the daily nitty-gritty Silbey reveals the highly complex world of competing imperial rivalry which operated, from staff level all the way down to individual soldiers. When the allied force finally took Tianjin, there was a race, an actual race, between the Japanese and British to get to the city flagpole and be the first to raise their flag over the liberated city. There was even more intense rivalry about which nation’s forces would be the first into besieged Peking (again it boiled down to bitter rivalry between the British and Japanese).

Silbey makes the point (as does Bickers in his book) that the Boxer conflict took place at exactly the same period as the second modern Olympic Games were happening in Paris (summer 1900). Exactly the same spirit of international rivalry was on display in China.

6. The aftermath

I’ve mentioned that one of the medium-term consequences was the end of the Qing dynasty, which itself contained the seed of another 75 years of further turmoil for China.

But it was really the rivalry between the allies which was full of portent and omen. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Japan, America not only fought alongside each other against the Boxers and Chinese army – they watched each other and assessed each other. Spookily, at the Peking victory parade, the Japanese examined the Russians with a very appraising eye, noticed by onlookers. Four years later Japan would provoke a conflict with Russia in which she would whip the hapless Slavs, and consolidate her sense of being a World Power and entitled to a major role in Asia – a sense of entitlement which would lead her to annex Korea in 1910 and then invade north China in 1931.

It is fascinating to learn that conquered Peking was partitioned into sectors, each run by a different power – exactly like Berlin in 1945. All through the story the Germans had behaved with egregious brutality, inspired by their wicked Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who made a speech to departing troops telling them to take no prisoners and to inspire the same terror as their forebears, the Huns under Attila.

Silbey goes on to detail how the Chinese fled the brutality of the German sector, which became a ghost town, and flooded into the relatively well-run American sector. Apparently, when the Americans came to pull out a year later, the Chinese raised a large petition begging them to stay. The Americans brought order, stability, law, as well as clean water, medical facilities, schools and so on, something even their own authorities couldn’t provide until…. well, when exactly? The 1980s? The 1990s?

Conclusion

This is a thrillingly powerful, well-written, lucid and thought-provoking account of the Boxer Rebellion and the allied expedition to relieve Peking – bristling with all kinds of ideas and insights into the period itself, but also into the very nature of war and politics, of heroism and failure, of the scope and possibility of free will and action in a world constrained by society, history, politics and culture.

They did what they thought right, some of it wicked, some of it wrong, some of it foolish and deluded, some of it inspired and heroic. They were flawed people, constrained by their times, just as we are, in ours. For as Silbey writes:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

Judge not lest ye be judged. A clear, well-written factual account of these kind of events is vastly more illuminating – and ultimately damning – than any amount of editorialising and name calling.

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China's corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China’s corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

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