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Posts from the ‘First World War’ Category


Q Combinations 3: Thomas, Spencer and the Tangible Kingdom

So here’s the 3rd Q Combination. I don’t know how well known these two geniuses are beyond British shores – but they are true 20th Century greats. In their different ways, both articulate a deeply earthy, incarnated spirituality. Read more »


The Uncertainties of Contingency: What if Franz Ferdinand didn’t die in 1914?

I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),

None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more »


The British Empire was never quite what you thought: John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire

Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.

  • “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
  • “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”

Read more »


The Prince of Wounds by Siegfried Sassoon

Picked up a Sassoon anthology this week. Had forgotten the visceral humanity of his poetry, but also the theological framework of his vision. This is a case in point, even though it leaves one in a real lurch. Read more »


Monarchy’s last hurrah? Edward VII’s funeral in 1910

It could have been at a rather upmarket fancy-dress party. The dress was certainly fancy; the guests well-to-do; the event evidently unusual. But as well as being a deeply solemn occasion, and even a family occasion, it was an era-defining moment. Read more »


Caught in the crossfire: the Pain of Exile and Friendship in Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land

I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother LandRead more »


11:11 11/11/11 – WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

Ashamed though I am to admit it, I never realised that the famous “We Will Remember Them” words used on Armistice Day come from a much longer poem by Laurence Binyon so it seemed sensible to quote it on this uniquely binary Remembrance Day. Read more »


The Soviet Utopia and the assimilation of Biblical Imagery

I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact. Read more »


Micheal O’Siadhail’s GRANTCHESTER MEADOWS: an hypnotic evocation

It’s an age away – and was rather an extraordinary idyll. But for our first 3 months of marriage, we lived in a little terrace house in Newnham, Cambridge, which was just a few minutes walk from Grantchester Meadows. It was one of those lovely English summers that you don’t forget – and therefore perfectly set for nostalgia and memory. We used to wander down to the village of Grantchester to the fabled Tea Rooms of a mellow summer afternoon (though not nearly as regularly as we would have liked or thought we did). We’d go past the Old Rectory where Rupert Brooke (right) lived (and which was, slightly less impressively, then owned by Jeffrey Archer) and about which he yearningly and hauntingly wrote from the 1WW front. Though it has to be said that the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Brooke’s heart-breaking poem was in the midst of doing battle with the nightmare that is the Greek optative (ειθε γενοιμην)! But that’s another story.

So it was a real joy to find this extraordinary piece by Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail. It’s an evocative meditation on the sense of history that a place like this creates – one can’t help but think of the countless, extraordinary minds that perhaps wandered down to Grantchester for some R&R, from Herbert & Newton onwards.


Grantchester Meadows in winter by Quintin Stafford-Fraser (Flickr)

Grantchester Meadows

Across Grantchester Meadows, May has snowed
cow parsnips, hawthorn, chestnut a stone’s throw
from here the Cam grooves slowly towards King’s.
An English heaven: ‘My real life’s began since
I came to Grantchester I eat strawberries and honey.
A perfectly glorious time. Think only this of me.’

I see you Rupert Brook blazered, flannelled,
a strolling presence in this albescent funnel
of young summer or picnicking under an oak
with Darwin’s granddaughters: ‘We used to talk
wearily about art, suicide, and the sex problem.’
Übermensch, libido, absinthe, fin de siècle.

A 100 rings in an oak which may have seen
George Herbert brooding by the Came or Milton
explaining the ways of God now Galileo’s sun
no longer danced attendance on our world. Newton,
did you some midsummer hatch along this path
laws to bring our universe back to earth?

‘Certainly I approve of war at any price,
it kills the unnecessary.’ Evenings of tennis
and cricket. It’s the Aegean 1913:
‘My poem is to be about the existence of England.’
Dead before the Dardanelles. A circle closes;
the hawthorn almost in bloom, the oak leafless.

Wars. Disillusion. Certainty a fallen idol,
our daylight turns a dice-dance of potential.
Turmoil of change as an old order dies
into us. Herbert must have known the crux.
Does the slow-leafing oak trust without proof?
I know the ways of learning yet I love.

Ghost Brook you could be my father’s father,
yet I’m your elder. Ride my Aeneas shoulder
as Grantchester blooms a lover’s carte-blanche,
another innocence. Do you remember how strange
the fullness of the riddle seemed? The acorn can’t
explain the oak, the oak explains the acorn.

(Hail Madam Jazz, p122)


Remembrance Sunday by Steve Turner

Here’s a topical one from Steve Turner

Remembrance Sunday

At the going
down of the sun
and in the morning
we do our best
to remember them,
from comic books
and photographs
and films with Jack Hawkins.

At the rising
of the moon
and in the evening,
black and white
memories slip away
like soldiers that




Poems, p 60


The Cavalry of the Clouds in the First World War?

How about this for an opening paragraph?

January 15th, 1918, was a cold, sparkling, sunny day. Not much happened in the Great War that day. As usual, about two thousand men (of the millions along the Western Front) died; some because they stuck their heads up too high and got shot; some because they got their feet wet too often and caught pneumonia; many by accident; and a steady few by their own hand. It was one thousand two hundred and sixty days sine Britain and Germany had declared war. Not that anyone was counting.

So begins Derek Robinson’s 1971 novel about the Royal Flying Corps, Goshawk Squadron. It is now regarded as something of a classic – and it’s easy to see why. Set in the last year of the war, the opening paragraph sets the tone: matter-of-fact and sardonic, cynical and war-worn. Robinson searingly conjures up the brutality and insanity of war, as these young men, commanded by a deranged and fatalistic young major, Stanley Woolley (aged only 22), flew S.E. 5‘s (see left). They were lambs to the slaughter, in some ways even more vulnerable in their flimsy planes than the millions ranged in the trenches thousands of feet below them.

This gives another flavour:

‘Somebody did tell me he thought they might be a tiny bit stronger than us at the moment. I believe the figure mentioned was one and half million in rifle strength… Of course I got that from a chap in Intelligence,’ Woodruffe said. ‘They’re always wrong.’
‘What I can’t understand,’ Richards said, ‘is why we have to wait. Why don’t we hit them first?’
‘It’s been tried,’ Lambert told him. ‘Remember Passchendaele? That was our idea’
‘Passchendaele,’ said Dickinson softly. ‘Passion Dale. There’s something almost Miltonic about it. or do I mean Bunyanesque? Ranks of valiant warriors crashing to catastrophe, with a great deal of rolling thunder and rather too much sulphur and brimstone.’
‘It was pretty horrible,’ said Kimberley severely.
‘Don’t tell me, chum. I was there. I flew forty-three patrols in one week.’
‘Have you really been in the Corps that long?’ Woodruffe asked in surprise. ‘I had no idea it was that long.(p75) [NB Passchendaele was only about 6 months before]

As Robinson says in the afterword, he was deliberately seeking to shatter the myth of airborne chivalry, Lloyd-George’s so-called cavalry of the clouds. Far from fighting with decorum and dignity, the only hope was to get the other guy in the back before he got you – no evenly matched noble dogfights here. Woolley is determined to see his young recruits kill rather than survive – he doesn’t even bother to learn some of their names – because he knows they won’t last.

The squadron spent the rest of the day settling in. Three replacements arrived: Callaghan, Peacock and Blunt, straight from Flying Training Schools in England. The adjutant, holding his head with one hand, took them to Woolley, ‘Replacements, sir,’ he said. ‘Their names…’

‘I don’t want to know,’ Woolley said flatly. He looked at their fresh, serious, eager-to-impress faces and turned away. He was eating a cold sausage; his tongue located a piece of gristle and spat it out. ‘I am a genial, jovial and well-liked commanding officer,’ he told them. ‘My warmth and charm are exceeded only by my old-fashioned courtesy and my f***ing sympathy.’ He started at Lambert’s stranded plane. ‘As long as you are in this shoddy squadron, there are certain words you will not use. Here they are. Fair, sporting, honourable, decent, gentlemanly.’ Woolley felt in his pocket, took out a flimsy telegram, read it, blew his nose on it, and threw it away. ‘Those are bad words,’ he said. ‘Bad, murdering words. Don’t even think them.’ (p105)

Robinson uses the 12 forces of the Beaufort scale as a nice device to ratchet up the tension – each chapter begins with the description of the next force up. This grows the sense of chaotic doom – who survives or dies is as much a matter of chance as anything else. It is as raw as it can get – the ultimate expression in the bestial side of human nature. Just as for those who fought, this book is remorseless and dark. But all the more important for that. Because in this war, as with so many, there were no real winners

Goshawk Squadron does in prose what so many of the greats like Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke did in poetry. It’s an extraordinary read.

Now, regulars may well wonder what on earth sparked reading this book.

Well, my great-grandfather, Henrik Loeffler, (right) was British (having naturalised aged 14 when his father did, having been born here 1876), despite the fact that the rest of the family had all been born in Germany. He subsequently married a Swedish wife, and lived in England for the rest of his life – but even more extraordinarily, he himself was a member of the Royal Flying Corps (although we’ve not yet established what his role exactly was). So he fought for the British … against the Germans.

Now that’s a story I’d love to know more about…