Category Archives: Conflict

The war moved on as the USA took a hand

The United States had carefully kept out of the conflict in Europe while being helpful to the sufferers.  In 1917 the British intercepted and decoded a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Mexico urging that country to enter into war against the United States. The American states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were to be offered to the Mexican government in return for such assistance.

On a wider front unrestricted U-boat warfare was renewed with all allied and neutral ships to be sunk on sight. Over the next month close to a million tons of shipping would be lost and on 3rd February the United States of America severed diplomatic ties with Germany.

As U.S. president, it was Woodrow Wilson who made the key policy decisions over foreign affairs: while the country was at peace, the domestic economy ran on a laissez-faire basis, with American banks making huge loans to Britain and France — funds that were in large part used to buy munitions, raw materials, and food from across the Atlantic. Until 1917, Wilson made minimal preparations for a land war and kept the United States Army on a small peacetime footing, despite increasing demands for enhanced preparedness.

On 24th February the Cunard passenger liner S.S. Laconia sailing from New York to Liverpool was sunk off the Irish coast by a German U-boat and, on 2nd April 1917, the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and asked the House of Representatives to declare war on Germany and, on 6th April 1917, the United States of America declares war on Germany.  On 26th June 1917 the first U.S. troops, men of the 1st Division, begin to arrive in France.

In October, the first American soldiers entered combat, in France. That December, the U.S. declared war against Austria-Hungary with U.S. troops arriving on the Western Front in large numbers in 1918.  When the war concluded in November 1918, with a victory for the Allies, more than 2 million U.S. troops had served at the Western Front in Europe, and more than 50,000 of them died.

Looking at the American involvement from a different slant we find that they also brought their music with them!  The most significant song was “Over There“, a 1917 hit song written by George Cohan, that was popular with the United States military and public during both this and the 1939/45 war. It was a patriotic song designed to galvanize American young men to enlist in the army and fight the “Hun”. The song is best remembered for a line in its chorus: “The Yanks are coming.”

It was Cohan’s biggest hit recording and was performed by the American Quartet. The American Quartet consisted of Billy Murray, John Young, Steve Porter and Donald Chalmers and recorded the song on June 28, 1917. There were many singers singing ‘Over There’ –  Enrico Caruso’s version of Over There, sung partly in French, was a major hit just before the end of the war in November 1918.  By the end of the conflict the song had sold over a million records and two million copies of sheet music. George Cohan was awarded a medal of honour by Congress in 1936 for writing You’re a Grand Old Flag and Over There. His sequel to Over There, ‘When You Come Back (and You Will Come Back)’, was a hit for John McCormack and for the Orpheus Quartet in early 1919:

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.  Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.   Hear them calling you and me, Every Son of Liberty.  Hurry right away, no delay, go today.  Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.  Tell your sweetheart not to pine, To be proud her boy’s in line.

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun.  Johnny, show the “Hun” you’re a son-of-a-gun.  Hoist the flag and let her fly; Yankee Doodle do or die.  Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.  Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks. Make your Mother proud of you and the old red-white-and-blue.

Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming – the drums rum-tumming everywhere.  So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware – we’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.

The conflict was over and the music did begin again.  The first – in 1918 – was ‘Tiger Rag’ by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Close behind as the best from 1919 we have ‘After You’ve Gone’ by Marion Harris.

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The world is changing – and perhaps not for the better

It’s the second decade of the 20th century and the world continues to develop and change.

At this time Great Britain was at the centre of the world’s largest empire, a beneficiary of colonial resources and trade.  It occupied territory on four different continents and was at the centre of a vast trading and commercial empire.  However, domestically, 19th century Britain was often unsettled by demands for improved conditions and political reform.  British rulers had engaged in imperial expansion over the years but had sought to avoid war – a policy dubbed ‘splendid isolation’.  However – this policy approach was waning in the early 1900s as British interest concentrated on events in Europe, particularly the unification of Germany and the expansionist policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In the USA Sophie Tucker was singing of ‘Some of These Days’; Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan were telling us all about ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.  We also have the American Quartet group singing  ‘Moonlight Bay’; Billy Murray telling the story of ‘Casey Jones’ while Al Jolson was singing ‘You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)’ to the US population at large.

By 1914 Britain was no longer the dominant economic power in Europe. It still had the world’s largest shipbuilding industry but in other areas such as coal, iron, chemicals and light engineering, Britain was being out-performed by Germany.

Britain was a constitutional monarchy under George V with a government formed by the majority party of the House of Commons with members being elected by some 8 million registered male voters. The aristocratic House of Lords had limited power to veto legislation.

Since the later part of the 19th century the British government had considered Germany to be the main threat to its empire. This was reinforced by Germany’s decision in 1882 to form a Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy – an alliance to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia.  France felt threatened by the Triple Alliance and was concerned by the growth in the German Navy and, in 1904, the two countries had signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding) with the objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived German threat. Three years later Russia, who also feared the growth of the German Army, joined Britain and France – and the ‘Triple Entente’ was formed.

By August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in the British Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. There were soldiers in all Britain’s overseas possessions except the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  The USA had no links with either side at this time.

Despite everything, there was music to generate some cheerfulness.  One such number was ‘Pack up your troubles in your old Kit Bag – and Smile, Smile, Smile’ written in 1915 by Welsh brothers Felix Powell – an army staff sergeant – and George Henry Powell who became a conscientious objector.  A later play presented by the National Theatre recounts how these music hall stars rescued the song from their rejects pile and re-scored it to win a wartime competition for a marching song.  In its many ways it became very popular and boosted British morale despite the horrors of that war. It was one of a large number of music hall songs aimed at maintaining morale, recruiting for the forces, or defending Britain’s war aims. Here are the words if you want to turn back those challenging times:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile. While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that’s the style.  What’s the use of worrying?  It never was worthwhile, so pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.

Another of these songs, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was so similar in musical structure that the two were sometimes sung side by side.

Marlene Dietrich – a Dance Hall Queen

In the mid 1930’s things had begun to unravel for Marlene.  In her films she had become typecast as a woman of low morals.  Then, her chance of change came in 1939 when she was cast as “Frenchy” – a Western saloon hostess in ‘Destry Rides Again’.

1939 marked an incredible year in Hollywood cinema – one that saw probably the greatest variety of landmark films in its history: Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, are just a few. It was also a year where Westerns like John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’ were reaching new artistic heights. Another to rise above the past was ‘Destry Rides Again’ a new kind of film which was a complex synthesis of several genres – comedy, romance, musical and Western revenge fantasy. Director George Marshall twisted these together in a unique and entertaining blend that helped redefine the genre’s sense of irony and purpose.

In the story Kent – the saloon owner and unscrupulous boss of the town of Bottleneck – has the town’s sheriff, killed when he asked one too many questions about a rigged poker game. Kent and “Frenchy”, his girlfriend and the dance hall queen, now have a stranglehold over the local cattle ranchers. The crooked town’s mayor, Hiram J. Slade, is also in collusion with Kent and appoints the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale, as the new sheriff, assuming that he will be easy to control and manipulate. But – what mayor Slade does not know is that Dimsdale was a deputy under the famous lawman Tom Destry, and is able to call upon the latter’s equally formidable son, Tom Destry, Jr. – played by James Stewart – to help him make Bottleneck a lawful, respectable town.  Destry confounds the townsfolk by refusing to strap on a gun in spite of demonstrating that he is an expert marksman. He still carries out the “letter of the law”, as deputy sheriff, and earns their respect.

A final confrontation between Destry and Kent’s gang is inevitable.  However, “Frenchy” is won over by Destry, changes sides and, when a final gunfight ensues, “Frenchy” is killed in the crossfire, and the rule of law wins the day.

This film began a new direction for Marlene because it released her from the typecasting of old.  In 1996, Destry Rides Again was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.

 

A king that changed England

Anne became Queen of England on Wednesday 8th March 1702 and, on Sunday 1st May 1707, under the Acts of Union, two of her realms, the kingdoms of England and Scotland, united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain.  Seven years later, on Wednesday 1st August 1714, she died in Kensington Palace in London.

Let us roll forward now to Saturday 20st October 1714.  By the terms of the Act of Settlement, at her death Queen Anne, who had no surviving children, was to be succeeded by her second cousin; George, Elector of Hanover who was to be crowned King George I on this day in Westminster Abbey.  However, the service was less than smooth!

George could not speak much English so the ceremonies had to be conducted mostly in Latin as his ministers could speak no German!

He was also not a choice of most people in the country and, on the Coronation day, banners mocking the new king were displayed throughout the country. When loyalists celebrated the Coronation they were disrupted by rioters in over twenty towns in the south and west of England. In addition to this, the Tory aristocrats and gentry absented themselves from the Coronation, and in some towns they arrived with their supporters to disrupt the Hanoverian proceedings.

Things were happening across parts of Britain on the night before the coronation.

In Taunton one Francis Sherry said that “on the morrow we must take up Arms against the King”.

In Birmingham a local rioter, John Hargrave, said they must “pull down this King and Sett up a King of our own”.

In Dorchester rioters attempted to rescue an effigy of the Catholic James Stuart, who had a strong claim to the throne, that was to be burnt by Dissenters and asked: “Who dares disown the Pretender?”.

The Anglican clergy mainly kept a low profile but at Newton Abbot the minister removed the bell-clappers so that the bells could not be rung in celebration of the Coronation.  All in all it was a very unusual Coronation.

During George’s reign however, the powers of the monarchy diminished and Britain began a transition to the modern system of cabinet government led by a prime minister. Towards the end of his reign, actual political power was held by Robert Walpole, now recognised as Britain’s first de facto prime minister.

George died of a stroke on a trip to his native Hanover, where he was buried.

Wednesday 20th September and the Victoria Cross:

The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.  The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.

The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.

63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.

The story of the English Pope

It was on this day – 1st September 1159 – that Pope Adrian IV passed away – the first and only Englishman to have occupied the papal throne.  He is recorded as being born at Bedmond Farm in Bedmond, a village in Hertfordshire, England at around 1100AD.  The site where his home stood is now marked by a plaque. He received his early education at the Abbey School at nearby St Albans community.  From this beginning he went to Paris and later became a ‘canon regular’ of the cloister of St Rufus monastery near Arles. He rose to be prior and was then soon unanimously elected abbot. From 1152 to 1154 Nicholas was in Scandinavia establishing an independent archepiscopal see for Norway. On his return to Rome, he was received with great honour by Pope Anastasius IV and on the death of Anastasius, Nicholas was chosen as pope on 3rd December 1154.  He took the name Adrian IV.

His throne was not an easy one with many challenges and an anti-papal faction in Rome. Disorder within the city had led to the murder of a cardinal which prompted Adrian, shortly before Palm Sunday in 1155, to take the unheard-of step of putting Rome under a ban that prohibited persons, certain active Church individuals and/or groups from participating in certain rites, or that the rites and services of the church were banished from having validity in certain territories for a limited or extended time.

Arnold of Brescia, King William of Sicily, Frederick Barbarossa and the Italian barons gave the English pope many challenges. Arnold’s followers took Rome. After they assassinated Cardinal Gerardus in broad daylight, Pope Adrian IV broke all precedent and placed the city under interdict. Eventually it capitulated to him.  Adrian’s most controversial act was a bull that allowed Henry II of England to annex Ireland to his kingdom. That decision left an aftertaste of bitterness that lingers to this day, more than 800 years later.

According to one report, Adrian IV died after choking on a fly in his wine, but quinsy (an inflammation of the tonsils) is the more commonly accepted explanation.

This is a story that perhaps we wish had not happened

It was on this day – Monday 16th July 1945 – that the first atomic bomb was detonated at a desert site in New Mexico, close to the Los Alamos laboratory where the device had been built.

Three weeks later, on Monday 6th August 1945, a similar device was used on Hiroshima.

Quoted in the New York Times on Saturday 25th May 1946 Albert Einstein commented:
‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.’

The day Pegasus delivered a bridge

One of the great films of my time is the 1955 story of ‘The Dam Busters’ – a British 2nd World War film that starred Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. The film recreates the true story of 1943 when the RAF’s 617 Squadron attacked 3 German dams with Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb.  What is rarely mentioned though is Richard Todd’s involvement in the war itself.  He had volunteered the day after the conflict had begun and, in May 1943, was posted into the 6th Airborne Division.  He later admitted that he had kept his pre-war job as an actor a secret because he wanted to do useful things in the war itself rather than being transferred to ENSA.

His first practice jumps were from moored balloons but he was soon doing practice jumps from Whitley bombers.  This training was the lead-up to parachute jumps into enemy territory – and this became fact for Richard on D-Day Tuesday 6th June 1944.

It was on that day that Richard Todd – and a great many more – dropped into Normandy to help change the course of the war.  He and many others were there to defend a bascule/moveable bridge built in 1934 that crossed the Caen Canal between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy and was a major objective of the British airborne troops during Operation Deadstick.

On the night of Monday 5th June 1944, a force of almost 200 men, led by Major John Howard, took off from an airfield in southern England in six gliders to capture not just this vital bridge but also “Horsa Bridge”, a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River. They were to land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved. The attack was successful and played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of counter-attacks in the days and weeks that followed.

It was following the success of D-Day – Tuesday 6th June 1944 – that this whole successful attack was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation – the name being derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces – the flying horse of mythology Pegasus.

Evacuate and fight another day

On Monday 27th May – the first full day of the evacuation – one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active and Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards seeking small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour.

In this same day the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations.  Water supplies were knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished and an estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town.

In the air the Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on Monday 27th May while losing 14 of their own aircraft. Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo.

The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

A Snippet from 4th May

In China this is Youth Day – an official national holiday that commemorates the anti-imperial student demonstrations that took place in Beijings Tiananmen Square on 4th May 1919.  The protests were specifically against the Chinese government’s foreign policy and the pro-Japanese stance of some of its ministers.  They were, however, also the climax of what subsequently became known as the May the Fourth Movement – a nationwide cultural and political campaign among China’s young intellectuals.

Students and others again protested at Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989 when hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators lost their lives when the army opened fire.

Every so often the scenes of the latter event come back into focus.