Category Archives: War

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.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae is remembered for what is probably the best known and most popular of all First World War poetry.  It is believed that he was so moved by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmet, who had been killed by a shell burst, and inspired by the profusion of wild poppies he could see in the nearby cemetery, that he wrote In Flanders Fields. Sadly, John McCrae did not survive WW1; he died from pneumonia whilst on active duty in 1918.  He is buried at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, Wimereux Communal cemetery.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We live, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold on high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army (1872-1918)

My mother’s father was involved in this war and served in many areas of conflict – but not in Flanders.  He died in the mid-1930s and, according to my mother, the doctor said it was because of what he did in the war.

 

The birth of the United Nations

It was on Wednesday 24th October 1945 that the United Nations officially came into existence.  The charter had been signed by delegates from 50 member nations in San Francisco on Tuesday 26th June 1945 at the end of the United Nation Conference on International Organization.

The preamble to that Charter said:
‘We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, … and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.’

A United Nations resolution of 1947 stated that 24th October would henceforth be known as United Nations Day ‘and shall be devoted to making known to the people of the world the aims and achievements of the United Nations, and to gaining their support for the work of the United Nation.’

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.

A lady records a wartime scene in England’s conflict in 1941

Mrs Nella Last of Barrow-in-Furness was one of the many volunteer members across Britain of the Mass Observation Archive team – a community that had been set up in 1937 to observe British life by recording a day-to-day account of their everyday lives. These archives now give us a unique insight into the stories and experiences of British civilians going through a time when their country was at war.

This is from her diary for Saturday 13th September 1941 and Nella simply records seeing a child:

‘He was undersized, dirty, tousled and ragged. His poor little eyes were nearly closed with styes and when I touched his cheeks, his flesh had the soft, limp feeling of malnutrition.’

The war was having an impact on people no matter what their age.

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.

The Challenge begins

On Saturday 25th May 1940, the Luftwaffe focused their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens.  They did not attack Dunkirk.
Calais was held by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and surrendered on Sunday 26th May. 

On that same Sunday 26th May 1940, at 15:30, Hitler ordered the Panzer groups to continue their advance, but most units took another 16 hours to attack. The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defenses vital for the evacuation and prevented the Germans from stopping the Allied retreat from Lille.  The Halt Order has been the subject of much discussion by historians, many of whom considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. Another called it “one of the great turning points of the war”, and a third described it as “one of Hitler’s most critical mistakes”. Hitler himself believed that once Britain’s troops left Europe, they would never return.  The retreat itself was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction.

Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicized. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 26th May, which was declared a national day of prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers “for our soldiers in dire peril in France”. Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.

It was just before 7 pm on Sunday 26th May that Winston Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation code-named also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk – to begin.   Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation.  As it turned out only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day.

The Dunkirk attack begins

On Friday 24th May 1940 Hitler paid a visit to Army Group A headquarters and endorsed the order of the previous day.

The German forces had captured the port of Boulogne and had now surrounded Calais. The engineers of the 2nd Panzer Division had built five bridges over the Canal Line and only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk.

Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe (aided by Army Group B) finish off the British, to the consternation of Franz Halder, who noted in his diary that the Luftwaffe was dependent upon the weather and air crews were worn out after two weeks of battle. Rundstedt issued another order.  That was sent un-coded and was picked up by the RAF at 12:42: “By order of the Fuhrer … attack north-west of Arras is to be limited to the general line Lens-Bethune-Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. The Canal will not be crossed.”

Later that day, Hitler issued Directive 13, which called for the Luftwaffe to defeat the trapped Allied forces and stop their escape.

Franz Halder was a German general and the chief of the Army High Command from 1938 until September 1942, when he was dismissed after frequent disagreements with Adolf Hitler. Until December 1941 his military position corresponded to the old Chief of the General Staff position, which during World War 1 had been the highest military office in the German Imperial Army.

The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk 1940

The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk in the 2nd World War is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.  Over the next few days I want to tell you the story. 

Our story begins on Thursday 23rd May 1940 when the German Field Marshal Karl Rundstedt ordered his Panzer units to halt, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the question of supply to his forward troops.

He was also concerned that the marshy ground around Dunkirk would prove unsuitable for tanks and he wished to conserve them for later operations.  Even so, in some units, some 30 to 50 percent of his tanks were lost.  Hitler was also recorded as being apprehensive.

None-the-less – a dye was cast.