Centenaries. Alexander’s War.

It appears that Donetsk Airport has been recaptured yet again. You have probably seen the pictures on the news, of men hosing the site with sub-machine guns. Unfortunately the airport is a ruin. It will be a long while before a traveller will be able to get a cup of coffee and a muffin, to while away the time until the next flight. In years to come, this event will be marked by some as a major defeat and by others as a great victory. It depends on your point of view. Whatever the cost in lives and suffering and the rancour that will live for generations, there will be a hell of a job in reconstructing the place to make it fit for Starbucks or Costa. All that jiggery-pokery with strainers and steam, just to get a cup of coffee. It would make you reach for your Kalashnikov.

For most of us, our introduction to history has been dominated by battles and wars, usually in bold type: The War of Jenkins’s Ear; The Grasshopper War etc. Causes of, Events of, Results of…Write them out neatly with numbers in the margin.  2015 is a good year for centenaries. The first poison gas attack of WWI took place near Ypres in April 1915. Observers saw a green cloud rolling from the German trenches. (The wind was from the east) The watchers took it to be a smoke-screen and hurried to their firing positions .

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The results were hideous in human terms…but there was no destruction of property. A triumph for science then? This is the great advantage of gas and biological warfare. With artillery and high explosive bombs, there are no spoils for the victors, just a god-awful mess to clear up. The disadvantage of course, is that the wind can change. Germs don’t discriminate between friend and foe. Nuclear weapons could settle all disputes for once and for all…everywhere. I recall a story that I read as a child, about two warring nations. They agreed to have the peace treaty before they started. They calculated the likely costs and numbers of casualties of the potential war and then handed over the appropriate number of citizens, mostly young men of military age, to the enemy to be sacrificed. This avoided the huge disruption caused by war and the devastating loss of property. Nearly everyone was a victor. There was no collateral damage.  And they all lived happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lilliputians went to war against Blefuscu over which is the correct end of an egg to crack open. It can be messy.

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In the excellent television series, The Sopranos, a gangster tells a story about a funeral, where the clergyman, new to the parish, was at a loss for words. He asked if any of the assembled mafiosi could think of something complimentary to say about the deceased. After a great deal of shuffling, one of them offered: “His brother was worse.” With regard to the Bruce brothers in Ireland, Robert and Edward, this eulogy would fit either of them. Seven hundred years ago, this coming April, a cold north-easterly wafted Edward Bruce and his army to Ireland. The island was in the grip of a particularly cold and wet climatic cycle. Successive harvests had failed. Dead sheep littered the hills. Cattle murrain was widespread. The rivers drowned the fields. What the island needed was a wise and benevolent ruler but we got King Edward Bruce, the last High King of Ireland, by his own say-so, crowned on Saint Brigid’s pleasant hill near Dundalk. He went out from there to ravage his new kingdom, bringing fire, murder and famine to his subjects for three disastrous years. He came to grief on this same hill, stunned by an ‘idiot juggler’ and decapitated by enemies lying in concealment.  The chronicler Friar John Clyn recorded: “There was not done in Erin a better deed…’ Ireland bore the scars of his expedition for many years but there was worse to come. Some few bits of this vile creature lie in Saint Brigid’s churchyard, lamented by nobody. I hope we don’t issue a stamp in his memory.

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Two hundred years ago, in March 1815, Paris newspapers announced over several days, Napoleon’s escape from Elba. ‘The Corsican monster has escaped from his lair. Bonaparte has landed in France. Napoleon has arrived in Fontainebleau. Tomorrow The Emperor enters Paris.’ This charismatic war-lord stated, after the loss of yet another army at Leipzig: “In a cause such as mine, the lives of a million men are of no account.” Was he counting the young boys conscripted to win glory for their emperor? He met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo. What were the odds on that? It appears that he was suffering grievously from haemorrhoids. He spent many of the preceding days in the saddle.  A good vascular surgeon, travelling with the army, might have changed the course of history.

Applications are being accepted for the commemorative re-enactment of The Battle of Waterloo in June. You must supply your own uniform and weapons. If you can rustle up a horse, preferably a grey, you can join Ponsonby’s famous game-changing charge. Get a medical cert from your proctologist, in the interests of health and safety. If you are already dead, that’s not a problem as there were about 24,000 dead bodies on the field by evening time. If you are not going to Brussels, you can still play a part, as 15,000 troops were reported missing. Have a boiled egg before you set out for the battle, but be careful how you open it. Break a leg!

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Don’t forget Agincourt  (1415) just down the road. By the way, we missed Alexander’s centenary by four years…’he can play a bugle call/like you never heard before/so natural that you want to go to war./It am the bestest band that am’ (Irving Berlin 1911) Say no more.

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Big Boys’ Toys. 4th of August 1914-2014.

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This fellow had a wretched childhood. He was subjected to hideous treatment as an infant to try to correct a withered arm. Perhaps he compensated for all this by amassing a vast store of toys, ships and armies, aircraft and guns. He had a great collection of soldiers, more than any of his cousins. I had one, a Highlander in a kilt. I was convinced that he was alive. I could walk him with my fingers. I recall the excitement of running home from school to play with him. I waited for him to speak. I was in infants’ class at the time,so my misapprehension could be excused. He was actually made of lead. The flesh-coloured paint on his face and knees, was chipped. His wonderful Highland tartan became ragged. Macgregor? McDonald? I never knew his name. He encapsulated in his tiny frame, all the romance of the clans and the awesome Highland regiments. He won many battles for me against Redcoats, armoured knights and Red Indians with feathered war bonnets. (You may not say Red Indians any more. I was always a bit embarrassed by warriors who wore bonnets anyway. The Highlander wore a floppy beret, also tartan. It wasn’t a bonnet. Don’t be stupid….. That’s another argument.)

There was a young fellow at Wipers

Got shot in the arse by some snipers.

The music, they say,

When the wind blew his way,

Beat the Argyll and Sutherland pipers.

My Old Man had the definitive answer to the recurring argument as to whether there is anything worn under the kilt. ‘No, there isn’t. I saw them upside-down on the wire.’

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This is my army now, a gentleman with a flag, making himself conspicuous; a guardsman in a busby who has soldiered for half a century in a toolbox and five armoured knights that my little boy brought back from Warwick. ‘Warwick, great setter up and puller down of kings.’   They are my crack troops. I will not expend them lightly in war. In the book Voices of War there is a story of an officer addressing his troops before the D Day landings. They were to be the first to land. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘we have the honour to be expendable.’  An answer came from the ranks: ‘F*** that for a game of soldiers.’  A disgrace to his regiment. My guardsman is a disgrace also, coming on parade in that state. Look at that rifle! Look at that uniform! ‘You ‘orrible little man!’ (Sergeants always say that.) My knights, however, stand tall in shining armour. I have never taken them out of the box. In years to come they will be worth a fortune, because they have never been played with. It’s an Antiques Roadshow paradox. And in the original box too!! Do you remember the lead soldiers in Woolworths? Rank upon rank of them, knights on horseback, guardsmen in red and black, horse artillery, armies enough to conquer the world. I couldn’t afford them. By the time I could afford them, Woolworths had left Ireland and anyway, I had not become a toy-soldier-war-games nerd, (as far as I know).

Frederick the Great loved to watch his guardsmen on parade. They were apparently gigantic men, with bearskins to enhance their height. He lavished money on their uniforms. Legend has it that he was horrified one day to see a sentry wiping his nose on his sleeve .’ After all the money I’ve spent….etc…etc…!’  Lateral thinking was called for. Some cunning strategy. He directed that rows of buttons should be sewn onto the cuffs of all uniforms. A signal victory! They are there on the sleeves of your sports jacket and business suit. In the army you are advised to keep your nose clean. The Royal Greenjackets do not derive their name from this incident.

The Kaiser (Caesar? Come on!), the uber nerd, put his faith in steel. He dumped his Iron Chancellor and made himself a man of steel. Bismarck knew how to win a war: pick on weaker, more feebly armed countries.  He reviewed his Grand Fleet. He reviewed his grand army, bigger than anything Woolworths ever stocked. He needed a war. He made the fortunes  of Krupps of Essen. Krupps, an old family firm, manufactured spoons. Now they make hair-dryers and weighing scales. Between the time they made spoons and the time they started making hair-dryers, they made everything else that could be made of steel… railway lines, railway guns, bridges, ammunition, rifles, tanks, artillery and all the nuts and bolts of warfare. They owned Essen. They even owned the Bible in the church, for God’s sake. Business was booming. The Kaiser was ready for the Off.  On the seventh day of the Great War, Britain opened hostilities against Germany. This was industrial war, a war of mass production and mass consumption. It was a war of assembly lines, fuelled by human lives. It made war the norm for the Twentieth Century. Wars were no longer to be won on the playing fields of Eton, but in the dark Satanic mills and factories and in the squalid trenches among rats and lice. Fire and steel rained from the sky. It still does.

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Our grandchildren inspecting the frigate Heroina, Buenos Aires, armed by Krupps of Essen.

Little boys are drawn to ships and planes and weapons of war. They’re “deadly”. They incorporate them into their play. If they are lucky, they grow out of it. If not, like all the “Great Men”, they go on to bring untold suffering to the world, particularly to its children. One hundred years on, we have the weapons to end all war…and everything else with it. Bloody fools. Maybe the Kaiser just needed a hug from his mother. Today is my mother’s birthday. She talked a lot of sense. She was never a great fan of Woolworths. Her children tended to go astray there. It took her ages to round them up. It could have turned out worse.

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At the end of the war, Krupps of Essen sent a bill to the British government for shell fuses and detonators supplied to the British forces. The British had used these up to 1916 to fire upon the Kaiser’s troops. The bill was paid. Business is business.

I see that the Kaiser’s great-great grandson,Georg Friedrich, Prinz von Preussen, has not ruled out taking up the task of leadership, should his country need him.

For God’s sake, keep him out of Woolworths.