The Great War in the colonies : Africa and the Middle East

WWI, is often known by the war in Europe; where men from across the Empire came to Britain’s aid fighting the German army in Belgium and France. Maybe some of you know the conflict in Gallipoli, where the ANZACS and British forces landed in Turkey, only to retreat latter.  However, what is not widely known is that the war happened across the world and in particular in the British and German colonies.  In this post I shall be writing about the Middle East and the African colonies.  This is not to take anything away from the war in France which was extremely important, but to instead show that men died for Britain and Germany everywhere, and that they should also be remembered.  This post is something quite special to me as my Great, Great Grandfather fought and died in the colonies.  Dying from Malaria, he was too old to be fighting in the first place!  Being over the fifty age limit he should have been rejected by the recruiting officer.  My Great, Great Grandmother was not happy with his enlistment, and when news reached her that he had been killed, she threw out the bronze plaque that each widow/family got.  I’ve always felt that to be quite annoying, but she had her reasons, and I can’t argue with that.

 

The waters between England and the colonial Empires were not safe, whilst his possessions and medals were being sent back home, the ship carrying them was sunk by a German Submarine (not unique to WW2!). Everything was lost, so when I found a Queens South African Medal at the Royal Engineers museum, it was quite special for me!  He had won that medal whilst serving in the army many years before hand, the Boer war in fact (1902).  It shows that the conflict was not only on land but in the waters.  To get to the colonies was a hazardous trip, and one that a solider or politician may not survive.

 

However let us start with a famous figure, Lawrence of Arabia, the man who led the British and tribes to victory over the Ottoman Empire. Oh yes, the Ottomans were quite heavily involved in WWI, fighting against forces of Japan, Britain, Australia and India.  You may have seen the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, which was is often classed as a classic.  The 1950s and 60s was a great time for British film, and a lot of events are left to the imagination and the graphic content we see so often today in films was not there or needed, people’s minds did the work for them!  The film is rather accurate and is based on his own autobiography; I suggest if you want to know more of the man, then do watch the film.  Some things are left out, such how the British went back on their promise to the Arab tribes and how Lawrence felt betrayed by Britain.  It is interesting to note that this would be British hero was originally turned down by the British army as he was too small.  So why did he come to fame in the Middle East?

 

Well the British army was not doing all that well against the Turks. The British had easily repulsed an attack that was launched on the Suez Canal but their counter attack soon faltered near Gaza.  So whilst the British faltered, the Turks had more success, especially in Aden (Yemen area).  The Ottoman Empire had conquered a large chunk of the Middle East.  However this expansion wasn’t welcome amongst the tribes and therefore on June 5th, 1916, the Arab Revolt started in the Hejaz.  Some Historians have called it the Arab Awakening.

 

This revolt had some initial successes; places such as Mecca, Jidda and Taif were conquered.  However one big problem was that the Arabian tribes had failed to take the main rail line that ran through the region; this meant that the Turks were able to quickly send more troops there and quell the rebellion. The rebellion was losing momentum quickly.  Nonetheless the British saw hope in the rebellion, it seemed as though it could damage the Ottoman Empire, therefore in October 1916, the British sent a man under the name of Ronald Storrs to look further into the revolt. He was accompanied by Lawrence.  He earned the respect of the tribes, wore their dress and respected their traditions, and convinced them that guerrilla warfare was the best option rather than full scale open warfare.  Trenches weren’t used much here, instead hit and run tactics.  His successes ensured that more and more men joined the rebellion and soon Britain sent a small number of troops to help in the fighting.  Because of Lawrence, 3000 Arab tribesman, ensured that 50,000 Turks were kept busy hunting them down.  Therefore on December 9th, 1917, Allenby’s forces entered Jerusalem, the invasion of Palestine 9as it was then) showed that the British had the upper hand) , Lawrence was with the force that entered the historic city.  In 1918 the tribes entered Damascus and in October 1918 an Armistice was signed.  Britain’s army, with the tremendous effort of the tribes had ensured that Britain had won in the Middle East.  It is such a shame that Britain went back on their promise to the tribes, whom thought that they had won their freedom only to find out that their land, was now under British and French control.  The tribes were betrayed, but this sadly doesn’t surprise me, it is what man does, we wanted it, we were stronger, so we took it.  The promises to the tribes were worth nothing, and Lawrence resigned soon after.

 

Britain was to be the main aggressor during the war in the colonies. When war was declared, Britain immediately attacked the German colonies in Africa.  It must be remembered that the German Empire was only a fraction of the size that was owned by Britain, France and the allied powers. Therefore the British armies conquered three of the four colonies with speed and relatively ease. The only colony to withstand the invasion was German East Africa.  In modern day geographical locations this means Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda.  The Germans held out for the duration of the war.  The man in charge of this defence was Lettow-Vorbeck.  He was vastly outnumbered, outgunned and alone.  The German mother country could not afford to offer help.  Therefore Lettow-Vorbeck’s only choice was to fight a guerrilla campaign which would last for the rest of the war.  However, his defence of German East Africa did little to change the outcome of the war.  The events that happened here would not force the British Empire to surrender and it certainly did not have much strategic importance.  It did however, raise the morale of the German people, they were defying all odds in surviving.  When Germany was starving due to the blockade after the naval battle at Jutland, the efforts showed the people that they too could survive.  The defence of German East Africa was ensured that men were kept there trying to hunt down the German troops.  These men could have been used to Europe or in other areas against the Ottoman Turks.

 

So what were the soldiers equipped with, well as its also weaponry month, I might as well mention that the British troops would have the Lee Enfield Rifle, which was known for its high accuracy and high rate of fire (15-25 rounds per minute in the hand of a British infantryman) and the Vickers Machine gun, which needed 3 men to carry and set up. They would have also been equipped with a few Lewis machine guns.  The Germans would have had as their main weapon in the colonies, the Gewehr 98, which lasted in service until the mid-1930s.  They would have MG08s and also Maxim’s machine guns.  Therefore both armies were rather similarly equipped in terms of weaponry.  What the difference between the armies, was the supply lines, the Germans were rather cut off from their home country, they were also vastly outnumbered.  The Ottomans used similar variants to the German bolt action riffle, as they could not manufacture their own; they relied on Germany for their weapons.

 

Well I hope you enjoyed reading a bit about the war in the colonies. The conflict covers such a large geographical area and is hard to get in one blog post.  However I hope this taster has wet your lips and made you hungry to know more!  I do suggest looking at films such as Lawrence of Arabia if you want a clearer understanding of British involvement.  When you compare Lawrence and Lettow, you can see some similarities and the effectiveness of Guerrilla warfare, which in both occasions halted the opposing force.  They were both great men would inspired those under their command to fight and did not give up.  It would be easy to give them all the credit; however the men under their command should also be given credit!  Now as I end, I must tell you I have no idea where my Great Great Grandfather died, I know he is buried in Africa, and have seen his war grave (thanks to the British War Graves Commission for their help!), but as to where in the colonies he died I do not know.  But his death shows that it was far more than bullets or steel that were the enemy in the war, but also disease, which was rife in all armies!  The war left a wife and eight children on their own, like it did with so many families.  It was not just the conflict in France and the trenches that took lives away, but it was the conflict in the colonies too in which families lost sons and husbands.

The Brown Bess Musket 18th-19th century

British army

Today, I shall be writing about the muskets used by the British army in the 18th and early 19th century. Muskets were generally inaccurate, caused as much harm to the user as to the enemy, and took a long time to reload. The Brown Bess muskets were no exemption, yet they remained in service until the 1830s. It is hard to show you in this blog the specific types of Musket, changes that were made to weapons were small or are very hard to show, so I do apologise for not going into the design aspects of the weapons. However I hope you’ll agree by the end of this just how important this weapon was, and in a certain way its beauty. From previous blog posts, you would have seen how weapons were used in both warfare but also in society. They were hunting weapons or the like, but this changes in modern history. Musket weapons weren’t so regularly seen in public. Pistols were common, and in the USA, muskets were common place, but in general these weapons were mainly found in armies, it was a weapon of war. That being said, weapons were decorated in the past, with ornate handles and inscriptions on the blades, so were these weapons. Pistols and Muskets have been found to be ornate and crafted. Some of them have even been heirlooms! So having that being said, please read on, and let me guide you through the weapon of the British army, the Brown Bess Musket.

It would be understandable to think the name Brown Bess to be that of a horse or something similar and not a gun. The nickname Brown Bess only came around during the latter part of the 19th century, when the guns had been retired from service. There actual names were as follows: Dog Lock Musket, Long Land Musket, Short Land Musket, and the Sea Musket. Each was superseded by the one before it, as improvements were made.

To fire a musket, there had to be an order to things. Otherwise it would not fire, saying that even loading it correctly, could still cause you to go blind as it misfired. Firstly, you have to ensure the weapon is clean, if not then a misfire can happen. After you are sure it’s clean, you half cock it, You then bring out a paper charge from your cartridge box, you bite the top of the paper off, spit it out, you keep the musket ball in your mouth, and then sprinkle some of the gunpowder into the pan and then lock it. You then pour down gunpowder down the barrel, followed by the musket ball that was in your teeth. You then take out your ram rod (which varied from different models) and push the charge down to bottom. You then bring it up, lock it, and then fire. When you fired, you closed your eyes, the smoke and the flash could make a soldier go blind, therefore the common infantryman closed his eyes when he discharged this weapon. This didn’t do accuracy any favours, but the men relied on volley fire so they weren’t punished for missing their target. You didn’t usually fire the musket on your own, but when the officer (of noble rank) issued the order. A British soldier could fire 2-3 rounds a minute. If you could fire in 3 minutes, then you were usually put into the riffles, as they were the best shots.
British fire

So what was the tactics used with the musket I hear you ask? Well basically, men lined up facing each other and just shot each other. The Musket produced a lot of smoke, so much that it looked as though the battle was being fought in smoke; it made it hard to issue orders when you couldn’t see what was going on! Notice on this picture how you can see the smoke resting on the battlefield. This was only created by a handful of Brown Bess Muskets and Cannon, if a full army was firing, then you probably wouldn’t be able to see those men in the background
smoke

The range of the musket was not great, and you certainly couldn’t shoot across the battlefield with one. The side that could load faster and have more luck was the side that would have a better chance at winning. Of course cavalry and cannons could have a large effect on a battlefield, but with the advent of the square, cavalry were made less of a threat than before. There is one case during the Napoleonic wars, where a regiment of infantry, managed to repulse a cavalry charge just with musket fire. This was unheard of, as the charge should have broken through the ranks of men. However the speed of reload and skill with the weapon ensured that the men stood against the cavalry and won. These muskets nonetheless could be equipped with a bayonet, which would allow them to engage in close combat, as was needed. This bayonet during the 17th and early 18th century was usually the ‘plug bayonet’. The bayonet had a round handle that slid directly into the musket barrel. Therefore it could no longer fire. However latter developments fitted on the outside of the barrel, ensured it could still fire. These types are called the ‘sword bayonet’ or he ‘socket bayonet’. The battle of Waterloo is a very good example of the use of the Brown Bess Muskets and there may be a post on Waterloo coming down the line so stay tuned for that!

So what wars did the Brown Bess muskets contribute to? Well any military campaign that the British army was involved in, so was the musket. Let me name a few, so you can get an idea of how vastly used this weapon was. The Seven years’ War against the French, which was known for fighting taking place all across the world; the American War of Independence (or revolutionary war if you are an American); the Jacobite rebellions, especially in 1745 at the battle of Culloden, or the War of Austrian Succession, or the many wars against Spain and the Napoleonic wars. Yes this weapon was used by the British in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. It was the weapon that helped defeat the French, which managed to drive back the French Old Guard. So you can see it was a weapon that was associated with the British army.

The Musket was eventually replaced by riffles. Weapons that could be fired quicker, with greater accuracy and with less chance of killing its user. Riffles and Muskets coexisted, and were used at battles such as Waterloo. In American Civil war, the confederates still used Brown Bess muskets, supplied by the British of course, and the Union used riffles, again supplied by the British and other European nations. This gave the Union a massive advantage, as the riffle was a far superior weapon. You may ask that if riffles were a lot better than muskets, then why did they coexist? Why did the British and other European armies use both? Well riffles cost a lot, and muskets were cheap. The British army had the Green Jackets and the riffle regiment, who fought like skirmishers. They went in front of the army to pick of men, usually captains and the like, or the carrier of the flag. But they were never used in the main force. Human life was cheap, it was replaceable, however riffles were not and therefore soldiers were not as well equipped as they could have been which reminds me of a similar scenario recently!

To conclude, the Brown Bess Musket was awful compared to its successors, however it won the British army countless victories and was in service for over a hundred years. It ensured armies would march in line (or in column as some European nations did), face each other and shoot at each other, hoping that their shot would hit and that they would survive. We have to thank the Swedish for this style of warfare, marching in line and such. The Brown Bess is a beautiful style of weapon, weapons nonetheless and many flintlock loaded muskets and pistols that have survived have ornate carvings on them, personalised for show. Each man looked after his own weapon and grew quite attached to it. It was the only item that could realistically save him. The Bess is an iconic weapon, one that will always be associated with the British army, or visa versa. The musket was truly an horrific weapon.
Conferdate soldier

If you want to see one fire, there are many videos on YouTube, just type Brown Bess into the search bar. Or if you want to see one live fired. Then go to re-enactment shows, such as the Military Odyssey or War and Peace. You will see how loud one really is too fire!

Confederate fire

The Viking Axe and Spear

When people think of Viking weapons, they generally think first of either the iconic Viking sword, or a large two-handed axe. In the worst case, someone might imagine they only used giant axes with two blades. Although the Viking sword is an iconic weapon and a symbol of their crafting skill, they weren’t particularly common. As for axes, they came in many different shapes and sizes. Overall, by far the most common weapons of the Viking age were axes and spears, both of which could come in many varieties, could be made cheaply and be used for many different combat techniques. So here I will explore their characteristics and use.

The axe was often the choice of the poorest man in the Viking age. Even the lowliest farm had to have a wood axe for cutting and splitting wood. In desperation, a poor man could pick up the farm axe and use it in a fight. However, these axes may not have been optimal for combat. For a start they would most likely be fairly blunt if used as a splitting axe, as well as unnecessarily heavy. Axes meant for battle were designed a bit differently than farm axes.axe1

Virtually all Viking-age axe heads are iron or steel. Although there has been evidence of some few Viking Age bronze axe heads, such as one found in Iceland. The head had an iron cutting bit slotted into the edge. A wide variety of axe head shapes were used in the Viking age. The sketch to the right shows two different commonly used axe heads, the larger ‘Dane Axe’ and the smaller ‘Bearded Axe’

Typiaxe2cally, axe heads had a wedge-shaped cross section as is expected. But the cross section of the head near the edge was sometimes diamond shape where it thickened, providing greater strength against impact. Some axe heads had very thin cross-sections, which were clearly too thin and delicate for splitting wood (shown left). These axes are designed for splitting skulls!

The shape of the head allows the axe to be used for a variety of special moves. It can be used to hook an opponent’s ankle, throwing him off balance and onto the ground. It can also be hooked around the neck to pull a person in a direction he doesn’t wish to go. Additionally, the axe can be used to hook the edge of the shield pulling it away for an attack, or to disarm (shown below). This also demonstrates the usefulness of the shape of the bearded axe, as using this technique with a more pointed axe head may result the weapon becoming stuck, and the wielder finding himself disarmed instead!axe4

Despite this drawback, the points at each end of some axe heads were kept sharp so they could be used offensively in a thrust, and perhaps a slash, adding to the weapons versatility and reach. The Dane Axe shape as shown earlier would be good for this use. Because the axe point widens so much more than a spear or a sword they create more vicious wounds when used for stabbing.

Other clever moves with axes are described in the sagas. In Eyrbyggja saga, Þrándr leapt up and hooked the head of his axe over the wall of a fortification. He pulled himself up by his axe handle into the fortification.

Pictorial sources can also teach us about axe techniques. For example, images from the Bayeux tapestry show combatants using their axes two-handed, but left-handed. Thus, the blows come in on the undefended side of their opponents.

The sagas also suggest that occasionally axes failed during use. There are many examples where axe heads shattered, possibly common when they hit a stone or other hard object. Axe hafts being used for defense could sometimes result in splitting of the haft.

Moving on to the spear, which was the most commonly used weapon in the Viking age. It could perhaps be acquired cheaper than axes in manyspears cases, and although primarily used for war, it could be used as a peace time tool just as an axe in many cases, most notably for hunting. Spear heads took many forms throughout the Viking age, some are shown in the illustration to the right.

Some spearheads were quite small, and some also featured ‘wings’, as can be seen on some in the illustration. These wings are thought to have been developed for uses such as hooking shields or people, and perhaps may have made it easier to parry an enemy’s weapon. In the case of the very long bladed spears, the head could possibly be used on its own as a makeshift shortsword. In this instance the wings may aid with grip and parrying the same way a sword’s crossguard might if there is space for the hand below them. It is considered that these wings were what eventually developed into larger parts of polearms of the later Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Spearheads were generally made of iron, and were sometimes made using pattern welding technique and decorated with inlays of precious metals or with scribed geometric patterns, similarly to the way higher class swords would be made.

Spear heads were fixed to wooden shafts using a rivet. This rivet could be removed to prevent an enemy from throwing your spear back at you once initially thrown, as the head would stay stuck in the ground or person it found itself imbedded in. This lessened the risk when throwing your spear, as it was shameful in the extreme to be hit by your own weapon.

The sockets on the surviving spear heads suggest that the shafts were typically round. However, there is little evidence that tells us the length of the shaft. The sagas suggest that a long shaft was uncommon, and this makes sense when it can be considered that most wielders may want to use their spear one handed so that they may use it in combination with a shield. An overly long spear would be too ungainly and heavy to be used one handed

The use of a spear offered great advantages in many battles such as when used in a shield wall formation. Similarly to the Classical Greek Phalanx formation, a fighter in the second rank could use his spear to reach over the heads of his comrades in the first rank and attack the opposing line of enemies. Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), a 13th century Norwegian manual for men of the king, says that in the battle line, a spear is more effective than two swords.

If a spear was being used single handed with a shield, warriors could sling their shields over their shoulders and use the spear two-handed. Used this way, the spear has even more reach, since the fighter can bring his hands way back towards the butt end of the spear, still keeping the stability required to fight effectively. In a two handed thrust, the spear shaft can also slide so that both hands are at the butt end of the shaft, allowing the spear to reach the full extent of the shaft in a lunge, greatly extending the reach of the thrust at speed. This technique works well in single combat

Spears used alone have always been considered terrible for single combat; however, the spear is a surprisingly quick weapon. A spearman can keep a swordsman very busy, thrusting the point from face to belly and back again, while staying out of range of the sword. The spearman could also make it difficult for an enemy to defend with a shield, as the range makes it easier for the spearman to attack the unguarded side of an opponent, forcing them to pay attention to move their shield back and forth, perhaps tiring them. However, a spearman would need to be wary that the enemy didn’t find his way past the point of their spear. Once past the point, a swordsman would have the upper hand.

In the situation where an enemy gets past the point of your spear, you could rely on the use of a secondary weapon. In many cases this could be an axe, as it was cheap and more useful than a sword outside of combat it would be more likely. A small axe could be kept in reserve easily, perhaps hidden under your cloak in order to fool your opponent into thinking they only had to deal with your spear.

An axe couldaxe3 also be held in reserve behind a shield (shown left), a trick used by Þorgeirr in Fóstbræðra saga. In a fight with Snorri, Þorgeirr threw down his spear and took up his hidden axe in his right hand, using it to cut through Snorri’s spear shaft, and then through Snorri’s head. This technique gives you the extra option of throwing your spear as an attack, without the risk of being weaponless afterwards.

Axes and spears could be used in many more interesting ways. Some examples taken from sagas describe the use of spears to raise up a shield, used as a platform for someone to stand on in order to scale a fortification. This could be used in conjunction with the axe as described earlier, being used by someone to pull themselves up. Another example describes an axe being used to cut steps into a snowy hill in order to climb it, and then sliding down the slope with a spear raised to attack.

Overall, we can see that, although these two weapons may get less praise thank the Viking sword, they certainly had their numerous advantages. They were cheaper, more versatile, and could even be used in combination in many useful ways. This goes to show why they were so commonly used, and not often as a compromise.

If you want to know more about Viking weapons and tactics, then click here to check out my post on how I made a Viking round shield, and discussed some ways it was used!

Reigning Arrows: The Welsh Longbow

It is raining as the French and English turn to face each other on the field of Agincourt, Poitier, Patay and Crecy, yet as each droplet hits its mark, the victim drops, fatally wounded to the ground. This is the carnage caused by beautifully carved welsh creation, the longbow.

Believed to have originated from the depths of the mountainsides within the area of Gwynedd in 663 AD due to here being the first ever record of it being used against the King of Northumbria’s son Offrid. A battle between the Welsh and the Mercians in the 7th century began the importance and relevancy of the longbow to various countries military history and certainly won battles what historians could call landmarks in English history now. This date marks the appearance of the bow around five centuries before the wooden wonder’s grand entrance into English history as being the saviour of several battles during civil wars, and the more commonly known Hundred Years War. Archery skills being used in battle is nothing new with records pre-dating the Welsh longbow by a good thousand years. It is thought to be a branch off from the use of spears dating from before the Neolithic era as a bow is capable of launching its weapon a much greater distance. The bow and arrow’s history is long and bloody as being the culprit of several thousand deaths since its creation and provokes fear from its deadly accuracy if placed within the right archer’s hands.

The strength of the longbow comes from its height as the average length is around 6ft tall (this being taller than the average man for the Medieval era), achieving a wider draw of the arrow after notching before the release at a possible speed of 70mph. Made from elm/yew/oak or birch wood because of the durability there is a slight curve to accommodate the hardy but flexible bend when preparing the arrow for release. The string was typically made from either silk or hemp. The trade of yew wood during the height of the longbows popularity during the Middle Ages meant a dwindling of this particular tree resorting to lesser trees to enable production. The average time for a bow of this calibre to be created can be put to around 20 hours from amateur historians attempting to make replicas, yet a skilled Medieval craftsman would carve this in a matter of hours possibly out of necessity due to demand. It is necessary for a long life-span that the bow is created from a single piece of wood. Glue was available long before the time of the longbows but this would have prevented the bows use in humid or particularly damp environments such as England and Wales.

The most well-known use of the longbow as stated was during the ill-named Hundred Years War during which the English massacred the French army and a vast amount of the nobility. During the battles of Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt the longbow became notorious and famed by the English army headed by the Angevin kings before being used against them in Patay in 1429. Before this war the only other date recorded on the longbow is the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 between English and Scotland. As it had been invented by the Welsh they were being conscripted into the English army in their hundreds to fill the archery ranks who were usually stationed near the front of the battle formation. English archers are not as well identified even though English men were then on trained in archery tactics using the longbow. Unlike some levels within the military except the mercenary class archery was never discriminative. Because of the long standing victories caused by the longbow it was necessary to have a wide range of people capable of handling the weapon with ease therefore all society levels from peasantry to Imperial were encouraged to be proficient in this activity.

From beyond the 16th century the longbow only lasted through midway of the 17th century, while they were being phased out by the increasing number of firearms replacing medieval military weaponry. The last recorded use of the longbow itself was at the Battle of Bridgnorth in 1642 within the English Civil War. There is on the other hand a small record stating the longbow being in use as late as World War Two as it was part of the weaponry of choice for the Commandos, whether it was used in action is unclear. Its legacy lives on not just through recorded means but also through folktale and literature as being a hard wearing and accurate weapon particularly at long range. The most infamous of people famed for using this is Robin Hood and all Kings of England are trained in longbow archery. The longbow is also the base of ‘Song of the Arrow’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his poem The White Company. Also the longbow is the elite militia choice for the British in the PC game Age of Empires II, and when used in huge numbers a fortress can be impenetrable from personal experience. There have been hoards of longbows and arrows found on the Mary Rose warship built by Henry VIII that sank in 1545, which describes the vitality the longbow had both in sport and war as this ship was preparing for sail during Henry’s last war with France.

Naturally the longbow was not only reserved to the uses of the English, Welsh and French there are documents stating Spanish longbow archers and Italian regiments which were still deployed beyond the 17th century. It is possible to buy and make longbows and is a regular sighting in mock battles by historical re-enactors however real ones are advised to be used with caution as even the draw of the arrow can injure someone if done incorrectly. If anyone is interested in finding out more just search longbows in amazon for a range of books from the academic material to light reading varieties.

A lesson from Mrs.Tuchman

If there is a History books canon, this book must be in it. If there is a WWI books canon, it surely is in the top ranks of it. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the Essay category given the restrictive specifications that Mr. Pulitzer himself gave to the History category (awarded only to American- in the US meaning- related themes: it seems that USA share in WWI was not big enough or that, after all the bloodshed, after Sargent York and “Over there”, the conflict was still considered mainly an European event in the time of the publication) it sold as if written by Ken Follet and gave her author, Barbara W. Tuchman, a well deserved prestige as both Historian and writer. The book is called The guns of August.

Front book cover, Spanish edition.

Front book cover, Spanish edition.

And, yes, its time span is short. A month or so. A little more in fact. But it was just between that precious time when war could had been avoided, and that horrible time when everyone realised that this war in particular was not going to be as they thought it would.. Sometimes a very little time is needed to create conditions for tragedy.

Two things stand out of this book: first, the close approach Tuchman gives to the main figures such as prominent generals and politicians. Or Emperors. We can learn about Moltke’s inexhaustible doubts, about the Santa Claus-like looks and bearing of “Papa” Joffre (the soubriquet is very appealing here), about some weasel politicians and some haughty generals. We can breath with them, feel their humanity and fallibility, been awed by their heroism or annoyed by their stubbornness and, sometimes, sheer stupidity. We can see they are like us. They could have been us. And that is a very important thing to have in mind, specially when reviewing past events with the usual criticism and detachment that time freely gives. This is fundamental to the understanding of why war was somewhat unavoidable.

The other outstanding point is the depiction of events as a chain of not so unavoidable acts. While telling us that war was probably unavoidable, Tuchman explains how could it have been avoided. Or better: war itself was possibly unavoidable, but the way war was fought, the ongoing carnage, the ever-growing conflict that we all know, that could have been avoided.

There were clear misapprehensions on either side of the fence. There were unwise moves. There was a flagrant unsteadiness in the Triple Entente armies alike (Tuchman makes a point of stressing the folly of going to war in the flamboyant uniforms of the French Army, or the inadequacy of Russian troops and matériel, not talking about the size of British forces). Why assuming that Britain was not going to honour its promise to defend Belgium? Why attacking was the one and only view among French high ranks and military books? Why, if promise was to be honoured, were the British top brass so reluctant to engage? There is a feeling, pervading the whole work, that war was, in the end, the result of human failure not in the sense of Mankind, but of human being. Individuals, and their actions, appear as responsible for the waging and sustaining of war more than political conditions or economic circumstances.

So, as individuals are depicted here with great accuracy and vividness, their actions are shown in a somewhat new perspective, and the start of the conflict appears in a way that helps to explain the long, exhausting years still to come. Somme and Passchendaele are prefigured in the Battle of the Nations: all the not useful killing, the primacy of the new weapons, the absurd tactics, the lack of insight about how much war had evolved from the technical point of view and how much that would influence the outcome of combats. WWI could have not been as it actually was, providing some specific individuals would have behave in a different way. Or at least that is a shadow I can see all along the reading. Maybe it is just me. But then there is this last paragraph when she writes : once concluded this (the Marne battle), there was no going back. Nations fell in a trap, an elaborated trap set during the first thirty days of battles which were not decisive, a trap from there was not- and never had been- a possible escape.

From a literary point of view, the book is really delightful, the prose is smart and runs smoothly for more than five hundred pages (in the Spanish edition), without getting tiresome and, in quite a fair amount of sections, becoming a thriller. The attention to detail is overwhelming and, as expressed by Robert K. Massie in his 1994 preface, her biggest merit is to coat the August 1914 events with such an extent of suspense as experienced by the actual participants.

You will end up agonizing about the extents of hesitation in the British Government, claiming for action. You will loath and despise some characters because of their decisions or their lack of decisiveness, both costing thousands of lives, and you will love some others, gallant, brilliant leaders overwhelmed by the tide of stubbornness, nationalism and militarism. As in a novel, you will suffer with the sad fate of the murdered, even when described with the utmost sensitivity and discretion, running away from sensationalism, and smile with the witty comments that, splashed here and there, with some aristocratic detachment (but the kind of enlightened, ironic, elegant detachment one expects to find in the Academic, which she was not) or maybe just with a quite skeptical approach bring light on the personalities of the individuals involved. All the while, she would not let herself leaving a point of view which is not fueled by moral judgement but by the need of bringing light to events.

In the end, if you are looking to understand WWI, this is your book. More than four gruesome, grueling years of a world deprived of reason condensed in a month or so. Or in little more than five hundred pages. We could have spared ourselves the grief if dear Mrs. Tuchman would have been there, writing with all her insight and wits about what everyone seemed to have expected would be a brief, almost festive war. Unfortunately, she was still too young. In fact, she was traveling with her family to Constantinople and was a regrettably unconscious witness of the chase of the Goeben, one of those hidden details that lately she will wonderfully unveil in her book. A pity.

At least she was there, fifty years later, to expose in her writing the madness and futility of war, although her admitted aim was to express her view that 1914 was the expiring date of 19th Century and the beginning of a new, terrible era. Target accomplished, Madam.

The war that was not 100 years

Most people today are aware that the Hundred Year’s War between England and France in the fourteenth and fifteenth century actually lasted 116 years. This was it not the only example of a war that lasted this long in Europe, so my first question when receiving the challenge for this month: the Hundred Year’s War, was which one. Because the Norwegian Civil Was or War of succession in the Twelfth and thirteenth century did also last more than 100 years, but enough about my madness, let’s have a look at this 116 year long war between England and France. This post will therefore look at the reasons for the war, and attempt to see if it was all worth it.

The Hundred Year’s War has its roots in the complex family and power relationships that existed between the European Ruling classes In the middle ages. The English king at the start of the war, help lands both in England(as king) but also I France where he was a magnate, but being the king in one kingdom and a duke in another is a tricky task to negotiate. Especially when it is your cousin that is the king of France. When Edward III in 1337 refused to pay homage to his cousin the French King Phillip VI, the conflict broke out, Phillip responded with confiscating the English lands in Aquitaine, after all one cannot be an efficient ruler if you have a magnate that have large territories in your kingdom refuses to recognise you as king. Edward’s response was reasonable, especially as both him and Phillip were both descendent from the previous king of France, and both had an ‘equal’ claim to the crown. Edward proclaimed himself king of France and launched an attempt to retake the lost territories in France. [Imagine seeing this argument on Facebook, and the following war as well, it would not look pretty, but so fun and enlightening to read.]

The vital importance of the French lands for the English economy was one of the key reasons why this conflict grew so big to start with. The Duchy of Aquitaine produced more revenue for Edward each year than the English taxes, it is therefore understandable that the Edward would go to such lengths to protect his income.
During the years of the war, it developed from a personal and economical conflict to a war about the French crown. The English and French would continue to fight over the lands, and produce many fabled battles such as Crecy, Agincourt and the siege of Orleans. At the end of the war, England was only left with Calais, and all other territories were lost to the French.

So was it all worth it? If we compare the original intentions and motivations with the amount of men, land and money lost during this war then the answer is no. However, the Hundred Year’s War have become a symbol of European history, and had a huge impact on the national identity of both countries through Agincourt and Joan of Arc. So in the sense that the war was meant to develop the nations of France and England, then I would have to say that the results of the war provided the following generations with material that could be fashioned into moments of National pride. But we still need to remember, that just like any other war: the conflict is never worth the loss of human lives, nor the waste of money.

Over there lies the long way to Victory. Songs for soldiering.

I can easily recall one happy childhood memory related to the school and, more particularly, to my English lessons. I went to the Jesuits school in my hometown, and there the Principal acted also as teacher of English. He was a well-humuored man, keen on cycling and other sports, and very enthusiastic about the English language, its teaching and its importance for the future (being a Spaniard, the knowledge of other languages has usually been regarded even with some suspicion). To encourage the young learners, Padre Fermín will open every lesson with a song. The ritual began when he opened the door, and we started to sing, standing. By the time he reached his seat the brief music was almost finished and so, in due order, we sat ourselves. The favourite song, the one we use to sing as if marching to find our future, was “It’s a long way to Tipperary” or better said, its chorus (I’m afraid our English was even worse at that time and that was all our little minds were able to learn by heart). Little we knew that particular song had been sung while marching to meet their future by many a young man, not so young as we were then, but young enough. And the future of many of them was a grave with no name in a foreign land. We may had not felt as happy if we had possessed that knowledge.

The fact is that WWI was consider a just and necessary war by lots of otherwise peaceful citizens. Volunteering was rife at the outbreak of war, and young men of almost every nation involved in the conflict join the rank and file with enthusiasm and, I daresay, in many cases with joy. Come to that, war was the epitome of manhood, courage, heroism, sacrifice, patriotism…(Most of us think otherwise these days, but now is now, and then was then). And with the joy of joining their fellow countrymen and engage the enemies in combat (and obviously defeat them; no one joins a fight to lose it) came the songs. After all singing is an obvious expression of joy (also of sorrow, but we are still at the outbreak of war, sorrow will come later, with pain and grief, and different songs) and those happy fellows who were to evict the “Hun” from Belgium, or to recover the lost Fatherland or whatever their sacred mission it was, had the need to express their feelings about King, Country, themselves and the enemy.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary” was one of the favourites within the BEF, as was “Keep the homes fires burning”. For the Germans it was “Die Wacht am Rhein” and for the French “Sambre et Meuse”. The Americans were still far away, but they will have their own song in “Over there”. But there are some subtle differences between what each ones were singing, reflections on the different approaches to war in each country.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsynSgeo_Uo

For instance, both the French and German songs are military marches, while the English were popular tunes, more related with home than with the front. And the American was an engaging tune suitable for attracting recruits to a not really well-known conflict. “Over there” was also made for the occasion, and “It’s a long way…” was quite new at the time, been written in 1912. But the continental songs were older, both dating from the 19th. And both are far more warlike than their companions here.

Both the French and German songs are set against a long story of confrontation and territorial claims from either side of the river Rhine. “Die wacht”calls (roars like thunderbolt says the song) for someone “to defend the German Rhine”. But the Fatherland may rest at ease, because every German wants to be in The Watch and so no enemy will enter the shore “Solang ein Tropfen Blut noch glüht”; as long as a drop of blood (German, of course) still glows. Come the time of WWI a new stanza was added, the seventh, which goes as this:

So führe uns, du bist bewährt;

So lead us, you are approved 

In Gottvertrau’n greif’ zu dem Schwert!

With trust in God, grab the sword!

Hoch Wilhelm! Nieder mit der Brut!

Hail Wilhelm! Down with all that brood!

Und tilg’ die Schmach mit Feindesblut!

Erase the shame with foes’ blood!

Apparently this stanza was frequently used as propaganda in postcards and the likes during the war. Charming. Note the reference to Kaiser Wilhelm and the usual need of washing past offenses with the enemies’ blood. The enemies quite clear being the French. Not coincidentally the song was allegedly written in the wake of French Prime Minister Thiers claiming that the French border should be anchored in the Rhine river. Fittingly, the musical arrangement gained momentum and popularity in successive Sängerfest (choral competitions closely associated with German culture) thus competing as a kind of substitute national anthem with the nowadays official Deutschlandlied.

Following suit, “Sambre et Meuse” was composed shortly after the Franco-Prussian war and the crushing defeat suffered by the French army. The real name is, in fact, “The Regiment of Sambre et Meuse” and is begins with the verse “Tous ces fiers enfants de la Gaule”: All these proud children of Gaul…another call to all the nation to unite against the common enemy. In the chorus we can find another statement not to be taken lightly:

           Cherchant la route glorieuse                      Seeking the path of glory

Qui l’a conduit à l’immortalité                   That led them to immortality

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvKVbvxKfdY

One could say that those paths of glory usually led to death not immortality. But again, there is the call to arms, the urge to rally against the enemy, the soldiers refusing to retreat, surrounded, fighting til the last man, against all odds. And when the last man is taken prisoner, but better to be a captive he kills himself. Le Héros se donna la mort.

With all these appeals to death, sacrifice and bloodshed,on both sides the outcome of the war could well have been forecasted since that was the mood of the combatants, at least at the first stages. Later on, soldiers resorted to other songs, not so referring to slaughter and bravery, but to longing, fear and loathing.

“Tipperary”, in the other hand, was a popular tune adopted by units of an army away from home, with a sense of duty and of a certain faith “in the justice of our cause”, but filled with men that, given the opportunity after the first bouts of enthusiasm, would surely have preferred to be back at home, sipping their tea. It is humorous and light. No blood, no guns. Just a couple of commoners trying to outsmart the other, and a town far away where there is someone dear. Probably the exact feeling of almost every Tommy. And there were reports of this song sung by units as they arrive to France, even before they got engaged in combat. Maybe they were having second thoughts about their mission.

           It’s a long way to Tipperary,

It’s a long way to go,

It’s a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
Many of them will lose heart and soul in Mons, Somme, Passchendaele. And now they rest a long way from home, among their comrades, maybe singing Tipperary in the silent language of ghosts. They are still longing for home and their Molly-Os.
Still three years will pass until the US army get into the field. But they will bring their own song with them. One of those fresh, defiant, over-confident songs that so well described American spirit. They have no particular dislike for anyone but, when push comes to shove…well
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
Just in case you are not getting the innuendo, old boy. Over there was written and composed by music hall star George M. Cohan in April 1917 and was used to increase recruiting and sell the US public the view of a short expedition to put an end to the war that Wilson’s administration was favoring. A sort of friendly yet powerful “vini, vidi, vinci”. So the song was for internal consumption, and so there is just the slightest reference to “the Hun”: “Johnny, show the “Hun”you’re a son-of-a-gun”. Again, it sounds more like a little brag than a real threat to a bitter enemy. That was probably the approach most American citizens have to war in Europe: something went wrong absurdly, but the Yanks were coming to put and end to it and everybody would be friends again. It seems that Europeans were quite confused after almost three years of horror to get the point in Yankee counseling; they went over there and their lives were soon severed by machine guns and high explosive. Just like everyone else.
I can recall another happy memory. Me aged 12 or so watching the TV at night. Black and white film. James Cagney, for once, dancing and singing instead of killing people and calling his Ma’. A catchy song called “Over there”. I spent months humming that particular song. Again not knowing as with “Tipperary” the tragedy after the music. Now it seems so unfair that I should have such happy memories associated with songs that also represent the fury and madness of war. That I have so enjoyed what for others could have been a moment of grief. That my happy memories could be somewhat intertwined with other people sad reminiscences. There is just one thing to comfort me: at least I happen to know the lighter, and happier ones. But soldiers in 1914, or 1917 had to get to know all the hatred and bloodshed that was sung in the long marches to the front. I wonder if a tune came to their minds amidst the ghastly sounds of the fight. And which one was it.

Wuthering Heights review- Understanding the origins of Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights. A classic gothic novel that many would remember studying at secondary school (I included). What’s more I revisited the novel this summer after coming across it whilst clearing out of halls! Within minutes I found myself flicking through a few pages to completing chapter after chapter on the long journey home. What struck me after reading this novel other than the love triangle and gothic imagery was the heritage of the central character, Heathcliff and how the other characters of the novel help shape the many possibilities of where he originated from. It is a topic that I believe fits very well for a WU History review and that sparks much lively debate.

Firstly it is important to establish the evidence from the novel and what certain characters have guessed about Heathcliff’s past. This is conveyed through the narrator of the story Nelly and suggested by Heathcliff’s guardian Mr Earnshaw. Nelly mentions about the ‘gibberish’ that Heathcliff spoke on arrival at Wuthering Heights, her speech suggested Heathcliff possibly came from as far afield as India and Mr Earnshaw himself stated that he ‘found’ Heathcliff wandering the streets of Liverpool. 

Looking back at what the narrator, Nelly mentions, the ‘gibberish’ is sound evidence to provide an explanation about the possibility of Heathcliff being a Roma gypsy. A valid reason for this claim could be to do with how he attempted to communicate upon he’s arrival to Wuthering Heights. He’s speech was described as ‘gibberish’ and somewhat ‘foreign’. The Romani language itself deviates from the English language. The English language is from the Germanic groups of languages that include; German and Norwegian, whilst the Romani language comes from the Indo-Aryan language groups that include Hindi and Gujarati. This provides readers with some evidence about Heathcliff’s supposed Roma upbringing because it indicates why Nelly and the Earnshaws could not understand what he was saying.

Throughout the novel there is more evidence to suggest that Heathcliff was descended from Roma gypsies and this reason allows readers to make a connection to the later piece of evidence. It is clear that because of his foreign language the characters at Wuthering Heights shunned him, including Cathy initially. Gypsies faced much persecution throughout history and this occurred during the late Eighteenth century when the novel was set. In Western Europe the Romani people faced much persecution. For instance in 1749 Roma gypsies were rounded up in Spain and forced to remain in labour camps. Further persecution of the Romani community occurred in the English speaking world too, where they were often distrusted and despised, including in England. This makes a valid argument, as in the novel many of the characters loathed him. In particular Heathcliff’s foster brother Hindley often abused him and referred to him as a ‘dirty, rotten gypsy’ frequently. This provides an adequate explanation as to why certain characters did not take too kindly to Heathcliff as many people in England at the time were distrusting of gypsies, indicating that Heathcliff himself was one as only a few characters accepted him into their society.

However, there are some flaws to this more common assertion, regarding Heathcliff as a Roma gypsy. Firstly the ‘gibberish’ that Nelly described did not directly state that Heathcliff was of Roma origin. It can be argued that readers should treat Nelly’s comment as a potentially flippant remark as Heathcliff could have spoken any unrecognisable language, not merely Romani. What’s more Nelly later in the novel provides further flippant comments about Heathcliff’s origins and suggests he could have been an ‘Indian prince’. It is comments similar to that which appeared to make Nelly’s account of Heathcliff unfeasible to readers. Nevertheless there was some truth in how he could have come from India, yet it was not probable to suggest he was a Roma gypsy who travelled to England from India. This is because recent genetic evidence suggests the Roma peoples of India travelled to Europe across the Middle East years before the Eighteenth century. However, Heathcliff could have travelled to England as a Lascar Indian. There is a valid argument for this point of view as Mrs Linton makes a reference that Heathcliff might have been a ‘Lascar stowaway’. This point of view seems likely as Lascars were seamen that came from India and were employed on British ships from the sixteenth century. The time frame of Wuthering Heights fits in nicely with this explanation as many Lascars entered Britain in the Eighteenth century and many remained in the county, circa 10, 000. Also, the significance of Mr Earnshaw finding Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool indicated that there was a high probability that he was a Lascar Indian as Lascars sailed to ports and Liverpool was and still is a port city.

Having said that in spite of using this evidence to suggest Heathcliff was a Lascar Indian, some readers could interpret the evidence differently and I myself because of the city of Liverpool. Liverpool was a place synonymous with the slave trade and the slave trade was not abolished in Britain and its empire at the time when the novel was set, allowing some readers to make the connection that Heathcliff could have been a freed or an escaped slave that arrived in Liverpool. This is a probable alternative to other explanations in regards to Heathcliff’s origins. Likewise, Mrs Linton exclaims that Heathcliff could have been an ‘American castaway’. From Mrs Linton’s account it is likely he could have been an African American or perhaps mixed race as it would indicate again reasons as to why many characters ill-treated him and perhaps more so then the other explanations to his origin.

To conclude in spite Emily Bronte neglecting Heathcliff’s exact origins of he’s past, she had only given readers hints about the possibilities of where he had come from. After reading the novel I came to the conclusion that he was likely to have either been a Romani gypsy, a Lascar or an African American and wanted to explore the three possibilities. Although after careful reading the most likely of the three, (a Romani gypsy) was Heathcliff’s likely upbringing as unlike much of evidence suggesting he was black or a Lascar it only seemed to be from a snapshot in time within the novel. The evidence suggesting Heathcliff was a Roma gypsy was consistent as there was frequent references to him being a gypsy, a term in Eighteenth century England for Romani peoples. I hope this review was an enjoyable read and that it will inspire you to come to your own conclusions based on what Emily Bronte had written and for you all- to delve through a classic of English Literature again and again…     

Black Representation in Marvel and DC Comics

Representation in the media has long been debated whether it be racial, female, LGBT, disabled or cultural. In this post I will look at black representation in comic books, more specifically at superhero characters and comics produced by the two major America companies Marvel and DC. Both companies were founded under different names in 1939 and 1934 respectively, and as can be seen below, both companies took until the 1960s and 1970s to introduce black superhero characters. In some respects this is not a surprise as these two decades are now historically intertwined with Black history in the West and especially America where these two companies are based. It is impossible to cover every black character in these comics in this blog as that would easily fill a book, so I have chosen a few of the most famous and influential characters to focus on. I have also looked at the issue of black representation in Marvel and DC’s comic book adaptations for television and film which has increasingly become the way that the majority of the population is exposed to such characters. Three comic book adaptions now sit in the top ten worldwide grossing films of all time. But then why have these movies often been almost exclusively white?

Black Panther first appeared in 1966 in issue #52 of The Fantastic Four, making him the first black superhero in mainstream comics. The character was created as T’Challa, the chief of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which was a technically advanced nation which can be seen as an ‘anti-colonialist critique’ and a ‘stark contrast to the historical and symbolic constructions of Africans as simple tribal people and Africa as primitive’. The character got his own run with Jungle Action #5 in 1973 which ran until 1976. The uniqueness of this title compared to black characters that followed is interesting; unlike other black characters T’Challa was not restricted in terms of storyline or setting of just American ghettos to symbolise racial inequality but was placed in more fantastical settings like some of his white counterparts. As Adilifu Nama summarises: ‘in spite of the cringe-inducing title, Jungle Action was progressive in the way it avoided many of the ghettocentric clichés of the ‘black experience’.’ After Jungle Action, Black Panther was re-launched with a self-titled series and even after that title’s cancellation, the character has continued to have his own comic in every decade since his conception. He has also played a major role in a number of other series including the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Daredevil. In 2006 Black Panther married his fellow Black superhero Storm although this was later annulled.

First appearing in Captain America #117 in 1969, Sam Wilson known as the Falcon became the first African American superhero in mainstream comics. The significance of this was not lost on the writers. Wilson and other black characters were concerned about him being a sidekick to Captain America, a white man. Wilson’s black love interest, Leila criticised the character for being ‘a racial sellout’. Nama explains: ‘By having Sam and other black characters question the power dynamics of his relationship with his white superhero friend, the comic avoided creating a static black superhero… His concern and constant attention to the issue gave their personal relationship a social resonance with broader racial tensions, and symbolized a social debate about if aggressive or incremental steps were move effective in achieving racial equality.’ The writers understood the impact that having such a character would have, and the issues that would come from it. While with the creation of Black Panther there had been some element of removal from the social issues in America of the time, this was not possible with Falcon. Perhaps this is why, between 1971-78, the character was billed alongside Captain America in the comics as Captain America and the Falcon, elevating a black character to the title of a leading comic was significant and could be seen to symbolise a greater hope for integration. There was a brief 14 issue run of a new version of Captain America and the Falcon in 2004-2005 but this was cancelled. He had his own four part miniseries in 1983 and has been a member of the Defenders and the Avengers over the years. Falcon played a significant role in the Avengers volume 3 and has continued to play a supporting role in the Captain America comics. It was announced that Wilson would take over the mantle of Captain America after the original, Steve Rogers, lost his abilities. The comic will premiere in November.

First appearing in 1972, Luke Cage sometime known as Power Man premiered in his own comic Luke Cage, Hero for Hire becoming the first black superhero to have his own comic. The title ran for 6 years until falling sales made Marvel decide to team up the character with another superhero, Iron Fist, whose sales were also falling to save both characters from cancellation. This new series ran until 1986. Cage’s origin story is one of the most politically aware origin stories; he is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and in prison suffers racism at the hands of the prison guards. In an attempt to improve his chances at parole he volunteers for a cell regeneration experiment but the experiment is sabotaged by a sadistic prison guard with a grudge which leads to him gaining his superhuman strength and durability. The concept of Cage being unjustly imprisoned coincides with widening attention on the incarceration of black people. Such an origin story relates the ‘issues of unjust black incarceration, black political disenfranchisement, and institutional racism in America’. Cage’s decision to use his powers for profit is also interesting, as an escaped convict he had no opportunity to pursue legal work and unlike many of his superhero counterparts he was not independently wealthy to be able pursue such a career unlike white superheroes Tony Stark or Charles Xavier, who both had family wealth to fall back on.

DC’s first black superhero was John Stewart who first appeared in 1971 in Green Lantern volume 2 #87. Stewart was chosen to become a back-up for the then current Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, by those who had given the powers of the Green Lantern, the Guardians. When Jordan quit being the Green Lantern, Stewart replaced him headlining the comics between 1984-86, until Stewart himself, quit. Subsequently he played a major role in the 1988 comic Cosmic Odyssey. Then in 1992 he was the lead in Green Lantern: Mosaic but despite critical and commercial success DC cancelled the title because they felt it did not fit in with their editorial vision meaning the character became restricted to a supporting role until 2006 with Green Lantern Corps. Stewart found widespread popularity when he was portrayed in the Cartoon Network animated series, Justice League. The development of the character has changed over the years. In his first appearance ‘Hal views Stewart as too angry… the critique of Stewart easily played to the racial archetype of the “angry black man”’. In comparison Stewart is ‘a mainstream superhero’ who ‘articulates an integrationist, albeit culturally pluralistic, ethos’.

The first black female character in Marvel or DC to play a major or supporting role was Storm, also known as Ororo Munroe, in 1975. She first appeared in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and has gone on to appear in the majority of the X-Men comics since her introduction. The character has led the X-Men on various occasions and is one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel universe. Such development over the years is intriguing due to the fact that Storm ‘symbolizes many of the struggles that black women… face and resist’ and yet ‘Storm was a triumphant third-world version of a black female superhero’. She can be seen as an inspiration for black women to try to overcome the barriers that not only a racist but also a sexist society place upon them, and dispel the idea that black women are somehow less worthy or inferior. Storm had her own miniseries in 1996 which ran for 4 issues and finally received her own ongoing solo series in July 2014.

In 2000, Marvel released a new ‘universe’ of comics, known as the Ultimate Marvel which reimagined a number of Marvel characters in a new way. Spider Man was one of these. In 2011, Miles Morales took up the mantle of the recently killed Peter Parker in the role of Spider Man. The character of Morales was Black-Hispanic, and while some were disappointed at the killing of Parker (although Parker was alive and remained Spider Man in the main run of the comics), others claimed that it was publicity stunt and political correctness. Others, including an article in the New York Times and Spider Man’s creator Stan Lee, lauded the change citing it as a positive for non-white children to see a character that looked like them. Despite claims of a publicity stunt, Morales still continues to appear in the comics, and his own run ran for just over two years.

Another character changed in Ultimate Marvel was Nick Fury who had traditionally been portrayed as a white man in the main run of the comics. This Nick Fury’s appearance was based on that of actor Samuel L. Jackson. After the first comic in 2002 featuring Fury, Jackson contacted Marvel about appearing as Fury in any movies featuring the character. He made his first appearance as Fury in a post credits scene of Iron Man in 2008. While this version of Fury has yet to headline his own series, he has played a major part in many of the storylines in the Ultimate universe as the General of S.H.I.E.L.D and as the leader of a reimaging of the Avengers known as the Ultimates.

Of course the majority of the population’s exposure to comic books is via movies and television. The earliest representation was Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in 1967 in the third season of the Batman TV series. The role had earlier been played by a white actress who was unable to reappear. This was not just unique for black representation in comic book adaptions but also for black representation on TV, with Kitt being one of the first black women on mainstream TV. Beginning in 2001, Smallville ran for 10 seasons focusing on the life of Clark Kent before he became Superman. The only black regular character, Pete Ross played by Sam Jones III, left the show at the end of the show’s third season. Two members of the Justice League, Cyborg (Victor Stone) and Martian Manhunter (John Jones) were played by black actors along with Amanda Waller, a prominent character in a number of DC properties. Waller is also portrayed in the show Arrow, focusing on the character Oliver Queen as he becomes the Green Arrow, which is due to start its third season this autumn, in a recurring capacity. The show also introduced John Diggle, a character created purely for the show played by David Ramsey. Since his introduction, the character has been added to the comics. Like Ross in Smallville, Diggle plays the confidant role to the lead, although so far the character has fared better as Diggle has been given several storylines that are separate from the white lead. A spin off from Arrow, The Flash, which premieres this Autumn, has two of the characters Iris West and her father Detective Joe West cast with black actors, Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin whereas their comic book counterparts were white. Another two DC television shows to premiere this year with characters not from their respective comic books, Gotham and Constantine have Jada Pinkett Smith and Harold Perrineau. On the Marvel front, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has no black characters in its regular cast but has 3 in its recurring cast. J. August Richards plays the superhero Deathlok along with Ruth Negga and B.J. Britt playing characters unique to the show (although in the case of Negga, her character could easily turn out to be a comic book character). Our first black lead should come with the Netflix series around Luke Cage, although the part has yet to be cast, and its future could possibly rely on the success of the Daredevil series that will precede it.

While not technically a superhero film, the Blade franchise was (and still is) the only comic book franchise led by a black actor. Starting in 1998, Blade a dhampir played by Wesley Snipes was the protagonist. The films were a financial success following with Blade II in 2002 and Blade Trinity in 2004. Two factors delayed Blade 4. First was a dispute between Snipes and the studio that his role was marginalised in favour of two white supporting characters and accusations of racism from the writer/producer/director David S. Goyer and crew. Snipes also claimed that in previous films that an effort had been made to employ a multi-racial crew but on Blade Trinity only white crew were intentionally hired. Then Snipes’ subsequent imprisonment for tax evasion meant the film was put into limbo and the rights to the character have now reverted to Marvel Studios (the rights to the character Blade and numerous others had been sold to other studios in the 1990s when Marvel Studios were facing financial issues), which further puts the film in limbo, although Snipes has said he would return to the character. Blade laid the foundations for many of the comic book movies that would start in the early 2000s, it was commercially successful and after the failure of Batman and Robin proved a comic book movie could become a franchise. The fact that Blade was led by a black actor should not be forgotten, despite many comic book movies ignoring their black characters. Without a black character, studios may have not taken a chance on the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man.

Catwoman is the only other comic book movie that has a black lead, with Halle Berry playing the titular character in 2004. However, unlike Blade, the film was a box office bomb and was critically panned. The film, along with Elektra (another bomb), is often used as an excuse for not producing a female led superhero or comic book film. The fact that a comic book movie hasn’t had a black lead (or a lead who wasn’t Caucasian) since Catwoman would suggest that Catwoman may be used as an excuse for that too. In reality, the writing of the film has been considered poor by reviewers especially considering that the film was only a Catwoman film in name, as the character’s alter ego Selina Kyle is not the lead (or present in the film) nor does it share the Batman universe that the character inhibits.

Since 2000 there have been over 40 movies based on comic books. Before 2000, with the exception of the Superman and Batman franchises, the majority of comic book adaptations were television series or movies released on TV or straight to video. With the exception of the two above, these have generally had white leads, with black characters often playing supporting or minor roles. As can be seen in the list below, I could only find 39 named characters that were played by black actors (the list might not be 100% accurate as I have not watched every film nor did IMDB have an image of every actor). As can be seen the vast majority of these films only had one named black character. Other racial groups fare generally worse, with East Asians the only group coming anywhere near the amount of black characters in these films, which shows a complete and utter lack of diversity. This has been noted by some of the actors who have played these roles. Djimon Hounsou who played Korath in Guardians of the Galaxy explained he took the role because: “I have a four-year old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes. One day he looks at me and says ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’  That was sort of a shock. This is why I am excited to be a part of the Marvel Universe, so I could be hopefully provide that [sic] diversity in the role of the superhero.” Hounsou’s comments reflect the feeling that for the sake of children’s identity, and despite some people’s belief, diverse casting is important.

Even the more diverse franchises such as X-Men have been criticised. Halle Berry, who plays Storm in four of the films, had to petition to have a larger role in the X-Men: The Last Stand despite playing one of the most significant X-Men characters. X-Men: First Class was also fiercely criticised after killing Darwin halfway through the movie and having Angel, the only other black character switch sides (!SPOILER for Days of Future Past! – Angel was also then killed off-screen much to the fury of some fans).

The Avengers films have also been criticised, with no non-white leads for its first nine movies. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Zoe Saldana, a black actress was cast as the female lead (and the one named black female character in all 10 films) but her character was an alien and Saldana was covered in green paint. The films have been criticised for their lack of women, especially with no female fronted film; this is even more pointedly obvious when Saldana is the only non-white woman to appear in the 10 films produced.

Black characters in the Avengers films have been significant supporting roles, most prominently Nick Fury, James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, also known as War Machine, and Sam Wilson as mentioned above, the Falcon. These characters have been incredibly important to the plot and supported the white leads; they are all characters that could headline their own films. With the focus so far on the big four of the Marvel universe (at least out of the properties that Marvel Entertainment own the rights too), it is not surprising that there has been a lack of black characters in the films. At least in the case of Rhodes and Wilson, who both play significant roles in the comics, they weren’t ignored completely. However Marvel is rapidly running out of excuses for its poor show on diversity, not just racially.

The most popular way to increase diversity in such films has been to cast non-white actors as traditionally white characters, similar to several of the TV shows above. This is mostly due to the age of many of the popular comic book characters, with so many premiering before even the most minimal attempts were made at diversity often these comics have all-white casts of characters. Although even more recent comics are not necessarily much better in this respect. For example Michael Duncan Clarke played Kingpin in Daredevil and Jamie Foxx played Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which allowed both actors to play major roles. While black superheroes sometimes struggle to be known by the public, black supervillains are even less well known. However this does not sometimes go without controversy. When Idris Elba was cast as Hemidall in Thor, known as “the whitest of the gods” and portrayed as white in both comics and mythology, there were a number of people who criticised the casting. In response, Elba pointed out the most glaringly obvious truth: “Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

Black representation in comics has been slow and fairly limited, especially in main roles. This has also been similarly reflected in the film and television adaptations. While there have been attempts to increase diversity these have failed to make much change. While Miles Morales has had decent sales, he has been unable to compare to Peter Parker. Part of this problem is falling comic book sales, the most successful are generally the more established books such as Batman. It is difficult for less established characters or new characters to break through. Perhaps the best attempt to do this is to introduce more black representation into film and television adaptations and make more of an attempt to encourage such viewers to buy comics. As we attempt to move into a more integrated society the lack of black representation is problematic (as is racial representation in general) and perhaps in future at the centre of the origin stories, racism won’t be a major or core factor.

Film Year Character Actor Size of Role Existing Comic Book Character/For Film
Superman III 1983 Gus Gorman Richard Pryor Major For Film
Batman 1989 Billy Dee Williams Harvey Dent Existing but Caucasian in comics, subsequently replaced by Caucasian actor in sequel
Batman Forever 1995 Margaret Kimberly Scott Minor For Film
X-Men 2000 Storm Halle Berry Major Existing
Spider-Man 2002 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting Existing
Daredevil 2003 Kingpin Michael Duncan Clarke Major Existing, but Caucasian in comics
X2: X-Men United 2003 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 2 2004 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Catwoman 2004 Catwoman Halle Berry Lead Existing, however is not the character’s alter ego
Elektra 2005 Stone Bob Sapp Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Constantine 2005 Midnite Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing
Dr. Leslie Archer April Grace Minor New
Batman Begins 2005 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting Existing
Colin McFarlane Police Commissioner Loeb Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Fantastic Four 2005 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 3 2007 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer 2007 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting See Above
General Hager Andre Braugher Supporting New
Iron Man 2008 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Terrence Howard Supporting Existing
The Incredible Hulk 2008 General Joe Greller Peter Mensah Minor New
The Dark Knight 2008 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Police Commissioner Loeb Colin McFarlane Supporting See Above
Gambol Michael Jai White Minor New
The Spirit 2008 Octopus Samuel L. Jackson Major Existing
Punisher: War Zone 2008 Paul Budiansky Colin Salmon Supporting Existing
Watchmen 2009 Office Kirkpatrick Colin Lawrence Minor New
X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2009 John Wraith Will.i.am Supporting Existing
Iron Man 2 2010 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting See Above
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
Thor 2011 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in Comics
Agent Garrett Dale Godboldo Minor New
X-Men First Class 2011 Angel Salvadore Zoe Kravitz Supporting Existing
Darwin Edi Gathegi Supporting Existing
Green Lantern 2011 Amanda Waller Angela Basset Supporting Existing
Captain America: The First Avenger 2011 Gabe Jones Derek Luke Supporting Existing
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 2012 Moreau Idris Elba Supporting New
The Avengers 2012 Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2012 Miss Ritter Barbara Eve Harris Minor New
The Dark Knight Rises 2012 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Crispus Allen Rob Brown Minor Existing
Iron Man 3 2013 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting Existing
Man of Steel 2013 Perry White Laurence Fishburne Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in comics
Thor: The Dark World 2013 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting See Above
Captain America: The Winter Solider 2014 Sam Wilson (Falcon) Anthony Mackie Supporting Existing
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 2014 Electro Jamie Foxx Major Existing but Caucasian in the comics
X-Men Days of Future Past 2014 Storm Halle Berry Supporting See Above
Bishop Omar Sy Supporting Existing
Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 Gamora Zoe Saldana Major Existing, both in comics and film character has green skintone
Korath Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing but skintone is blue in comics

 

Bibliography

Nama, A., Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Texas, 2011)

Idris Elba defends Thor Film Role: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/apr/27/idris-elba-thor-race-debate

Comic Con 2013: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Cast Talk Rocket Raccoon and Playing Badasses: http://screencrave.com/2013-07-21/san-diego-comiccon-2013-guardians-galaxy-cast-surprise-appearance-talk-antiheroes-coming-providing-diversity-alligators/

Battle of Mons and the Great Retreat August 1914

One hundred years ago, on this day, the British forces defended against the German army at Mons. I will be discussing the army sizes, the plans, the heroic actions taken by two machine gunners of the British army, asking the question who won Mons?, as well as discussing the Great Retreat and the aftermath. I hope that what you read will be of great help and above all, will be interesting. So without further delay, let me introduce you to the first battle the British faced in WW1.

The Battle of Mons was the first major conflict that the British Expeditionary force faced in 1914 (The British army had encountered the German army in small skirmishes a few days before). Common knowledge of WWI, recognises that it was a war fought in trenches, in mud and fixed positions. However in early 1914 and late 1918, warfare was mobile, armies moved to outflank each other, hold bridges and fought in towns. Armies used bicycles to quickly manoeuvre around each other or cavalry to destroy a flank. Trench Warfare as we know it did not appear until after the counter attack of the British and French armies after the Great Retreat. Therefore when knowing that the British force was only 4 battalions strong, roughly equating to 70,000 men, very similar to what the modern British army is today, and that the German army was one four times the size of that alone at Mons, shows what the British had to face. The whole point of the BEF was to secure the French left flank. The French army was similar to the size of the German army, and therefore the small British force should have able to tip the balance of battle.

As you may know, Germany was initiating its Schlieffen Plan, where the push through Belgium would be a decisive blow to the French. All that stood in the way of the plan succeeding was the BEF, a small, but very well trained professional army, led by Sir John French. The first contact between the German army and British army is said to be on the 21 August 1914, when a reconnaissance team ran into a German unit near Obourg. Sadly or luckily Private John Parr became the first British soldier to be killed in action; at least he wouldn’t have to go through the horrors that were to face the British army in the months and years to come. The push at Mons was to ensure the French army would be encircled and Paris reached. This could have ensured a surrender of French forces. However Mons is a canal and the battle was fought with great resistance from the British defenders.

The Battle started at 0900 Hours on the 23rd August 1914, with German artillery hitting British lines, this was then followed by an infantry assault. The main place for the attack was at Nimy Bridge. There were four German battalions attacking, compared to the British’s one. This one regiment (Royal Fusiliers) managed to hold, meaning that the German army attacked on a wider scale, hitting most of the defensive line. The German army marched towards the British in column parade ground formation. This was an idiotic move, and one that seems to show that people do not learn from history (The Russians did something similar at Sebastopol in the Crimean war), the German army moved towards the British, being mowed down by machine gun fire and extraordinary British skill with a rifle. It is said that at Mons, the British fired from fifteen to twenty rounds a minute, cutting the enemy down. The Prussian Guard, the elite of the German army were searching for the machine gun emplacements, when there weren’t any.

It was at the Mons, where the first two Victoria Crosses were awarded. Both were Machine gunners, and kept firing at their positions under exceptional circumstances. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley. Dease fired his weapon when the rest of the machinegun crew had been killed or injured, and although hit four times, he held off the German attack at the Nimy bridge. Godley stayed behind, covering the retreat of his fellow men of the fusiliers, and fired his gun until it had run out of ammo, eventually surrendering to the Germans, after he had destroyed his gun.

It was here where, the Angel of the Mons appeared to the troops, or so the legend says. These angels were said to have helped the British army retreat. A host of phantoms with bows and arrows who were led by a heroic figure on a gleaming white horse encouraged the British fighting men, and drove the German army back, allowing more men to retreat. Now I am not going to say if this really happened or not, I wasn’t there, but this could have been a result of British propaganda, showing the populace that God was on their side. That God was helping them bring down the evil imperialistic German foe, who funnily enough also thought God was on their side. Nonetheless, maybe Angels of the Mons really did appear and brought the British army out from the claws of defeat. Whatever you make of the Angels on the Mons, it shows the importance of religion to the men serving and to those back at home. When you read the poems of the soldiers, you notice this faith, either anger at God or praise. The Angel of the Mons certainly improved morale, and has become a famous myth of WW1.

The reason the British army retreated wasn’t because they were overrun, but because the French had fallen back and left the British army isolated. The British flanks were left dangerously unsecure and therefore holding the line would have been pointless. This meant the British commanding officer, John French, had no option that to initiate a fighting retreat back to Parris. In this time a 5th Battalion had reached France to help with the BEF.

The Great Retreat lasted two whole weeks, the army had to march their way back to the Marne with the German army right on their heels. It meant that the army had to do a fighting retreat, falling back, fighting, and then falling back again. The British army suffered 8,000 casualties at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August.

Who won Mons? Well both sides did, the British did their job, protect the French fifth armies flank. They had inflicted more casualties on the Germans and the battle increased morale, giving a vast superior enemy a bloody nose. However the German army got so close to Paris, they pushed the French and British armies back, and they caused heavy casualties on the British army. Nonetheless, the ground won by the German army was soon recaptured by the British and colonial forces, with the push at Marne proving to be fruitful. Therefore it could be easily said that no one had one Mons, it was just another action in the war that cost thousands of lives. Haig always said it was a war of attrition, if by the end of it there were more British alive than Germans then they had won. Land did not matter as much; it was just a matter of wearing the other side down.

The BEF had suffered heavy casualties, the modern professional army was heavily down on numbers, even with the arrival of the final 6th Battalion at Marne. The army would from this point rely more and more on a volunteer army. The Marne was a successful counter attack, but if it was not for the British resistance at Mons, the German army could have defeated France quickly. 70-80000 men went to France with the BEF, by the end of the war, most of those soldiers did not come back. Only a few survived the entire war, and only a few saw the battle of the Mons. It is hard to find a first-hand account of the battle because of this. It is easy to find statistics and battle strategies, but it is hard to find what the men felt. It is also the reason why it is hard to explain the Angel at the Mons. As we remember the war, the sacrifice of the men must not be forgotten. They weren’t stupid or idiotic to want to fight this war; it’s what the government’s propaganda had been throwing at them for their entire lives; the glory of war, the glory of fighting. Let us not criticise them for that. Let’s learn from our History and not repeat the same mistakes, let us not be numb to violence or death, but avoid it like the plague. The men at the Mons thought it would all be over by Christmas, the war lasted another 4 years. The Mons was just the start.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! Thanks for reading.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 470 other followers