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Great War Leaders: Kitchener needs YOU!

Lord Kitchener /

Lord Kitchener /

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born in 1850. At school in Switzerland he learned perfect French, and later went to Palestine where he picked up near-perfect Arabic. After military college and commissioning he got to Egypt (where his knowledge of languages was useful for a junior officer).

The British were occupying Egypt in 1882, but this was the time of the Mahdi, an almost mythical religious and military leader who caused consternation in Britain by the brilliance of his strategy, and the blind faith in him showed by his followers. (more…)

Great War Commanders: Falkenhayn the honest Junker

Erich von Falkenhayn /

Erich von Falkenhayn /

Eric von Falkenhayn was born in 1861, scion of a typical ‘Junker’ family, which means ‘powerful, noble, landowning, and, not infrequently, bullying and proud as well’. At school he showed intelligence, honesty, self-reliance and bravery, qualities that did not desert him either at military college or later when he was commissioned. (more…)

The Continental System (Blockade)

Constant blockade of the ports: the Continental System /

Constant blockade of the ports: the Continental System /

When I was a schoolboy (the Punic Wars q.v.), Bonaparte’s genial idea was called ‘The Continental System’, a good name but implying a kind of applied plan to Continental economics, rather than a sustained attempt by him to ruin the British nation economically, and force it to sue for peace. In this sense the word ‘blockade’ is more appropriate. It is surprising however, that such a violent word, in these days of euphemism and political correctness, should emerge in the most modern history books – when the word ‘system’ appears infinitely more euphemistic and more politically correct. (more…)

Alexander I, Tsar of Russia

Alexander I, Tsar or Czar of Russia /

Alexander I, Tsar or Czar of Russia /

The future Tsar was born in 1777, a son of the supposedly mad Tsar Paul. Contemporary chroniclers have it that young Alexander was implicated in the murder of his father. This may well be so as the boy had been vigorously educated by a Swiss tutor, a great believer in the French idea of Enlightenment – enlightenment often leads to an excessive wish to reform anything and everything. If you have a mad father you may see killing him as a suitable reform in your life. (more…)

The Vichy Government (Vichy France)

The irony of a Vichy gendarme saluting a Nazi official before the Arc de Triomphe / es-wikipedia-org

The irony of a Vichy gendarme saluting a Nazi official before the Arc de Triomphe / es-wikipedia-org

Three-fifths of France fell to Nazi Germany soon after World War II was declared, though the French army and navy were larger than those of the aggressive Germans. The government moved to a spa town in unoccupied France called Vichy, and on the 10 July, 1940 the National Assembly authorized (by a vote of 569 to 80) the assumption of full powers by the elected Prime Minister, a hero of the First War called Marshal Pétain, pending promulgation of a new constitution. (more…)

What was that Eastern Question?

Turkey was known by the unfriendly sobriquet of ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ during most of the 19th century; the Eastern Question is a collective term for the problems in south-eastern Europe accelerated and exacerbated by the weakness of the Ottoman Turkish Empire; certainly also by animosities of its successors. We shall divide these contentious problems into three principal groups, which tended to overlap, mainly in the 1860s and 70s.

Group A: neighbouring large empires try to benefit themselves at the expense of Turkey:

Russia encroached on the Ottoman Empire through the wars of Catherine the Great (1768 – 74; 1787 – 92), in which she secured the Crimea, and obtained rights in the Danubian Principalities, plus recognition rights for the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (now Istanbul), by treaty in 1774. Russia had fought an indecisive war with Turkey (1806-12) and intervening (or rather interfering) on behalf of Greece in 1828, advancing across the Balkan mountains and imposing the Treaty of Adrianople in 1829. A general desire across Europe to anticipate and if possible avoid the disintegration of the Empire led directly to the Crimean War (q.v.). It must be remembered by students that war in the Crimea meant direct military confrontation between the two great Victorian powers, Britain and Russia, and it might, had it been treated more seriously, have led to a European war. The choice by both sides of commanders who should have been contentedly smoking a pipe by grazing sheep in some meadow, reflecting on past glories ensured only a minor conflagration, though far too many common soldiers died miles from home.

 One of the British commanders had constantly to be reminded that he was fighting the Russians, not the French – as he thought. This might have been because he had fought at Waterloo in 1815.

   Russia increased pressure on Turkey in the 1870s and pushed on to reach the suburbs of Constantinople by 1878, though this action was stopped by the (abortive) Treaty of San Stéfano. Nothing stopped (or stops) Russian expansionism however, and the tendency was revived under Izvolski in the period 1807-10, winning both British and French recognition in the Constantinople Agreements of 1915 – thought these were of course made invalid by the Bolshevik Revolution (q.v.). Austria meanwhile was not uninterested in acquisition of the western Balkans, and achieved success by the occuopation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878. She annexed the provinces in 1908, ensuring that Austria, not Turkey would be troubled hereafter by national hostility. International diplomacy was then, as it now, shaky when it came to possibly negative future results of what seemed to be a good idea at the time. In this case, hatred of the Austrians in Bosnia-Herzogina (q.v.) helped greatly to cause the First World War.

Group B: Attempts to prevent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire:

Both Austria (Metternich’s work) and Russia tried to preserve the Empire, for reasons of their own, but the principal rôle of protector was usually reserved for Britain, at least until 1897. Britain tried to prevent Russia getting hold of the important naval base at Oczacov even as early as 1792. Except during the Greek War of Independence, Britain opposed Russia throughout the nineteenth century; she helped Turkey militarily in the Crimean War and applied diplomatic pressure in 1878, seeking to prevent Russian domination of the Straits by the Convention of 1841 closing the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to foreign warships in time of peace. Meanwhile, Britain tried to persuade the Turks to reform their own repressive governmental methods. Turkey did not like this, and during the visit of the Kaiser (Wilhelm II) to Constantinople in 1898, she began seeking aid and from Germany more than Britain. Germany was delighted and provided important railway and commercial concessions, while she got military instructors in return and actually became Germany’s ally in 1914. See Laurence of Arabia and other articles (q.v.) in

Group C: The rise of independent national states:

In what are called the Middle Ages the Turks had conquered all the then nations in the Balkans. But they became a constant headache for the Ottoman Empire, as they have been a headache ever since. The first of these nationalities subjected to foreign rule were the Serbs who revolted in 1804 and then again in 1815 (the year of Waterloo).

Greece then aroused international sympathy in the War of Independence (1821-30) a war in which incidentally the English poet Lord Byron died (of illness), gaining posthumous Greek ascendance to their gallery of Heroes. Rumania received aid from the French after the Crimean War, until their independence was gained in 1878. Three year earlier in 1875 the Bulgarians rose in revolt, eventually securing recognition as an autonomous united principality in 1886. Formal independence followed in October, 1908. The great mass of the Balkan peoples combined against Turkey in the Balkan War of 1812, resulting in a notable enlargement of Serbia and Greece, and the creation of an independent Albania (q.v.). But, and there is always a ‘but’ a bitter rivalry arose between Serbia and Bulgaria, and they fought each other in the Great War.

  The last (or so the politicians thought) phase of the by now traditional Eastern Question came about because Mustapha Kemal (Turkish leader) tried to save at least the nucleus of a Turkish national state after the great defeat in 1918. Perhaps the Eastern Question was finally solved in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, but many historians doubt it.

What was ‘The Black Hand’?

The Black Hand, a gang involved in the muder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo /

The Black Hand, a gang involved in the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo /

Often appearing in early spy novels, such as the works of John Buchan, Dornford Yates and Somerset Maugham, the Black Hand was actually a Serbian secret society – Ujedinjenje ili Smrt – which does not mean a black hand at all, but ‘unity and Death’. (more…)

A tangled skein: the War of the Spanish Succession

A battle in the War of the Spanish Succession /

A battle in the War of the Spanish Succession /

Not even Frodo trying desperately to cut his way out of Shelob the Spider’s thick cobwebs is like my trying to explain the War of the Spanish Succession. Let us go at it in stages, keep a clear mind and watch out for the snags:

Charles II (Carlos Segundo) died childless in Spain in 1700. A sister had married Louis XIV (the Sun King of France). Another sister had married the Holy Roman Emperor (q.v.) Leopold I. Consequently, both the French Bourbons and the Austrian Habsburgs (q.v.) claimed the right to rule Spain itself and the Spanish Empire. The latter included the southern part of the Netherlands, Milan, Naples, and almost all of Central and South America. There was a lot at stake. (more…)

The House of Habsburg

The Habsburg family tree drawn by Ed Stephen /

The Habsburg family tree drawn by Ed Stephen /

I know that many people who should know better write the above name as Hapsburg. I am not among them, perhaps because I am a retired journalist, not a working one, and it is mostly journalists in Sunday Supplements who make this cardinal error. If you wish to avoid using either ‘b’ or ‘p’ you could call them The House of Austria . . . but that does not prevent them from being the most prominent, some would say enduring royal dynasty in history.

Habsburgs were royally installed on thrones from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The name itself comes from Habichtsburg (Hawk’s Castle) which actually is in Switzerland, not Austria, and has been since 1020. (more…)

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