Saturday, 30 October 2010


The Vodaphone shop in Oxford Street, London,  was closed down this week when over a hundred demonstrators turned up on the doorstep. They were unhappy that Vodaphone has not been paying taxes in the UK. What on earth had been going on?

Johann Hari, writing in the Independent has the answer, "Vodafone has been refusing to pay billions of pounds of taxes to the British people that are outstanding. The company – which has doubled its profits during this recession – engaged in all kinds of accounting twists and turns, but it was eventually ruled this refusal breached anti-tax avoidance rules. They looked set to pay a sum Private Eye calculates to be more than £6bn."

"Then, suddenly, the exchequer – run by George Osborne – cancelled almost all of the outstanding tax bill, in a move a senior figure in Revenues and Customs says is “an unbelievable cave-in.” A few days after the decision, Osborne was promoting Vodafone on a tax-payer funded trip to India. He then appointed Andy Halford, the finance director of Vodafone, to the government’s Advisory Board on Business Tax Rates, apparently because he thinks this is a model of how the Tories think it should be done."
"By contrast, the Indian government chose to pursue Vodafone through the courts for the billions in tax they have failed to pay there. Yes, the British state is less functional than the Indian state when it comes to collecting revenues from the wealthy. This is not an isolated incident. Richard Murphy, of Tax Research UK, calculates that UK corporations fail to pay a further £12bn a year in taxes they legally owe, while the rich avoid or evade up to £120bn."
Although personally not a fan of Twitter, it is a good tool to mobilise like-minded people. This is what happened to Vodaphone. It also exposed the use of 'super injunctions' imposed on the BBC and The Guardian and was instrumental in getting the injunctions overturned. Protest can seem pointless yet a study of the significant social changes in our recent history show just how effective it can be. Votes for Women, Gay Rights, Anti-Racism and even anti-war movements. The latter may not appear to be too effective yet the biographies of Presidents Nixon and Johnson reveal how they were influenced by the anti-Vietnam protests.  
Johann Hari summed it up at the end of his article. "You don’t know what the amazing ripple-effect of your protest will be – but wouldn’t Britain be a better place if it replaced the ripple of impotent anger so many of us are feeling? Yes, you can sit back and let yourself be ripped off by the bankers and the corporations and their political lackeys if you want. But it’s an indulgent fiction to believe that is all you can do. You can act in your own self-defence. As Margaret Mead, the great democratic campaigner, said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Friday, 29 October 2010

Over-rated, overpaid and now tax dodgers too

Not one English footballer appeared in a list of the 23 best players in Europe which appeared earlier this week. However they do appear in an Independent article about tax evasion. 

"Experts in the football industry have told The Independent that around 75 per cent of Premier League clubs are now using a scheme known as EFRBS to allow players to avoid up to 50 per cent of income tax. It has come into the mainstream over the last 18 months as clubs try to find a way around the problem of losing out to clubs from across Europe on players put off by the new 50 per cent top level of income tax that will be introduced in April."

That means that Rooney who is not on the list of 'best players' is reputed to be getting over 200,000 per week and will avoid paying £100,000 tax every week. Every ten weeks that adds up to a million pounds that is not going to the taxman. Most folks would think £100,000 net is still too much for someone who kicks a ball about and is not doing what he is supposed to do - namely score goals. 

The avarice and lack of decency in big football is appalling. When will the fans wake up and smell the greed?

Beautiful game my arse. 

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Another broken promise

In the Coalition Agreement published days after the General Election there is a section devoted to the restoration of civil liberties.
“The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion." 

Good - a much needed reaction to the appalling actions of NewLabour and its cringing posture towards 'security.' It also helped to get inconvenient issues such as torture and surveillance off the radar using the 'national security' cover all.

Included in the Agreement was this little nugget, "Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason."

Now move on a few months and tucked away in the Defence Review is a small paragraph. Plans to set up the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ were abandoned by the former Government ahead of the election, but they have now resurfaced in the hands of the Coalition. 

"We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework. This programme is required to keep up with changing technology and to maintain capabilities that are vital to the work these agencies do to protect the public."

As Liberty put it on their website, "Communications service providers (CSPs) already hold large amounts of communications data and an EU directive that came into force in 2009 now requires that data is retained for 12 months. The proposed measure will require Internet Service Providers and telephone companies to store all the traffic details of their customers’ phone and web use for 12 months, including all third-party communications data that crosses their networks. 

This represents a huge extension of the data currently being collected.  It is also unclear whether the data will be processed differently – previously mooted proposals were to require CSPs to process data on each individual.

Hundreds of public bodies, not just the police and security services, can have access to this type of data, including local authorities.  And there is no need for them to go to a court or any other body to access the data – access can be self-authorised (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000).  

While access to data already held by CSPs can be important in crime-fighting, the scope of this proposal goes beyond that which is necessary and sweeps the innocent up with the guilty.  

So much for the pledge to, "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason". 

We cannot rely on Labour to fight these proposals - their hands are tied by their awful record.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Shameful and Shameless

Having just watched Channel 4's Dispatches chilling programme on the Wikileaks revelations it is useful to see what an official Pentagon mouthpiece says on the issue.

"This is an extraordinary disservice to America’s men and women in uniform," according to Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell.
"More than 150,000 forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are already in considerable danger," he said. “That danger is now exponentially multiplied as a result of this leak because it gives our enemies the wherewithal to look for vulnerabilities in how we operate and to exploit those opportunities and potentially kill our forces. That is just shameful.”

Interesting use of the word 'shameful' by an American stooge. As well as being such a stupid thing to say it is deeply shameless. 

To shoot innocent civilians in their hundreds, collude with torture, cover up hundreds of civil rights abuses, bomb and murder children, create an effective Al Qaida network where none previously existed, spawn thousands upon thousands of insurgents and jihadis, jeopardise security and safety in participating countries, to promote the repugnant Ahmedinijad into some sort of heroic leader figure, to ally our nation with the vicious Israeli regime, to blacken the name of all those engaged in the enterprise around the world, to lower the standing of the invading countries, to not even count the number of Iraqi dead, to not prosecute those responsible for this unholy mess.

Now that really is shameful. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Lies, Damned Lies and the good ole US of A

Whether it be Vietnam, Central America, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan or even Western Europe, the USA stands repeatedly convicted in the court of world public opinion. Yet nothing changes. Generations of US citizens are brought up to revere their President despite tons of contrary evidence stating that as a bunch they are among the most mendacious, untrustworthy and downright dangerous people on the planet. 

The Pentagon's peculiar reaction to the latest Wikileaks revelations fit the template perfectly. Consider what the reaction would have been if the leaks had shown less civilian casualties and less atrocities whilst the US were in charge and so on. It would have been trumpeted from the rooftops about how good the US of A were and there would have been few qualms about the release of sensitive material. 

Drones which kill hundreds of innocent civilians and turn their families into 'insurgents'? You got em. Bombing villages into dust and creating many more anti-NATO insurgents? You got it. Killing thousands of innocent people by 'collateral damage' - (one of the most obscene terms in modern usage)? Ditto.
A military who had to, "Destroy the village to save it from the Vietcong?' You got it.
A CIA who engineered countless revolutions and had dictator after dictator imposed on long-suffering civilian populations in Central and Southern America?
You got it - over and over and over again.

They have learnt nothing. Commanders babble on about 'hearts and minds' and then do everything possible to turn 'hearts and minds' into bitterness and hate. 

A US who believe that Western Europe should co-operate with their military bases to the extent that at one point in the cold war there were many more American service personnel in the UK than British troops. It was not public knowledge then - how many are here now? What do you think the reaction in Hicksville would have been if it became known that there were more foreign soldiers on their sacred soil than homegrown ones?

And do not even mention the Chagos Islanders and the way the Wilson government removed them from their island paradise to make way for an American airbase. Also do not mention how successive governments ever since have fought tooth and nail through the highest courts in the land to maintain that immoral and sickening decision. Yes, that means you, Jack Straw, who used the arcane rules of Parliament to avoid even going to court to keep his tongue firmly embedded in the yankee arse.

Especial thanks should go to Mr T.Blair who took the UK further up the rectum of the USA than any previous Prime Minister. The latest revelations add further fuel to the charge that he should be indicted for war crimes immediately. Don't hold your breath. Although it is believed that he is very careful which countries he visits.

It is awful to appreciate the harm that has been done to our international standing and reputation for fairness by the egregious Blair and his supine cronies. 

We will have to live with the consequences for generations. Thanks Tony. 

And thank you Wikileaks for exposing the lies that we are told repeatedly by our leaders.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Speaking Truth to Power

That is what newspapers and the media are supposed to do in a democracy. Yet listening to the familiar whine from the MOD and the Pentagon, that is the last thing that should happen. Heaven forfend. The people might find out that their military get up to all kinds of illegal acts. And the people may rise up and say unto their leaders, "Piss right off. Up with this we will not put." And that would not do, would it? Think of all the arms sales lost because we actually realised that we were doing more harm than good. And think of all those politicians (of all parties) with very little willies, who get their rocks off making VERY IMPORTANT DECISIONS which we, the common herd would not understand. And think of all the oil we would be unable to make our millions from....

It is not as though the latest Wikileaks disclosures are a surprise. Throughout our recent history our leaders have always suppressed the truth whenever military action occurs. 

From the carnage of the First World War - with its reportage of 'great victories' when nothing of the kind was taking place (which lead inevitably to even more carnage); through the second world war fiascos of Slapton Sands, the uselessness of the RAF in the early years of the war (including an RAF Wellington bombing  one of our own airfields…true, see Max Hastings book 'Bomber Command'); the Korean War and General McCarthur wanting to use the atomic bomb on the North Koreans and the Chinese; many many Cold War incidents; Vietnam: Mai Lai; Iraq and now Afghanistan. Throughout, there is an underlying theme of saying nothing. 

First - cover it up. Second - blame the messenger. Third - launch an enquiry with a vague remit and kick the problem well into the long grass. Fourth - launch another enquiry (or in the case of the Iraq War, launch several, that way they can then disagree with each other- brilliant). Fifth - many, many years later - an approximation of the truth may emerge. By this time most of the villains of the piece will have been long dead. 

This process does not apply to third and some second world countries hence the appearance of certain leaders and ex-leaders at the War Crimes Court in the Hague. Unless and until Tony Blair and his ilk appear in said dock, the court will not be truly International - nor fair.

And this Ladies and Gentlemen is democracy in action (or democracy inaction). It's  sick bucket time again.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Dirty Digger Praises Thatcher and Cameron

Says all you need to know. The despicable head of News Corp tonight praised Thatcher in a speech to the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. He also praised the drastic action that  Cameron was taking. Do not expect to see any critical voices in the Times, Sunday Times, the Sun, News of the Phone Tap and Sky. 

What is really sickening is the way New Labour arse-licked their way round Rupert's backside before and when they were comfortably in power and did not put in place the necessary controls to curb his empire. The current bunch will be just as craven. So much for telling truth to power.

Just how important this is cannot be overemphasised. New Labour did nothing to row back the Thatcherite policies they inherited. Both major parties were in hock to the City. The Lib Dems have fallen for the siren-song of power. The open festering sore that is the vast amounts of unearned lucre paid to Bankers and Wankers has not been addressed. Yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at the governments figures released yesterday and declared, "poor people would be hit harder than the rich." 

As Tariq Ali wrote in a small column in the Guardian this week, "This is a country without an official opposition. An extra-parliamentary upheaval is not simply necessary to combat the cuts, but also to enhance democracy that at the moment is designed to further corporate interests and little more. Bailouts for bankers and the rich, an obscene level of defence expenditure to fight Washington's wars, and cuts for the less well off and the poor. A topsy-turvy world produces its own priorities. They need to be contested. These islands have a radical past, after all, that is not being taught in the history modules on offer. Given the inability of the official parliament to meet real needs why not the convocation of regional and national assemblies with a social charter that can be fought for and defended just as Shelley advised just under two centuries ago:
Ye who suffer woes untold
Or to feel or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.
[. . .]
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few."
No chance of a Sun or Screws reader rising from their slumber - kept fed on a celebrity and gossip diet. And the egregious Adam Boulton at Sky won't rattle any cages either.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Lift up the mat and see what crawls out?

The government made great play of the support from several 'Captains of Industry' (more accurately, cheeses in charge of retail and financial services). It is instructive to take a look at the credibility of some of the CEO's who put their names to the toadying letter in the Telegraph.
Prime suspect No.1 Ian Livingston CEO of BT who trousered £2,105,000 in 2010.
Anyone with recent dealings with BT will know he has not earned one penny of that wad. Have a problem? Dial our 'Helpline' (what a misnomer that is) and get through to Mumbai Madness. Talk to other sufferers and you get comments like, 'You cannot trust a word they say' and 'Read the small print - which is why despite the offers you always seem to end up paying more.' So - he has outsourced help to the point of it being unhelpful and runs a company you cannot trust. 
No. 2 Ruby McGregor CEO of the Mitie Group: This company is a major cleaning company in the UK. The great majority of its workers are paid the minimum wage or just above it. The simple little rule that a CEO should not earn more than 10X the lowest paid worker would give Ms McGregor about £100,000. This is some way short of the £1,157,000 she is currently stuffing in her handbag.
Finally, Sir Stuart Rose, Chairman of Marks and Spencer, the well known 'national treasure' who is paid £2,606,000 a year. This is the company who have closed down hundreds of clothing manufacturers in this country and have sent thousands of jobs to the sweatshops of the Far East.

Would you trust any of these leeches to provide the 500,000 jobs needed by those about to be made redundant?

With friends like these...

Thanks to the Independent for salary details

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

House of Frauds

'Baroness Uddin should repay £125,349 "to which she was not entitled" - saying claims were "made wrongly and in bad faith" - and be suspended until the end of the current parliamentary session, around Easter 2012. The report suggested she did not have the means to repay the money.' BBC Online 18/10/10
The fact that this thief can get away with it sticks in all the craw of all decent folk. All  this guff Osborne keeps parroting about 'benefit fraud' pales into insignificance against the daylight robbery carried on 'legally' by our so called leaders. Whether it be tax avoidance or Expenses fiddles - it stinks. And as the Despatches programme (Channel 4 18/10/10) made very clear, tax avoidance thrives at the heart of the Tory party, whether it be Cabinet Ministers or Tory donors. A Cabinet Minister claiming millions in dividends from his company does not even have to declare it in his interest record.
All within the rules but without a vestige of morality. Or credibility.
It all seriously undermines the current mantra, "We're all in this together." 
A 'Benefit Fraudster' walking off with over £100,000 would expect to go to jail. A Peer of the Realm? Suspension from the House of Lords! Big deal. How about, 'Stripped of Peerage' - Charged - and if proved guilty, thrown in jail'  Alongside the other two sleazeball peers recommended for suspension. 
And as for those egregious MP's who are fighting every inch of the way to avoid their day in court…….
Nothing like a few show trials to concentrate minds.

Monday, 18 October 2010

FIFA Bribery Investigation

Did I hear that right? FIFA is going to investigate allegations of bribery in the World Cup bidding process. 
Ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha,ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
[Wipes tears from eyes - no, no, stop]

Sunday, 17 October 2010


Continuing the theme of what we are not told and why it matters to the way we run our affairs. 

One of the most disturbing trends in recent years has been the growth in the use of pilotless equipment to fly over supposedly friendly territory and bomb the hell out of our allies. Or officially, 'Fighting the War on Terror.' 

 Johann Hari, writing in the Independent put it so much better. "Imagine if, an hour from now, a robot-plane swooped over your house and blasted it to pieces. The plane has no pilot. It is controlled with a joystick from 7,000 miles away, sent by the Pakistani military to kill you. It blows up all the houses in your street, and so barbecues your family and your neighbours until there is nothing left to bury but a few charred slops. Why? They refuse to comment. They don't even admit the robot-planes belong to them. But they tell the Pakistani newspapers back home it is because one of you was planning to attack Pakistan. How do they know? Somebody told them. Who? You don't know, and there are no appeals against the robot."

"Now imagine it doesn't end there: these attacks are happening every week somewhere in your country. They blow up funerals and family dinners and children. The number of robot-planes in the sky is increasing every week. You discover they are named "Predators", or "Reapers" – after the Grim Reaper. No matter how much you plead, no matter how much you make it clear you are a peaceful civilian getting on with your life, it won't stop. What do you do? If there was a group arguing that Pakistan was an evil nation that deserved to be violently attacked, would you now start to listen?"

"This sounds like a sketch for the next James Cameron movie – but it is in fact an accurate description of life in much of Pakistan today, with the sides flipped. The Predators and Reapers are being sent by Barack Obama's CIA, with the support of other Western governments, and they killed more than 700 civilians in 2009 alone – 14 times the number killed in the 7/7 attacks in London. The floods were seen as an opportunity to increase the attacks, and last month saw the largest number of robot-plane bombings ever: 22. Over the next decade, spending on drones is set to increase by 700 per cent."
"The US government doesn't even officially admit the programme exists: Obama's most detailed public comment on it was when he jokingly told the boy band the Jonas Brothers that he would unleash the drones on them if they tried to chat up his daughter. But his administration says, behind closed doors, that these robot-plane attacks are "the only show in town" for killing suspected jihadis. They do not risk the lives of US soldiers, who remain in Virginia and control the robot-planes as if they were in a video game. They "undermine the threat to the West" by "breaking up training camps, killing many people conspiring against us, and putting the rest on the run".
"But is this true? The press releases uncritically repeated by the press after a bombing always brag about "senior al-Qa'ida commanders" killed – but some people within the CIA admit how arbitrary their choice of targets is. One of their senior figures told The New Yorker: "Sometimes you're dealing with tribal chiefs. Often they say an enemy of theirs is al-Qa'ida because they want to get rid of somebody, or they made crap up because they wanted to prove they were valuable so they could make money."
"True, the programme has certainly killed some real jihadis. But the evidence suggests it is creating far more jihadis than it kills – and is making an attack on you or me more likely with each bomb."
"Drone technology was developed by the Israelis, who routinely use it to bomb the Gaza Strip. I've been in Gaza during some of these attacks. The people there were terrified – and radicalised. A young woman I know who had been averse to political violence and an advocate of peaceful protest saw a drone blow up a car full of people – and she started supporting Islamic Jihad and crying for the worst possible revenge against Israel. Robot-drones have successfully bombed much of Gaza, from secular Fatah to Islamist Hamas, to the brink of jihad."
"Is the same thing happening in Pakistan? David Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency expert who worked for General Petraeus in Iraq and now advises the State Department. He has shown that two per cent of the people killed by the robot-planes in Pakistan are jihadis. The remaining 98 per cent are as innocent as the victims of 9/11. He says: "It's not moral." And it gets worse: "Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased."
"Professor of Middle Eastern history Juan Cole puts it more bluntly: "When you bomb people and kill their family, it pisses them off. They form lifelong grudges... This is not rocket science. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be." This is why all the people who have been captured or defected from Osama Bin Laden's circle, from his bodyguard to his son, say the same: he is delighted when Western governments fight back by recklessly killing Muslims."
"Of course jihadism is not motivated solely by attacks against Muslim countries by the West. Some of it is motivated by a theocratic desire to control and tyrannise other humans in the most depraved ways: to punish women who wish to feel the sun on their hair, for one. Yet it is a provable fact that violence against Muslims tips many more people into retaliatory jihadi violence against us. Even the 2004 report commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld said that "American direct intervention in the Muslim world" was the primary reason for jihadism." The Independent 15/10/10
Apart from very infrequent articles like this, where are the voices in the mainstream media challenging this idiotic, self-defeating policy? And as for the saintly Obama. What the hell does he think he is doing?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Military Mendacity

The triumphant mood at the start of the First World War swept across Europe. Armies marched off accompanied by fair maidens blessing them with flowers and to the cheers of the populace. The mass media fanned the fervour. The Germans believed they would beat the French in 40 days. The British believed 'it would all be over by Christmas.' How wrong they were. Very few cautious words were heard.

The French attacks at the start of the war were a disaster. Brightly uniformed troops charged headlong into massive artillery bombardment and machine gun fire. The catastrophic beginning was not reported as such by the media and the sorry story was to be repeated several times before the grim reality emerged.

Nothing much has changed. Earlier on this week there was yet another example of how bad news is spun by our so-called betters. As the Independent pithily put it in an editorial, it is acutely counter-productive. It also feels that the first impulse of 'the authorities' is to cover things up. It is only when alternative sources dig out what really happened that the truth crawls gasping for breath into the open.
"How often have we been here before? The wedding party bombed in July 2008: the US claimed there were no civilian victims, but an Afghan commission revealed that 47 had died; the seven children killed by Task Force 373 in an unprovoked and secret attack in June 2007, their deaths hushed up until revealed by Wikileaks; the three women, two of them pregnant, shot dead in February this year "by militants" it was claimed, until former Independent correspondent Jerome Starkey revealed that they had been killed by Nato forces. The list goes on.
Why this compulsion to mislead? The accumulated weight of mendacity, the insistence that the enemy is evil incarnate and our boys invariably heroic, is merely sickening. The attempt by US forces to rescue Linda Norgrove may or may not have been as urgent as claimed; it is impossible to judge. We cannot doubt that it was difficult and dangerous, and if they had pulled it off we would have been as glad as anyone. But why the need to obscure the truth about how it ended? Why go to such lengths to spell out the alleged cause of Linda's death when the miserable truth was bound to emerge? Why prevail on our Foreign Office to release a statement – "There is nothing at all to suggest that US fire was the cause of death" – which it would be required in short order to eat?
There is growing dismay about the war in Afghanistan on both sides of the Atlantic. It is questionable whether it was ever winnable, but it is becoming clearer by the day that we are not winning it: Hamid Karzai's government is in disarray, beset by corruption scandals and a banking crisis; the Afghan national army shows few signs of developing into a force capable of taking on the Taliban, whose grip on the country tightens by the day. Meanwhile Nato continues to produce its misleading statements." The Independent 12/10/10
This lack of truthful reporting is very dangerous for a democracy. Why it might lead a Prime Minister to declare war on another country based on a completely false premise. And as for Afghanistan? Bear in mind that most of the country is a no-go zone for journalists. Truthful objective reporting? Hardly.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Sublime Ignorance - Brutal Reality

Having visited a small proportion of the many memorials and cemeteries in Flanders it became imperative to find out why the carnage happened. Researching the causes it became a little clearer. 
The ground had been made fertile by a series of secret and semi-secret treaties. German Imperialism was a threat to the British Empire.The French were embarrassed by their humiliation in 1870 and had re-armed accordingly. The Russians were in a state of non-stop turmoil. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was in decline. Communism and Socialism were on the rise in industrial heartlands across Europe. The old order was under threat.

And then as AJP Taylor says, there was the railway system. All the participants had elaborate mobilisation plans and once begun, there was an inexorable inevitability about it all. A more recent parallel arose during the Cold War. The 'defence' policy was based on Mutually Assured Destruction. There was much talk about striking first and knocking out your enemy before he could land a blow. This made the situation between the Soviet Union and the West very tense. There were many false alarms with aircrew scrambled and missiles primed. Communications were better though and the world pulled back from the brink. That did not happen in 1914. Once armies were entrained and rolling, there was no way of calling a halt.

Having all the pieces in place, it is astonishing how quickly the final acts towards war happened. Right up to the end of July most Britons were enjoying a glorious summer and blissfully unaware of the imminent cataclysm. The British Government were more occupied with troubles in Ireland. Events in Serbia seemed a long way off. Once Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated events had moved quickly. Crucially Britain had a treaty with Belgium protecting its neutrality. The Germans expected the Belgians to allow them to use their country to launch the Schlieffen Plan. This would entail a rapid incursion through Belgium and northern France to sweep around behind the French massive fortifications on the French/German frontier. A forty day war similar to the victory of 1870 was the plan.

It did not quite work out as planned. On the 4th August 1914 the Germans invaded Belgium. The Belgians were unimpressed and resisted. The British Expeditionary Force (Regulars and Territorials) held up the attack at the Battle of Mons. The train system was used to move thousands of French troops   to help block the advance and German momentum was lost. From those rapid beginnings the war settled into a giant stalemate. 

And the carnage began. 

Monday, 11 October 2010

Memorials and cemeteries

The difference in the way countries and cultures tackle the issue of their dead service personnel is interesting. Normandy and North Eastern France/Belgium were revealing areas to visit, not only for the differences but also for the sheer number and range of cemeteries in the battlefield areas. 

The US one at Colleville Sur Mer, which featured in 'Saving Private Ryan,' receives over two million visitors every year. Almost 10,000 US troops are buried there - barely a third of the total killed. 64% of the bodies were repatriated to the States at the behest of their families. The place is immaculately maintained, has a large visitor centre/museum and a huge memorial. Row upon row of simple white crosses with name, rank, age and date of death on them. Soldiers who received the Medal of Honor had their details written in gold. The site overlooks the Omaha Beach where many Americans died trying to get ashore and inland. 

Not far away is the large German Cemetery at La Cambe. What a contrast. The French were distinctly unhappy at the idea of giving land to their invaders. Bodies initially buried in many other parts of Normandy were re-buried here in the fifties - many by members of the International Peace Corps who used volunteer young people for the task. The Museum/Exhibition Centre promotes world peace and has many anti-war messages. Because space is at a premium, many grave sites contain 4 or more bodies (or what was left of them). In the centre is a large mound with a sombre statue on it and this covers several thousand unknown soldiers. Again, well maintained, with symbolic rows of 4 dark crosses - the actual graves are flat tablets on the ground with name, rank and date of death (if known). Very few of the graves have any other adornment. There was one though, which stood out. The grave of SS Obersturmfuhrer Michael Wittman had German flags, flowers and wreaths on it. Turns out he was an ace tank commander who knocked out over a hundred tanks on the Eastern Front and then added another 30+ in Normandy. He was killed when his tank was surrounded by five allied tanks who fired simultaneously at it. His grave is probably like so many others, symbolic rather than real.

The British and Commonwealth cemeteries were different again. Immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they contained row upon row of simple headstones with lovely flowerbeds. Each stone had the name, rank, regiment, date of death and crucially a statement from the family. Many of these were of the 'He did his duty' type or quotations from the bible. A good third were heartfelt, simple messages to a beloved son, husband, father. Absolutely devastating to read the impact the deaths had on those left behind. Powerful and very affecting.

In the Artois area north of Arras there is a French National Cemetery which contained the remains of over 80,000 soldiers killed in that area in the first World War. There were nearly 50,000 buried, another 20,000 remains in an ossuary (bone store). This had a huge tower on top which could be seen for miles. In addition there were two patches of ground, each about the size of a penalty area containing another 10,000 bodies who were unknown and unidentified. The markings on the simple crosses of those buried there - a name and date of death - nothing else. 

The French lost one million, three hundred thousand men from a population of 40 million, mainly between the ages of 18 - 40. The Germans lost over a million as did the British and Commonwealth forces. Why? What was it all for?

The state of the battlefields, particularly in the First World War was such that vast numbers of killed were never found. The colossal Thiepval Memorial by the Somme has the names of over 75,000 British and Commonwealth troops on it who were never found. The site also has a new museum, part of which has a small theatre playing a slide/soundtrack of the build up to the battle (of the Somme), what happened and the aftermath. Tears streaming at the colossal waste, the folly of the Pals Battalions and the arrogant stupidity of the general staff, it is an emotionally very powerful place.

The town of Ypres (known to the Tommies as 'Wipers') was completely flattened between 1914 and 1918. At the end of the war, Winston Churchill wanted to keep it as a permanent memorial to the fallen. The French did this in the area around Verdun. The good people of Ypres had other ideas however and the whole place was rebuilt in the medieval style of the original. And very well done it was too. They did allow a massive memorial to be built within the town - the Menin Gate. This is another place of pilgrimage for relatives from all over the world. On this marble and stone archway are listed over 50,000 names of missing British and Commonwealth troops from the battlefields around Ypres. At 8-00pm every night the traffic is stopped and the last post is played. Members of the War Graves Commission staff take it in turns to perform the task along with members of the Ypres Fire Brigade. It is a most moving ceremony. The fact that the arch embraces a busy roadway into Ypres is somehow apt. As the citizens go about their daily business they are reminded just how important this place has become to peoples from around the world. 

The German cemeteries in this area are different in style from La Cambe in Normandy. The  Germans came to stay and therefore devoted a lot more pomp and stature to their WW1 fallen. They are well maintained with the predominant marking being 'Eine Deutche Soldat.' Seeing the devastation caused in this area by repeated German Imperialism, it is amazing to see how well the countries get on within the EU. 

The surprising thing about the British cemeteries was the sheer number of them. Having expected to see some huge ones, it was unexpected to see marker after marker at crossroads, pointing the way to yet more cemeteries. Outside villages, in towns, by main roads, in fields, small, medium and large. Just so many - and all beautifully maintained. And all places of homage. 

One of the most affecting places visited was outside the village of Poziers. This was a fiercely fought over patch of ground and claimed the lives of 23,000 Australian officers and men who launched 19 attacks in 45 days. The ruined windmill stands as a significant reminder of the grim events of 94 years ago. Instead of giant marble columns and anguished statues there were simply lots of tiny Australian flags fluttering in the wind on a small mound alongside wreaths and small memorial crosses. 

Finally, one discovery which needs more research. There is a quote in 'The First World War' by John Keegan, in a passage about the fiasco of Gallipoli, which takes some comprehending, "The Turks, who bothered neither to bury or count their dead, had probably lost 300,000 men killed, wounded and missing." 

The Turks neither buried or counted their dead! Can that be true? And if so, why?

Friday, 8 October 2010

Normandy landings v Flanders fields

Arriving at the D-Day landing sites is a real shock to any preconceptions. First, the scale of the enterprise was enormous. Until you visit it means little. In the flesh it is seriously incredible what was achieved. Within a week a front had been established which was 65 miles wide and between 5 and 15 miles deep. Considering the range of armaments and the Atlantic defensive wall ranged against the allies this was a considerable and remarkable achievement. The ingenuity, bravery and capability on show frequently displayed the finest human qualities.

Visiting the battle sites it was clear that there were some audacious achievements. In particular, the capture of the heavy gun battery at Merville. This was on the eastern flank of the invasion. The heavy guns were in deep concrete casements, surrounded by minefield and barbed wire with anti-aircraft and machine gun protection too.  They were aimed at the landing sites of Sword beach.
The commander of the parachute regiment assigned the task of putting the guns out of action had the Royal Engineers build a replica of the battery near their headquarters - with dummy minefields, barbed wire etc. He then had his men practice capturing it nine times before he was satisfied that the mission was likely to be successful.

They were among the very first to land on French soil on D Day. Unfortunately only 10% of the force landed where they were supposed to. The rest were scattered over 50 square miles. Were they daunted by this lack of men and material? Were they hell as like. With a small force they achieved their objective and put the guns out of action. As a French General said later, "They did not know it was impossible, so they did it." 

Similarly at Pegasus Bridge, where 3 gliders landed incredibly close to their objective and held the crucial bridges over the canal and the river until relieved. Courage, initiative, incredible skill and audacity paid off. 

The reaction of the citizenry to their liberators was also very moving. At the village of Graignes, south of Carentan, many more paratroopers landed much further south than intended in flooded areas and were drowned. The survivors headed for the nearest landmark- the local church, where they assembled. The villagers held a meeting where they agreed to help the troops - knowing that if they were caught by the Germans they would be shot. The villagers initially helped retrieve equipment and ammunition from the flooded areas and marshes around the village. They also fed the troops. The Germans cottoned on that this group of paratroopers were there after several of their men had been killed in skirmishes. They launched a series of counter-attacks and overran the village. Surviving troops were rounded up, taken a few miles away and shot. The people who had helped from the village were also shot. 

It became clear that although the casualty figures in the invasion were high, there was a purpose and a reason for the action. This was not at all apparent on the Western Front from World War One.

Any casualty figures from the Normandy landings were rendered insignificant in the face of the wholesale slaughter that took place along the Western Front. The largest cemetery visited in Northern France was a German one at La Cambe which contained over 45,000 bodies. At Thiepval, on the Somme there is a massive and magnificent memorial to the 75,000 troops of Britain and the Commonwealth who were killed in action - but whose bodies have never been found. This situation was replicated over and over again as 'Unknown Soldier' headstones testified at cemetery after cemetery. 

What was it all for? The sheer folly and stupidity of the general staffs (on all sides) takes some believing. Sheer weight of numbers was deemed to be sufficient to win the day when it was clear very early on that the technology of defence - machine gun - train lines delivering replacements -; was always going to overcome the technology of advance - barrage - walk towards the opposing trenches - meet barbed wire - die.

This was not a holiday in the normal sense. There is much more processing to be done trying to understand what happened and why.

All Cabinet Ministers and Prime Ministers should undergo an induction period into office which involves visiting the sites in Flanders. 

That means you Mr Cameron. Given such an induction - would you have behaved the same Mr Blair?