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Gregory’s Meridian, St Andrews

I was in St Andrews at the back end of September and spotted this on the pavement in south South Street. I don’t think I’d noticed it before. Is it relatively new?

It is Gregory’s Meridian line.

A plaque on the wall gives more information.

James Gregory looks to have been one of the 17th century’s greatest scientists. A meridian, Calculus, the diffraction grating and a type of telescope?

Remembrance….. and Forgetting

This morning I read yesterday’s Long Read article in The Guardian, which was entitled The Myth of the Good War.

In it Geoffrey Wheatcroft argued that the general understanding of the two major wars of the twentieth century is somewhat skewed, with World War 1 being thought of as wasteful and useless while the Second World War (he makes a good case for that itself being two separate wars, one in Europe the other in the Pacific) is looked at as unquestionably fought in a good cause.

The contrast he highlighted in the casualty rates of the two World Wars is noteworthy. Millions more died in WW2 compared to the Great War, but the vast majority of them were civilians (figures only slightly unbalanced by the systematic slaughter of Jews by the Nazis; even taking the six or seven million killed in the Holocaust out of the equation still vastly more civilians died in the prosecution of World War 2 than in the First World War.) A good war?

And the British experience of the two wars differed. Many fewer Britons/Empire citizens died in the second war than in the first. On this last point Wheatcroft doesn’t quite bring out the fact that for most of WW2 Britain and its Empire/Dominions was a very minor combatant, with its armies not involved in the main fighting – a very different situation to, for example, 1917/18 when British/Empire/Dominion forces bore the brunt of the war on the Allied side.

Wheatcroft suggests this notion of the good war has been pernicious, leading to a willingness on the part of politicians to contemplate war far more readily than they ought – especially those who have never experienced a battlefield for themselves. Very unlike their First World War predecessors. In that war many MPs joined up, or their sons were killed – and the casualty rate for officers was higher than for other ranks.

A Day of Battle: Mars-La-Tour 16th August 1870 by David Ascoli

Birlinn, 2001, 384 p.

 A Day of Battle cover

I picked this up in a remainder bookshop and was intrigued by the blurb describing it as “one of the most decisive but least well-known battles in history.” I knew of course of the wider war it was a part of, the Franco-Prussian War (the author says that is a misnomer, since after the Austro-Prussian War the South German States were treaty-bound to take Prussia’s side in the event of war so it was really a Franco-German war) but not too much of its detail.

The immediate background of the war is well laid out; the German resentment at continually being pushed around by the French over the previous centuries; Bismarck’s determination to inveigle France into war as a means to unite the German states under Prussian leadership; his manipulation of an impasse over the succession to the Spanish throne (the war is therefore also the Second Spanish War of Succession) and of the wording of the Ems telegram to make it appear as an insult; but the war was totally unnecessary. The well entrenched regime of Napoleon III declared it due to public opinion in Paris, in effect in a hissy fit.

While their soldiers performed admirably the French armies were poorly handled. The commander, Marshal Bazaine – the first Frenchman to achieve that lofty rank after starting his career as a Fusilier (in British terms a private) was in doubt about their prospects from the start, “Nous marchons à un désastre.” (“We are walking into a disaster.”) Sadly General Ducrot’s belter of a remark on the situation the French later found themselves in at Sedan “Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdé,” (“We are in a chamber pot, and we’re going to be shat on,”) is not recounted here.

While personally brave and having a distinguished record in the Crimea and elsewhere Bazaine was temperamentally unsuited to the highest command. He did not feel comfortable being in control of other high ranking officers who were his social superiors. His indecision and caution, his lack of appreciation of the possibility of a crushing victory were fatal. With the exception of First Army’s General Steinmetz, who nearly threw victory away, the Germans were much better served.

According to the author the decisive day of the war was not at Sedan but at Mars la Tour (or Vionville.) The French Army of the Rhine was trying to escape to Verdun from Metz as a result of the defeat of the Army of Chalons in earlier engagements. A small portion of the German army attacked it in the belief it was only a rearguard. Eventually realising his position General Alvensleben, in charge of III Corps, bluffed the French by continual attacks crucially backed up by artillery. His last gamble, known as Von Bredow’s Death Ride, was the last time a cavalry charge had an influence on the outcome of a battle. (The writing on the wall for that military arm was amply demonstrated elsewhere in the conflict, however.) Had the French Generals realised the weakness of the German force and the chance of catching the rest of the German army in flank they could have won a crushing victory. As it was it is the authors contention that all that followed, another two French defeats, the retreat to Metz, the investment there, the Army of Chalons marching to the relief of the Army of the Rhine for political rather than military reasons, its encirclement at Sedan, the fall of Napoleon III’s dynasty, the Commune, the Siege of Paris, the unification of Germany, the ceding of Alsace and Lorraine, sowed the seeds of the First and Second World Wars and that this could have been prevented by a different outcome at Mars la Tour.

Like the US Civil War less than a decade earlier, this was an industrialised war. (The heavy casualties in both these conflicts ought to have signalled to anyone concerned the devastation that modern weapons inflicted.)

The book is lavishly provided with maps and photographs of the battleground locations but the text leaves something to be desired. The phrases, “It will be remembered that,” “The reader will recall,” “As we shall see,” “As we have seen,” “And this is why,” occur frequently and annoyingly. In addition the book goes on to recount the Battles of Gravelotte and St Privat of two days later but rather undermines its own main argument by saying that here too better French leadership could have ensured the Germans were beaten.

Another Anniversary

Barely a month after the hundredth anniversary of Great Britain’s entry into what became known as The Great War, today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the similar joining (more a sidling in than any sort of assertive entrance) of what would grow into the turmoil that overshadowed not only the lives of its participants but also the childhoods of the generation born just after it, my generation; to wit the Second World War – an altogether more vicious, horrific and all-encompasing meat-grinder than its earlier counterpart, despite the perceptions of the two conflicts in this country.

I noted its seventieth anniversary five years ago. Five years gone in a flash.

The war was later described as six years of utter boredom punctuated by ten minutes of sheer terror. That would be a British perspective. I think the Great Patriotic War as fought in the Soviet Union was pretty much sheer terror all the way. The soldiers there would have considered World War 1 trenches a doddle by comparison.

My father was in the Territorial Army and so was called up immediately and travelled into France, without benefit of passport, and Belgium on the end of the Phoney War. Like the rest of the BEF he was soon back in France again (briefly, before being evacuated at Dunkirk) after at one point being a field away from an oncoming German tank. In later 1940 he spent days jumping off a ship into the North Sea in what was apparently a ruse to con the Germans into thinking we were going to invade Europe that year. (I doubt it worked.)

He re-entered Europe some time after D-Day (again without benefit of passport) spending the winter of 1944-5 in Holland but never actually saw action. I was perhaps lucky there. If he had he might have been killed in which case I could not have been born. A sobering thought.

He finally obtained a passport in the 1980s.

Great Tapestry of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Art Deco Heritage 10: TSB Bank London Road

A couple of weeks ago, mostly on the good lady’s volition, we travelled to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland which was on show at the Scottish Parliament building. Its exhibition there finishes sometime in September and it will eventually end up in Melrose when the new rail line to the borders is complete.

It’s quite an impressive collection – of embroidery rather than tapestry but Hey-ho – of over 100 panels stitched by volunteers from round Scotland each one illustrating a piece of Scottish history.

I may get round to posting other views of the panels but this one featured Dumbarton Rock, which in 870 AD (or 870 CE if you prefer) fell to the Vikings:-

on the way back to where we’d parked I captured the building below on pixels. I’d passed it many times before in the car but never stopped near enough by. It’s the TSB bank in East Norton Place (London Road) Edinburgh.

The pillars on the corners are good. The street sign on the bank also says East Norton Place. From the other side the pillars are again stand outs. The style of the number 30 is nicely deco too.

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Vintage, 2013, unpaginated. Translated from the French HHhH (© Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle 2009) by Sam Taylor.

 HHhH cover

HHhH is a strange book, claiming to be a novel, but which is also a historical account of Operation Anthropoid, the British-backed mission to assassinate the head of both the Gestapo and the SD and architect of the Nazis “Final Solution” to what they called “the Jewish Problem,” Reinhard(t) Heydrich, (he removed the final “t” of his forename to make it sound harder) in Prague in 1942. The narrator makes much of his attempts to be true to his characters’ actual lives, saying he will eschew invention of dialogue where possible, commenting on occasions where he does so. He asserts his heroes are the assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš (one Czech, one Slovak at the insistence of President-in-exile Beneš) and other members of the resistance, yet they and the assassination itself take up only a small portion of the novel which is really the story of Heydrich’s life and an examination of the insanities of the Nazi belief system and organisation. Along the way we delve deep into the roots of the Czech-German dispute – in mediæval times a Bohemian king invited miners from Germany to exploit the silver deposits found in his kingdom – we digress into the origins of the Reformation in the Hussite heresy and, solely because Heydrich visited Ukraine, the heroism of the Ukrainian footballers who took on the previously undefeated Luftwaffe team with ten men and despite being warned to lose at half-time, triumphed 5-1. A few days later they also won the return against a team bolstered by “professional” players from Berlin. [I put that “professional” in quotes because I’m sure I read somewhere else – probably in Inverting the Pyramid – that the pre-war German game was amateur and the Nazis believed only amateur sport was true sport. Professional football only developed in Germany after the war.] The Ukrainians also won the hastily arranged return match and all but three players, who escaped in the confusion of a pitch invasion at the end, were executed.

The narrator mentions the many books and films featuring Heydrich and/or the assassination which he has sought out or encountered – mainly to emphasise their historical inaccuracies – and puts in a good word for Conspiracy where Kenneth Branagh portrayed Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference but scorns most other representations. Despite his apparently encyclopædic knowledge of Heydrich’s afterlife in book and film he makes no mention of the only other I have seen bar Conspiracy, a film called Operation: Daybreak starring Anthony Andrews as Gabčík, but he does dwell on the novel on which the film was based, Seven Men at Daybreak by Alan Burgess.

The first person narration is a piece of authorial trickery. We are invited to believe it is by Binet himself but the narrator does his military service teaching French at an academy in Slovakia, Prague is the city he loves most in the world, yet the author is French – HHhH won the first-novel Prix Goncourt in 2010 – and the constant references to his attempts to establish facts (for example he dithers over whether Heydrich’s Mercedes was black or green; his memory has it as black but the museum exhibit he saw may have been a substitute, an otherwise reliable book has it as green) subtly undermine reliability. In a sly aside he mentions that – contrary to the perennial defence trotted out by ex-Nazis to defray blame for their actions – Heydrich was not averse to disobeying orders when the opportunity to be lenient was available. Heydrich was never lenient.

It seems Heydrich was also supremely arrogant, usually travelling round Prague with no escort, a fact which troubled Albert Speer on his visit to the city and to whom Heydrich says in the novel, “Why should my Czechs shoot me?” Heydrich had previously been shot down on the Eastern Front after a reckless chase of a Soviet plane in an attempt to make himself a war hero, causing great apprehension in Berlin till he got himself back to German lines. Hitler banned any further such adventures. Yet Heydrich didn’t learn. His only companion on the day of the assassination was his driver. After his death the book has Hitler berating his carelessness, saying, “Men as important as Heydrich should always know that they are like targets at a fairground.”

Except for those parts dealing with the narrator’s research and primary readers’ comments the book is for the most part written in the historic present. (John Humphrys would not like it, then.) Its unusual title is from the German Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.) The original title Operation Anthropoid was apparently “too SF” – !!!! – “too Robert Ludlum.”

The climax of the German hunt for the assassins and their comrades, fruitless until they were betrayed by a fellow parachutist for the reward of twenty thousand crowns, is dealt with in a few pages. Of course, there are no eye witness accounts of the final moments in the crypt at the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, as the group held out till their ammunition was about to be exhausted and killed themselves with their last bullets.

The narrator quotes George Sand – “Struggle against those who tell you: ‘Work hard to live badly’” – which he says is “not an invitation to digress – it’s a demand.” One of the Nazis is stated as thinking, “Scapegoats at all costs – that could be the Reich’s motto.”

Notwithstanding the lack of tension – surely any interested reader will already know the outcome – and the digressive nature of the treatment the book is immensely readable. It’s easy to see why it won the praise it has received.

The translation was excellent (except for its unfortunate forays into USian – ass for arse, jerked off.)

Poetry in the Great War

The Great War is remembered through the poetry it inspired – In Flanders Fields, the works of Sassoon, Owen and Rosenberg – most of which emphasise the loss and the pity.

It’s perhaps difficult to appreciate now but there was a burst of enthusiasm for war in the immediate aftermath of its declaration in 1914. This also manifested itself in poetry particularly that of Rupert Brooke whose The Soldier perhaps epitomises a romanticisation that was to be overwhelmed by mud, gas, barbed wire, machine guns and shells.

The earlier sonnets in the sequence that ends with The Soldier take a similar tack, in particular the first line of Peace, “Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,” but also the sentiments of The Dead, “And we have come into our heritage.”

That feeling that this is what young men are made for, that their purpose is to undertake stirring deeds, is one of the first casualties of any war.

The Great War Anniversary

One hundred years ago today, at midnight Central European Time, the event that shaped the twentieth century came into being. Or at least the British Empire’s participation in it began.

Germany had invaded Belgium that morning so we were a bit late. (A squad of Germans had invaded Belgium the previous evening but had jumped the gun – so to speak – not getting the delaying telegram in time and were recalled. They were soon back though.)

Yet those were not the first shots. Hostilities had started seven days earlier on 28th July when Austro-Hungarian troops opened fire on Serbia in response to the true first shots – the ones fired by Gavrilo Princip and which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie but even those had their roots in the welter of national entanglements which plague the Balkans even yet.

Those entanglements were mirrored in the system of alliances that dictated that Germany had to attempt to defeat France first before swinging round to take on Russia and so necessitated a march through neutral Luxembourg and Belgium.

Ironies abounded. Without attacking Belgium, Germany might have avoided war with Britain and so the holding up of the German armies by the BEF at Mons and later the Allies at the battle of the Marne might not have succeeded and so gained Germany the victory in the west it desired. Russia managed to invade eastern Germany earlier than the Germans had anticipated and troops were hurriedly withdrawn fron the Western Front to face the threat which I believe was actually defeated at the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes before these reinforcements could get there.

The Great War is remembered for the bloody stalemate of the trenches yet in these first encounters when it was still a war of movement daily casualties were enormous – especially for the French – much higher than in most later battles; though the Somme has a grim reputation in Britain.

I heard a woman on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought this morning say she refused to call it the Great War “as there was nothing great about it.” Wrong meaning of great I’m afraid.

The Stuarts on BBC 2

I watched the first episode of The Stuarts on BBC 2 tonight.

It seemed, like on its first showing on BBC 2 Scotland earlier this year, an odd decision to start with James VI (or James I if you prefer.) There were no less than eight Stuart monarchs before him. In the year of the Scottish Independence Referendum that could be interpreted as a slight, another piece of English ignorance/dismissal of Scottish History.

That the first episode dwelt on James’s desire to unite the two kingdoms as Great Britain might also seem like a dark Better Together plot as the Guardian noted today.

Yet (some, though not all, of) James’s ancestors were spoken of in the programme so the ignorance/dismissal angle can on those grounds be discounted. And the differences between the two countries that then existed (of religion principally,) and in some respects still do, were not glossed over but I was left wondering who on Earth thought broadcasting this was a good idea now. It can only lead to accusations of bias

I had another such disjointed TV experience with the BBC recently. Janina Ramirez in her otherwise excellent Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years War – on BBC 4 last week, this (and next) but also a programme that has been screened before – kept on emphasising how the events she was describing played a large part in how the country “we” live in now came to be as it is. (Note also the “us” on Dr Ramirez’s web page about the programme.)

Yet that country was/is England. Ramirez seemed totally unaware that her programme was to be broadcast not on an England only channel but one which is UK-wide. Indeed that the country all the BBC’s principal audience lives in is not England, but the UK. [Except for powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies legislation at Westminster is for the whole of the UK. No English elected body oversees the equivalent powers to those devolved elsewhere (arguably there ought to be one;) it is the UK Parliament that performs that function.]

Two parts of the UK share none of the history Dr Ramirez was outlining. Wales (having been incorporated earlier) was involved directly in the Hundred Years War but neither Scotland nor Ireland were. Yet she spoke as if that circumstance didn’t exist.

This sort of thing does contribute to a feeling among many Scots (and I suspect Welsh and Northern Irish viewers too) that the BBC is a broadcaster with a mind for England only and too often forgets the three other constituent parts of the UK.

The Team That Made All Brazil Cry

So. There is to be no redemption. Brazil’s historical trauma of the Maracanã in 1950 known as the Maracanazo has been surpassed. Will this one become known as the Mineirãoza?

The country of Brazil has never been involved in a war (except, perhaps, internally.) The national consciousness has been invested in football. The 1950 defeat was akin to a national humiliation. How much worse, then, a 7-1 hammering by a team who had never beaten them in a competitive game? And a first home defeat in competition for 29 years.

It’s been coming, though. They weren’t convincing in the group games, Chile pushed them close in the second round and Colombia didn’t deserve to lose to them either. Both those sides perhaps had too much history with Brazil to overcome. (And the hoo-hah over Neymar’s injury is over-confected. Brazil spent most of the Colombia game kicking “Oor Hamish” – James Rodriguez – all over the park. Given the outcome of the semi-final the real loss was in fact Thiago Silva.) The Germans didn’t care about reputations or history; they did what German teams do.

Brazil’s scapegoat in 1950 (“Look! There’s the man that made all Brazil cry!”) was Moacyr Barbosa. At least this time they can’t blame it on a black goalkeeper.

Make the most of the last few days of this Brazil-hosted World Cup. I doubt there will be another one.

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