Archives » History

Robert Bruce’s Tomb, Dunfermline Abbey Church

I visited Dunfermline Abbey and Palace back in January. At that time the Abbey Church was closed for the winter and consequently I couldn’t photograph the tomb of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, hero of Bannockburn and he of the spider. In mid April I was able to rectify that omission. The tomb is situated below the Abbey Church’s pulpit.

The pulpit surmounting the tomb of Robert I (as he was known) is rather ornate.

A rather macabre exhibit in Dunfermline Abbey Church contains a cast of Bruce’s skull.

Battlefield of Prestonpans

Recently I have been travelling quite frequently up and down the A1 from Edinburgh to Dunbar, mainly to visit Eric Brown.

I had always wondered what the prominent hill with the flag on it just off the road a few miles east of Edinburgh was. A few weeks ago detouring into Prestonpans on the return I found out. Coincidentally I was reading Violet Jacobs’s Flemington at the time.

On the B 1361 into Prestonpans there was a sign pointing to the Battlefield of Prestonpans, 1745, the first battle of the Jacobite Rebellion of that year. I had previously thought the battlefield would lie somewhat closer to the Firth.

The prominent hill is the battlefield viewpoint, a converted coal bing, seen here from its foot.

The flag flying at the summit is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s battle standard.

There is a cairn at the side of the B 1361 erected in memory of the dead of the battle:-

According to the information boards on the Battlefield Viewpoint this is the site of the 1745 battle:-

This is the approximate Jacobite position at the battle’s start. It has a golf range on it now.

The battle itself was over in about fifteen minutes. Most of the relatively inexperienced Hanoverian force fled at the first charge of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders. This left the more hardened government troops sandwiched between the rebel wings. After suffering heavy casualties they gave way. Their commander Sir John Cope led some stragglers down a lane which to this day is named Johnnie Cope’s Road, but couldn’t get them to fight and left the field.

The song Hey Johnnie Cope Are Ye Wakin’ Yet? was written – by Adam Skirving, a namesake of the good lady – to commemorate the Jacobite victory.

This version, by the Corries, is preceded by an account of the first singing of the fourth verse of the UK National Anthem – the one which is no longer officially recognised.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2012, 411 p.

Bring up the Bodies cover

From its opening words, “His children are falling from the sky,” to its final ones – a warning that there are no endings, only beginnings – this second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is a consciously literary endeavour. (The “children” are in fact falcons named after Thomas Cromwell’s offspring.) Not that it is in any way difficult. The narration is still in the third person but the use of “he” to refer to Thomas Cromwell does not induce as much confusion as in Wolf Hall – perhaps because the reader is more accustomed to it but also since Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,” more often than in the previous book. There are occasional flourishes of poetic language to leaven proceedings and emphasise the literariness of the endeavour.

The action covers the events surrounding Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution. The phrase “Bring up the bodies” is uttered to call her supposed lovers (all of whom have been in Cromwell’s sights since they mocked his patron Cardinal Wolsey during a masqued ball at court) in to their trial. Mantel does a fine job in portraying all this history (whose outlines are well known but for which few documents remain.) Her hero, Cromwell, is instrumental in securing confessions but the text still leaves open the possibility that Anne was innocent of the charges laid.

Anne’s crime, if any, would not have been adultery (though for her lovers it would have been.) Rather, her offence was “imagining the King’s death.” This tickled me since Mantel was herself recently criticised for imagining a Prime Minister’s death – some idiot Tory MP said Mantel ought to be prosecuted for it – even though the PM concerned had already died, and crime writers imagine people’s deaths all the time.

In the book, apropos of Thomas Wyatt (the poet) Cromwell muses, “You must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” Mantel is believable. Reading Bring Up the Bodies, a much better and more rounded book than Wolf Hall, may be the best substitute for being at Henry VIII’s court. (Better even; since there is no risk to life involved in the experience.)

And only one contender for Pedant’s Corner: when he had rode. Plus not a single typo anywhere. Remarkable for these times.

In the Spirit of Christmas

Midnight 24th December. Quiet has fallen. The hush is broken by the sound of male voices wafting over the broken ground from a hundred yards or so away:-

“Stille Nacht,
Heilige Nacht.”

Disbelieving British soldiers strain to make sense of what they are hearing, before joining in with Christmas songs of their own.

When day dawns, foodstuffs are exchanged, names and addresses noted down. A spontaneous outbreak of football occurs.

All this takes place exactly one hundred years ago today.

So goes the story anyway.

And it’s a great story. But how much truth is there in it?

There is almost no documentary evidence for games of football being played in No Man’s Land on December 25th 1914, though there is one reference to a tin of bully beef used as a makeshift ball. That there was a widespread ceasefire and a degree of fraternisation is, however, well attested and photographically recorded – but it wasn’t universal. Some who came out of the trenches were shot by snipers, others used the temporary lull to strengthen their defences. (The extent of this seems to have been relatively widespread and is not to be confused with the sporadic local truces – entirely sanctioned officially – arranged, for example, for the collection and burial of bodies which happened throughout the war.)

In any case even at Christmas 1914 the fighting was resumed within hours and no such extended expression of bonhomie occurred again. The armies’ top brasses made sure of that. As The Farm had it.

“The same old story again
All those tears shed in vain
Nothing learnt and nothing gained
Only hope remains.”

Yet the story of the Christmas Truce speaks to a hunger in us. We have a need for tales of humanity amidst carnage, acts of kindness between enemies, however sketchy their origins. It makes us believe that as individuals we too would behave well in adverse circumstances.

All together now. (Sorry, Gordon. It’s based on Pachelbel’s Canon.)

The Farm: All Together Now

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.)

valentino shoes outlet|valentino rockstud replica|cheap valentino shoes|valentino shoes replica|valentino shoes outlet|valentino rockstud replica|cheap valentino shoes|valentino shoes replica|valentino shoes outlet|valentino shoes outlet

free hit counter script