Archives » History

Denis Healey

One of the last of the big political beasts of my (relative) youth has now departed.

He held office as Defence Secretary for 6 years but was more famous as a Chancellor of the Exchequer excoriated by the left for his adoption of wage controls in 1976 and immortalised in a song – to the tune of What a Friend We Have in Jesus – about the Callaghan Government which contained the line, “All the bad was done by Healey, all the good by Tony Benn.” But Healey in a deaperate bind. There had been an oil price rise of 400%. Imagine today’s politicians coping with that.

His obituaries on the television skipped over his war record to concentrate on his political career. But one of the most striking things I ever heard about him was that he was the Beachmaster (for the British sector) at the Anzio Landings a job of no small responsibility. He’s worth an obituary for that alone.

Denis Winston Healey: 30/8/1917–3/10/2015. So it goes.

The Holocaust and the State

There was an interesting article in the Guardian of 16/9/15 where Timothy Snyder argued that the conditions necessary for the Holocaust of Jews (and others, but mainly Jews) by the Nazis to take place have largely been misunderstood.

Snyder sees it as crucial that in the areas where most killings occurred, principally in the lands of pre-war Poland, the Baltic States and what had been Soviet Belarus and Ukraine, the apparatus of the state was no longer functioning – had indeed been deliberately destroyed. This was the necessary precondition for the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and the SS to be so unconstrained.

Though Snyder’s focus is on Eastern Europe I found myself thinking that in Western Europe too the absence of state institutions was a factor contributing to whether or not transportations to the killing zones of those whom the Nazis saw as undesirables came about. In Denmark, where the king remained and most institutions stayed intact (at least until 1943,) most of the Jews escaped or survived. By contrast in the Netherlands, whose monarch went into exile in Britain, and in France, where the Third Republic collapsed and Vichy was a puppet, deportations were much easier and in some cases even facilitated.

We have seen the consequences of the absence of the state relatively recently in Afghanistan – the Taliban would not have come to power there if not for the chaos engendered by, first, the Soviet presence and then its retreat (effectively driven out by a mujahideen aided and abetted via US and Western support) – in the disarray of Libya and now in Iraq and Syria where ISIS/ISIL/Daesh would not have had the opportunity to grow as quickly or at all if there had not been the vacuum created by the destruction of the Iraqi state and the failure to replace it.

Contrary to what some libertarians appear to think it seems the state really is a force for good.

Postscript:- While looking over the above it also occurred to me that the killing fields in Cambodia, while a consequence of Pol Pot’s take-over, were also due to state collapse, in this case that of the pre-revolutionary government. I suppose too that La Terreur in revolutionary France and the turmoil in the former Russian Empire after the Bolshevik coup are examples of what happens when state organisation suffers disruption. To avoid chaos a polity requires not people with guns but checks and balances; plus a functional judicial system capable of holding those in power to account.

Culloden (iii)

This very modern Memorial Bench is near the path from the visitor centre to the battlefield at Culloden:-

Culloden Memorial Bench

The inscription is in Gaelic but an English translation is given on the smaller extension, “We followed you, Prince, to this ocean of flatness and bullets.”

Culloden Memorial Bench English Inscription

Another grave marker refers to the “English” dead. Many in the Duke of Cumberland’s victorious army were actually Lowland Scots. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 was of course a Civil War.

Culloden: "English" Gravestone

To the foreground below is a reconstruction of the sort of house that would have been present on or near the battlefield of Culloden as shown on maps from the time. In the background is the modern visitor centre. These buildings make the scene much less bleak than it used to be.

House on Culloden Battlefield

This is the back of the cottage:-

Culloden Battlefield House Rear View

Side view of cottage:-

Culloden Battlefield House Side View

Front of cottage:-

Culloden  house

Culloden (ii) Clan Grave Markers

As the wording on the cairn at the centre of the battlefield of Culloden on Drummossie Moor says, the graves of the clans are marked by the names of the clans.

Clan Fraser:-

Culloden; Grave of Clan Fraser

Mixed clans. The graves go all the way to the back of the mound:-

Culloden; Grave of Mixed Clans

Clan MacKintosh. Again, the graves go all the way to the back of the mound:-

Culloden; Graves of Clan Mackintosh

Clan Cameron. Yet again:-

Culloden; Graves of Clan Cameron

Clan Stewart of Appin:-

Culloden; Graves of Clan Stewart of Appin

Clans McGillivray, MacLean, MacLachlan and Atholl Highlanders. Nearly three hundred years on and floral tributes are still being paid:-

Culloden; Graves of Clans

Well of the Dead. Here the chief of the McGillivray fell:-

Culloden: Well of the Dead

Culloden (i)

Drummossie Moor, site of the Battle of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie suffered his first and only defeat at the end of the ’45, otherwise known as the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6 (an event which signalled the end of the old Highland way of life,) is one of the more dispiriting places I have visited. It seems a godforsaken area for men to have died over. I went there again this year when the good lady’s blog friend Peggy was over from the US in May. For some strange reason, though, it wasn’t as depressing this time as last. Maybe it was the presence of a Visitor Centre (built in the interim) which made it seem not so bleak and remote.

This is a close-up view of the government (Hanoverian) line – marked by the red flag.

Culloden battlefield

Thios one was taken from the centre of the battlefield. Away in the distance (blue flags) is the Jacobite start line.


This is looking back to the Governent lines (red flags) from the battlefield’s centre.

Culloden Battlefield

A cairn lies at the battlefield centre:-

Culloden Memorial Cairn

The cairn’s wording is slightly inaccurate. Yes, they fought for Prince Charlie, but in the main they fought for their clan chief (feudally) and not for Scotland per se.

Wording on Culloden Memorial Cairn

Stirling Bridges

A bridge has spanned the River Forth at Stirling for centuries. Not the same one obviously but the most famous of them was the one where William Wallace won his great victory over the army of Edward I of England (Edward Longshanks) at the eponymous battle in 1297.

The “old” bridge that still survives now carries foot traffic only. It was built 500-600 years ago. It is a lovely structure of four arches and three supports, here shown from the “east” bank.

Old Stirling Bridge

These are the approaches from the west. Note the cobblestones:-

Old Stirling Bridge Approaches

This is the old bridge from the modern road bridge:-

Old Stirling Bridge From Modern Bridge

And this is a view from the “west” bank. The Wallace Monument can be seen as a distant spire beside the lamp standard at the extreme right of the bridge as seen here:-

Old Stirling Bridge Spans

Two “modern” bridges also cross the Forth close by. This is the railway bridge from the modern road bridge:-

Railway Bridge at Stirling

The road bridge is in the foreground here with the railway bridge supports visible through its arches:-

Modern Stirling Bridges

The Wallace Monument from the old bridge:-

Wallace Monument

War Memorials at Stirling Castle

As at Edinburgh Castle there are War Memorials on the esplanade of Stirling Castle.

Again there is one to the Indian Mutiny, this one dedicated to the men of the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment who died at Seringapatam, Delhi and in the Relief of Lucknow.

Indian Mutiny Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The other side of the memorial names the officers (1 colonel, 2 captains, 6 lieutenants and 1 surgeon) but only gives the total numbers of other ranks (13 sergeants, 9 corporals, 3 drummers and 216 privates) – all of the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment – who died in the mutiny, 1857-8.

Indian Mutiny Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

Again too there is a Memorial to the South African War (Second Boer War) dedicated to the men of the 1st Battalion (Princess Louise’s) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The plaque here gives the names of the officers and non-commissioned officers who died:-

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The plaques on these two sides give the names of the privates:-

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

Staring out towards the scene of his great victory at Bannockburn is a statue of Robert Bruce.

Statue of Bruce, Stirling Castle EsplanadeStirling Castle 6 Bruce



When this Danish TV series – the most expensive production in Danish television history – was first trailed on the BBC and I saw the blue uniforms I thought it would be about the War Between the States (known on this side of the Atlantic as the American Civil War) as the date fitted. I was immediately interested. I’ve read a lot about that conflict and watched the Jim Burns TV series several times. Looking more closely I realised that I didn’t recognise the painting shown on the trailer or the figures within it (I most likely would have for an American Civil War painting) and of course the uniforms’ details weren’t quite right.

I was therefore even more intrigued when it dawned the series was about the Second Schleswig War as that was something I knew vaguely about from History, at school. Once read, who can forget the comment the UK Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, made about the intricacies of the Schleswig-Holstein question – which in the series was uttered to that fine actress Barbara Flynn, in the person of Queen Victoria – that there were only three men who ever understood it; the Prince Consort, who was dead, a German professor who had gone mad and Palmerston himself, who had forgotten all about it?

As presented in the series, the war seems to have been provoked by Denmark in a fit of collective insanity. The programme, which has been criticised for historical inaccuracies (it would be difficult to portray any conflict televisually without some of that I’d have thought) certainly presented the Danish Prime Minister, Monrad, as an utter nutter. There seemed to be an element of hysteria in the air that prefigured the Germany of 1939. (Then again there was widespread welcome to Britain’s declaration of war in 1914, so no need to point fingers; except the UK hadn’t sought that conflict – at least not directly.)

However the dire results of the Second Schleswig War for Denmark meant that, to that country’s credit, no Danish military action outside its frontiers again took place until the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

Scenes were shown from both sides of the conflict and also the sidelines as Palmerston affected to intercede. The subtitles were no intrusion (1864 went out in the BBC 4 European detective slot on Saturdays at 9 pm.) As near as I could tell each nationality in the series spoke in its own language. (I have a smattering of German but no Danish except what I could glean from the dialogue’s similarities to German, English and, occasionally, Scots.)

For the series the necessity of introducing a human aspect to the conflict in the shape of estate manager’s daughter Inge and the two brothers Laust and Peter, with whom she has a special bond, allowed the introduction of those perennial literary concerns, love, sex and death. There was love to be sure, but not much sex – only four scenes as I recall, three of them having not much to do with love, plus another featuring boys attempting to masturbate – but enough death and destruction to slake anyone’s desires. The battle scenes were impressive – and visceral.

Overall the series was magnificent television, well worth checking out if you didn’t catch it, but I thought the elements of mysticism involving one of the soldiers from the village were unconvincing and the framing device wherein a disaffected young woman from our century sent to his house for a form of community service helps read out Inge’s memoirs to an old man (who is Inge’s grandson) was perhaps unnecessary, though it did give the sense of consequences cascading down the years and a contrast to the privations of the soldiers of 150 years earlier.

When I last looked in the BBC shop, the DVD of this was out of stock but the Blu-ray was available.

Ensign Ewart and the Scots Greys at Waterloo

200 years ago today the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars was fought at Waterloo. Famously remembered as a “close-run thing” (though the quote is apparently “It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,”) it was a bloody nightmare. A total of around 48,000 men were killed inside 10 hours.

Last month I visited Edinburgh Castle. Among the memorials on its esplanade is this one, erected in 1938, to Ensign Charles Ewart, of the Royal North British Dragoons (more commonly known as the Scots Greys,) who captured the Imperial Eagle of the French 45th infantry regiment during the battle.

Ensign Ewart Memorial Edinburgh Castle Forecourt

The Eagle itself is normally on display in the relevant Regimental Museum in the castle grounds but it wasn’t on the day I visited. I think it’s on loan to the National Museum of Scotland at the moment. I did find, though, this Memorial to the men of the Scots Greys who died in the Great War.

Royal Scots Greys Memorial, Edinburgh Castle

Also, inside the Castle’s Great Hall, there is a painting, executed by Richard Ansdell some thirty years or so after the event, of the moment of the Eagle’s capture. Titled “The Fight for the Standard” the picture is huge – 13 ft by 11 ft. It is somewhat triumphal in tone and perhaps ridiculously sentimental given the likely conditions of the actual battle.

The Fight for the Standard by Richard Ansdell

Picture from Eric Gaba at Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps a more famous painting of the Battle of Waterloo is “Scotland Forever!” by Elizabeth Thomson, Lady Butler.

Scotland Forever!

The original is in Leeds Art Gallery but a reproduction is in the Regimental Museum.

Henry Bell Memorial, Helensburgh.

The first person to apply steam power to shipping was Henry Bell, in 1812 with his ship, the Comet and I posted about the two hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of steam navigation almost three years ago.

One of the obelisks I referred to in that post is on the front at Helensburgh. I photographed it last month.

Henry Bell Memorial, Helensburgh

free hit counter script