Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday 29 September 2016

St Michael the Archangel

Today is the Feast of St Michael the Archangel, and to mark the day here is a rather splendid late medieval depiction of him dealing with a satanic dragon.


Holy Michael Archangel defend us in the day of battle and be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares ot the Devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray and do thou O Prince of the Heavenly Host by the power of God thrust down into hell Satan and all wicked spirits who wander through the world to the ruin of souls.Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Today is the 950th anniversary of the battle of Stamford Bridge, fought on September 25th 1066 and one of the key events in that, pace Sellars and Yeatman, memorable year.

There is a good account of the battle and the Norwegian invasion of that autumn in the Wikipedia account which can be seen, with the usual links, at Battle of Stamford Bridge. As one has come to expect the Wikipedia articles on the Anglo-Saxon era are consistently distinctly better researched and more academic than other historical articles on the site. This applies equally to the biographies there of  King Harold II and King Harald III Hardrada which can be viewed at King Harold Godwinson
and King Harald Hardrada. The Oxford DNB life of King Harold II by Robin Fleming can be viewed at  Harold II

The defeat of the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge can be seen as not the actual end of  Scandinavian incursions - there was to be support from there in the 1069 rising and the threat of it in 1085 - but its symbolic and effective end. The Norman Conquest was, in a sense, a Viking invasion, in that the Normans were in origin from Norway, but it linked England to the west rather than the north of Europe, and the scope for Scandinavian involvement and engagement was left to the worlds of trade, mission and high culture, with England taking the initiative in succeeding centuries.   

Thursday 22 September 2016

Judicial Murder Forty Years on

In recent days I find I have been thinking and reading rather extensively about the trial and execution of British and American mercenaries in Angola in June and July 1976. The story came to my mind and I found quite a lot about it through the Internet. I recall keeping the men involved in my prayers at the time, but the later release of those imprisoned attracted little attention in the 1980s and it had somewhat slipped from my mind. Research reactivated and increased my awareness of those events.

The background to the story lies in the conflict follwing the granting of independence to Angola by Portugal in late 1975. Three groups, divided by ideology and tribal loyalties sought power and no consolidated government emerged. In the south was UNITA, in the central area around Luanda the Marxist MPLA, and in the north the FNLA, which was seen as pro-Western. The MPLA, backed by the Soviets and with Cuban assistance took power in Luanda.

The western mercenaries were recruited in December -January 1975-6 to assist the FNLA. The whole recruitment process was dubious - money was available, and ex-servicemen fro,m Britain, the US and other western counties signed up , often with very little idea of what they were getting into, no real support from the recruiters and found on arrival in Africa a chaotic and floundering war effort. There is an online account of the story at E2K 31 - The killing of Colonel Callan, and one from 1976 at An article that appeared in 'Time Magazine' on the 23rd February 1976

The US political background is explored in Plausibly deniable: mercenaries in US covert interventions during the Cold War, 1964-1987, whilst the at times curious part played by former CIA operatives can be read in the online biography of one of them, George Washington Bacon III (CIA officer) and George Washington Bacon III, MACV-SOG Operator

When some of the British mercenaries made it clear they were not prepared to fight a losing war, and indeed had been misled into signing up for what they now faced fourteen of them were killed by or on the orders of their commander Costa Georgiou in what became known as the Maquela massacre. Within days what remained of the force either escaped to Zaire or were captured. Thirteen were put on trial in Luanda by the MPLA. There is a summary of the events at  Luanda Trial

This was very much a show trial, by intention trying all mercenaries. As someone else has written of it  " During the Angolan trial, the judges intervened at several points to restrain the defence counsel from putting its case too well. The court could not tolerate any evidence which might help the accused criminals, they said."

The legal process in this case and the rights of mercenaries - who are not usually afforded tenh benefits of the Geneva Conventions are discussed in M.J.Hoover The Laws of War and the Angolan Trial of Mercenaries: Death to the Dogs of War.

The thirteen British and US defendents were, of course, found guilty, four being sentenced to death and the remainder to lengthy periods of imprisonment.

Of the four men who were shot in the football stadium in Luanda the most infamous is Costas Georgiu, a Greek Cypriot by birth and discharged former Para, who assumed the pseudonym of
" Colonel Callan." In all fairness he might well be described as mad bad and dangerous to know to start with . He had ordered the  Maquela masscre, and would casually shoot Angolans on his own side. He was probably unhinged in last days of trial and of his life - a contributory factor, if the story is true, being that during the trial, and in order to break him, he was returned to his cell to find the several months old exhumed corpse of his henchmen at Maquela, Sammy Copeland, had been placed there...

Andrew McKenzie was also a former Para and a reluctant participant in the Maquela events. He had lost the lower portion of his left leg and was in awheel chair at his trial  With his death we have the  revolting image of a one legged man standing on crutches to face a firing squad. 

Derek "Brummie" Barker saw himself as always unlucky, but was seen as a capable man by his colleagues and probably singled out by the Angolans because he displayed resiliance in assisting the escape of others, inclusding journalists, before his capture - he had almost managed to swim across the river marking the border with Zaire - and by his toughness when a prisoner.

Daniel Gearhart was an American and the Angolans apparently thought he was a CIA operative. The judge in sentencing him described him as a  "very dangerous man." The view seems to be that he was shot because the Angolans and their Cuban allies wanted to execute an American, and for the others it was less easy to impose a death sentence. The reality appears rather different for a man who had spent three days in the country before he was captured and never fired a shot whilst he was there.Two interviews with his widow suggest he was much more a victim in life than anything else - Agonizing Waiting Over For Gearhart's Widow and  Epitaph for a Dead Mercenary: A Brave Widow with Four Young Children

His wife had clearly been spared at that point the grim details of the deaths of her husband and his companions, as set out here - the typing errors are unfortunate, and this is not a passage for the squeamish -  Firing Squad and one blank round ? | Page 7 | Army Rumour Service

The imprisoned US men were released in 1982. One of them, Gary Acker, who died in 2001, wrote a valuable account of his experiences in the fighting, of the trial and of his imprisonment for the magazine Soldier of Fortune and published in 1986. It can be read, though a small part is missing, at Angolan Refections an article by Gary Acker who served in Angola ...

Two contemporary newspaper reports about his release can be seen at Soldier of fortune Gary Acker talked through the night... - UPI Archives and, including the views of the Argentine born Gustavo Grillo at  'Romantic' Ex-Mercenary Says He Would Return to Angola

The imprisoned Britons were released in 1984, and there is less available on their reactions. One came from a village near my home town and died earlier this year. Some remained in the private security sphere, others returned to ordinary life and one became for a while a Lib Dem councillor...

Nice liberal people, including many, if not most, journalists who covered these events, displayed a distinctly unsympathetic attitude towards the men or one that was condescending, presenting them at best as unemployed ex-soldiers who were conspicuous for their personal failings. That seems less than fair or humane.

The contemporary orthodox Leftist view of the story can be found in all its presuppositions and prejudices in Wilfred Burchett and Derek Roebuck The Whores of War: Mercenaries Today  published predictably by Pelican soon afterwards.

Memoirs by others who served as mercenaries in Angola which give reputable accounts of events are
Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins Fire Power and two books by Peter McAleese No Ordinary Soldier and Beyond No Ordinary Soldier.  There is an online text of an interview with Tomkins at INTERVIEW WITH DAVE TOMKINS and portions of another account by him in a book of the fighting and events around it can be read on line at  Dirty Combat: Secret Wars and Serious Misadventures - not very pleasant reading either.

The former BBC Diplomatic Editor John Simpson wrote about covering the trial, but in a way that is at times disturbingly facile, in  Strange Places, Questionable People, though he does show a sympathetic understanding towrds the men recruited.

The whole story is depressing and shocking, starting from poorly organised strategy, through the recruitment of men without setting out what they were getting into, the presence of afew in authority who were more or less homicidal, and also after all that brutality the further brutal and clumsy farce of  a trial in Luanda. A grim and grisly story with far more victims than villains amongst the mercenaries.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Reliquary of St Ferreolus

John Dillon posted today on the Medieval Religion discussion group about the several saints called Ferreolus, and one in particular. I have adapted his post as follows:


The reliquary of St Ferreolus at Nexon

 Image: culture.gouv.fr

There are at least five saints venerated in the Middle Ages from what is now France who are named Ferreolus. Two are celebrated on September 18th: Ferreolus of Vienne (d. 250 or 251, supposedly) and Ferreolus of Limoges (d. late 6th cent.; perhaps after 591 and the saint of the present notice). According to St. Gregory of Tours, as Bishop of Limoges this Ferreolus (in French, Ferréol; formerly also Forgel) calmed a riot that had broken out there in 579 and, in another action, rebuilt the fire-destroyed basilica of St. Martin at today's Brive-la-Gaillarde (Corrèze). Ferreolus of Limoges is also recorded as having participated in the council of Mâcon in 583. A Vita of St. Aredius of Limoges (BHL 666; earliest witness is of the late ninth or early tenth century) has Ferreolus provide aid to that holy abbot (d. 591) and says that he presided at the latter's funeral. Dillon adds that as the Bollandists have assigned to this Vita the number of the Beast, it would perhaps be unwise to trust that account!

Today is the principal feast day of Ferreolus of Limoges in Nexon (Haute-Vienne) and his day of commemoration in the Roman Martyrology.


The back of the reliquary

Image: culture. gouv.fr

In addition to the three photographs I have copied there is a description in French of the head reliquary of St Ferreolus made in Limoges in 1346 - as recorded on the back of the amice - for the church at Nexon (Haute-Vienne) and now kept in the treasury of the église de la Décollation-de-Saint-Jean-Baptiste in that town are here:


A detail of the mitre

Image: culture.gouv. fr

Friday 16 September 2016

Another car park, another King

Digging up or looking for English medieval Kings appears to be all the rage amongst archaeologists these days - not that I am objecting to such research being undertaken.

Following upon the recovery of King Richard III at Leicester and a tentative identification of either King Alfred or King Edward tbe Elder at Hyde Abbey in Winchester - well, of one possible bone - and now attention has turned to looking for King Henry I on the site of Reading Abbey.

In the abbey he held pride of place as founder and the abbey received quite a few other royal burials down to the later fourteenth century, when King Richard II ordered the Abbot to restore King Henry's tomb in return for a charter of confirmation of privileges.

No effort appears to have been made to rescue his remains at the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, and the site became lost of the fragmentation of the monastic site.

The Daily Telegraph has a report about the early stages of the investigation which can be read at


Related image

The twentieth century memorial on the site of Reading Abbey


Saturday 10 September 2016

Keeping York clean in the sixteenth century

I came across the following post “Mooke, fylthe and other vyle things” – Tudor dirt and dung on the History Extra site. Using material from the city records in York Pamela Hartshorne describes householders’ daily battles with rotting vegetation, dung heaps and overflowing cesspits in Tudor England. It shows that valiant attempts were made to keep the city streets clean. 

Image result for york shambles

The Shambles in York
The quintessential medieval side street of York, and the butchers quarter - often a particular cause of nuisance to street cleanliness in the period

Image: York 360
The article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine. Read the full story

10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the First World War

I found this piece whilst researching another post and thought it might well interest readers. It comes from the BBC History Magazine for Thursday 28th August 2014...

10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the First World War

It is one of the most well documented conflicts in history, but do we really know everything about the First World War? Here, Seán Lang reveals 10 things you (probably) weren’t aware of...

A line-up of girls ready to play football c1917 (Popperfoto/Getty Images)
A line-up of girls ready to play football, somewhere in England during the First World War, c1917. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Lang, a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, is the author of First World War for Dummies.
Produced in conjunction with Imperial War Museums (IWM) as part of their First World War centenary publishing programme, the book offers an introduction to ‘the war to end all wars’.


1) The alliance system didn’t cause the war

Many people assume that the war resulted directly from the alliance structure that bound all the European great powers together before 1914. Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary and Italy; Russia was allied to France, and both countries had an entente (a diplomatic agreement) with Britain.
The alliances certainly contributed to the prewar build-up of tension between the great powers but, perhaps surprisingly, none of these alliances actually produced a declaration of war.
In July 1914 Germany gave Austria-Hungary a sweeping guarantee of support known as the ‘Blank Cheque’, which went far beyond the terms of their formal alliance. The French came in because Germany launched a pre-emptive strike against them; Britain declared war not because of the entente agreements but because the Germans invaded Belgium, and Italy first kept out of the war and then came in against its own allies!


2) There were special battalions for short soldiers

The minimum height requirement for the British Army was 5ft 3 ins, but many shorter men were caught up in the recruiting enthusiasm of August 1914 and were keen to enlist.
Rather reluctantly the War Office established a number of ‘bantam battalions’, attached to more conventional regiments. Many bantams were coal miners, and their short height and technical expertise proved a great asset in the tunnelling work that went on underneath the western front.
However, bantams were not particularly effective in battle, and by the end of 1916 the general fitness and condition of men volunteering as bantams was no longer up to the standard required. It wasn’t easy to maintain recruitment: increasingly the bantam battalions had to accept men of ‘normal’ height. And there’s not much point in a bantam battalion that is largely made up of taller men, so after conscription was introduced in 1916 the bantam battalions idea was quietly dropped.
Quiz: Would you have been accepted to join the army and fight in WW1 in August 1914?


3) Munitions girls kept football going

The Football League suspended its programme after the 1914–15 season (although the FA continued to allow clubs to organise regional competitions), and amateur tournaments were difficult to run with so many men in the army, so women stepped into the breach.
Munitions workers – ‘munitionettes’, as they were known – formed football teams and played against rival factories. Munitionette football attracted a wide following, and many matches were played at the grounds of professional clubs. When peace came, however, the female players had to hang up their boots and go back to the domestic lives they had been leading before the war. But the sport continued to enjoy success until women were banned from playing in Football League grounds in 1921.

4) Portuguese troops fought in the war

Like many neutral countries, Portugal was angry at German U-boat attacks on its merchant shipping. The Portuguese were also worried that the German military campaign in Africa might move into their colonies in Mozambique and Angola.
In March 1916, Germany declared war on Portugal.  As well as patrolling the oceans and strengthening their border controls in Africa, the Portuguese also sent a military force to the western front. The Portuguese won the respect of their more battle-hardened allies, and put up a particularly stubborn fight against the great German offensive of spring, 1918.

5) The Russians first solved the problem of trench warfare

Launching a successful attack against a heavily fortified enemy trench was one of the most difficult problems facing military commanders on both sides: barbed wire and machine guns gave a considerable advantage to the defender. Even if an attacker did break through, the attacking force usually ran out of steam just as the defenders brought up reinforcements.
The man who solved the conundrum was the Russian general Alexei Brusilov, who in 1916 launched a massive offensive against the Austrians in co-ordination with the British and French attack on the Somme. Brusilov realised that offensives on the western front were too heavily concentrated on trying to ‘punch a hole’ through the enemy line at a particular point, so the enemy knew exactly where to send his reinforcements.
By attacking over a much larger area, Brusilov was able to hide the direction of his main attack from the Austrians, so they never knew which points to reinforce and which to abandon. Of course, Brusilov’s approach needed the sort of huge numbers of men that were the Russian army’s speciality, and after its initial success the attack petered out because the supply system for food and ammunition couldn’t cope.

6) The war produced Britain’s worst rail disaster

On 22 May 1915 a troop train carrying men of the Royal Scots Guards and the Leith Territorial battalion south to embark for the Gallipoli campaign crashed into a stationary local train sitting outside a signal box near Gretna Green. Moments later the Glasgow express crashed into the wreckage of the two trains, and the whole scene was engulfed by fire.
Some 226 people were killed, 214 of them soldiers, and 246 were seriously injured. It remains to this day the biggest loss of life in a railway accident in Britain.
The crash happened through the carelessness of the two signalmen, who were found guilty of criminal negligence and sent to prison. They had shunted the local train onto the main line instead of a siding and had been too busy chatting about the war to change the signals to warn the approaching troop train.
Wartime demand for rolling stock was so high that trains were using old wooden-framed carriages, which caught fire with terrifying speed. The crash was another unwanted by-product of the First World War.

7) Japan came to the rescue of the British in the Mediterranean

Britain’s only formal alliance before 1914 was with Japan, and it was designed to relieve the Royal Navy of some of the burden of defending Britain’s Asian colonies, and to enable Britain and Japan to help one another safeguard their respective interests in China and Korea.
When war broke out, the Japanese attacked German possessions in the Pacific and China, but in 1917 Britain requested Japanese assistance with escort duties in the Mediterranean. The region was vital for supplying Allied armies in Italy and Greece, and for maintaining communications with Africa, but the Allied navies faced threats from German and Austrian submarines.
The Japanese, operating from Malta, provided escorts for Allied merchant and troop convoys, and a search-and-rescue service for the crews of torpedoed vessels. Japan’s important role in the war strengthened its claim to be accepted by the Americans and Europeans as a fully fledged great power.

8) The Chinese worked on the western front

Who actually filled all those sandbags we see in photographs of the trenches? Who loaded the guns, ammunitions and food onto lorries or trains?  Who cleared up after a train was derailed or a headquarters building shelled?
The answer was the Chinese Labour Corps. They were volunteers from the Chinese countryside who were sent to Europe to fulfil a vital, but almost completely overlooked role in making an Allied victory possible. They were paid a pittance, and were generally regarded by both the British and French as expendable ‘coolies’.
They mostly served behind the lines, which limited their casualties from enemy action, although they suffered very badly from the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918.

9) The war dragged on two weeks longer than you think 

Although we mark the Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, as the end of the First World War, it actually lasted two further weeks in Africa.
The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had become a national hero in Germany through his ruthless guerrilla campaign against Britain’s imperial forces in East Africa, forcing Africans to act as his porters and devastating the economy of the local villages as he did so. Vorbeck had been forced into Portuguese Mozambique by November 1918, but he still had some 3,000 troops under his command and he was still launching raids into Southern Rhodesia when news reached him of the armistice in Europe.
Unlike the German army in Europe, Vorbeck could regard his own force as undefeated, and he decided to end the African war at a time of his own choosing. He formally surrendered to the British in Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) on 25 November, two weeks after the Armistice in Europe.

10) Kipling’s words were tragic

The words that appear on the gravestones of unidentified soldiers of the First World War, “A soldier of the Great War known unto God”, were written by the celebrated writer and Nobel Prizewinner, Rudyard Kipling.
Commissioning leading figures like Kipling was a way of showing that Britain honoured its war dead. The words on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, built by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, even calls them “The Glorious Dead”.  The words were chosen by Kipling, but there was a cruel irony in this commission.
Kipling’s own son John had been taken into the army despite his appallingly weak eyesight, and was killed by a German shell in 1915 at the battle of Loos. His body was never found, so he too became, in his father’s words, “a soldier of the Great War known unto God”.

Friday 9 September 2016

Great misconceptions about the First World War

We are now more than two years into commemorating the First World War and the following post turned up in one of my inboxes. I think it is worth sharing with readers. The article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

The great misconceptions of the First World War

Eleven leading historians explode some major myths that have clouded our understanding of the Great War over the past 100 years...

Britons listen to the declaration of war on Germany, 4 August 1914.

Britons listen to the declaration of war on Germany, 4 August 1914. We have the likes of David Lloyd George to thank for the misguided belief that the country rejoiced at the news, says Catriona Pennell. (© Alamy)

1) The killing of Franz Ferdinand was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back

Wrong, says Christopher Clark 

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand  was a kind of 9/11 moment for the Austrian leadership. It altered their politics and produced a completely unbroken consensus in favour of war. Prior to the killing, records show that the Austrians were focusing on diplomatic solutions to the Balkans crisis, but after the assassination everything changed.
The archduke was not a popular man in Austria but nonetheless the fact that he was killed upset people hugely. This, after all, was also an attack on the monarchy and the Habsburg state, so it caused an immense shock. At the same time, his dying words to his wife about the couple’s children generated a lot of sympathy for him.

Franz Ferdinand pictured in 1912. (© Alamy)

Ironically, Franz Ferdinand was one of the most outspoken exponents of peace in the Balkans and he was planning to fire Conrad von Hötzendorf, the hawkish chief of the General Staff. By killing the Archduke, the murderers removed one of the best opportunities for peace, and kept in power the most influential exponent of war.
Some people argue that war was on the cards anyway but this is based on an overly deterministic view of the alliance system that operated in Europe at the time. It was far more wobbly and open-ended than we tend to think today. Levels of distrust within the alliances were very high and we know that, for example, in the summer of 1914 the British were toying with the idea of dropping Russia and seeking an understanding with Berlin. So, had Europe managed to survive those months, the Entente may well have drifted apart and the outcome could have been very different.

Christopher Clark is a professor of history at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin, 2012).

2) The British were naively enthusiastic for war in 1914

Wrong, says Catriona Pennell

One of the most common misconceptions of the First World War is that the British population responded with unabated enthusiasm when war broke out in August 1914. Picture the black and white photographs of crowds waving joyfully at the gates of Buckingham Palace or the grinning faces of men queuing outside recruitment offices. There is a lazy acceptance that these images equate to a joyous reaction to the onset of war, with no interrogation, verification or contextualisation.
The origins of this myth lie in the postwar and interwar period, in particular the published memoirs of wartime politicians like David Lloyd George, chancellor of the exchequer in 1914. Two decades after the war had begun, he described scenes of wild enthusiasm that were, in his mind, unprecedented; quite a statement considering he was of an age to recall the boisterous celebrations that marked the end of the siege of Mafeking (during the Second Boer War) in 1900. In his mind it was these enthused masses who had demanded war against Germany while British statesmen did their best to keep the country neutral.
However, it is important to remember that history, while written in retrospect, is lived forwards. As historians, we must try to recapture what was known at the beginning of the war as accurately as possible, rather than imposing assumptions in the light of what happened later.
My research into local, regional and national responses to the outbreak of war reveals that it is far too simplistic to describe the reactions of over 40 million people in the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland (as it was at the time) with a single adjective: enthusiastic.
There was no single emotional reaction to the outbreak of war. Instead, responses were ambiguous and complex, and changed over time. The outbreak of war on 4 August was greeted with a sense of shock and surprise. This was followed by a fortnight of chaos and dislocation as people tried to make sense of their newly frightening situation.
By early September, people were firmly ‘inside the war’ of which they could see no end. While they accepted the need for Britain to fight, this did not equate to a blindly enthusiastic lust for war.

Dr Catriona Pennell is author of A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (OUP, 2012).

3) Russia secretly mobilised several days before it claimed to have done

Wrong, says Anthony Heywood

On 31 July 1914 (18 July by the Julian calendar, then in use in Russia) the Russian empire announced general mobilisation for war. This was three days after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia and a day before Germany declared war on Russia.
However, from the interwar period on, a number of historians have said that, in fact, Russia’s general mobilisation began in secret several days earlier. If true, this would have great ramifications on the debate about war guilt because if Russia was embarking on full mobilisation at this stage then Germany would have had little choice but to respond. Germany may not then have been primarily responsible for the war.
But did this really happen? I have been researching in the Russian archives and it is absolutely clear that there was no secret general mobilisation before 31 July. What was happening was what the Russians described as the ‘period preparatory to war’. This referred to a set of secret measures that were designed to facilitate mobilisation.

Russian troops on review, 1914–18. The speed with which they mobilised has prompted intense debate. (© Topfoto)

For example, summer camps were ended, the mobilisation transport plans were sent to army units, and training was intensified. But these measures did not mean mobilisation as such, and they did not automatically mean Russia was heading for war. Crucially, they did not include large-scale inter-district troop movements nor did they put the railways on a military footing. The Russian archives show that neither of these core features of general mobilisation occurred before 31 July.
French, German and other foreign nationals in Russia who saw troop movements taking place may have misinterpreted the dispersal of summer camps as mobilisation. However, since the misconception first arose, it has been propagated by those seeking to exculpate the German leaders of 1914. Given the evidence now available from Russia’s archives, this argument can no longer be upheld.

Anthony Heywood is chair in history at the University of Aberdeen, specialising in Russia and the Soviet Union.

4) British and German troops played a game of football on the front line

Wrong, says Dan Snow

The idea that British and German troops played an organised game of football on the front line during the Christmas truce of 1914 has been so pervasive because it’s a wonderful story: that people can play sport on a battlefield that, just a day before, was covered with high-explosive shrapnel and machine-gun bullets. Sadly, there’s virtually no evidence for such an organised match taking place.
What did happen is that there was a lot of talk about a football match being organised if the truce had gone on any longer – and, behind the lines, there were lots of balls being kicked around by troops, but not between the Brits and the Germans. Yet the idea of an international match is so powerful because it would seem to be an affirmation of what we have in common, of our joint humanity.
Football is also the working man’s game, the game of the troops on the front line, so it’s come to symbolise a particular myth of the First World War: this idea of the exploitation of the working man by the ruling elite.

British and German troops in no man’s land, Christmas Day, 1914. They didn’t, it seems, take each other on at football. (© Daily Mirror)

In fact, the story of the Christmas truce is far bigger than one football match. Of course, there was fraternisation: there were all sorts of wonderful things going on, all sorts of affirmation of our common humanity.
I read a great article that argued that, if we’d had social media in 1914, the First World War would have stopped, because everyone would have known that everyone else was trucing. The trouble was that everyone thought that it was just them, and they thought, ‘ooh, this is a bit naughty’. If they had been aware that it was going on up and down the entire front then they would have realised that they were part of something much bigger and much more profound. Perhaps even revolutionary.
I think the scale of the truce, and the excitement of this chink of light in what could have been this extraordinary revolutionary moment, is really exciting. So don’t focus on the football match; focus on the fact that hundreds and thousands climbed out of their trenches and expressed brotherhood with those opposite them. It was an extraordinary moment in history.

Dan Snow is a historian and broadcaster. He has presented numerous history documentaries for the BBC and has produced content for the BBC’s online First World War hub bbc.co.uk/ww1.

5) The First World War was the most unpleasant war to fight

Wrong, says Max Hastings

One of the things we should be striving to do in this centenary year is to win back a sense of perspective about the First World War. On a quantitative scale it is true that Britain lost more people than in any other war but it is a myth that this was the worst battlefield experience in history. Anybody who lived through the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, or had followed Napoleon on his catastrophic Russian campaign in 1812, would have laughed at the idea that the Somme or Passchendaele represented the worst thing men could do to each other.

French troops depicted during the catastrophic retreat from Moscow in 1812. (© AKG)

And, for that matter, far worse things happened in the Second World War but they happened to the Soviets on the eastern front and therefore we don’t take them as seriously.
This myth has been hugely influenced by the poets who wrote about the First World War. What was unusual about this conflict was that it was fought by a new breed of citizen-soldiers who had not seen combat before and were stunned and appalled by the misery of the battlefield.
In previous wars you had had professional warriors who regarded it as part of their duty to make light of what they had gone through in their memoirs, even if they had – as in the Napoleonic Wars – fought over 30 battles requiring them to stand and face opposing armies 50 yards away and fire volleys at each other.
I am certainly not trying to suggest that the First World War was anything other than unspeakable, but it was not the worst thing that men have done to each other in wars, or indeed anything like it.

Sir Max Hastings is the author of Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (William Collins, 2013).

6) Machine guns were the deadliest weapon on the western front

Wrong, says David Olusoga

In Britain when we think about the First World War perhaps the most powerful image that comes to mind is that of massed ranks of infantry going ‘over the top’ to face the deadly German machine guns. The slaughter of those set-piece offensives has placed the machine gun at the centre of our vision of the war. Yet it was not the biggest killer on the western front; that dubious honour went to the artillery.
In almost all wars of the modern age, the vast majority of soldiers killed had been the victims of small arms – rifles, pistols and, before them, muskets. This was the key to land warfare and the appearance of the machine gun seemed to have made the dominance of the bullet over the shell even greater. Yet on the western front between 1915 and 1918 it was the artillery piece that was king. Seven out of ten British casualties were victims of artillery shells and the statistics were similar for the French.

A British heavy gun in action. On the western front between 1915 and 1918, seven out of ten British casualties were victims of artillery shells, says David Olusoga. (© Library of Congress)

None of the armies of 1914 had gone to war expecting a conflict dominated by artillery; they all planned for a war of manoeuvre and movement. But once the western front had stabilised in late 1914, the importance of artillery and high explosive shells increased enormously. Howitzers and mortars, once seen as specialist siege weapons, were manufactured in huge numbers and with each offensive the number and the calibre of the guns increased.
So why has this misconception come about? I think it is partly because many of those who were killed by the machine gun fell in tragic but dramatic offensives, calamities like the first day of the Somme, when the sheer scale of the bloodletting was so shocking that the events seeped into our national consciousness.
The death toll reaped by artillery, by contrast, was an incessant part of daily life. You did not have to be in an attack to be hit by a shell, you could be having breakfast deep in your trench. You could be miles behind the lines but still within the killing zone.
Churchill put it best. In a parliamentary debate in May 1916, he said: “What is going on while we sit here, while we go to dinner, or home to bed? Nearly a thousand men – Englishmen, Britishers, men of our own race – are knocked into bundles of bloody rags every 24 hours.”

David Olusoga is presenting The World’s War on BBC Two this month. The accompanying book of the same name will be published by Head of Zeus in early August.

7) Shell-shocked soldiers were usually shot for cowardice during the First World War

Wrong, says Fiona Reid

The idea of young, frightened, shell-shocked men being court-martialled, denounced as cowards and then shot by their own comrades seems to sum up the brutal futility of the First World War. But is it true?
Certainly men were sentenced to death in the war. Capital punishment was legal in Britain and during the conflict 3,080 men were court-martialled and sentenced to execution: 346 of those executions were carried out, 266 of them for desertion and 18 for cowardice.
We cannot say what happened to shell-shocked men with such precision or brevity. Since the battle of Mons in September 1914 military doctors had recognised that soldiers were suffering from nervous disorders as a result of the fierce, industrial fighting. Mindful of the stigma usually attached to mental health problems, the War Office had insisted that these men “should not be treated like ordinary lunatics”.

A soldier surrounded by a mountain of empty shells in France. Tens of thousands of British troops suffered from shell-shock but few were executed. (© SCRAN)

Consequently, shell-shocked men usually experienced an array of medical treatments, sometimes close to the firing line, sometimes in hospitals at home. Some, despite the War Office commitment, were sent to lunatic asylums. Overall, there were about 80,000 recorded cases of psychological injury among British troops during the war and, by 1921, 65,000 men were receiving pensions for shell-shock and neurasthenia (nervous debility).
Clearly, most shell-shocked men were not shot, as the figures attest. But can we assume that those executed were all shell-shocked? It is possible that some of them were, as contemporaries recognised. Yet we cannot assume that all of those designated as cowards or deserters were mentally ill.
Men suffering severe trauma were removed from the trenches on medical grounds because they were both unfit and bad for morale. However those men who had shown courage in the past – those who had ‘done their bit’ –  were considered sympathetically and more likely to be treated with medical care than punishment.
The real tragedy of the shell-shock story is not that men were routinely executed but that mentally wounded men lived in real fear of being sent to a ‘pauper asylum’ and that many of them spent the postwar years trying to live on scanty pensions with irregular and inadequate health care.

Dr Fiona Reid is the author of Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914–1930 (Continuum, 2010).

8) The First World War saw few civilian casualties

Wrong, says Heather Jones
The belief that the First World War was a soldiers’ war with few civilian casualties stems from the fact that soldiers’ lives were valued more than civilians. Soldiers could fight and were thus a valuable resource; they were also ready to sacrifice themselves for their country and they were male in a world that valued men over women – particularly in central and eastern Europe, where most of the war’s civilian casualties occurred.

Berliners queue for food in Alexanderplatz, 1917–18. Several hundred thousand German civilians lost their lives to malnutrition during the First World War. (© Topfoto)

We still do not know how many civilians died in total in the First World War. The conflict saw an estimated 500,000 excess civilian deaths triggered by malnutrition in Germany and over 1 million Armenian civilians deported to their deaths by the Ottoman empire. The German army shot 6,500 civilians during its invasion of Belgium and northern France in 1914, including women and children. The Russian state deported its Jewish population from its borderland, causing untold hardship.
The war also saw the widespread execution of civilians in occupied Serbia by the Central Powers, as well as civilians starving in the Ottoman empire because of the Allied blockade of the Mediterranean. Major cities were occupied: Warsaw, Brussels, Belgrade, Bucharest, Baghdad and even Tbilisi in Georgia. Civilians accused of civic resistance acts were executed in occupied Belgium.
The war at sea also saw numerous civilian casualties – most famously the 1,200 who drowned on the Lusitania – but such sinkings grew relatively frequent as the war went on. Then there was the war in the air. Who today remembers the children of Poplar, east London killed by the aerial bombardment of their school or the children in Karlsruhe killed when a circus tent was bombed by a plane?
The First World War destroyed countless civilian lives, and their memory should matter as much as the soldiers.

Dr Heather Jones is associate professor of international history at LSE and author of Violence Against Prisoners of War in the First World War: Britain, France and Germany, 1914–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

9) The Americans intervened too late

Wrong, says Nick Lloyd
Eurocentric accounts of the war are apt to be dismissive of the American contribution to victory. The Americans were too late, they say. It took them until the summer of 1918 to get a sizeable army into the field, and even then it was not decisive.
Their troops were inexperienced, ill-trained and lacking the extensive logistical support required. When they finally attacked in September 1918, in two large offensives at St Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, the offensives were characterised by poor tactics, heavy casualties and missed opportunities – in stark contrast to the effective ‘all-arms’ co-operation pioneered by British forces. Such has been the verdict of history on the US involvement in the First World War.

An American recruitment poster. “US forces showed an impressive ability to learn at speed,” says Nick Lloyd. (© Getty)

Yet, in truth, President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the war as an Associated Power in April 1917, in response to the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, was of enormous consequence.
American industrial strength had been supporting the Allied war effort for three years, but the full participation of US military and naval power not only ensured the Allies did not collapse, it meant they were also able to drive the German armies back in the late summer and autumn of 1918.
US forces may have lacked the experience and firepower of the British and French, but they showed an impressive ability to learn at speed. This forced German commanders into the stark realisation that they must sue for peace as soon as possible, knowing that if the war continued for much longer, then American combat power would be overwhelming.
Without US involvement the war may even have ended in a German victory, either in 1917 or 1918.

Nick Lloyd is author of Hundred Days: The End of the Great War (Viking, 2013).

10) German defeat in the war was an inevitability

Wrong, says David Stevenson
There’s an idea that’s been put forward recently that the economic advantages on the Allied side were so enormous that there wasn’t any chance that the Central Powers could have won the war.
However, I think that the Germans – if, perhaps, not capable of winning the war outright – could have forced some kind of compromise in which the Allies would not have achieved many of their objectives.
The Allies were, after all, in a real mess in 1917. The Russians were in the midst of a revolution that would take them out of the war. And the failure of a massive French offensive in April 1917 produced widespread mutinies in the army.
As for the British, they were experiencing a major financial crisis at the beginning of 1917, and didn’t know for how much longer they were going to be able to keep funding imports from the US. The Admiralty had no answer to the amount of shipping that German U-boats were sinking – by 1917, the Germans had twice as many U-boats as they had in the spring of 1916 – and was extremely worried.

A painting shows a German U-boat sinking a fishing-steamer. By spring 1917, British shipping losses were causing sleepless nights in the Admiralty. (© AKG)

What denied Berlin the opportunity to capitalise on these Allied weaknesses was its decision to implement a campaign of what was called unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.
Unrestricted submarine warfare essentially meant torpedoing merchant ships and passenger liners, whether they were Allied or neutral, without warning. The Germans had tried this before, but it was against most people’s interpretations of international law, and they’d been forced to abandon it on both occasions due to protests from the Americans.
Yet, in 1917, they introduced it again. It was a decision that was to have enormous consequences, for it precipitated America’s entry into the conflict. The Americans soon sent 35 of their destroyers to help convey shipping across the Atlantic – and, for the Germans, an opportunity to exploit British vulnerability and potentially alter the outcome of the war had gone.

David Stevenson is the author of With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (Penguin, 2012).

11) The ‘soldier-poets’ are the supreme interpreters of the First World War

Wrong, says David Reynolds
The writings of soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (pictured below) are staples of the school curriculum. Owen has been called the most studied author in English literature after Shakespeare. From them we have derived a sense of 1914–18 as pointless, trench-bound slaughter, directed by boneheaded generals.

Wilfred Owen. (© Getty)

Yet over 2,200 people from the UK published some form of poetry about the First World War, from 1914–18. Of these, a quarter were women and four out of five were civilians; so ‘soldier-poets’ were very definitely a minority. Moreover, writers such as Sassoon and Owen were atypical soldiers – being young, unmarried officers, often with complexes about their sexuality and courage.
It was the poetry anthologies of the 1960s – imbued with the anti-war, anti-nuclear spirit of the time – that privileged a few of these soldier-poets as the true interpreters of the war. Only in the last 30 years have we developed a broader conception of Great War poetry.
And, as it happens, the soldier-poets weren’t unequivocally anti-war. Owen, for instance, knew the ecstasy as well as the agony of battle. He won his Military Cross for mowing down Germans with a machine gun: a point his brother Harold tried to conceal when publishing Wilfred’s biography.
Owen’s own writings testify to his ambivalence. His famous draft preface for a future collection of poems is usually remembered for these sentences: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” But a few lines later Owen expresses the hope that his book “survives Prussia”. He sometimes used that term as a shorthand for creeping militarism at home, but his essentially anti-German thrust is clear. Owen came to loathe war but, to the end, a part of him still felt that this struggle had meaning.

David Reynolds is the author of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon and Schuster, 2013).

Nothing to grouse about

Yesterday I went up to London to attend the annual Grouse Dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club.

Having travelled up by coach myself I met up with my host at Victoria Station and then, walking along by the side of Buckingham Palace managed to trip over my feet on the pavement. Fortunately I was unhurt if alittle shaken and had afriend with me. A passer-by was all for calling an ambulance - no wonder the NHS is at full stretch - but I got to my feet and continued along our journey, reflecting that I had, perhaps, managed to seemingly perform a proskynesis to the Sovereign...

London being London we managed to meet acquaintances in The Mall by pure chance before going to meet another friend at the Red luion pub opposite St James' Palace before going to the O and C.

We sat in the roof garden overlooking Marlborough House before the reception and dinner, which was in the Princess Marie Louise Room - that part of the Club was formerly the residence of H.H. Princess Marie Louise. This was a suitably opulent setting for such an occasion and a good opportunity to meet up with many old friends from Oxford and to catch up on their news.

Afterwards we adjourned to the bar and then back to the roof garden for more drinks and a cigar, before I made my way back to the coach pick up point and my host returned to south London.

An excellent and enjoyable evening - and nothing to grouse about ( save perhaps two more than usually sore knees).

Monday 5 September 2016

Reassembling the crew of the Mary Rose

The Daily Telegraph has a story about work being done to identify the component parts of the skeletons of the crew of the Mary Rose and so study them further and understand more about the lives of the sailors after scientists digitised the human remains. Read the full story

The Great Fire of London

There have been various online and  newspaper articlesnto mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London from Sunday September 2nd to Wednesday 5th 1666.

A painting showing the great fire of London, 4 September 1666, as seen from a boat in vicinity of Tower Wharf

The Great Fire of London by an unknown painter, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666 from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames.

 Image: Wikipedia

Here are links to some online sites which appear interesting:

Great Fire of London, 10 facts about the Great Fire of London, and the most famous eye-witness of those days Samuel Pepys Diary 1666 - Fire of London

in addition the modern press has contributed as follows:

The Great Fire of London, 350th anniversary: How did it start and what happened?
The Daily Telegraph
As history would have it, the fire that engulfed London for four days began on Pudding Lane. A baker by the name of Thomas Farriner was blamed for the blaze - something he denied for the rest of his life. Read the full story

How the Great Fire of London unfolded: Official blunders, mass hysteria, and racist violence which threatened to tear the city apart
The Daily Telegraph
It is now 350 years since the Great Fire of London razed the city's medieval heart to the ground. But at such a distance it is easy to forget the human drama which played out as thousands of people lost their homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives. Read the full story

Lost in the Great Fire: which London buildings disappeared in the 1666 blaze?
The Guardian
This week 350 years ago, the Great Fire of London burned through 400 of the city’s streets. Matthew Green reveals the extraordinary structures lost in the blaze – from old St Paul’s to a riverside castle – and what survived, only to vanish later Read the full story

After the Great Fire, London could have looked like Paris. Thankfully, it doesn't
The Daily Telegraph
In the immediate aftermath of London’s great disaster of 1666, the weight of professional opinion favoured the application of rationality to its rebuilding. We were, after all, at the start of the Enlightenment. Christopher Wren was a founding president of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke its secretary and the City Surveyor, and science and art had yet to part ways. Read the full story

The Lord Mayor of London in 1682, when The Monument was completed Sir Patience Ward was a native of my home town and being a diehard Protestant believed the Fire was the work of the wicked Papists and had an inscription to that effect added to the base of The Monument. Removed in the reign of King James II it was reinstated after his overthrow. It was later removed and buried, and then rediscovered in the nineteenth century, but not under re-erected. It inspired Alexander Pope's line about how The Monument "lifts its finger to the skies and lies."

Saturday 3 September 2016

Emperor Charles IV - 700th anniversary

The online site from Denmark Medieval Histories is always well worth receiving - I would recommend readers to sign up to this free service - and their latest edition is truly splendid being devoted almost entirely to articles about the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, the 700th anniversary of whose birth falls this year. These give remarkable insights, accompanied by splendid illustrations, into the life and times of the Emperor. I have copied and pasted their entry page, which has some other articles of interest at the end.


Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, lived from 1316 – 1478. All year, Czechia have celebrated their national hero culminating this weekend with a scientifically based recreation of his coronation in 1347. Read all about this event, the exhibitions in both Prague and Nuremberg (coming-up), the many portraits of him, his autobiography, his spectacular crowns and much more. If you miss an angle – don’t despair. There will be a follow-up!
Couple playacting as Charles IV and Queen Blanche 1347 - 2016 Honza Keokotah

Invitation to the Coronation of Charles IV 2016

The re-enactment of the Coronation of Charles IV in Prague is a recurrent event. This year, it will be a faithful, scientifically based recreation
Banner with exhibition Charles IV 1316 - 2016

Charles IV – 1316 - 2016

This year Prag and Nuremberg celebrates the birth of Charles IV (1316 – 1378) with two major exhibitions and a number of other events.
Charles IV - Statue in prague from 1848 by Ernst Julius Hähnel

Charles IV – Adventurer or National hero?

In 2005 the Czech cast their vote as to who was the greatest Czech hero. Curiously enough a medieval king, Charles IV, came out on top by 68.713 votes.   Read more.
Charles IV carried into Paris- BnF, FR 2813 f 469

Charles IV – Boisterous Youth and Crippled King

Charles IV was known as an agile youth with a penchant for taking part in tournaments. However, in 1350 he was severely crippled
Portrait of Charles IV in Prague detail

Charles IV and His Autobiography

The Vita Caroli Quarti of Charles IV (1316 – 1378) is one of the earliest royal autobiographies written. A new edition celebrates the 700-year anniversary
The Last Judgement at the Golden Gate of St. Vitus in Prague. Source: Wikipedia

The Curious Mind of Charles IV

Charles IV was an extremely sensual person possessing a creative and curious mind. A vast number of sources witness to this remarkable leader
Adoring the cross at Karlsteijn

The Portraits of Charles IV of Bohemia

Charles IV belongs to a group of 14th century rulers who commissioned artists to render them as personally recognizable individuals when acting as kings   Read more.
Relief showing the Coronation of Charles in Milan 1354. Notice the crowns hanging above the altar and the bearer of the sword. Workshop of Matteo da Campione. . © Museo e Tesoro del Duomo di Monza

Crowns of Charles IV of Bohemia

Charles IV was obsessed with organising impressive medieval spectacles. One of the important props were his crowns, of which we know several.
Old part of Prague Castle

Prague – Centre Stage for Charles IV

Charles IV was a king obsessed with organising feasts and processions of all sorts. His rebuilding of Prague is a witness to this.

Medieval Travels....

Karlstejn © pstours

The Castle of Karlštejn

Karlstejn is a remarkable witness to the creative energy of Charles IV, king of Bohema and Holy Roman Emperor 1316 - 1378
Reconstructed medieval outfits from the time of Charles IV

Karlštejn Castle and its Treasure

The Karlštejn Treasure is a collection of around 400 objects dating back to the 14th century, when Charles IV commissioned the building of the Castle.
Castle in Lauf - Wenzelschloss-gallery of coat of arms -detail

The Castle in Lauf -  Wenzelschloss –

The Castle in Lauf – also known as the Wenzelschloss – was constructed by Charles IV in 1356 on the road between Prague and Nuremberg.

Medieval Exhibitions...

Pavillon de l’Horloge Medievale musée du Louvre Thierry Ollivier WEB

Medieval Louvre

To all medievalists: skip queuing for Mona Lisa and visit the newly opened parts of Louvre where its medieval history is told
Hans Memling Triptych of Jan Crabbe

Triptych of Jan Crabbe

Hans Memling's Triptych of Jan Crabbe is reunited in Landmark Exhibition at the Morgan in the autumn

New Research....


Tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent in Szigetvár

When Suleiman the Magnificent died in Szigetvár his heart and entrails were buried there. His newly discovered mausoleum is hoped to be a new tourism magnet    Read more.