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Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty, World War 2 on Saturday, 8 March 2014
This edited article about Leopold III, King of the Belgians first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.
Leopold III, King of the Belgians
In the bitter spring of 1940, as the grim grey-uniformed German Army pushed through Northern Europe, one man made a decision that was for years afterwards, to divide a nation.
At 4 a.m. on May 28, half a million Belgian soldiers laid down their arms and surrendered to the advancing Germans. This they did not on the orders of their generals, nor on instructions from their political leaders, but at the bidding of their handsome king, Leopold the Third.
Leopold’s instructions to his countrymen – who had fought bravely and acquitted themselves well – were given after a last desperate attempt by his Ministers to make him change is mind.
The king was adamant. He saw no further use in resistance. He told M. Spaak (then Foreign Minister): “I shall stay here whatever happens. I shall ask them (the Germans) to let me live in a castle in Belgium.”
The news that the Belgian Army had stopped fighting stunned and angered the allies. Tempers, already inflamed by the passions of war, were now inflamed in turn by hatred directed at Leopold. At 8 a.m. on the morning of May 28 M. Reynaud, the Prime Minister of France, broadcast to the French people and spoke in terms of contempt of the Belgian king.
The Belgian Prime Minister, M. Piertot, denied the right of Leopold to give a surrender order without the consent of the government.
The Germans were jubilant. “Under the impression of the devastating effect of the German arms the King of the Belgians has decided to put an end to further useless resistance,” screamed the Goebbels propaganda machine.
In London Winston Churchill sucked gravely upon the inevitable cigar and exhorted the allies to greater efforts. Meanwhile the German armies swept on into France, only the Channel separating them from Britain, and Belgium was occupied and out of the war.
Why had Leopold surrendered? Was he a hero or a traitor? Had the Germans made him promises? Since that day in 1940 the arguments have raged and some, but not all, of the questions have been answered.
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Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, War on Wednesday, 5 March 2014
This edited article about Crimea first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.
In the spring of 1854, a large Expeditionary Army left Britain bound for the Crimea. No one, it seemed, was quite certain what the war was about. In some manner Britain had become involved in a quarrel between Russia and Turkey, and was about to invade Russian territory. But few troubled about the larger issues: for the first time in a generation the army could show off its paces in a real war and the Expeditionary Army left in a holiday atmosphere. The transports carried ladies and their maids: room was found for private carriages: there was a profusion of flowers, choice wines and food. Lord Cardigan, Colonel of the Light Brigade, had already sent ahead his own yacht to which, during the coming battles, he would retire comfortably each night.
Britain was going to war in the old style, and the old style regarded the private soldier as the scum of the earth. It was considered – with some reason – that only a desperate man would endure the conditions of a soldier in the ranks.
Officers came only from the upper classes and they purchased their commissions. The practice was defended on the grounds that it prevented control of the army from falling into the hands of revolutionaries. It had worked in the past but, inevitably, it degenerated into a system whereby young gallants purchased control of large sections of the army over the heads of veteran soldiers, and used their command as a means of social display. Their personal bravery was unquestionable but so was their lack of military knowledge.
From the moment that the Army landed in the Crimea to its evacuation two years later it was stalked by disaster. The incompetence of the British general staff was fortunately matched, and at times surpassed by, the incompetence of their enemy: the war would otherwise have ended in a British defeat within the first few weeks. Disease, hunger and thirst took as great a toll as did the enemy. Provisions failed to arrive: vast numbers of men were sent into waterless areas, thirsty before they started: equipment proved inadequate first for the burning heat of summer and then the rigours of winter. In spite of all this, the private soldiers and their field commanders fought with extreme bravery, adding the names of the Alma, Inkerman and Balaclava to the roll of battle honours.
Until the Crimea, the British public were largely ignorant of the daily progress of a war; their only knowledge was gained through infrequent private letters and official dispatches. But throughout the Crimean War a special correspondent of “The Times” newspaper – William Howard Russell – accompanied the troops. He was present at most of the battles, but, far more important, he was an eye-witness of the needless horrors inflicted upon the troops as a result of the personal rivalries and incompetence of the general staff. He reported what he saw and the news created a storm of indignation in Britain. Among those stirred to action was Florence Nightingale who, against official opposition, managed to introduce some humanity into the appalling hospital system in the Crimea. Russell’s dispatches eventually brought down the government and led to a drastic overhaul of the archaic system of army command.
Such an overhaul was long overdue, for the cost of bungled commands was paid for in the lives of hundreds of men, who perished while obeying their officers’ ill-conceived orders.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about fortifications first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.
Allied soldiers attack a steel and concrete anti-aircraft gun site with a flamethrower
As the dazed German soldiers scrambled up from their deep concrete bunkers a terrifying sight met them down the barrels of their guns. The sea seemed covered with landing-craft beyond which lay the big ships, their sides twinkling with flashes of gunfire as they sent salvos of shells high overhead to pound the rear defences of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
For the men manning the pill-boxes and strongpoints along the beaches of Normandy on that 6th day of June in 1944, the threat was more immediate. Even as the roar of the bombers died away and the dust of their bombardment still hung in the air, Allied infantry swarmed ashore and amphibious tanks churned across the open beach. Those Germans who could still stand, fought back with the courage of desperate men, manning their tiny fortresses to the last.
Hitler had said that the Allied invasion must be stopped at the beaches. He boasted that where a German soldier once stood, no other soldier would ever stand again. He would allow no army to drive the Germans from their newly-conquered lands. But his much vaunted Atlantic Wall, part of the Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) which had been built to defend Hitler’s new lands, was neither complete nor capable of resisting an attack like the one which the Allies launched in 1944.
Two years earlier, in 1942, Field Marshal von Runstedt, the man who had led Germany’s blitzkrieg attack on France, was put in charge of defences. It was a strange choice of commander. The Fuehrer put his faith in concrete and steel to meet the threat of an Allied invasion, but Runstedt had already outflanked France’s Maginot Line of static defences back in 1940. He was hardly likely to have much faith in fortresses like those which he had himself defeated.
The French Maginot Line and Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had much in common. In 1930 France started to build a line of fixed defences along her German frontier. The Maginot Line was certainly a strong line of defence. Some of its forts were sunk 200 feet in the ground with subterranean living quarters, stores, communications centres and railways. In addition, the air pressure was kept high to stop poisonous gas from seeping in.
All that could be seen on the surface were steel turrets and acres of concrete. Around and between the main forts were minefields, tank traps, barbed wire and communications trenches. It was an amazing piece of engineering, but it had one outstanding flaw – it simply was not long enough.
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Posted in Communism, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Politics, Revolution on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about Hungary first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 569 published on 9 December 1972.
The freedom fighters of Hungary defied the Russian tanks and the machine guns to show the world that liberty is a thing to be treasured – even to death, by Graham Coton
One rifle shot – that is all it took, nothing more – turned a wild rowdy march into a revolution in Hungary in 1956.
It was fired outside the radio studios in Budapest where hundreds of young Hungarians were making a wild demonstration against their one-party government. And it was enough to send them berserk.
Before the day was out, the office of a newspaper had been stormed by crowds carrying the dead body of a student wrapped in a flag; a statue of Stalin, a former Russian leader, had been smashed, pavements torn up, trams overturned and barricades erected.
For a long time, there had been a great deal of discontent over the presence of Russian troops in Hungary. They were there under the terms of a “self help” treaty made between Russia and her satellites a year earlier. But the students wanted them to go, and they also wanted a western type of democracy with more than one political party, freedom of worship, a free press and reforms concerning land ownership.
Inspired by a recent revolution in Poland, which was bloodless and had brought that country more freedom, the students began their march towards the statue of Joseph Bem, a Polish general whose fight in the Hungarian War for Independence of 1848-49 had made him their hero.
Chanting, “Russians go home,” they marched to the statue, near which was a barracks from where eight hundred cadets joined them. From there they marched to the radio station with the demand that their plea for freedom should be broadcast.
And it was there that the fatal shot was fired.
Nobody knows who fired it. Perhaps it was a nervous security guard. But it caused some trigger-happy rebels to fire back, and set the others rampaging destructively through the town, which caused the government to announce sinisterly that they “had applied for help to the Soviet formations stationed in Hungary.”
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Posted in Bravery, Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Invasions, World War 1 on Monday, 24 February 2014
This edited article about Frederick Potts V.C. first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 563 published on 28 October 1972.
The Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli is a wild, scrubby, sun-hardened place. Few people live on it. A tourist can drive a car down the seaside road beside the Dardanelles Strait, the stretch of water that connects the Black Sea with the Aegean and see no other vehicles for dozens of miles.
On the peninsula a few signs crudely painted point the way to war cemeteries; on the wide straits only a small boat occasionally disturbs the emptiness. Everywhere there is an utter soundlessness – Gallipoli and the Dardanelles are like inseparable twins who sleep silently in a tormented past.
That past belongs to the year 1915 the second year of the First World War. It was the outcome of a plan that had grown in the previous year in the mind of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.
Poring over his maps of Central Europe at the headquarters of the War Council, Churchill stabbed a finger at the fat tongue of land marked Gallipoli, reaching out from the Turkish mainland. “A combined naval and military attack here,” he said, “would allow our armies to thrust rapidly upwards to Constantinople. We would command the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. In that one thrust we would eliminate Turkey from the war.”
On the map it looked splendid. Turkey was Britain’s second great enemy after Germany in that frightful war and the primary Turkish threat was to Britain’s ally Russia. If the Black Sea could be opened the Russians, fighting the Germans in Poland, could receive reinforcements through Turkey’s “back door” – Gallipoli.
Even so, the British War Council hesitated to make a commitment so far from the real action in France. While they hesitated the Turks, ably supported by their German allies, had all the time they needed to dig themselves in on Gallipoli.
But the Allies were now committed to help Russia. Thus on April 25th the first wave of 90,000 British and French landed on the southern end of Gallipoli and were at once exposed to a merciless, withering fire from the 200,000 Turks entrenched on high ground. At an appalling cost in lives, the Allies gained a tenuous footing.
For the invaders, every item of provisions had to be brought in by sea to the bombarded beaches and from there carried laboriously by hand through narrow communication trenches to the front line. Water was most precious of all. Even the Allies’ machine-guns at times became unworkable through lack of water to keep the barrels cool.
As the merciless Turkish summer broke, the invading troops were almost prostrated by the tropical heat and plagued relentlessly by flies, until exhausted soldiers vied with each other to see who could swallow food and eat the least number of flies in so doing.
One of the 90,000 who made the landing was Trooper Frederick Potts of the Berkshire Yeomanry. At 22 Potts of the Berkshire Yeomanry. At 22 Potts knew nothing about grand military strategy, but he had seen plenty of army service and in his first hour on Gallipoli he was able to describe the peninsula with feeling as “this horrible, awful country”.
The heart of the Turkish defence was a strongly fortified position which stretched, in anonymous army terminology, from Hill 70 to Hill 112. Here, on the afternoon of August 12, 1915, Potts and his friends were ordered to deliver a massive frontal attack.
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Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Invasions on Monday, 24 February 2014
This edited article about forts and castles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 563 published on 28 October 1972.
(Top) Reconstruction of a motte and bailey style wooden castle; (insets) Restormel Castle in Cornwall (top) and Farnham castle (bottom); (Bottom Left) Hedingham Castle in Essex; (Bottom Centre) Spiral stairs built into angled walls; (Bottom right) Cross section through Hedingham Castle showing the stone arches that support each wooden floor; pictures by Pat Nicolle
Shoulder to shoulder stood the northern barbarians, their shields making a rampart above which fierce bearded faces roared defiance at the foe. The warrior traditions of these northern Angles, Saxons, Franks and Germans were certainly heroic but not always very sensible. Sometimes courage and a strong sword-arm were not enough.
This was just what the Franks found when they set up their kingdom of France in what had been known as Gaul. Under their king Charlemagne the Franks tried hard to rebuild the Roman Empire. They themselves were Christians and quite civilized in their way, but their empire-building habits brought them up against the pagan Saxons of Germany, cousins of those other Saxons who had conquered Britain.
The Saxons fought back savagely and forced the invading Franks to build garrison forts to keep them down. In fact the Franks copied the older forts of the Romans, though their forts were much smaller and cruder than those of Imperial Rome.
Far to the north and to the east the distant barbarians of Scandinavia and eastern Europe were still defending themselves behind earth ramparts and wooden stockades just as the ancient Celts had done. These Scandinavian and Slav tribes were slowly merging into new nations like Poland and Russia. As they did so they built fine hilltop strongholds that were one day to grow into great cities.
In Scandinavia lived the Vikings, the most ferocious and feared of all the peoples who lived outside the frontiers of civilization. Suddenly in the ninth century they burst out of their cold northern lairs to raid and pillage across Europe. From longboats beached on the coasts they plundered the defenceless lands of England, France and Ireland. If they met resistance they would build fortified base-camps in the most inaccessible and marshy parts of the coast.
The kings of Europe had terrible trouble winkling the Viking raiders out of these strongly defended bases, for the camps were well designed by warriors who had long experience of building strongholds back in their Scandinavian homeland. One of the biggest Viking camps was at Trelleborg in Sweden. 1,200 fighting men could live within its huge circular rampart and ditch in ‘long-houses’ like barracks laid out with Roman-like precision.
The only way the English and French could resist these Viking raiders was to copy them and start building fortresses of their own. This is exactly what King Alfred did in England. He built a series of walled towns called burghs or boroughs all over that part of England not conquered by the Vikings. As Alfred’s successors slowly won back the Viking-occupied areas they also built burghs as rallying points for the English forces.
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Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty on Monday, 17 February 2014
This edited article about Edward II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.
In Berkeley Castle Edward II realises his three visitors are assassins, by C L Doughty
Even the toughest, fiercest warriors usually have soft hearts underneath their iron-clad exteriors. King Edward the First was no exception. When an old servant of his, named Arnold de Gaveston, turned up at the royal palace one day with his little son Piers and told the King all about the hard times he had fallen upon in his travels in France, Edward was moved to pity.
“The boy looks handsome enough,” said the King looking thoughtfully at Piers. “I’m sure he’d make a better companion for my son than some of the louts he keeps company with. Let him stay with the young Prince.”
So young Piers Gaveston was sent down to where Prince Edward lived in King’s Langley. And that, for the King, was to turn out to be the worst mistake that he made in his life, and unwittingly the biggest disservice he ever did his country.
The Welsh, the Scots, the French – and the Prince of Wales – were the problems that beset King Edward the First in his lifetime, and the one that he never succeeded in solving was the last. When old Edward went to his deathbed his mind was full of doubts about his dissolute heir, who seemed determined only to eat the marrow out of life. The King had soon found it necessary to banish young Gaveston who, contrary to his expectations, had proved by far the most evil influence on the Prince’s life. When at last the King died, commanding that his corpse should be carried before his army invading Scotland, the Prince of Wales – now King Edward the Second – did two things that were entirely in character.
First, he ignored his father’s last wish, and secondly, he at once recalled his friend and favourite Gaveston from the Continent. Then to rub in the insult to his dead father, he created Gaveston Earl of Cornwall.
Extraordinary things began to happen at the court, where Gaveston was not only the favourite and the Adonis, but remarkable, too, for his knightly prowess, graceful manners and sparkling wit. It was this last accomplishment that stuck in the baron’s throats, for much to the delight of the feckless King, Gaveston began a scornful teasing campaign, that infuriated them. The Earl of Pembroke, who was dark and thin and sallow-complexioned, he called “Joseph the Jew,” the Earl of Warwick, who foamed at the mouth when angry, was “The wild boar,” the Earl of Lancaster, the King’s cousin and second most powerful man in the land, who was fond of fine clothes, he called “the fiddling player”; and the Earl of Lincoln, who was unfortunately fat, he called “Burst-belly.” All these barons had long memories and short tempers as we shall see.
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Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, War on Monday, 17 February 2014
This edited article about the Opium Wars first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 554 published on 26 August 1972.
The Second Opium War – Canton and part of the suburbs, sketched during the conflagration in the city
One hundred and fifty years ago, people in the Western world knew even less about China than they know today. Then, as now, it was closed to all but a few privileged visitors, and its rulers were suspicious of contacts with Europe and America. What a different country it was then! There were few landlords, but many peasants; hundreds of scholars, but millions who could neither read nor write; an emperor in his palace, but thousands of beggars in the streets of his cities. China lived for herself, producing all that she needed to survive and content with her ancient customs and traditions. People of other lands were barbarians, and unwanted and those who tried to enter China took a great risk.
Britain also was a different country then. She had just become a great industrial power. Her mills and factories were turning out all kinds of goods – cotton and woollen goods from the North, metalware from the Midlands, and countless other products which she wanted to trade for cheap raw materials and for food from abroad. She saw in China a great market for such goods, if only the Chinese would let British merchants in!
China was not so keen. Grudgingly, she opened just one port to the British, and there, in Canton, allowed them to build a warehouse for their goods. But she insisted that all business had to be done through an old-fashioned guild of Chinese merchants. The port was open for only a few months in the year, and when the Chinese “closed the shop” so to speak, the English merchants were obliged to leave until the trading season came round again. This did not please the British, whose overseas empire was growing fast, and who were more used to giving orders to foreigners than to accepting theirs.
One of the things which Britain wanted to sell to China came, in fact, from her Indian Empire. This was the drug called opium. Countless poor Chinese smoked or chewed opium, believing that its effects would relieve them of their misery for a few hours. There were “Opium Dens” in all big Chinese towns, and the British saw nothing wrong at that time in supplying opium to them from the poppy-fields of India.
The Chinese Government, on the other hand, wanted to stamp out the use of opium in China, and to ban its import from abroad. This decision, together with a general lack of cooperation in matters of trade, made the British Government decide to use force in order to get their own way. In 1839 they invaded the Chinese coast, starting what later became known as the First Opium War. A British naval squadron occupied Hong Kong, while others pushed on to Canton and Shanghai, their modern weapons meeting little resistance from the Chinese.
Peace was restored by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. This treaty laid down that Hong Kong Island should become a British Possession (the British promptly named it “Victoria”) and that five other ports should be opened to British merchants. The guild of Chinese Merchants was abolished, and the Chinese Government was told that it must act in a thoroughly Western way in future, treating the British as equals and as gentlemen, not as “foreign devils” – the name by which they were all too often known by the Chinese. Opium was to be among the goods permitted to be imported into China.
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Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions on Friday, 7 February 2014
This edited article about the Foreign Legion first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 547 published on 8 July 1972.
Captain Danjou and his depleted battalion of Legionnaires held out against overwhelming odds, by Angus McBride
For over 20 years the French Foreign Legion had been fighting its own battles, often with small raiding parties and guerrilla warfare in isolated and difficult countryside. Now it was to be pitchforked into a war on the grand scale. In the Crimea the Russian Army was facing a combined allied force of nearly 60,000 men from England, France and Turkey.
The war was a disaster from the start. Badly planned, poorly supplied and blessed with even worse leaders the Allied army stumbled from blunder to blunder in a way that Legionnaires had never seen before. It was fortunate that the Russians fared little better but for two disastraous years thousands of lives were lost with little conceivable gain to anyone.
It had all started with an air of comedy, too. The Legion left North Africa under their leader, Colonel Bazaine, complete with the Colonel’s wife and her grand piano! They soon found that the space would have been better used for stores, for on arriving in the Crimea they found virtually everything was either in short supply or else impossible to obtain.
The Legion was horror-struck to find that their usual method of making good their supplies – by looting – had been expressly forbidden. Everything had to be purchased or obtained by bartering. Fortunately the Legion worked out its own solution.
A foraging party went inland and found a prosperous looking Tartar village. “We must remember we have to purchase everything,” said their officer and he set about giving instructions to the small parties of men who set off to collect the various items. Soon the carts in the village square were piled high with poultry, vegetables, grain, fruit and cheese. The head man was summoned and, surrounded by heavily armed and grinning Legionnaires, haltingly asked for payment. The Officer made a short speech, ripped a button from his tunic and pressed it into the old man’s hand. And when his astonished superiors asked how he had obtained such bountiful supplies he gravely replied: “By barter!”
The Legion took part in the battles of Alma and Inkerman and in the long and bitter siege of Sebastopol. Life was cheap and constant reinforcements were needed from North Africa. The tragedy was that so little was achieved and the effects of boredom were difficult to combat. Drinking and deserting increased and in some ways it was the first which made the most difficulties.
One Legionnaire sold his shoes to buy brandy and then blacked his feet in the hope that no one would notice. His commander, shocked, declared that he had a battalion of alcoholics, but then decided to check up more thoroughly. In his ranks he found thieves, ruined noblemen, a murderer, a Chinaman – and a former Prefect of Police. He decided to ask no more questions.
After two years the war dragged to a close, having cost over a quarter of a million lives. The Legion returned to Africa and there they built up their strength, drilled, marched and mended roads. They sang a lot and they drank a lot and when, in 1862 they heard that they were going to Mexico they decided that, once more, fate was being kind to the Legion.
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Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty on Monday, 3 February 2014
This edited article about Sweden first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 538 published on 6 May 1972.
Flight of Charles XII after the Battle of Pultowa
Tall, virile, handsome, though with a head strangely small for his great frame, the haughty youth in his magnificent robes of state looked the very embodiment of a warrior king.
It was winter, and the snow-covered streets of Stockholm were crowded with rejoicing citizens. For the haughty, 15-year-old youth had just been crowned as their King Charles the Twelfth and now he was about to pass in state through the narrow streets.
At that moment, a shudder of dismay passed through the superstitious onlookers. The regal crown had slipped from the monarch’s head!
In a sense this little incident was symbolic. The meteoric Charles was destined not only to fill the world with glory, but also to seal the doom of the great Swedish Empire.
His father’s death in 1697 had left him lord of vast domains stretching far beyond its natural bounds – from Finland to the German part of Bremen. Sweden was then incontestably one of the three great powers of Europe.
Yet on every side the boy king was surrounded by greedy and envious neighbours. In the west, Denmark threatened him. In the south, Augustus of Saxony dreamed of replacing Sweden as arbiter of the north. In the east, Tsar Peter of Russia plotted to seize Sweden’s Baltic possessions.
Charles knew that there would be a war and by Spartan discipline steeled his body for it. For hours at a time he wrestled and fenced; for days without respite he hunted savage bears. All illness, he believed, was due to overeating and drinking; he had a horror of alcohol.
Fires, even in winter, were scarcely tolerated in his quarters. He would rise at four in the morning; a wild-eyed, dishevelled figure, and only at midnight reluctantly retire to bed, frequently not even troubling to take off his jackboots. A demon of energy consumed him.
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