Sunday, 8 May 2005
"The German war is at an end"
Today is the anniversary of the declaration of 'Victory in Europe'. I was three years old when Churchill spoke to the nation sixty years ago today. I probably heard his speech - but I don't remember. I can remember hearing the sound of the Air Raid sirens, ('La musique qui pleure'
, I called it), and I can remember hearing doodle bugs. But, I have no real memories of my family's reaction to the end of the war or whether there was a street party in our road. In any case, my parents would have been very anxious for news from our relations in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
For those who have not lived through a conflict, it is difficult to imagine the horror and the utter futility of war. However, the essence of this realisation is often caught and put into words by a poet. I was looking for a poem written to celebrate the end of the war, I felt sure someone must have written one. Perhaps the Poet Laureate - but, who was the Poet Laureate in 1945? Instead I found a poem called, "If We Break Faith". It actually describes the signing of the armistice ending Word War I but also anticipates the ending of World War II. It was written by a little known American Poet, Joseph Auslander. He was America's first 'Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress' from 1937 to 1941 (a post later called Poet Laureate Consultant). Here it is:
Original found here
If We Break Faith
When they write an end to war, when they blot away the battle,
While our hearts are hushed in thankfulness and prayer,
With the signatures still wet, Lord, let us not forget
The ghostly line who also sign, though no one sees them there.
They crowd into that railroad car, they throng that flagship’s cabin –
The ghosts of all the dead men in long unending lines:
From the hell-defended rock, from the hallowed beachhead flock
The dead who stand and grip his hand each time the signer signs.
If we break faith with these our dead, play fast and loose with honor;
If we once more betray them as we have betrayed them twice,
We have earned their bitter curse that shall blast the universe ....
Judge Thou us then, O Judge of men, if we deny them thrice!
Friday, 15 April 2005
Never Let This Happen Again!
I heard on the Radio this morning that today, 15th April 2005
, is the 60th Anniversary
of the liberation by British troops of the infamous Nazi Concentration Camp of Bergen-Belsen
near Hanover, Germany. It is thought that some 70,000 human beings died in that camp, in the most despicable of circumstances.
Today is also the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic
, which struck an iceberg on 14th April 1912 and sank early the next morning with the loss of over 1,500 lives.
How many people, especially young people, know all about the tragedy of the sinking of the Titantic
? A great many, I am sure, especially as the story was used as the basis for a film
. How many people know what happened at Belsen or that it was a concentration camp? Far fewer, I suspect!
The story of Belsen is particularly horrifying because of the depths of man's depravity and extreme inhumanity to other human beings. Men, women and children, many already sick on arrival, who were incarcerated in an over-crowded 'hell' which, unless you are one of the few survivors, your worst nightmare could not begin to imagine. Human beings who were left to suffer and to die by means of starvation, disease, and extreme cruelty. Typhus
were endemic, huts intended for 60 housed 600, toilets were non-existent, there was no running water. The inmates' daily diet consisted of turnip and potato soup, plus a small piece of bread - if you were not strong enough to get up and queue for it, you went without.
They lived like animals, wearing tatters of lice-infested rags, sleeping in huts carpeted with human excreta. They died, mostly from starvation, at the rate of some 500 per day. Their bodies were left piled up, rotting, in full view of other inmates, including children. There was evidence that some inmates had resorted to cannibalism. Liberation came too late for nearly three-quarters of the camp inmates who were too sick to respond to treatment and failed to recover.
If you find all this shocking and revolting - you should! Recent events in the news
and a 'prison experiment
' have shown that ordinary people given power as guards can easily turn into bullies and torturers. What happened under Nazi Germany must never be forgotten - sadly, it is so easy for man's evil nature to surface. If there were to be a "next time", it could be your grandchildren who are the victims or, an even worse scenario, your grandchildren as the guards, the instigators. We must never
let this happen again!
N.B. The Belsen camp commandant, Josef Kramer, was found guilty at Luneberg of war crimes and hanged in December 1945.
Wednesday, 30 March 2005
Vincent van Gogh
Do you use Google
(UK version) to search for information on the Internet? It is my favourite Search Engine and I set it as my home page a long time ago. They are very good at 'decorating' the letters of Google at special times of the year - like the Mars rover image which appeared in January 2004.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to find this image this morning. When I hovered my cursor over the picture, up popped 'Vincent Van Gogh'. It didn't take long to discover that the famous Dutch artist was born on this day, 30th March 1853, at Groot-Zundert. He was the son of the village vicar, Theodorus van Gogh, and his wife, Anne Cornelia Carbentus. A still-born child had been born exactly one year earlier and their new son received his name, Vincent Willen van Gogh.
Strangely enough, 30th March is also the date that a painting by Van Gogh, "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers", was sold at Christie's
in 1987 for the small sum of #24.75 million (some $39,921,750!). This painting now hangs in the Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum in Tokyo. It has been the subject of much controversy (is it a fake?). Vincent van Gogh loved sunflowers
and painted a lot of them in different arrangements - some ten or eleven different paintings! Sometimes, he even copied some of his original paintings as presents for friends. He did one of his Sunflowers as a gift for Paul Gauguin, another famous artist.Van Gogh
is famous for cutting off his ear. He suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia and possibly epilepsy. He finally shot himself and died two days later on 29th July 1890. I find it very sad that the penniless Vincent van Gogh often had to give away some of his paintings in exchange for food or a new canvas - paintings which now sell for millions. Apparently, he only sold one painting in his lifetime. It is a strange world.
Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Julius C?sar Assassinated
Well that was a long time ago - 44 BC to be exact. Yes, it?s the Ides of March
today - just the Roman way of noting the 15th March. I have found out that, in the ancient Roman calendar, each of the 12 months had ?ides?, derived from the Latin ?to divide?. Apparently, the ancient Roman calendar organised its months around three days, each of which served as a reference point for counting the other days. These were Kalends
, for the 1st day of the month, Nones
, for the 7th day in March, May, July, and October (the 5th
in the other months) and Ides
, for the 15th day in March, May, July, and October (the 13th
in the other months). The unnamed days of the month were identified by counting backwards from the Kalends, the Nones, or the Ides. For example, the 3rd March would be "V Nones" - 5 days before the Nones (to make matters even more complicated
, the Roman method of counting days was inclusive; in other words, the Nones would be counted as one of the 5 days). However, the 6th March was not "II Nones" - it was called Pridie Nones (Latin for ?on the day before?). PHEW!
were originally coincidental with the advent of the new moon but, as the calendar for the Roman year wasn?t quite long enough, everything gradually got out of step. Apparently, the Romans were ruled by superstition and believed that even numbers were unlucky. So they ended up with a year of 355 days made up of four months of 31 days, seven months of 29 days and one unlucky month of 28 days. To try to realign the calendar with the seasons, they created an extra month called Mercedonius
of 22 or 23 days which they added to the calendar every second year.
Eventually, even that system became so far out that Julius C?sar, advised by the astronomer, Sosigenes
, ordered a major reform in 45 BC and the Romans endured their longest year of 445 days to bring the calendar back in step with the seasons. The solar year was calculated as 365 days and 6 hours (nearly right but actually 11? minutes longer than the solar year) and this formed the basis for the new Julian Calendar
. The months were 30 or 31 days long and C?sar decreed that every fourth year would have 366 days. As this new calendar followed the seasons instead of the moon, C?sar also decreed that the year start on the lst January instead of the vernal equinox in late March.
So, did C?sar get confused with the dates when the soothsayer warned him to ?beware the ides of March??
Sunday, 13 February 2005
The Bombing of Dresden
Today is the 60th Anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden. On the night of 13th February, RAF Bombers dropped their bomb loads over Dresden in two bombing waves. Later the next day, American bombers dropped yet more bombs on Dresden's railways and bridges. In the resulting firestorms, between 35,000 and 135,000 civilians died (there is much controversy over the exact number) and the city was razed to the ground.
Sir Arthur Travers Harris, who was Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command from 1942 to 1945, ordered the obliteration of this historic city. With hindsight, it is indeed easy to condemn the wholesale bombing of German cities as immoral and as a 'war crime'. Nevertheless, one should remember that, at the time of the Dresden raid, the action was fully supported by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and by the Allies. Shortly afterwards, Winston Churchill did have second thoughts about the policy of bombing cities purely for the sake of terrorising the population and disrupting communication and, within a few weeks, the Allies halted all area bombing. Churchill distanced himself from Bomber Command - the debate about the morality of bombing raids was already under way.
Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was convinced that air power would be the decisive factor in winning the war and that strategic bombing would help to prevent the whole scale slaughter of forces on the ground as had happened in the First World War. In 1942, he instigated huge waves of bomber raids on big cities such as Cologne or Hamburg in the belief that he could bring about the swift collapse of the German Reich. Later on in the war, the selective targeting of Hitler's V rocket sites and attacks on oil targets was hugely successful.
However, the collective guilt over the bombing of defenceless civilians remains. One result of all this controversy was that Bomber Command was refused their request for a special campaign medal after the war. This is also an injustice. An injustice to the extremely brave men of RAF Bomber Command, many who died for their country. Did you know that Bomber Command actually suffered a higher casualty rate than any other part of the British military with some 57, 000 to 58,000 aircrew lost? The sacrifice these young men made should be recognised. The surviving veterans also deserve recognition for their extreme bravery and patriotism. The Americans got a campaign medal, why not Bomber Command? After sixty years, isn't it time that the British Government redressed this injustice to a heroic group of men who followed orders, who believed they were assisting the war effort and who undoubtedly made it possible for the Allies to win the war?
Sunday, 14 November 2004
"The Glorious Dead"
I feel sad today. There is something so nostalgic and poignant about watching old soldiers and members of the armed forces marching past our Cenotaph, in London's Whitehall, in remembrance of their fallen comrades. The Cenotaph (an 'empty tomb') was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and erected in 1920. It bears the words, "The Glorious Dead", and commemorates the many whose lives were lost in two World Wars and other conficts. In the case of the First World War, the decimation of a whole generation of young men.
The first time I began to realise just how many young men never came home from the Great War was when I was twelve or thirteen. Two spinster sisters lived together just down the road, the Misses C------. They seemed old to me but they were very kind. They invited my sister, Pauline, and myself to tea and plied us with scones and home made quince jam. I saw a photograph of a handsome young man and, being curious, I asked, "Who is that in the photograph?" One sister, immediately looked very sad and said softly, "That is my Fiancé. He never came home after the Great War." Her eyes glistened. My sister frowned at me. That was when I realised how cruel war is. Not only were so many soldiers killed in the Great War, so many mothers and wives bereaved, but a whole generation of young girls never had the chance to marry. Miss C, not a spinster by choice, had remained true to her lost love but so many other young girls, like her sister, never had the chance to meet anyone - there just weren't enough young men left to go round.
The Thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.
.... last verse of "Into Battle" by Julian Grenfell - killen in action 1915.
"Selections from Modern Poets" made by J.C. Squire. Published 1934 - London: Martin Secker
I feel sad today....
Thursday, 11 November 2004
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
....... Fourth stanza of 'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)
Did you know that today, the anniversary of Armistice Day on 11th November 1918, is a public holiday in Belgium? They always hold a Service of Remembrance in Ypres and a special Last Post ceremony at The Menin Gate Memorial. Belgium has never forgotten the sacrifices made by so many young soldiers - some of them just boys who pretended they were older. Now on Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday to the 11th November, we honour and remember the dead of all wars and conflicts.
Did you know that an American Lady called Moina Bell Michael, from Georgia, was the person responsible for the poppy emblem? She was inspired by John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" - especially the last verse, "To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields." She made a personal pledge to 'keep the faith' and always wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance.
In the United Kingdom, we hold a two minute silence at 11 am - the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Sadly, not everyone remembers or cares. I can recall a time shortly after the end of World War II when everybody did care. I was in the car with my Dad, I think we were in the Finchley Road going towards Golders Green. ALL the cars came to a standstill - ALL the drivers and passengers got out and stood to attention, stiff and silent, for two minutes. Not a sound could be heard anywhere in London. It made a huge impression on me.
Do you wear a poppy?
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