Britain

The other side from the other side of the Pond

Okay, so I’m fascinated by the American Revolution.  And it’s no secret that I think that the way the American Revolution, and the Revolutionary War, are taught and thought of today are based on some broad assumptions and biases that are, basically, wrong.  Probably the major reason for this slant in perception, I’d argue, would be that historians of the American Revolution are overwhelmingly American, and almost never British.

This tends to warp the historiography in two ways.  First, there’s the simple fact that only one side of the story gets told.  I think we can all agree that that’s always going to bias the account.  The bias isn’t even really conscious; it’s just that, as no one pushes back against it for generation after generation, writers about the Revolution simply don’t notice it’s there.  It’s exactly this source of bias that Fred Anderson pushes back against in my favourite book about the Revolutionary (and pre-Revolutionary) era.  That’s a general principle that would apply to any instance of only one side ever getting told.

Second is more about the specific instance of the American Revolution: Americans have a serious emotional investment in the story of the Revolution.  At times, preserving that story, and preserving the heroism of its protagonists, can take precedence over accuracy.  That’s certainly not to say that I think the American writers about the Revolution are more interested in myth than facts; the legitimate historians among them certainly aren’t.  But much of their readership is, even if they’re not aware of it, and pushing too hard against those myths gets distinctly unpleasant for them.  As one small example of this, there’s the continued iconic status of Paul Revere, a man whose fame derives entirely from an intentionally inaccurate poem written in 1860 (which ascribes to him heroic deeds done by other men), and who faced the British in combat only once, during which he showed, in the words of Artemas Ward, “unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice”.

(Trips to the history section of the bookshop would also seem to indicate that someone has discovered there’s something of a market for American history books that quite explicitly provide the “true, un-PC” version of events, by which they of course mean they defiantly reassert only the myth as actual fact, but those books aren’t written by actual historians and I don’t know that they really affect the study of actual history.  The ones aimed at children really trouble me, though.)

So for a long time, I’ve wanted more British scholarship on the Revolution and the Revolutionary War (or, as it’s called in Britain, the American War of Independence).  That would balance the American biases and provide a broader perspective of both the revolution and the war.  They’d be able to examine the British government’s perspective in the conflicts and crises that led up to the outbreak of violence, to see the war as a civil war within the British Empire rather than as a war between Britain and America, to explore the global aspects of the Revolutionary War that had nothing to do with the Americans.

So I’ve been really thrilled to see a trend of British historians coming to the Revolution and the Founding Fathers in the last few years.  Over the past couple of months I’ve come across five such books:

By George Goodwin, there’s Benjamin Franklin in London, a biography of the two decades (1757–75) Ben Franklin lived in the imperial capital, for all but the final year of which he was a revered and well-liked member of the British social elite and the most enthusiastic advocate of Britain and America’s imperial partnership.

By Nick Bunker, there’s An Empire on the Edge, looking at the Boston Tea Party and the final crises that touched off the Revolutionary War through the eyes of the British government rather than the Patriot leaders.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaugnessy (who really is British, even with such a name) has two: The Men Who Lost America, biographies of ten men who directed the British war effort from London and in America, and An Empire Divided, examining Britain’s Caribbean colonies and why they stayed loyal when the colonies to their north revolted.

And by Brendan Simms (who’s actually Irish, not British), there’s Three Victories and a Defeat, in which the American Revolutionary War (the defeat, obviously) is treated in the context of being the latest in the chain of five other wars Britain had already fought against the French & Spanish alliance over the previous ninety years.  This is perhaps the perfect example of where I think Revolutionary War scholarship would benefit from more British input; it’s inevitable and entirely appropriate that for American historians, the war will be a war that was fought in America by American forces.  But after 1778, it was also fought in the West Indies, in Spain and in India, where it had no involvement from Americans at all—but if we ignore those theatres, we’re left with an incomplete understanding of the war.

I can’t get to these books right away, but I’m very much looking forward to when I do get to them.

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World Wars Two

I’ve actually seen American history textbooks whose beginning-of-the-unit timeline says right there in print, “WORLD WAR II: 1941–45”. (The odd thing is that those same textbooks have to acknowledge that the war was already going on in 1940 so that they can teach Lend Lease and the Neutrality Act.) I would imagine there are Russian textbooks that say the same thing.  Most Americans, I think, know that by the time the USA joined, the war between Britain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had already been raging for years, but we can still shake our head at the insularity of actually telling children in history class that the war didn’t start until America entered in 1941, when it in fact had begun in 1939.

… Or had it? (Dunh dunh duuuuunh.)

I was a teenager when I learnt that Japan and China went to war with each other in 1937.  The expansion of the Asian war in 1941 to bring America and the British Commonwealth in on China’s side pretty closely parallels the expansion of the European war at the same time, with the Soviet Union and the USA being brought in on Britain’s side.  For China and Japan, 1937–45 represents a period of continuous conflict in the same way that 1939–45 does for Britain, Germany and Occupied Europe.  It bothered me that, though the two conflicts merged into a global World War II in December 1941, the name for the pre-1941 Asian conflict was “the Second Sino-Japanese War”, while the name for the pre-1941 European conflict is “World War II”.  English-language histories of the war would include the Phoney War and the London Blitz, but wouldn’t include the Marco Polo Bridge Incident or the Rape of Nanjing.

For a long time it didn’t seem to be such a big deal.  I would’ve liked the pre-41 European war to have its own name, but after Pearl Harbor, they both merged into a single global war, Axis vs. Allies, right?

… Or did they? (Dunh dunh duuuuuunh.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how Anglo–Americentric it is to consider the Second World War a unified conflict after 1941.  Even leaving aside that there was no coordination between the European Axis Powers and Japan, we can still look at the three major Allied Powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.  One of the Allied Powers specifically.

After 22 June 1941, the war in Europe was fundamentally a war between Germany and the Soviet Union.  In terms of men and materiel involved, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies’ participation in the war—the North African and Mediterranean theatres, the strategic bombing campaign, the D-Day campaign—became peripheral, and there’s a real sense in which, in terms of the grand strategic outcome of the war, our central contribution was in how much we could handicap Germany’s war effort in Russia.  If the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow, or had won in Stalingrad and crossed the Volga and rolled into the Caucasus, and had been able to transfer its millions of soldiers back to the West, we can’t reasonably expect that we’d ever have been able to dislodge them from Europe.  Even during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944–January 1945, when the Germans pumped hundreds of thousands of additional troops into the Western Front in their last great push to turn back the British and American advance into Germany and knock the Western Allies out of the war, the total number of German troops fighting in the West was still just a small fraction of the number fighting against the Russians in Poland and East Prussia.  That’s part of why four million of the (very roughly) five million German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front; it’s part of why four hundred thousand Americans and four hundred fifty thousand Britons were killed during the war, but twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were.

Whereas if we look at the Soviet Union in the Pacific War: Russia shared an extensive land border with Japan (the only one of the Three Powers to do so), by way of Korea, at that time an outright Japanese possession, and Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1931; in Vladivostok, the Russians had a naval and air base within easy strike range of the Japanese Home Islands, far closer than anything the Commonwealth or the United States possessed.  The two countries rubbed up against each other so closely that they were literally athwart each other’s supply lines: Vladivostok thrusts into the Sea of Japan between Japan to the east and Korea and Manchuria to the west, while the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok’s link to the rest of Russia, actually runs through Manchuria.

And yet the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace with each other throughout the Pacific War.  Indeed, out of deference to the Soviet–Japanese neutrality pact of 1941, the Russians actually interned British and American airmen who landed in Soviet territory after conducting operations against Japanese targets, just as would happen to belligerent airmen who landed in neutral countries like Switzerland or Spain (though the Russians usually permitted interned Allied airmen to “escape” after a given period).

(Someone’s going to mention that the Soviet Union did ultimately declare war on Japan, on 9 August 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and six days before Japan did the same, finally ending the Second World War.  The Soviet invasion of Manchuria of 1945 is an important event, and in fact I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it as I write this, but it had no effect on the outcome of the war on either continent and is irrelevant to the discussion here.)

Both the Soviet Union and Japan materially hindered their allies by refusing to go to war with each other from 1941 to 1945: peace along the Manchurian–Siberian border meant that Japan was freeing up Soviet troops to fight against Germany, while Russia was allowing Japan to divert all its best troops to the south to fight in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

I just can’t see Europe and the Pacific as separate theatres of a single war when one of those theatres saw the Soviet Union locked in a death struggle in the bloodiest and most destructive war humanity has ever fought, while the other saw them remain at peace with the enemy for the duration.  It’s bad historiography.  It assumes that the Anglo–American experience, as the only two powers to conduct a unified war effort over both hemispheres, is the definitive one.

So I’m going to be calling them the Second World Wars.  Like “Napoleonic Wars”, that seems to me a good umbrella term under which to gather several separate conflicts which were clearly very closely related and overlapped considerably, but which did not share unified causes, participants, outcomes or even date ranges.  We acknowledge the separateness of, say, the Peninsular War, the War of the Fifth Coalition and the War of 1812, while also acknowledging how inextricably interlinked they are; we should be able to acknowledge the same thing about the wars in Europe and the Pacific.

The Second World Wars, then, to me include at least four conflicts: the European war of 1939–45, the Asian–Pacific war of 1937–45, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the Winter War of 1939–40. (Wikipedia’s article on the Napoleonic Wars groups the Anglo–American War of 1812 and the Latin American wars of independence as “subsidiary wars” of the Napoleonic conflicts, and I think that’s an excellent way to describe the Spanish Civil War‘s relationship to the war in Europe.)

And I mean, let’s be honest.  We all already think of the Winter War, or the Battles of Khalkin Gol or the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, as part of “World War II”, the cataclysmic period of global upheaval; they’re just not formally included in the definitions of the war itself.  By redefining the Second World Wars as an era rather than as a single conflict, we accord them a status we already know they should possess.

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Books, but written in English

One thing I always make sure to do on a trip to Britain is to get to at least a couple of bookshops to browse through the history sections.  Nowadays I don’t usually buy what I find, but rather make a note of the title on the assumption that anything published today in print is also going to be published in e-dition.

(Because it’s a really crap thing to go into a place of business and browse their wares with the intention not of actually paying them any money, but instead ordering whatever you find from the internet, I try to make sure to buy at least the same number of titles as I write down for later.  So, for instance, in addition to whatever my mother bought for herself, I did buy in the shop a bunch of stuff to take back as souvenirs.  For Boy, Horrid Henry’s Biggest and Best Ever Joke Book, a book of Darth Vader & Son family postcards, and a grow-your-own-crystals science kit; for Girl, a London sticker book, Disney Fairies activity set and book of Peppa Pig stories; and for Lisa a novel I actually think I’m going to end up reading myself, about a woman from a village in Somerset who has to go to the East End in search of her best friend’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped on Coronation Day, 1953.  Anyway.)

There were two books that I did in fact buy right there in the shop.  I can’t remember exactly why it was that I picked out these two ahead of the others:

book coversThey Fought Alone: The True Story of SOE’s Agents in Wartime France is a reprint of the memoir of Maurice Buckmaster, head of the Special Operations Executive’s French Section.  SOE was the British organisation that conducted espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe during the Second World War, and provided aid and supplies to local resistance movements.  Buckmaster actually played himself (and did a decent job of it) in the film Odette, about the capture and torture of SOE agents Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill by the Gestapo.

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill seems destined to be the latest addition to my Spanish Civil War kick.  It’s a history of the wartime experiences of three couples (Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar) who all passed through this Madrid hotel, which was home to so many journalists during the siege of the Spanish capital.

I won’t list all the other titles I made note of (there were about a dozen) but the ones I’m most interested in are:

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley, a biography of Christine Granville, the daughter of a Polish Catholic nobleman and Jewish heiress, who served as an SOE agent in occupied Poland and France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, only to be stabbed to death after the war by a colleague who had rejected her advances.

Titled Americans: The Real Heiresses’ Guide to Marrying an Aristocrat is a reprint of an actual 1890 guide for American young women who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Nancy Astor by marrying a member of the British peerage and becoming a real-life Countess of Grantham.

Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America by Kathleen Burk should, I think, be pretty self-explanatory as to why I’m interested in it.

The Scandalous Lady W by Hallie Rubenhold has, I discovered when I googled it, been turned into a BBC programme starring Natalie Dormer in the title role.  This made me pretty pleased, since I’ve got a bit of a thing for Natalie Dormer, but on further googling, I couldn’t seem to find any trace of the book, even though I’d seen it right there on the shelf at the WH Smith in Borehamwood.  Turns out that’s because the book’s original title, prior to the TV adaptation, was Lady Worsley’s Whim.  Excellent, progress; at least, till it turned out that Lady Worsley’s Whim has no e-dition in the US, and the cheapest price I could find for a print copy on (US) Amazon or Barnes and Noble was $180.  Finally, I discovered that the book’s title in US publication is The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, and it is, in fact, much more affordably priced (eight bucks for Kindle or in .epub).  So!  Looking forward to the book, and also to the TV show.

Last month I was complaining about having too much to read.  I come back from six days in Britain with a reading list that’s almost doubled in length. I’m awesome at managing my expectations.  Good thing school starts tomorrow.

I

Dependence

I got off the plane at Heathrow last Tuesday morning and discovered that my iPhone utterly refused to receive any cell data signal in Britain.

I’m expecting this to be pretty beneficial to my cell phone bill—the last time I was home, for five days in 2011, my Android and I racked up a hundred forty bucks in data roaming charges—but it did mean that during my trip, I was completely cut off from the Internet or iMessage except when I could connect to wifi.

This was mostly fine.  Mostly.

Our hotel was in Borehamwood, just up the street from the Elstree & Borehamwood train station, so on Wednesday my mother and I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery.  As we left the hotel room, my mum said, “And you know where we need to get off the train?” and I casually said, “Yeah.”

Reader, that was a lie.  What I had was a superficial knowledge of London geography (I can group a list of Central London landmarks into general categories like “this is in Westminster”, “this is in the West End”, “this is in the City”), and a reflexive assumption that, if I get lost, I can check for info on my smartphone.

Except that day I couldn’t.

We got on the train, and I checked the on-board map to figure out where we should get off.  What we should have done was get off at St. Pancras, so as to take the Tube from King’s Cross to Charing Cross, or else get off at Blackfriars to take the Tube to Embankment.  But I knew that the closest two stops we’d get to Trafalgar Square would be City and Blackfriars, so I had us get off at City because the picture of London I had in my head was one in which the City is close enough to Trafalgar Square for us to walk it.

(It’s close enough that I could have walked it, on my own, if I had the familiarity with the geography to know where I was going.  Figuring it out along the way and with my mum in tow, nope.)

So the upshot was that we emerged from the train station into Holborn Viaduct with no blessed idea how to get to the National Portrait Gallery, beyond perhaps, “figure out which direction is west”.

It wasn’t even that harrowing, in the end.  I managed to figure out which of the many bus routes that passed us would head to Trafalgar Square.  (The trickiest part of that was making sure we got on a bus headed in the right direction.)  After visiting the NPG, we decided to head to Bond Street to visit the shop that sells my sister’s jewelry, for which we got directions from the nice lady at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s.  (The trickiest part of that was that she told us to follow Cockspur Street and Pall Mall to Regent Street, but it turns out that Regent Street isn’t actually “Regent Street” at its intersection with Pall Mall; it is in fact “Waterloo Place”.)  Then after we got to the end of Bond Street, we turned into Oxford Street for some shopping, before taking the Tube back to King’s Cross and the train home.

But I felt a real disconnect, especially for that first quarter hour after we left City train station and had to figure out which end of the station we’d left from and which bus to take.  When Lisa and I spent a couple of days in Paris in 2009, for the first three or four hours or so, I was really disconcerted by the fact that I was somewhere where the conversations and signage that surrounded me was completely unintelligible to me.  I had a somewhat terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness.  Briefly in London last week, I got something of the same experience, just from not being able to pull up the internet on my phone.

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NO ONE EXPECTS … nope, sorry, wrong time period

I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War.  Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager.  (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.)  I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school.  I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”.  On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.

One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.”  (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)

Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself.  There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them.  Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.

No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us.  The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men.  It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“.  Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter.  The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago.  Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.

And I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left.  But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.

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Family history

My mother visited last week, and since it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since she went to my grandfather’s funeral, she brought with her some of his effects.

Amongst other things, there’s a number of mementos from his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.  I was really excited by all this; I dedicated A Traitor’s Loyalty to my grandad specifically because it was his stories of his wartime experience that first got me interested in the topic.

I’ll start with the photographs.  There’s one of my grandfather and the men with whom he did the flight engineer’s training course in the summer of 1943.  There’s another of him with three comrades, only his head has been torn off; the note on the back says that his head can be found in my grandmother’s gold locket.  (I love it so much.)

There’s two pictures of him with his flight crew: one taken right after the conclusion of an “operational flight”, with them still in their flight gear, and this more formal one, in which my grandfather is second from the right in the front row:

photo 2

And a photo of his whole squadron from May 1945, commemorating the German surrender.  He’s second from right in the fourth row back:

photo 1

There’s also a number of newspaper clippings, wherein my grandfather has carefully cropped news photos of Halifax bombers, the specific type of bomber he crewed.  (That’s a Halifax his squadron are adorning in the picture just above.)  For me these are particularly fascinating because of the little snippets of news report on their reverse side.  One from October 1945 has half the headline and lede from a story that appears to be about a debate over how much of a voice “the dominions” (at that time, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) should receive in the Allied Powers’ peacemaking process.  Another has the first two, contextless sentences of a news story: Before the war, the precise location of Casablanca was probably known to few Britons except the bright lad who was top in geography.  Now it is almost as familiar a name as Brighton or Birmingham, though it would perhaps be difficult to say whether Winston Churchill or Humphrey Bogart is chiefly responsible for this improvement in our education.

And there’s his log book, wherein he had to record all his flying hours.  Every mission he flew is in here, from his first on 20 August 1943 (the only description of the mission is “circuits and bumps (dual)”) through to December 1945, with a break between May and September 1945, during which he was “posted to Dallarchy, Morayshire, Scotland” for “lectures on flying against the Japanese”, in preparation after the German surrender for his redeployment to the Pacific theatre.  Each flight lists the pilot, the specific aircraft, and the nature of the mission:

photo 3

photo 4

By December 1945 he’d been posted to a meteorological squadron—essentially busywork while he awaited his turn to get demobilised and discharged, and as such his records become sketchier.  But he does record a couple of flights he took as a civilian after the war, such as when he took my uncle with him aboard an aircraft listed as “Comet Dove” and flew as “Passenger” in September 1957.  (I love it so much.)

And my mother brought a small packet of medals, which she had assumed were my grandfather’s campaign medals.  One of them indeed was his, a service pin for No. 58 Squadron, but I realised pretty quickly that the others couldn’t be—because they weren’t from the Second World War, but rather from the First.

They were at first puzzling, because they were inscribed as belonging to “Gnr. A. Massey RFA“.  The obvious assumption would be that these belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father.  (My mother’s maiden name is Massey.)  But my great-grandfather wasn’t “A.”, he was “John”.  My uncle recollected that John Massey’s middle initial was A., so there was a hypothesis that perhaps he had enlisted in the Army using his middle name.  I’ll admit I was unconvinced by that and thought it was more likely these medals belonged to a different male relative, perhaps one who had been killed during the war and whose medals had passed to John Massey, then to my grandfather Alf.

But! Whoever this mysterious Gunner A. Massey was, his service number was inscribed on the medals, which I figured out only when I researched the medals online.  (I had seen the number on one of the medals but hadn’t realised it was his service number because it’s only five digits long.  I figured it was an individual number for the medal or something.  I mean, all the numbers by which we’re identified today, does it seem at all reasonable to you that an army serial number would only need to be five digits long?  I’m guessing that in A. Massey’s case it’s a reflection of the fact that when he enlisted in August 1914, the British Army was an organisation with fewer than a hundred thousand members.)

Anyhow, I figured the service number would make A. Massey a fairly easily searchable individual, so I set out to find what I could about him.  And I should pause right here and say a big thank you to Kris, because most of what I’m about to say isn’t stuff I found at all, but rather stuff that she did.  I would still be entirely in the dark if it weren’t for her, and I’m really grateful.

One thing I learnt yesterday: the service records of only forty per cent of the British Army’s First World War soldiers are still extant.  The other sixty per cent were destroyed by a German bomb in September 1940.  But I also learnt that his service number belonged to a soldier who served in the British Army during the war under the name Alfred Massey (my grandfather’s name, though my grandfather wasn’t born until the 1920s).  His medal card gives a “qualifying date” of 16 August 1914, which I think is the date he enlisted in the British Army but might possibly be the date he arrived with his unit in France or Belgium.  Either way, his involvement in the war began very very shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August.

Kris then discovered that Alfred Massey married my great-grandmother in Sunderland in 1915, at which point we knew that either Alfred Massey was my great-grandfather John or else my great-grandmother had a weird habit of marrying Massey men from Sunderland.  It was when I saw Alfred Massey’s entry in the 1911 census that it all made sense.

In 1911, Alfred Massey was sixteen and living at home with his parents—including his father, John.  So it would seem that my great-grandfather John Alfred Massey went by the name Alfred as a young man, when his dad was John, but then later on, after he had a son of his own named Alfred and after his father had presumably passed on, he became John.

There was also some additional family detail Kris found that I had no knowledge of and am so pleased to have, but I won’t go into it here, because I want to finally take a moment to talk about the actual medals themselves.

photo(5)

What you’re seeing there, from left to right, are the 1914 Star (or Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, also known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.  The British War Medal and the (British version of the) Allied Victory Medal were, broadly speaking, awarded to anyone who served in British uniform overseas during the First World War; about six million of each were issued.  The 1914 Star, however, was rather more restrictive:

This bronze medal award was authorized by King George V in April 1917 for those who had served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914 to midnight on 22nd November 1914 inclusive. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.

. . .

It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres. There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.

So this essentially means that Gnr. Alfred Massey was part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, so named because of the Kaiser’s (possibly apocryphal) order of 19 August 1914 to “exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French‘s contemptible little army”.  (Spoiler: the German army found itself unable to carry out such an order.)

I had no idea of any of this.

(I should note that my great-grandfather’s Mons Star does not bear the additional clasp indicating that he actually came under enemy fire during the 5 August-22 November period; apparently slightly fewer than half the Mons Stars do.)

So! I know a lot more about my family history now than I did two days ago.  And I’ve got a new bunch of family heirlooms to tuck away and hopefully someday to be able to teach my own kids just how precious they are.

I opened this post by mentioning that I dedicated my first novel to my grandad.  Somehow when the novel got reissued last year, the dedication didn’t get included in the new edition, something I didn’t realise until my grandad’s death at the end of the year.  So I’ll close by repeating it here:

For my grandfather, Alf Massey (RAF 1940-1946), who first introduced me to British spies, the Second World War, and so many other elements that make up this story.

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He faced down the Red Army, the French Resistance and Birmingham City

I remember, as a teenager, hearing of the Manchester City goalkeeper who played the last seventeen minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck, but I had no idea who the goalkeeper in question was, that he wasn’t British (since this was long before the days foreigners were a common sight in English football) or that he was notable for anything beyond that one single curiosity.

Some years later, I watched a documentary about German POWs who had been retained in camps in Britain, France and the United States for many years after the end of the Second World War and used essentially as slave labour.  It featured interviews with several such former POWs, including a pair who were sitting next to each other who had been held in a camp in England throughout the late 1940s.  It wasn’t until the very end of the documentary that one of them revealed that the fellow he was sitting next to–who seemed rather embarrassed to have this part talked about at all–had stayed in England after being released from camp, had played for Manchester City and was, in fact, the goalkeeper who had broken his neck in the 1956 final.

Bert Trautmann died on Friday.  He was a Luftwaffe paratrooper who had been captured by the Soviets, the French Resistance and the Americans, and had escaped from all three, before ultimately ending up in British Army custody at the war’s end.  He declined repatriation when released and stayed in England, working on a farm.  In 1949 he signed for City, eliciting furious protests at the idea of an English football club fielding a German war veteran (who had volunteered to serve!) as a player.  He won City supporters over, of course, but the abuse from spectators at away matches continued throughout his career.

But by the time he played in that fateful Cup Final against Birmingham City–Manchester City’s second successive Cup Final–he had already been voted Footballer of the Year for 1956, both the first foreigner and the first goalkeeper to win English football’s most prestigious award.  Despite being one of the most highly regarded keepers of the era, he never played for his country, as during this period West Germany had a policy (like most other national teams, whether officially or unofficially) of only selecting players who played for domestic clubs.

One thing I hadn’t thought of before reading his Wikipedia article: this was back in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until three days after the Cup Final that an X-ray confirmed his neck was, in fact, broken.

Hats off to one of football’s truly colourful stories.

(City seem to have, for whatever reason, a bit of a connection to the Luftwaffe; in addition to Trautmann, in the nineties they also became the club of Uwe Rösler, whose grandfather, famously, was a crewman aboard the bomber that dropped the bomb that hit Old Trafford.)

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The philosophy of spoilers

I talked a while ago about when I realised how much more enjoyable becomes when I avoid spoilers, and the basic principle I derived from that.

Right now spoilers are a big topic, because of the Olympics.  If, like me, you’re on the East Coast, you have to wait until 8PM EDT for NBC to start their broadcast of the day’s major events.  That’s 1AM BST–in other words, it’s right when actual competition is wrapping up for the day, and it’s hours and hours after many of the events we’re most interested in have finished.  You have to wait three hours longer on the West Coast.

But while you’re waiting, lots of your friends on Twitter and Facebook already know the outcome, either because they watched it live in Europe or because they’ve gone online–maybe even to NBC’s website itself–so they don’t have to wait.  And they’re talking about it.

I’ve seen both extremes in reaction to this.  I’ve had someone in my stream declare that we need to hold our tongues even after this stuff airs on NBC, to accommodate those who are watching on DVR(!).  And I’ve had someone tell us all that you either can have Twitter, or you can not be spoilt, but that you’ve got no right to expect people online to consider others when spouting spoilers.

I think they’re both wrong.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve refined my position down to a basic standard:

If there’s a time we’re all supposed to gather together to watch something, I think it’s really rude to spoil it beforehand.  What this means, as far as the Olympics go, is that it’s my own responsibility to avoid what’s being said by the people I follow who are actually in Britain–they’ve all seen it live on TV (or in a few instances, in person).  But those in America, who are heading online to see it before the rest of us?  They should be taking the rest of us into consideration.  And I’m speaking here as someone who is far more interested in Team GB than Team USA, so this system leaves far more of the onus on me than it does on others.

Note that this does not mean that you can’t talk about what you know. Just have the politeness to ensure that people are able clearly to see that they’re about to read a spoiler before they read it.  Best way to do this is generally to start off with SPOILER in big, obnoxious capital letters.

For TV shows, that rule stands until the episode airs. (Yes, that includes not spoiling things that are being revealed in the adverts.) For a big movie, until it’s been in release for a week. For a book?  As long as it’s a new release (ninety days from publication), certainly, and then probably as long after that as it remains a top ten bestseller.

Note also that this is a minimum.  I for one have always tried to maintain a higher standard.  As far as movies, TV shows, books go?  I try always to include a spoiler warning in some form.  I was going on thirty the first time I saw The Third Man, and it was over sixty years after the film’s first release.  Yet somehow I’d managed never to be spoilt on one of the most famous movie twists of all time, and it was brand new to me.  If I’d known what was coming, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have nearly the appreciation for what’s now my all-time favourite film as I do.  But as far as sport goes?  If I’m watching a live event on TV, and I have something to say about it, I say it.

We can talk about the things that engage us.  But we don’t have to trample all over everyone else’s engagement with them to do it.

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Two hundred years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the boys to play …

… “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the American declaration of war upon Great Britain, marking the outbreak of the War of 1812.

For such a small, obscure war, it sure has a potential to start online flamewars. Woe betide anyone who asks, in a forum frequented by both Britons and Americans, who it was that won the War of 1812. (The truly remarkable thing to me about Britons getting so exercised over that question is that it proves there really are Britons who have heard of the war.) And the comments on the Facebook link to my last post spawned a pretty lively argument about the war’s proper context in relation to the Napoleonic Wars.

As an alternate historian, it took me a while to realise the wealth of possibilities in the War of 1812, but they’re there. A few of the most high-profile ones:

The Indians. 1812 represents probably the last solid chance for the American Indians to hang onto any sovereignty east of the Mississippi. There was Tecumseh’s Confederacy, a coalition of tribes forged by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet. The Confederacy had already suffered a serious blow with defeat to an American army under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, but Tecumseh and his brother remained charismatic and iconic leaders in Indian eyes. His Confederacy’s death knell came when Tecumseh himself died fighting on the side of the British in 1813.

Tecumseh’s Confederacy was north of the Ohio; the major Indian power south of the Ohio were the Creek, who also allied with Britain. But the War of 1812 marked the end of their power, as well, after Andrew Jackson defeated them at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

And lastly there was Lacunia, the Land of Lakes. When the two sides sat down at Ghent (at the time in France, soon to be incorporated into the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands, and now in Belgium) to negotiate a peace treaty, the initial British demands included the creation of an Indian state in the Great Lakes region, to serve as a buffer between the United States and British Canada. It was only when news was received of the American victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh that the British became willing to drop demands for concessions and accept a white peace.

The Hartford Convention. Somewhere along the line, a lot of American students got told that the Hartford Convention was a gathering of leaders of the (anti-war) Federalist Party, which dominated New England the way the Republican Party dominates the American South today, to discuss the New England states seceding from the Union and concluding a separate peace with Great Britain.

This is an exaggeration, but in trying to debunk it, many historians exaggerate too far in the opposite direction, insisting that any talk of secession by the convention delegates was meant only as a rhetorical debating tactic. The truth is (as is usually true) somewhere in between the two. There certainly was a radical faction that was pro-secession (the Governor of Massachusetts had already opened negotiations with Britain for a separate peace), but the majority of delegates held a more moderate, pro-compromise position. We can say the same thing about the First Continental Congress–when it convened in Philadelphia in 1774, just a year before Lexington and Concorde and two years before the Declaration of Independence, few people would have thought that breaking away from the British Crown and establishing a republic through six years of war were what the colonial leadership were going to do.

So why didn’t the Hartford Convention mark the beginning of a series of events like the First Continental Congress did? Because in 1774, the situation kept getting worse for the colonists, radicalising many of them and making independence from Britain seem an attractive option. Whereas in 1814, the end of the war removed the stresses that had led to calls for secession in the first place, and the news of Andrew Jackson’s defeat of a superior British force at New Orleans destroyed the political influence of those who had been advocating it (and also effectively ended the Federalist party).

But what if things hadn’t taken such a sudden turn? What if, say, a British victory at Plattsburgh had opened the way for a British occupation of New York, splitting New England off from the rest of the Union? What if Britain and Russia weren’t quarrelling at the Congress of Vienna, thereby freeing the Duke of Wellington up to lead a massive British army across the Atlantic to North America (meaning, incidentally, that the British would no longer have an army handy to face Napoleon at Waterloo)? Secessionism would have suddenly seemed much more politically credible in New England.

New Orleans. It’s a myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the end of the War of 1812; it was fought after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, but unusually for a treaty of that time, the war did not end until after the treaty’s ratification by both parties. But since Congress ratified the treaty without any changes, it is true that New Orleans had no effect on the war’s outcome. A British victory there wouldn’t have changed the final settlement.

Or would it? I’ve heard it argued that Britain didn’t recognise the Louisiana Purchase, because they didn’t recognise France’s right to dispose of Louisiana in the first place. Britain was allied to Spain in a war against France, after all, and Spain’s original cession of Louisiana to France prior to the Purchase had been about as “voluntary” as Czechoslovakia’s cession of the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938. So if Edward Pakenham’s redcoats had defeated Andrew Jackson and taken New Orleans, this argument goes, then once it turned out that peace had been established, the British would most likely have turned New Orleans over, not to the Americans, but to the government that we considered its rightful owner–Spain.

I should state that I’ve only heard this brought up in casual conversation. I’ve looked for citations on it and haven’t found any, but I haven’t found any to disprove it, either. So it might be complete bunkum, but it’s still an intriguing possibility.

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Farthing

Book coverIf you only read one alternative history novel this year that takes place in a world where Britain and Nazi Germany made peace with each other, you should of course read A Traitor’s Loyalty.  (Or at Barnes and Noble.  Or on Goodreads.)  But if you read two such books?  Well, I’ve recently read one that I’d like to submit for consideration.

Farthing is a 2006 novel by Jo Walton set in a world in which Rudolf Hess made a much more successful flight to Britain in 1941, leading to a peace settlement before either the Soviet Union or USA entered the war.

Conventionally in an alternate history novel, the action focuses on the part of the world that is most drastically different from our own.  Harry Turtledove’s The Two Georges is about a world where the Americans lost the American Revolutionary War, so it takes place in North America (a British dominion), rather than in Britain or France or Senegal.  If you’re writing a Nazi-victory alternate history and you want to set it in one of the Allied countries, you have the Nazis conquer that country–like in SS-GB (set in Nazi-occupied Britain), It Happened Here (Nazi-occupied Britain), The Man in the High Castle (German- and Japanese-occupied America) or “The Last Article” (Nazi-occupied India).  If you’ve created a world where Germany has instead made peace with the Allies, who have remained democratic societies, you’re going to set it in Germany or German-occupied Europe, like in Fatherland, “Ready for the Fatherland” or my own A Traitor’s Loyalty.

But Farthing is a book where Britain made peace with the Germans, escaped defeat, preserved democracy.  In the book’s world, Nazi Germany is ruling Continental Europe, implementing the Holocaust, and fighting an endless war with Soviet Russia–but the book takes place in England.  It’s presented as a Christie-esque English country manor murder mystery, set in 1949.

And that means that the changes it presents are far more subtle and gradual than you’ll see in a standard alternate history novel–a society that, confronted with a victorious right-wing dictatorship twenty miles away across the Channel, is quite understandably drifting toward the far right itself.  Moves to turn the British class system into a legally-enshrined caste system.  The reversal of the progress made by socialism, and a regression to where socialism is once again being seen as borderline treasonous.  (In real history, 1945-1950 was the period of Britain’s first true socialist government.)

And most jarring–and most effective–to the modern reader is the anti-Semitism.  It’s a rise in cultural sentiment against Jews, a greater willingness to express anti-Semitic views openly, an amplification of the idea that it didn’t matter if they’d been born and raised in London, Jews were still foreigners.  It’s so terribly English, because (at least until the attempts of the book) it’s been accomplished without violence.  And it’s the cultural movement that has cleared the way for political leaders to begin attempting anti-Semitic political programmes.

The book, as with any book, isn’t perfect.  For a story that spends eighty per cent of its time dealing with members of the aristocracy, it’s a shame that several of the arcane complexities of the aristocratic system get fumbled.  (The author, for instance, has baronets as members of the House of Lords.)  But it’s a very different spin on Nazi victory than I’ve found before.

There are two sequels, Ha’penny and Half a Crown, which I’ll be moving onto.  I’m looking forward to them.

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The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 2594
Words total: 42,888

Time spent writing: 1pm-3.30; 9pm-10pm
Reason for stopping: Picking Boy up from the school bus; Lisa got home
Darling: A string of Russian obscenities unraveled off her tongue.
Words that boggled Word: stationmaster’s, submachine, snuck, railyard
New words used today: captor, inscrutable, pothole

A Traitor's Loyalty Cover

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