Archive for the 'Letters' Category

Napoleon’s massacre at Alexandria

November 8th, 2007

This is an excerpt from a long letter home by Boyer, a soldier in Napoleon’s army during the campaign to conquer Egypt. Here, in his own words, is what happened when the French army reached Alexandria:

Admiral Nelson had been off the city on the noon of this very day; and proposed to the Turks to anchor in the port, by way of securing it against us; but as his proposal was not accepted, he stood on for Cyprus; while we, profiting by his errors, and turning even his stupidity to our own advantage, made good our landing on the 2d of July, at Marabou. The whole army was on shore by break of day, and Bonaparte putting himself at their head, marched straight to Alexandria, across a desert of three leagues, which did not even afford a drop of water, in a climate where the heat is insupportable.

Notwithstanding all these difficulties, we reached the town, which was defended by a garrison of near 500 Janizaries. Of the rest of the inhabitants, some had thrown themselves into the forts, and others got on the tops of their houses. In this situation they waited our attack. The charge is sounded—our soldiers fly to the ramparts, which they scale, in spite of the obstinate defence of the besieged: many Generals are wounded, amongst the rest Kleber—we lose near 150 men, but courage, at length, subdues the obstinacy of the Turks! Repulsed on every side, they betake themselves to God and their Prophet, and fill their mosques—men, women, old, young, children at the breast, ALL are massacred. At the end of four hours, the fury of our troops ceases—tranquility revives in the city—several forts capitulate—I myself reduce one into which 700 Turks had fled—confidence springs up—and, by the next day, all is quiet.

Later in the same letter, Boyer explains the considerations that, in Bonaparte’s mind, made it necessary to put Egypt’s innocent men, women, and children to the sword:

France, by the different events of the war and the Revolution, having lost her colonies and her factories, must inevitably see her commerce decline, and her industrious inhabitants compelled to procure at second hand the most essential articles of their trade. Many weighty reasons must compel her to look upon the recovery of those colonies, if not impossible, yet altogether unlikely to produce any of the advantages which were derived from them before they became a scene of devastation and horror; especially, if we may add to this, the decree for abolishing the slave trade.

To indemnify itself, therefore, for this loss, which may be considered as realized, the Government turned its views towards Egypt and Syria; countries which, by their climate and their fertility, are capable of being made the storehouses of France, and, in process of time, the mart of her commerce with India. It is certain, that by seizing and organizing these countries, we shall be enabled to extend our views still further; to annihilate, by degrees, the English East India trade, enter into it with advantage ourselves; and, finally, get into our hands the whole commerce of Africa and of Asia.

These, I think, are the considerations which have induced the Government to undertake the present expedition against Egypt.

This part of the Ottoman dominion has been for many ages governed by a species of men called Mameloucs, who, having a number of Beys at their head, disavow the authority of the Grand Seignior, and rule despotically and tyrannically, a people and a country, which, in the hands of a civilized nation, would become a mine of wealth.

In Heavenly Peace: The Christmas Truce, 1914

December 25th, 2006

I first read this review essay a year ago, when Kevin Carson posted it at Mutualist Blog.

The Soldiers’ Truce

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages, $39.95 (hb)

It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in no-man’s land but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.

Soon, however, few would care about higher authority as an unauthorised and illegal truce bubbled up from the ranks.

The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing Merry Christmas were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of you no shoot, we no shoot.

The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.

The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.

Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.

Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in no-man’s land with stretchers as goalposts. Bicycle races were held on bikes with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. You would have thought you were dreaming, wrote captain F. D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.

The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.

Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky. By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had struck, like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.

Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens the will to kill, destroys the offensive spirit, saps ideological fervour and undermines the sacrificial spirit necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — A bas la guerre! (Down with the war!) from a French soldier was returned with Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! (No more war! It’s what God wants!) from his Bavarian counterpart.

After mucking-in with British soldiers, a German private wrote that never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.

Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings. Now, we gathered, as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!.

If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand.

The high command on both sides were desperate to restart the war that had strangely vanished. Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of we can’t — they are good fellows, the officers replied Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!.

To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in no-man’s land with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.

Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.

Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers’ organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.

On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany’s war effort.

Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a two-day wonder, the Christmas truce evokes a stubborn humanity within us. As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

reviewed by Phil Shannon (2002)
for Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002

Richard Russell and Harry Truman exchange greetings after Hiroshima

August 7th, 2006

This is a telegram that Richard B. Russell, then a powerful U.S. Senator for the state of Georgia, sent to Harry S. Truman the evening after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Winder, GA Aug 7 42 7P

The President
(Personal Delivery) The White House

Permit me to respectfully suggest that we cease our efforts to cajole Japan into surrendering in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration. Let us carry the war to them until they beg us to accept the unconditional surrender. The foul attack on Pearl Harbor brought us into war and I am unable to see any valid reason why we should be so much more considerate and lenient in dealing with Japan than with Germany. I earnestly insist Japan should be dealt with as harshly as Germany and that she should not be the beneficiary of soft peace. The vast majority of the American people, including many sound thinkers who have intimate knowledge of the Orient [sic], do not agree with Mr. Grew in his attitude that there is any thing sacrosanct about Hirohito. He should go. We have no obligation to Shintoism. The contemptuous answer of the Japs [sic] to the Potsdam Ultimatum justifies a revision of that document and sterner peace terms.

If we do not have available a sufficient number of atomic bombs with which to finish the job immediately, let us carry on with TNT and fire bombs until we can produce them.

I also hope that you will issue orders forbidding the officers in command of our air forces from warning Jap cities that they will be attacked. These Generals do not fly over Japan and this showmanship can only result in the unnecessary loss of many fine boys in our Air Force as well as our helpless prisoners in the hands of the Japanese, including the survivors of the March of Death on Bataan who are certain to be brought into the cities that have been warned.

This was a total war as long as our enemies held all the cards. Why should we change the rules now, after the blood, treasure and enterprise of the American people have given us the upper hand. Our people have not forgotten that the Japanese struck us the first blow in this war without the slightest warning. They believe that we should continue to strike the Japanese until they are brought groveling to their knees. We should cease our appeals to Japan to sue for peace. The next plea for peace should come from an utterly destroyed Tokyo. Welcome back home. With assurances of esteem

Richard B. Russell, US Senator

Two days later, Truman replied with a one page letter:

Dear Dick:

I read your telegram of August seventh with a lot of interest.

I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner.

For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the pigheadedness of the leaders of a nation and for your information, I am not going to do it unless it is absolutely necessary. It is my opinion that after the Russians enter into war the Japanese will very shortly fold up.

My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan.

Sincerely yours,
Harry S. Truman

Truman sent this letter to Dick Russell on August 9th, 1945 — the very same day that Truman’s humane feeling for the women and children in Japan were demonstrated by an American B-29 bomber, acting on his orders, dropping a second atomic bomb, without warning, on the city of Nagasaki, destroying the city and burning alive about one-third of the civilian population.

Today Truman is often counted as one of the greatest Presidents by American presidential historians. Russell served as a senator until he died of ephysema in 1971. The Russell Senate Office Building was named in his honor and a statue of Russell stands in the rotunda.