Beethoven and the traitors: new boy band in town

When it comes to Musical History, it is undeniable that Ludwig van Beethoven is one of its greatest icons. Ill-tempered, rough, deaf (it all could be linked, of course) we know just that side of his personality which was, surely, richer. Yet we all (maybe not all: while writing this, I have VH1 running on my tv; it seems quite clear there are a lot more people than I imagined who never heard about him) know his music: epic, dramatic, sensual, full of life…But we also know that he was, almost as an exception, not particularly fond of opera. He composed just one. So, now we are producing our usual Music and History November, where are we going to find a historical piece which shows Beethoven links with History?

Not in Fidelio, his only opera, which is more political than historical. Not in his better known works, which are non-programmatic and, to some extent, quite abstract and avant-garde for his time. Maybe we could have got hold of the over-repeated anecdote of Ludwig furiously erasing the dedication to Napoleon he had written in the master copy of his third symphony (somehow fittingly called Eroica) after his hero had become the villainous conqueror of the best part of Europe…

We will have to find another source for our work. One that, nowadays, is not as fashionable as it was in the XIX, at least at theatres: incidental music. That is the kind of music one expects today in video games and the like. A couple of hundred years ago it was usual to find it when a play was played, going with the scenes or, just as in the opera, introducing the action through an overture. And that is precisely what we were looking for, a couple of overtures signed by the genius and based on historical figures. Not coincidentally, one could guess, the main characters would be tragic figures, military heroes dubbed traitors, beloved men executed as bitter enemies. In one case, we can’t be even sure about his actual existence…So, here we go. Today we are introducing Count Lamoral Egmont and General Coriolanus. A big applause for them, please!

 

First things first so, as Coriolanus was senior to Egmont by…well, some centuries, we will discuss him, and the piece on him, sooner. The Coriolan Overture was written by Beethoven in 1807 for a tragedy by Austrian dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin which depicted the life and famous death of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, a Roman general from the 5th century BC. You may be more familiar with the play by Shakespeare, Coriolanus, which, curiously enough, has a different ending. Well, not so different in the end, as he is going to die the same. But let’s not hurry.

We don’t even know if Gaius Marcius did exist at all. First accounts come from no sooner than the third century BC and  they are not really authoritative. Modern scholars tend to believe that he is a legendary figure, representing the early struggles of Rome for its survival against local enemies and the inner fight between plebeians and patricians, or at least that his life was not exactly as recorded. In any case, the story is so powerful as to move both William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven, possibly the best in their disciplines, to work on it.

 

The story is sad, yet it has a familiar ring: Gaius Marcius is an officer of the Roman army during the siege of Coriolis; while on watch duty he discovers a weak point in the Volscian defenses and takes advantage of a sally from the defenders to charge through the doors with a small unit and set fire to the town, hence forcing the Volscian army to withdraw and surrender the town. Here, Gaius Marcius gains the name of “Coriolanus”.

We meet him again some years later amidst political upheaval in Rome. There’s famine, grain has to be imported, but Coriolanus advocates for putting an end on pro-plebeian political reform if they want the grain distributed. As a member of a patrician family, it seems the now general wants to reinforce his party at the price of plebeians deaths, if needed. He is trialed and convinced, then exiled. Obviously (old followers will remember our paper on Alcibiades some years ago), he goes to the enemy.

Commanding a victorious Volscian army, Coriolanus wins battle after battle, takes town after town and finally lays siege to Rome itself. Allegedly, Coriolanus would pursue his political whims even now, directing the looting and plundering to plebeian properties instead of the patrician ones.

In the end, the desperate Senate sends a final embassy, a forlorn hope, to parley with the invaders. The all women team is led by Coriolanus own mother, and his wife. Looks like a cheap trick, right? Well, it is going to succeed where politicians and priests couldn’t, adding weight to the mythical character, if not of the man, at least of the story. Coriolanus heed the pleading and puts an end to the siege (See? That is Alcibiades all over again), thus betraying the Volscians.

They are not pleased, obviously, so the fate of merciful Coriolanus is quite clear: death, either by his own hand, as Collin puts it, dishonored and ruined; or murdered by the vindictive Volscians, as Shakespeare likes it, it is all the same. Here lies Coriolanus, son, soldier, hero, traitor…

 

Beethoven could possibly relate, to some extent, to the story. As a Vienna inhabitant, he suffered the invasion of the French army, commanded by his once admired, later despised Napoleon, in the run to Austerlitz in 1805, a couple of years before the Overture premiered. Later on, in 1809, Vienna was sieged and bombarded to the point that Ludwig had to seek refuge in his brother Caspar’s house. After the battles of Aspern and Wagram, Napoleon ruled his ever-increasing territories from Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and the need to accommodate the occupant French army put an overwhelming burden on the people of Vienna, including Beethoven: food was scarce, bread was made of barley. In 1811, the government declared bankruptcy, reducing the value of the florin to one-fifth. Beethoven, always worried with financial security, took a big blow as his main income, an annuity ingenuously agreed with important patrons such as the Archbishop Rudolph and Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky, fell from 4000 to 800 florins. So he was suffering from the actions of the once a hero, now a traitor (if not to his country, evidently to some of the ideals Beethoven had thought they shared).

He could had also felt Coriolanus as someone similar to himself: harsh, with a tendency to speak out his mind maybe a tad to freely, passionate yet sometimes aloof. Ludwig had success in exile, too, albeit in very different circumstances as he went to Vienna from Bonn searching for a successful career in music and of his own accord, not pushed off by angry mobs. To some degree, he too was waging war: on critics, on deafness, on solitude. They were two of a kind.

 

Yet he was not probably thinking on that while composing the Overture. The piece was written to pair with the play which had been quite popular from its premiere, back in 1802, for a special performance in Beethoven’s own patron Prince Lobkowitz’s palace. Remember: Lobkowitz was paying a beautiful amount of money to Beethoven for his music. Ludwig himself conducted the orchestra. The Overture, today little known (and even less performed), was somehow detached and strangely disconnected from the play. The usual thing with overtures is that they should summarize and introduce what it is going to happen along the play. But in Coriolanus, Beethoven just took two main themes who fight each other: one is believed to represent Coriolanus himself, with the other giving voice to the supplicant women. The C (for Coriolanus?) minor tonality, quite usual in Beethoven works, sounds powerful and turbulent. The opposing tune, in E flat major, is grieving yet tender. Both interwoven up and down without necessarily follow the development of the play. The final pizzicato is open to interpretation: I like to think those are the strings that hold the life of our hero being clipped as he dies, but we don’t really know. It could well be a minor form of the well-known theme that opens the fifth symphony, which was being composed around the same time: fate knocks on the door.

 

Fate was also knocking on Ludwig’s life. Some of his better-known works such as the Emperor Concert, the sixth and ninth symphonies, and some of his more avant-garde piano sonatas were still to come, but his health, never very good, was deteriorating ever faster. His last years were a long painful ordeal. His dreamed of financial security was now left aside in order to procure for his nephew Karl, son to Ludwig’s brother Kaspar, whose ward he had been bitterly disputing from his sister-in-law; however, uncle and nephew were frequently at loggerheads,  yet he always treated Karl as his son and spent time and, as we said before, money in him.  As Coriolanus, he couldn’t help it: blood is thicker than water.

 

Tous les matins du monde le Roi danse. Music in the Sun king’s era through French films.

Now, we have this man. And the man is a king, mind you. A great king. One who, allegedly, dared to say that He was the State. And, by the way, there is this tale of this man not really being the king, but a twin, or a lookalike, the real king being imprisoned behind an iron mask…well, that is literature after all. We, here, discuss History, it seems. And History is all about facts, isn’t it?

Well…facts are good for your health and all that. But sometimes you need to fantasize, adorn or simply fill the gaps between fact and fact. That is what dangerous people such as writers, playwrights and filmmakers do when historical fact is not what they need (or just not enough) to tell a story. And sometimes we can take advantage of such mischief to try to understand the facts.

So… we have this king. The king had a Kingdom he was supposed to rule, yet he also liked to dance. That, the way in which dancing can help ruling a kingdom, is part of the story that Gérard Corbiau, the French director, brought to life back in 2000 through his film “Le Roi danse”. Almost a decade before, another Frenchman, Alain Corneau, had tried to show us the meaning of music in the same age in the Cesar Award winning film “Tous les matins du monde” which spoke not about the king himself, or politics, but about music outside his court’s gilded cage, and the ambitions of those who wanted to be inside that cage.

Corbiau’s film, probably the lesser from the strictly artistic point of view, offers more to the connoisseur in the field of History (or, at least, historical based fiction). It is not about the Sun King himself, but about the musician who dominated great part of his reign, Jean Baptiste Lully, and his relations with both the king and other XVII century rock star, playwright Moliére. And in it we can find one powerful statement (apocryphal, unfortunately)from the king which could help us understand both his way of practicing politics and the importance of music and, significantly, dance during his lasting reign. Arguing with Lully, his Chief Musician, about the former role in his court (and Lully’s sexual preferences…but that is another story) the Sun King says that music has a part in the new order he is trying to instate, because it is the incarnation of universal harmony. “It is useful to me” says the king. “It is useful to the State” (which was more or less the same)…”and to God” (hence the argument about Lully’s tastes that were giving trouble to the king with the religious party in the Court). The aim is that France, who Louis XIV envisioned as the supreme power in Europe, had to have the best music in the continent…and obviously the most respectable. And Lully was very good at complying with the first, then not really as good with the second.

“Le Roi danse” depicts a dancing king, always keen on getting into the stage and show his prowess to the Court while, at the same time, sending powerful political messages through the choreography, music and wording. Even the wardrobe was designed to fulfill a purpose, usually to show the king’s magnificence. Louis was an absolutist ruler and so his ruling must be exerted in absolutely every possible way, music inclusive. During his reign, French music rose to the height of the European stage, fighting the Italian influence with purely (or so perceived) French traits: the prominence of dance and ballet, and above all, a rival for the Italian opera. First, in a joint.venture between the two artistic geniuses available, Lully and Moliére who together created the new genre: “la comédie ballet”, this being a development from the classic “ballet de court”, the cornerstone of French music up to that moment. Lully’s compositions were impaired to Moliére’s words, always humoristic and quite often satirical, in which some of the political views of the king were interspersed in a sometimes not-so-subtle way. Later on, Lully would eventually follow with his own evolution to Opera, the “tragédie lyrique” based upon the works of some of the best playwrights in France, next to Moliére himself, as Racine and Corneille.

Interestingly enough, given the known facts, the film suggests a break up between the partners prior to Lully’s success with the new tragédies. He is depicted at this point in his life as a paranoid who wants the king’s attention just for his music alone, and distrusts Moliére. Also despising his deteriorating health, Lully plots with the king to get rid of his friend accusing the playwright of being sick…which in fact, Moliére was. He coughed, he spat…not the powerful man he once was, not the image France wanted at the time. And, yes, Moliére was put aside by the king.

Probably my favorite scene in the film is that in which Moliére dies on the stage during a performance of  his counterattack on Lully: “Le Malade imaginaire”; he played an hypochondriac but, unlucky man, he was really sick. He had a bout of hemoptysis on stage during the fourth night of his last play, dying a little later, at home. That’s a fact…yet the way it is shown in the film gives the distorted fact a new strength. The forceful performance by Tcheky Karyo gives the whole scene an unforgettable scent of pathos.

So exits the scene Moliére, so the success will go finally, and entirely, to Lully. Master of the Court’s music, his Tragédies were all the rage, and he kept on composing music for his Master, the Sun King, trying to provide an ever-increasing brilliance to his reign. He died, and so begins the film, almost absurdly: he injured his own foot with his conducting staff, then refused to have the leg amputated on the grounds that a dancer’s leg couldn’t be amputated. Gangrene took its toll, finally, at a time when his star was in decline and the religious party was, again, on the rise at Court. Just a year before, Louis have made a point of not inviting his old crony to perform at Versailles; yet Lully’s injury came while he was conducting a Te Deum on the occasion of celebrating the king’s recovery from surgery: the loyal courtier to the bitter end.

In fact he was so loyal not only to the king but to the State (in case the latter was not in fact the former…or vice versa) that he fought his own kind all along his life: being an Italian (Giovanni Battista Lulli was his real name) he behave like a French, pushing forward his adoptive nation’s political goals by his own means and helping to create a truly French music, different and almost opposite to the Italian dominant trend, especially in the Opera field, where his innovations in text composition, massive ballets and combination of arias and recitatives, giving less importance to singing and more to acting and dancing, departed far away from the until then successful tendencies.

As good as “Le Roi danse” depicts music at Court, “Tous les matins du monde” does the same with the music outside it. But, surprisingly, and somewhat fittingly, it begins with the same approach: and old courtier and favoured musician is getting to the end of his life, and he remembers his past life in a long flashback which comprises almost the entire length of the film. The exact same technique (perhaps not coincidentally) in both films. But in this case, the musician was a local kid, the viola da gamba virtuoso Marin Marais.

What surprised me most of “Tous les matins…” was the silence. In a film almost two hours long, dialogues are few, short and often brisk (even brusque, especially on the part of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe), with music and silence filling the void. Even Marin Marais proposes a couple of times to his Master that the essence of music could be silence, to the amusement (or disgust, it is difficult to tell from the restraint interpretation given by Jean-Pierre Marielle) of the latter.

Story make short, a great musician (Sainte Colombe) embittered by his wife’s death secluded himself in his country house where he plays and composes in solitude. In time, he teaches the Viola da gamba to his two daughters and have some gigs, thus attracting the Court’s attention. Summoned by the King (so interested in music as we’ve seen) he refuses to attend the Court but a young virtuoso is instead sent from there to learn from him. This ends in disaster, because Sainte Colombe is not a patient teacher and Marais a tad too much haughty to be a good pupil.

Love (or lust) interferes when Marais and Sainte Colombe’s oldest daughter begin a relation. She helps him secretly spying on his father while he is playing but, more at ease at the Court, Marais soon grows tired of her, and leaves. She will get ill while her father, relentlessly, pursues his music (and, by the way, his wife’s ghost whom he could see sometimes when playing) and Marais becomes an applauded and rich Court musician. After her dead, Marais finally gets in touch, on cold night, with his old Master, and learns what has to be learned…

Quite apart from “Le roi danse”, no Court life in here. No fight for power. The story is told by Marais, now and old man and teacher himself, as an example for his pupils. Is all about music and what lies in it, and nothing about Court’s music and what lies inside Versailles, yet it tells us interesting things about music in that age… and is relations with Power. Marais is all Court: haughty mannered, ambitious, cold-hearted. He is a viola da gamba virtuoso and yet Sainte Colombe will not teach him because he cannot feel music in his pupil, just technique without feeling. At Court, technique was far more important, as claiming to be a virtuoso could put you in the King’s (and he being the Sun king, being the focus could be as dangerous as rewarding), and ambition and refined manners and a high self-regard were paramount to get to the top: we’ve already seen how Lully betrayed Moliére. Top of the list there was very limited space. He will get whatever he can from Sainte Colombe (daughter inclusive) just because it is an instrument to his ascension in the Royal favour.

On the contrary, Sainte Colombe represents a musician who is no friend of the crowned paraphernalia. He lives for his music and his memories, and doesn’t want to be part of Louis power politics. He is solicited by the king because he is a virtuoso; furthermore, he is also an innovator who has added an extra string to his instruments to reach the whole spectrum of Human voice and whose compositions were highly regarded. This, obviously, fitted perfectly in Louis intentions on putting French music at the head of European arts, as part of his pretension to political hegemony. But when the harsh player rejects all summons, the King just let him go, with grace. He couldn’t afford to lose an argument with a subject, but probably also thought that paying that much attention to a commoner could be, in fact, a sign of weakness on his part. So allegedly amused by Sainte Colombe’s resistance he drops his summons…only to, this is just a suggestion, plot with his courtiers to get Marais taught. He was, after all, a young and very promising musician himself, the son of a humble cobbler, who surely will abide to his King’s will in his own benefit.

If ever was a plot, it worked. Sainte Colombe’s music wasn’t lost and Marais became, on time, ordinaire de la chambre du roi pour la viole, position he will kept for forty-six years, learning also from Lully and attempting even some operas, although he is best known for his viola da gamba works. Meanwhile, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe fought his ghosts far from the Court’s glitter, trying to find a sense in a life that was meaningless for him after his loss but for what he could get off the music. Not interested in power, money or position he just played. HIs work, nonetheless, became a piece in Louis schemes both by his lasting impression in Marais’ own works, and the innovations he brought, both technical and in composition, to his field of expertise; the glory of his music was, after all, the glory of France and its Sun king.

The title of the film (which is based upon a novel written by Pascal Quignard, who also wrote the adaptation for the screen) “Tous les matins du monde”, “all the mornings in the world”, comes from something Quignard makes Marais to say both in the novel and the film. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour: all the mornings in the world never return. At the end, Marin Marais came to understand this, as he finishes his story and sees his old teacher’s ghost, proud at last, asking him to play the song he wrote for Madeleine, daughter and lover respectively. When everything is gone, music still remains. Thus happens to Louis XIV in the long run, today well-known as Versailles builder, even though that honour should bestowed on Le Vau, and d’Orbay as architects, Le Brun as designer and Le Nôtre as landscape designer. HIs political work faded as France went to turmoil and the absolute power he built, with the help of Lully, Moliére, Sainte Colombe, Marais and the like, turned into liberté, egalité, fraternité amidst much bloodshed. The music his musicians made for him, to make shine his France and himself, is still there, moving, alive, inspiring. The morning of French glory is never to returned, as it happens to all the rest. Its music, however, never fully went away, and it is always around us, waiting for someone to hear and get in touch, just as Sainte Colombe’s wife.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Would-be Movie Hero Writes a Book…

Now, we have this man’s story. Nice, military guy, went to Middle-East. Got shot, serious injury in a hand; captured by the enemy, spent some time in prison in Northern Africa, where he was close to being beheaded. Finally he was released, went back home, wrote a book.

Now, you are thinking. About the man, who must be a SEAL or a DELTA, or likewise. A killer by trade. About the book, which Eastwood or Bigelow could be on the brink to adapt to the big screen. A thriller, all fights and blood and guts, maybe some introspective moments to depict the anguish of the war prisoner… He must be doing great now. Famous guy, Oprah, late night shows and the like.

Now, it would have possibly been that way. Suffering, then glitter. But this is now, and that was then: the man died four hundred years ago.

This man was no nephew of the Uncle Sam either. At that time, there were no United States of America, and the fight raging on the Middle East was between the Christian European princess and the Sublime Porte Sultan. He was a Spaniard, and his name was Miguel de Cervantes.

Born to a deaf barber-surgeon, Rodrigo, he spent his early years of which little is known, travelling around Spain with his family as his father did his trade (and tried, sometimes without success, to elude his creditors). Born in 1547, we know that  by 1566 he was at Madrid, studying with López de Hoyos. Then, all of a sudden, in 1569 he fled to Italy, allegedly after a duel in which he wounded the other duelist, although the story is not confirmed.

Anyway, to Italy he went. Soon, he was serving in the Spanish Tercios as a soldier. And so he went to the sea and took part in one of the most famous battles of its time, at Lepanto, in 1571, where he took two arquebus shots in the chest and one in the left hand. After six months recovering in a hospital in Messina, Miguel had lost use of his left hand due to the complications of the wound, but was again ready to service. He kept raiding the Mediterranean shores with the Christian armies against the Ottomans for some years. Then when his ship was almost in sight of the Spanish coast, it was assaulted by a Turkish flotilla, and after a brisk fight, Miguel and his brother Rodrigo were taken prisoners among other members of the crew. Because he had in his power some impressive-looking letters of recommendation, he was believed to be a VIP (which he was not). Therefore a handsome ransom of 500 golden escudo was asked for; pity he was just a soldier. Maybe a good one, maybe he has caught the eye of the top-brass, but no way he or his family had that huge amount of cash (or connections strong enough to get it paid).

He was sent to Algiers and spent five years in captivity. There is some controversy about his days there. Seemingly he tried to escape no less than four times, but his adventures were thwarted by bad luck, traitors, a captured messenger…in between, Cervantes’ mother got some money to pay for her sons, but the money was not enough for both of them. Miguel, always the tough guy, stays in prison so his younger brother could go home…or so. Most of this we know because he himself wrote later about his years as a captive, so we may want to be…cautious about the veracity of his writings. He became, after all, one of the world’s greatest fable-spinners.

Nevertheless, he was finally freed, almost by chance. On the verge of being transported to Constantinople itself, were his fate would have been surely gloomy, he was released after a Trinidadian friar paid his ransom, partly with money collected amongst the Christian merchants in Algiers. So, in 1580, after eleven years and a lot of adventure and stories to tell, Miguel de Cervantes was bound to Spain again. And he was yet to discover even war heroes have hardships when returning home.

A spy job (maybe). A daughter (her mother was married to another man). A marriage (didn’t go well: childless, ended in a separation as divorced was strictly forbidden in the most catholic Spain). A desired position in the New World (never came). At least, first publication: La Galatea, a pastoral romance (not that popular, if you know what I mean)…

Finally, in 1587, a proper job as for the Army, provisioning food for the Spanish Armada. Extensive travel across the land. Finally lands in Seville in 1588, but having a place to stay and a steady job doesn’t improve his life that much. To begin with, he is excommunicated after requisitioning Church goods; then, he is transferred to the Exchequer as a tax collector, living among disputes and quarrels; finally, in 1597, as his father before him, he goes to prison.

Now, we find him imprisoned in the Royal Gaol, Seville. The bank when he was expected to put the tax money has bankrupted. The money is not there, or at least not all of it is there. Allegedly, he kept some for himself. While investigated, Miguel serves some months in jail; but, lucky us, while in there, he outlines a story that is going to bring him fame and fortune (albeit, unlucky Miguel, a little too late to enjoy the fortune part).

Somehow, then, he is released from prison by the end of 1597. Maybe he didn’t keep that much money for himself. The fact is that, at this point, fifty years old, not wealthy, with his prestige marred because of his legal troubles, he definitely turned to his real passion: theatre. More or less at the same time, one William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is doing magic in the theatrical scene in London; Miguel de Cervantes, again has no such luck. He is very keen on the classic style at a moment when not only Shakespeare, but also Lope de Vega in Spain were transforming the way theatre is written, and played, forever. Lope, by the way, is a seventeenth century rock star avant la lettre: instead of drugs and rock’n’roll there were money and theatre (seemingly, the sex was there indeed. He kidnapped his first wife, had countless lovers, and a womanizer reputation…). Even other playwrights, as for example Tirso de Molina, had the people’s favor, whilst Cervantes’ theatrical production was at the time considered quite obsolete at the time. He was probably regarded as a minor yet competent writer, but the money, the popularity for which surely Cervantes was craving didn’t arrive.

Anyway, that story he first thought of while in jail was taking shape. Some weird yet sympathetic tale about an old man and his servant. In an unexpected turn of events, the man thinks himself a knight and, craving for adventure, took the roads of deep, old, dusty Castilla in search of giants, evil-doers, bandits and the like, willing to offer his good deeds to his romantic interest, a damsel called Dulcinea. With the reluctant help of Sancho, Don Quixote goes on the loose. At some point, the tale is finished and Cervantes finally gets permission from the censors to publish it, what is done in 1605 to immediate success: only during that year the printers produced six editions, with the novel being translated into English in 1607, into French in 1614…At last, some luck for Miguel, the soldier, the adventurer, the tax collector, the prisoner, the playwright, the writer.

What a film, don’t you think? One can easily imagine say, Ryan Gosling as Cervantes, maybe even doubling as Don Quixote with some prosthetics and make-up…the Academy Award winner and all that…But this is now, and that was then. Media exposure was unknown, and there was no place for more than one big star (and that one was Lope). No Oscars then, no talk shows, no big money. Just some comfort, at long last. And more ideas coming. In his last years Cervantes also published the Exemplary Novels, in 1613, to a great success, and in 1615, the second part to Don Quixote on the wake of the publishing of the “Avellaneda’s Quixote”,attributed to a friend of Lope (again), in which Cervantes’ character was also the main one (plagiarism was a problem then as it is now. Even without Internet access). This second part is unanimously considered his best work, and his final legacy, setting the tone for the new novels all around the world, he that once was considered outdated because of his classical approach to theatre. Good joke, Mike.

Now, we have this man’s story. A tale full of adventures, search for glory, hardships, mishaps. Somewhat…quixotic, don’t you think so? And it was all for real. But he created a fiction so powerful that led us to forget the man behind the pen and paper. Miguel de Cervantes: soldier, POW, spy, tax collector, playwright, novelist. Dreamer.

 

Live from a failure. Last acts of heroism and nonsense from Gallipoli.

So, this is R.Cespedes reporting live for History News from the center of the Gallipoli battle, here at the Suvla Bay landing beaches. We hear reports about things going quite badly: the landing spots missed in several cases, as it has been usual along the last months. But, at least, reports from the front say that opposition seems to be weak and some gains could be easily made. Back to the studio now.

Thanks, R. Now we are switching to the Sari Bair area, where a diversion attack has been on its way for some days now. R. is reporting…

Yes, hello, R. I’m now alone, amidst what once was the lines of the ANZAC Corps but right now is, frankly, a complete mess. No one seems to be really sure of what is going on here or further South at Cape Helles, where another diversion has taken place. Allegedly, the attempt to take the ANZAC out of the cove has gone terribly bad, not because of any lack of courage or combativeness, but because of poor intelligence and serious lack of leadership. We have been told by some privates that it has been a Tennyson’s poem all over again. A Light Cavalry Brigade was sent against a well entrenched enemy at Russell Heights, north of the Lone Pine (06/08/1915) position which has been hotly disputed these last days. From earlier reports, we reckon that the amount of casualties is soaring, at about a 75% rate. We have been trying to interview one of the survivors, but they are so few and went so badly mauled that, up to this minute, it has proven to be an impossible task. Tales of great endurance and courage by the troopers and soldiers have reached our ears, some Victoria Crosses already on their way, one may assume. Seven, in fact, if our informants are right and the rumours spreading through the ranks to be confirmed.

Now everything is dust and flies in the scorching heat of August here at Sari Bair. And the ANZAC is still bottled and going nowhere despite all efforts.

Thank you R. We are going back to the main attack site at Suvla Bay, with an update on the situation. What is going on in there, R? Is the attack finally going forward?

Well, I’m afraid it is not, R. For some reason, neither Gen. Hamilton, commander-in-chief, nor Gen. Stopford, at command here at Suvla Bay, are near the action. We have been told, confidentially, by some officers and privates that no one, even Hamilton, thought Stopford was fit for the job, having seen very little action, if any. But he was Kitchener’s choice…We’ve also been told that some units have reached out of the beach-head finding a strong opposition but from what has been considered “small enemy units”. There have been voices claiming for an immediate onslaught but, at this time, nothing has been ordered yet in that sense.

Excuse me, R. How is the morale there at the beaches, right now?

Well…It is hard to say. The willingness to attack is out of any question here but, as the orders to proceed do not arrive, morale is going quite low at the moment. Rumour and hearsay is widespread, and it has it that Gen. Stopford is on board a ship with a sprained ankle or something of the kind, which in turn is heading to rude comments and disbelief among the rank and file. We will have to wait and see what is next.

And now, back in the studio, we have with us Mr. Selim R., senior Middle East analyst in a well-known think tank. Selim, what do you think we can expect from the Turks?

Well, R, I think they must be very worried right now. Even if they have stopped the assault on Sari Bair and Suvla seems to be under control right now, Gen. Von Sanders must know that reinforcements will take perhaps too much time to get there, help putting the invasion back to sea. That must be his bigger concern at this moment. But, you know, Von Sanders is always struggling against the Government. Enver Pasha considers himself a military genius of sorts, and his selections for commanding positions are not always to Sanders liking, to say the least. I believe the German is willing to go at it fast and strong, and he will probably consider to put Mustafa Kemal in command if he feels any hesitation among the senior officers. Kemal has been tough and resolute. And Von Sanders needs that desperately right now.

Thank you, Selim. This just in (09/08/1915): new developments in the Suvla Bay area. General Hamilton himself has finally landed and he is now ordering an advance along the whole front. Would be late, R?

Hello again, R. It has been somewhat quite strange; a full army waiting to dislodge what appeared to be not a particularly strong enemy force. And after some phony days, when the order finally arrives it seems, the devil know how, that Von Sanders has managed to gather more and more units, send them here and launch them into the fight viciously. I don’t want to play the pessimist here, but I think we are heading straight into another stalemate…and troops may well be tired of this. I surely am.

All right, R. I see this fight is getting into you. Back in the studio…do you think Von Sanders got his reinforcements just in the nick of time, Selim?

Yes, for sure. And I have just received a text message from Istanbul. It seems that Feizy Bey, Enver’s protegée, has refused to attack and an enraged Sanders has dismissed him right on the spot, promoting at the same time Colonel Kemal to Commander General. R, if Kemal is in command here, this will become much tougher. We saw that already in the early stages of the battle, months ago.

Now, R. de R., our Home Front analyst. Do you think Hamilton will counteract this? Nobody seems to feel much respect for Stopford…

Hummm. R, you may be right. But he is Kitchener’s choice, after all. And Hamilton himself is not famous for his decisiveness either. So I think, now that Stopford has his orders, injured leg or not, he will have to attack…and we will have to wait and see… see how the offensive goes, see how the lads behave, see what the Turks are made of. Let’s give them all a little time.

All right. This is R., reporting live from Suvla Bay. 18000 casualties so far had just been confirmed by the Army when, suddenly, Gen. Stopford has called for a stop and issued orders for the entrenchment of the men. Scenes of tremendous disappointment and outrage have crossed the Allied lines. Rumour has it that a strong counter-action from the Turks is feared any moment now. Yet, a Headquarters font has made open to us that new operations are expected “sooner or later”.  

You’re now watching History News, and I’m R.R. We are now connecting by secure telephone line with R. Cespedes right in the middle of the fight in Suvla Bay. R., it seems something big is going on in there, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it is. After two more weeks of mistakes, lack of leadership, casualties mounting, poor intelligence and poorer territorial gains, General Hamilton has made up his mind and, we’ve been told, politely asked Kitchener’s permission to get rid of Stopford. Allegedly, permission has been granted despite the fact that, in the last days, the beach-heads at Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay have finally been united. Bad weather conditions, fog and storms, have come to make the soldiers’ lives a little more miserable. And another kind of mist has seemingly descended on British officers’ wits, so to speak. At least two senior officers, Gen. Hammerley and Mahon, are reportedly refused to serve under newly confirmed Commander in the area, Gen. de Lisle, on the grounds of seniority issues.

Anyway, 29/08/1915 Hill 60 has been taken and the union of both beach-heads is now certain, and that’s the good news. Pity, though, that the Allied troops are still surrounded by the Turks that have made such a statement of not giving any ground apart from the beaches. It seems to me, after all these months and with such little gains, that this action should be more than over. But we are still here, with Kemal and his tough guys up there on the ridges, and the sea at our backs. It is probably about time to put this to an end…

History News reporting. This just in: as a result of Bulgaria entering the war on the Central Powers side and overwhelming assault on Serbia, troops would be diverted from the Gallipoli area and sent further up the Balkans to provide relief and support for the Serbian Army. Whether this means the effort against the Turks is to be abandoned soon, or not, is still undisclosed. Yet, pressure is mounting on, as some prestigious press colleagues such as K. Murdoch and E.Ashmead-Bartlett are strongly reporting against Australia’s Prime Minister and, generally speaking, the course of action during these long, disappointing months. A conclusion must be reached to this action. And it better be soon, or the political implications could be devastating.

11/10/1915-History News reporting. This just in: after a month lull, word has spread that Lord Kitchener has asked the Staff senior officers to provide intelligence and assessment for an evacuation of the Gallipoli area. Officials from the Government and the Army have shared with us no comments on this particular issue.

15/11/1915-History News reporting. This just in: Winston Churchill has just resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty. The Gallipoli failure has been too big a pill to swallow for the young and ambitious politician, who is now marked as responsible for the ill-planned operations and the appalling loss of lives. His political career from now on is, at least, compromised.

History News reporting. This just in: evacuation from the Gallipoli area expected for Christmas. Long awaited, we just hope it will be better planned and executed than the attack. At least, after all the suffering, get the spirit of the season and give some comfort to those brave soldiers stranded there, those “cavers”, as they are now famously called, that risked their lives and, in too many a case, lost them, for what has been from the very beginning one of the worst conducted campaigns in military History. Following Kipling…”Lest we forget, lest we forget”.

Napoleon’s Forgotten Tin Cans

Whilst getting ready for this paper I was quietly watching the television, late at night, when a story came to help me. The show was a documentary about Waterloo. The story was, roughly, about a private and his food on the morning of the battle, or rather, about the lack of food. So as the Foot Guards were occupying the Hougoumont farm that would become one of the decisive points of the fight, the rank and file were soaked after a terrible night. And hungry. Not very promising for the clash to come.

Private Clay of the 3rd Foot Guards recalls in a letter how a butcher was found amongst them after a thorough search, and how he was given the task of getting a pig and butcher it. Thus, every man was given a meagre meal consisting in a small piece of bread of about one ounce, in addition to a piece of pig, varying in size and quality (probably depending on how close an acquaintance you were of the aforesaid butcher and/or the Sergeant Major). Private Clay was quite happy with his share, that being a big piece of the head. However, upon cooking it, he found it unsavoury and too rare for taste, not having salt at hand and all that. So after a little munching, he gave up and saved it for later. Later on the day, the not really well nurtured troops defending Hougoumont dragged endless numbers of French units to the fray, thus contributing to the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Napoleon himself was very aware of the importance of food in the Army. It was him who famously said that “an army marches on its stomach”. It went bad in Russia, and in the eve of Waterloo his soldiers were as bad fed and as soaked by the rain as the British were. So his Army was, maybe, not that willing to march. Anyway, food has been a source of trouble for the military since the beginning of time. You need lots of food to feed an army in the field, and you need it in a specific time and place- usually when moving every now and then. No food, no strength. So how do you feed the Army, then?

The documentary was hosted by actor Sean Bean, well-known as the heroic Richard Sharpe in the popular television series. If you are familiar to the series, you would easily remember his despair when Sergeant Major Harper is not around to get the tea going. Or maybe you’d recall that in many an episode meals were provided by Harper’s own Spanish mistress, then wife. As imperfect as a television series could be as a history source, the depiction is accurate enough. For a long time, the rules only amounted as to the quantity of raw food the soldiers were entitled to. It was up to them to get it cooked. And that, obviously, was in the lucky days, when rations were abundant and available. If you were on patrol duty, in hostile territory, or simply the campaign was not entirely going favourably…well, food could be a big issue. Then, usually, the only thing soldiers could do was living of the land…if there was anything to grab, which was not always the case. Think about Napoleon’s Armeé in Russia: the Russians took everything with them in their retreat; then came the snow, and the freezing cold. Nothing to eat on the way back to France.

There are multiple sources that give us quite a good idea of what you could expect to eat while serving in the military. Bread was always a staple, with some kind of meat to go with it. Dutch soldiers around 1650 were favoured with cheese and got cod or meat in alternate days. The all-powerful Spanish Tercios soldiers were entitled to a pound of bread, another of meat (or fish, surely if cheaper or available), as well as a pint of wine a day. They had to pay for it and cook it, occasionally resorting to robbery, threatening the merchants or simply requisitioning the villagers’ food- which was quite cheaper and of course made a strong case for resentment amidst the Dutch civilians. Salted pork was always a great favourite. The British soldiers at Waterloo were supposed to get roughly 25 ounces of bread, 15 of salted meat and about 30 of vegetables. We may ask Private Clay, but I’m afraid that was more the exception than the rule. Old Byzantine soldiers were expected to grind their own flour, and their tent-equipment included a hand-mill and cooking utensils. They usually double-baked the dough, having then hard tack, easier and faster to do, and longer-lasting. Preservation was difficult for the Romans and the Byzantines, and was no better for the Tercios, the Dutch, or the Napoleonic era troops. In the end, food poisoning, food bad preservation and sheer hunger driving to eat whatever was at hand, were in some campaigns deadlier than swords or bullets.

As for the usual question about being able to fight with what, to a modern eye, may well seem as not enough food, or not varied enough (not to mention not tasty enough), there is a funny insight in one of Asterix comic-books. As Asterix and Obelix are asked to take care of a youngster who has enrolled with the Legions. As themselves are in the training phase, they are served their first meal. Gruesome gruel could be a fair view of it. Then our Gallic heroes reckon the Roman Legions must be truly strong, because, they say, the strength of an army is given by the quality (or better that lack of it) of its food. I mean, when Napoleon’s artillery is pounding the ground you are on, it matters quite little if you had a proper breakfast that morning- one guess is either hold fast or run fast, regardless of the menu.

Now, in the search for better preserved food, armies have a lot to say, one can assume. And so, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the French, who were fighting in multiple fronts and against many a foe, and were resorting to levés en masse to get the numbers working, decided that something had to be done. In 1795, the military issued a decree establishing a gold prize of 12000 francs for a new method to preserve food for the army. An up to then confectioner and chef named Nicolás Appert thought he could do it. (Or so the story goes). But as everything in here seems to be related in some form to Napoleon and his “marching on its stomach” armies, it happened to be but in 1810, in the very middle of the Napoleonic Wars, that Appert came forward with the ingenious solution. After long experimentation, he simply (or not so) put the foodstuffs in glass jars, sealed the jars with cork and wax, then placed the jars in boiling water. And that was it, 12000 well-earned francs from Nicolás who went on with the show writing a book on his methods and opening the first factory of its kind in the Paris outskirts. Unfortunately, it seems mass production couldn’t reach its peak before the invasion of Russia (transport would have been a nightmare, also) so the remnants of the Grande Armée ended up eating their horses and, allegedly, sometimes each other.

Well, as the military requested from Appert-to give him the money-that his method should be open to the public, the benefits of his invention were soon expanded throughout Europe, and even America, by means of adaptation (Peter Durand in Britain, also introducing the tin can) or patent purchasing. Yet, maybe not surprisingly, the military were not taking great advantage of something they had contributed to develop. And in France’s (and Britain’s) next great war, this was going to be, again, a source of misfortunes and the tomb of many.

We all know Florence Nightingale. (She even has her own statue there in London, in the very Crimea Memorial. Wow). Yet rumour has it her works were much ineffectual regardless of the impact she got in the long run. There, in the Crimea, there was a man trying to achieve the same goal, say, saving lives, but in this case with food. Improved food as it was. His name was Alexis Soyer and, you know what? He, too, was a French chef. He went to the Crimea hand in hand with Nightingale, volunteering to advise the army on cooking. When Miss Nightingale left, herself very ill, he took over the kitchens at the Balaclava Hospital, armed with a team of French and Italian chefs. He took to the British army the field canteens the French had introduced during the Napoleonic Wars, and introduce his own device: the Soyer Stove, which was still in service during the second half of the 20th century. He also instructed soldier-cooks, developed simple recipes, even created a long-lasting bread much more palatable than the surviving hard tack. In his superb Crimea (p.355) Orlando Figes gives us this Soyer’s soup recipe, serving fifty:

  1. “Put in the boiler 30 quarts, 7 ½ gallons, or 5 ½ camp-kettles of water.
  2. Add to it 50 lbs of meat, either beef or mutton
  3. The rations of preserved or fresh vegetables
  4. Ten small tablespoonfuls of salt
  5. simmer for three hours, and serve”.

Sick soldiers got well faster, regular soldiers got sick less frequently and Soyer went back to London. It was the second time he achieved success in such a difficult enterprise. The first time had been providing the “famine soup” which saved many lives during the Great Irish Famine of 1847. Then he published a “Soyer’s charitable cookery” book and gave proceeds of it to various charities. Now I’m wondering… where must be his statue? (Appert has one in his hometown, Châlons-en-Champagne)

So, both Appert and Soyer introduced great improvements, even though not completely successful at the time. Army food improved little by little, with little, or no attention whatsoever paid to balance, or specific nutrients. Quite a strange thing if one remembers Napoleon. “An army moves on its stomach”. Yes, my Emperor. Yet they seem to keep on moving quite well, even with poor food. The Russian affaire was another matter, sire, but, you yourself said once: “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. Nicely put.

Blood and snow; Myth and poetry. The White war re-visited.

There are not so many opportunities to find, in the same book, knowledge, literary prowess and entertainment. Historical research, moreover, is prone to lack at least one of the former (not wanting to stir polemics, though, I would not mention which one). But in this particular case you can find all of them, plus accuracy, clear analysing and an overwhelming command of the data. If I ever write a book, I would like it to be as easy reading and well-informed as this one is. And the name of this jewel is “The white war”, the goldsmith being Mark Thompson.

Cover of my copy of the book.
Cover of my copy of the book.

This was true the first time I wrote this, back in 2012, and still is in 2015. Only that now we are engaged in this multi-year WWI following, so some polishing is needed, given the evolution of History as a science and mine as a writer. If interested, you can still find the original article searching in March 2012.

The issue is not very amenable: the Italian front during World War I. But if the tale is told in the way Thompson does, every matter could turn into a fascinating story. This one, in particular, is not only about politics, war, and the usual madness about both. There is more to it, there is life, as a developing creature whose growth is deeply affected by the environment, both social and political, and which is trampled underfoot men’s ambition and ethnic dreams of purity and supremacy. And with life comes everything, even poetry. Now, WWI was a rare event of poets becoming soldiers, or soldiers becoming poets, a case we will study further on in our ongoing work about the conflict. Not that poetry is the thing you first think of in the morning, one guess, when you are in a trench. Probably hunger, lice, fear, or relief would be better options. Yet again, poetry came to soldiers’ minds every so often it seems. At least when they were not killing each other for the sake of frontiers, industrial resources or simple nation pride.

Thompson dedicates a whole chapter here to poets, properly called “Starlight from violence”. In it, we go from Ungaretti’s delicate lyricism, “This morning I lay back/ in an urn of water/ and like a relic/ took my rest” to Govoni’s brutality and joyful aggressiveness, “Burn, burn,/ set fire to this world till it becomes a sun./ Devastate smash destroy,/ go forth, go forth, oh lovely human flail,/ be plague earthquake and hurricane.” Such were the different moods of the soldier on the field of the Isonzo and the civilian prior to Italy’s declaration of war. Sometimes poetry is a kind of note to self. Ungaretti didn’t want to be an officer, desiring not a single privilege from their comrades. So he writes about the soldier’s experience of war: “Struck/ in these guts/ of rubble/ hours and hours/ I dragged/ my bones/ given to mud/ like a boot-sole/ or a seed/ of hawthorn”. Ungaretti was first rejected for active service. When the casualties began to surmount, standards relaxed, so our poet ended up serving two and a half years in the front.

This is, obviously, a story about war. No surprise in that. The Italian front is better known thanks to Hemingway’s contribution in “Farewell to arms”, but all the same is probably the perfect stranger in World War I records. Not as huge but yet as brutal as the Western front, not as epic as Suvla Bay or Anzac Cove but with all the epics that mountain warfare has. Without the wider and deeper political implications that the Eastern front was ready to provide but with connections that extend till the Balkan Wars in the nineties, it is, in fact, a perfect example of the “niceties” of war, and its uselessness, and its long-term political implications.

Thompson explains the misunderstandings and lack of trust between the Allies and Italy, which was part of a treaty with the Central Powers at the beginning of the war. Italy decided the that there was more to gain turning the coat. As it turned out Italy’s sense of self-importance and grievance was nothing but a pebble in the political game of post-war treaties. Wilson was set on achieving his own political (even religious) goals about anti-imperialism and self-determination, and Italy’s territorial claims sounded too much like Mediterranean imperialism. So much bloodletting to so little advantage.

What Thompson achieves better (my own uneasiness aside) is transporting you there, to the center of a nonsensical war theater, but without cruelty, without all the blood and guts so usually found in books of the sort. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of blood when needed, this was, after all, a bloodletting conflict if ever there was one; but the sense of fear, hatred, un-awareness, feebleness, despairing solitude is transported on the back of more solid arguments tan the mere bloodshed. There is analysis here, both of the men’s souls before, during and after the war, and of the circumstances that lead the world to an era of chaos, hatred and destruction which probably has not yet finished as we see in everyday news. In the end you will find that after all, the whim of so few was the damnation of so many. So History goes.

And then, there is myth. Fighting in the mountains, carrying artillery pieces to the summits, caving trenches in the snow. And above all the literary myth, the new men, new order myth was arising and Benito Mussolini was riding it. The seeds for WWII were already sown. Thompson’s depiction of the military cemetery between Gorizia and Monfalcone, at Redipuglia, is chilling and disturbing, knowing the facts. A cyclopean tomb, a shrine to the Third Army, is now the eternal resting place of over 100000 soldiers, built in the place of the original cemetery in which families had created a quiet, secluded place. But that was not enough for the Fascist Heroes, something gigantic, colossal, was needed. In the edges of the terraces, the word PRESENTE, soldier’s reply at roll call. The Fascist martyrs were there, ready to raise and defend their country once again. Lessons learned? Sir, no sir. So Italy will be once again amidst the fraught some years later. And this time the amount of blood and death would be unheard-of.

Now then, if you are to read but one book this year, you will probably would like to try either Kate Morton or The Hobbit or maybe one of those popular Scandinavian detective stories . But, if you want to be enlightened by a book, if you want your conscience awaken, if you want a deeper understanding of what mankind is willing to do to itself, I would keep an eye on “The white war”.

Gallipoli Part II

So we have left the Allies quite dumbfounded at the event of not being able to break the Turkish defences by sea. Churchill, First Lord, was keen on keeping the pressure. To no avail. Fisher was of the opinion that the field Commander (or Sea Admiral in the case) was best to assess the situation; the PM was not in the mood of arguing against the Navy; Kitchener said the Army would do the job nicely… Enter Anzac Day, then.

Almost everything went wrong from the outset: no joint command, no planning or intelligence gathering, scarce space for troop deployment, or barracks…Hamilton went to Egypt to see to it all that shambles was sorted out: And a month passed, thus giving Otto Liman von Sanders, the German Inspector General of the Turkish Army, and Commander of the Fifth Army, precious time to rearrange and reinforce his troops now that it was pretty clear were the blow would be taken.

Finally, everything was ready. And Hamilton could launch the assault. It was obvious the Gallipoli Peninsula, to the left of the Dardanelles was the place. What where exactly? Hamilton, with guile, decided to disperse the attack so the Turks would not know the exact place of the main attack. This meant that the ANZAC would go all alone to the Ari Burnu area, while the other forces would be scattered all around, including two diversion landings in Kum Kale, to the right, by the French; and in Bulair, almost in the mainland. So von Sanders would have to decide sharply when and where to move his troops to cover attacks in eight different beaches. Interestingly enough, given the amount of confusion and disorder associated to this campaign as a whole, the fleet assembled swiftly and in a very orderly way they crossed the sea to the landing spots. Landing itself would take place in 25 April; troops were given three days rations. Again, the feeling was of strength and superiority. If only they would had known better.

One can imagine those Australian and New Zealand soldiers, young and brave, all zeal and disdain for death. Thinking on those barbaric Turks, maybe dreaming to get into History with their exploits. And they surely went in to History…the hard way. ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) was a newly created unit, raw, unexperienced and eager to fight for the Empire. With their characteristic flexible hats and an attitude to authority not always welcomed by the top brass, those hardened farmers, workers, used to the hardships of the still to tamed Southern lands would be the stars of what was meant to be an adventure film, but soon turned into a horror movie.

To begin with, what was to be known since as Anzac Cove was the worst recognised landing area ever. Well, maybe not ever. But definitely in 1915. At dawn, April 25, the ANZAC landed with not that much opposition and soon the beach was cleared. After that, probably, the young Southerners did took a good look to the surroundings: the beach was small. Beyond, high cliffs and ravines. A nightmare of shrub and rock. With the light of day, the cruel reality: they were in the wrong place. Yes, the landings went almost unopposed, but that was only because they had missed the intended beach by a mile, and now their main enemy was terrain, not the Turks. But that also was to change soon, as a man was taking command of the Turkish army. His name would also go into History as Father of the Turks: Mustafa Kemal, to be known as Ataturk.

Meanwhile, the rest of the landings was well underway. It was easy in beach Y, North of Cape Helles. So easy that some men walk calmly to the heights of Achi Baba, a key position. But, again, all went wrong: no one was really sure of who was in command, so no one took it and the troops stay there, top of the cliff, waiting, while the ANZAC were climbing and the Lancashire Fusiliers were mowed down by machine guns and trapped in the wire, as in the Western Front, in beach W; or the River Clyde, in fact a coal ship, was under so heavy a fire in beach V that the men could not get out of the ship until dusk. Hamilton was on board the Queen Elizabeth, with no actual, to the minute, knowledge of what was going on in the beaches; Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, commanding the Helles area, was no closer on board the Euryalus. Kemal, in the meantime, was crossing the heights of Sari Bair and Chunuk Bair.

So the landings were ill-planned and poorly executed; the troops were badly led, if at all; the equipment was not really appropriated, dependent on feet and bayonet. With no intelligence, there was no real understanding of the importance of some terrain features which passed almost unnoticed. And yet, the landings were somewhat succesful and the beach-heads stand by the end of a day which, unbeknownst to all the interested, was to be known in the future as ANZAC Day.

Surprisingly, they held every beach but Y, which had been the easiest prey. And was also the first gone, after a vicious night attack by the Turks that couldn’t be repelled, entrenchment not even given a thought through the day. A rough 30000 men were disembarked, amid growing pains and confusion. But the situation was far from ideal, particularly so with the ANZAC.

Kemal spent the day rallying dispersed troops and launching counter strikes, gaining the high terrain and pushing the forward-most ANZAC units back to the beach. A beach, one must remember, which instead of a mile long was a mere five hundred yards long and a scrawny thirty yards wide. Soon the ANZAC was bottled and its Commander, Sir William Birdwood, gathering intelligence from his Officers, was asking for evacuation. The whole beach-head was no more than three and a half thousands long and a little more than a thousand deep. Water, food and supplies were lacking, the landscape fiendish, exhaustion rife. The situation getting worse and the position clearly untenable. Yet, as precisely an Australian submarine, the AE2, finally forced The Narrows, Hamilton denied permission to evacuate (taking the forcing as a sign) and said to Birdwood that they had to cave, cave, cave and hold until an attack from the South would relief the pressure. So they did. Cave, cave, cave and hold against the enemy, the terrain, the lack of almost everything, earning everlasting respect as a combat force. But this was not close to an end.

Endless suffering will ensue in the next months as the operation designed to get out of the Western Front stall transformed into a clone with trenches and useless deaths.We will come back to see what was done of the ANZAC and the other Allied troops in the ongoing campaign. By now, we will just take some time to reflect on why so many had to die because of the lack of insight or sheer stubbornness of so few, so far from home.

GALLIPOLI I: KNOCKING ON THE SULTAN’S DOOR

Not happy to be a British (or Dominion) soldier and be sent to the surroundings of Constantinople. Somehow, the area is a magnet for disaster, whether you are trying to help or destroy the Russians, it doesn’t matter the Turks being your allies or the target, and always hand in hand with the French. Come to the shores of the Bosphorus and the Black sea, impending doom awaits.

Otherwise, surely, the arts will be gratified by the experience. Some of Tennyson’s most famous lines came from the Crimea War (“into the valley of Death / rode the six hundred”) and that absurd monument to pointless élan which was the Light Brigade Charge; Errol Flynn also took advantage, as did a young Mel Gibson in Peter Weir’s film about Gallipoli more recently (strange this always present ANZAC tone in the area). Hopefully no more brilliant pieces of art will depend on the fruitless spending of so many lives.

The point is both the Crimea war and the Gallipoli campaign are outstanding monuments to the incompetence, lack of communication, misinterpretation of the actual situation and the disposition of the enemy when not sheer stupidity of politicians and top brass military alike. Campaigns which were regarded as easy to accomplished, regardless of the difficulties soon to appear, as a stroll through the park. Campaigns which distinguished themselves for the lack of Humanity and the loss of lives even when the sensible option was letting it go. At least, some may say, the Crimea ended in a Victory. Gallipoli, on the contrary was an utter defeat, despite the heroism and endurance of the troops involved. It was a pity that those in command, far away, were not up to their courage.

Turkey had fell into the Kaiser’s arms pulled by an ambitious politician, Enver Pasha, Minister for War, famous for having shot the former incumbent of his position because he did not agree on how the Balkans war was being conducted. Hot-headed, maybe, and Enver was not all popular within the Empire, but he had the support of the “Young Turks” movement, then in the Government albeit some other members of it, like Navy’s Minister Djemal, were pro-French. The Germans wooed the Turks for a long time, considering the geo-strategical importance of the Turkish Empire, the lust for oil and the always ongoing colonial competition. The Western Powers were no so aware of that, in spite of their alliance with Russia. The international trade of the Tsars was mainly via and the Bosphorus, both the grains that British and French will need and the military supplies the Russians were lacking. But, seemingly, they have the eyes elsewhere in the region: Greece, with a pro-Western Government lead Eleutherios Venizelos was willing to cooperate. Even during the proceedings to the campaign they offered three divisions, but the for the Russians, always coveting control of the Balkans, that simply won’t do. Just another big mistake.

So when Politicians in London and Paris saw that war would not be over by Christmas as expected, they suddenly recovered their senses and thought of Turkey as both a potential threat…and an open opportunity. Russia has suffered terrible defeats, the Western Front was stuck. The Bosphorus looked now as a suitable theatre of operations.

A man in London was strongly pushing for the case. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had discussed plans to support Greece in the event of another war in the Balkans with the Army and Navy leaders. When russia found itself in dire straits and asked for support and relief, plans were dusted and rearranged.

At the beginning, Churchill and his First Lord of the Seas, Lord Fisher, agreed in the Greeks taking the load of the landings, with the British using their mighty naval power to force the Dardanelles sacrificing if needed their huge stock of outdated vessels. As a strategical concept, this was both bold an innovative. But it was ill-advised and ill-informed. The plans assumed that the mere presence of the British fleet near Constantinople would make the Turkish tremble, the Government stumble and, easy-peasy, Turkey would be out of the war, and the Russians aided. That was all counting on the notion of Turkey as the “sick man in Europe”. Problem was the sick man was still alive and kicking. And with a German doctor seeing to his recovering.

The thing was that as the plan was progressing, numbers skyrocketed. More ships and troops were thrown in, and Fisher began to have second thoughts and his previous good rapport with the young Churchill went to some sourness. Some fear that taking brand new ships like the HMS queen Elizabeth to the Dardanelles would put the Northern Sea fleet at risk was also forming. Kitchener, who was at first happy with the operation, as it involved few troops, began to feel uncomfortable as the Russians opposed greek intervention (in the process helping to oust the Venizelos cabinet which was replaced with a pro-German one) and new British Divisions were called, with the French taking a lesser role. Fisher finally took to the front the idea that, albeit some ships could be expendable, their well-trained, expert troops, were not so.

Anyway, with the Greek option discarded, the time running and the Western Front showing no signs of improvement, Churchill sorted the last objections and Fisher convinced Kitchener to send the much-needed troops. Kitchener selected his old friend General Hamilton to lead the force.

First things first, Hamilton changed the name of the force from Expeditionary Force to Constantinople to Mediterranean expeditionary Force on the grounds, quite obvious even for the non-expert, that the former name made the target all too evident.

So, after all this process, with mistakes and misunderstandings all around, the dice were cast and the attack on German’s eastern friends was scheduled for February, on the idea that, after all, troops could not be needed if the naval attack went well. The ANZAC was transported to Lemos but Kitchener retained the 29th British division, just in case something happened on the West. And, on 19 February, the attack did start with twelve ships, one-third French. First targets were the fortresses guarding the Dardanelles: Sedd-el-Bahr and Kunkale; after that the fleet should force “the narrows”, a pass wider less than a mile, guarded with mine fields. After an interchange of heavy fire, and both sides almost unscathed, bad weather conditions put the attack to rest for some days. When it was re-launched on the 25, it was clear that the fleet would have to get closer to the shores, so risking more casualties, to do some harm on the strong fortifications. And so it did, resulting in a Turk-German retreat, small landings to get hold of the fortresses and a significant spirits improvement now that the forecasts seemed to be right. In fact, Rear-Admiral Sackville Carden, commander of the fleet, informed that he was expecting to land in Constantinople in two weeks on March 2.

To no avail. He had been too optimistic. The Turks regrouped and went back their steps to retake the forts, the artillery was still firing on the light minesweepers which couldn’t clean the mine fields. A new attack on the 13 put things on sight: four out of six minesweepers were knocked out by the coastal batteries. On 15 March, exhausted and in the verge of a nervous breakdown, Carden resigned his command. On the 18 Vice-admiral De Robeck, the new commander, was again on the fight.

Three successive waves were sent, bombarding relentlessly, against the Turks guarding “the narrows”. Little by little, the coastal batteries were being silenced. But then, the mines took their toll. Few days earlier the Turks had run a line of mines close to the asian side of the narrows. Unnoticed, this line became the tomb for some of the best vessels in the fleet: Bouvet, Inflexible, Irresistible, Ocean…the Inflexible, much damaged but still afloat, was sent to Malta for repairing, with the Galois and Suffren, French allies also damaged. The other three went to the bottom of the channel.

Come to that, De Robeck lost faith and stopped the onslaught, to the relief of the Turks who were badly shattered and running out of ammunition. Seemingly, the Army leaders no longer believed in the naval operation and were sure that, anyway, massive landings would be needed. So believed ANZAC’s commander, General Birdwood, and probably also Hamilton. As it was, even Kitchener was favouring now a land attack. Finally, De Robeck gave way on March 22. The Gallipoli campaign was becoming a major embroilment, as thousands of soldiers would know in the coming months.

So is the war: nothing is always as promised, and if you start with mistakes, mishaps and misunderstandings, why to expect a resounding victory? Agonizing suffering will ensue, casualties by the thousand, lacklustre command, loss of prestige, accursed politicians…One wonders if Churchill, when drafting his famous WWII speech, “we shall fight in the beaches”, “whatever the cost maybe”, “we shall never surrender”, could have been thinking on the Gallipoli events. There were feats of courage there, no surrenders, fight in the beaches at an appalling cost. It was almost Churchill’s political grave; but when drafting that speech, he was bound for Glory. Pity so many of the Gallipoli’s heroes couldn’t be there to see Britain in its finest hour.

Ghost from war past: The Portrait by Aaron Copland

A man with a strong personality is that one who, commissioned in a time of war to make a musical portrait of a fellow countryman decides that he wants to depict Wal Whitman, a famous peacemaker. That the man ended up working on a portrait of Abraham Lincoln reflects not only the seriousness of times but also the awareness and tactfulness of the same man, being able to let down his own pet idea for what was considered a better option for that particular moment in time, an inspiring piece of art in time of need. The fact that the piece itself is a black swan in classical music, and a moving mix of folklore, History, voice and music, a true avant-la-lettre multimedia artwork speaks of the genius that man was. The name of the man was Aaron Copland.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7NtNqySz-U

Now, you probably do not know the name. Never heard of it, don’t you? That is the problem with classical music: take a good central-European name and everyone would think “yes, I kind of know that one”. But US nationals are far more related in the public’s imagination with rock (and pop) than classical when it comes to music. Nevertheless, Aaron Copland is considered one of the (if not “the”) best US composers, and was even called “the Dean of American composers”, and his works, specially those of the 1930’s and 40’s, are fundamental in defining a true “American” style of composition, distinctive in its openness and accessibility. The use of popular tunes is another trademark, as in A Lincoln portrait and, as is the case with the use of spoken recitations of the depicted’s own words, while it was not original, Copland took it to new heights.

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Boris Godunov:A Tsar and a musician walk into a bar…

So, what about an opera about a Tsar, written by a serf’s grandson and which was rejected by the Maryinsky Theatre just because (allegedly) it lacked a leading female character, then turning into a massive success (but not with the Imperial family) only to be adapted, shortened, reconstructed and who knows what else after its alcoholic composer died in the exact day of his 42nd birthday? That could be worth a little more reading…

Modest Mussorgsky’s father was the son of a serf. He, eventually, was recognised as a noble and owned a vast estate which contained eighteen villages at Karevo not that far from nowadays Russian frontier with Belarus and a rough 250 miles from Saint Petersburg, then the capital. Granny was still alive when Modest was a small boy and we can only imagine the strange thing that a noble man son to a serf woman was at the time. Yet they were not part of the very affluent. Serfs and nobles would be important in the future of Modest; but before that, see him learning to play piano, taking lessons from Mum, listening to the folk tunes his nurse would sing. Then at the age of thirteen, he was sent to Saint Petersburg’s cadet school, joining in the event the Preobrazhensky Guards. Not exactly the same than at home.

There he spent the next years, getting in contact with some of the leading members of Russian musical society, as Balakirev or Borodin. But in 1861, the serfs would force him back home at the age of 21. Well, to be honest, it was the Tsar, not the serfs, who forced him back. Being not a really brilliant nor decisive leader, Alexander II was somewhat convinced, possibly because of the pressure enacted by his resourceful aunt Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, that serfs needed some sort of emancipation. That, in a huge autocracy where education and alphabetization levels were appalling and, as we have seen, lesser nobles owned almost twenty villages and all in them, people inclusive.

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