Chairman's editorial

Welcome to our November meeting including our own ‘Remembrance’ ceremony at 7.45pm, see order of ceremony. In future please note that the main gates are now to be opened at 7pm but if closed please press the buzzer BAR button by the gate and Les can open up. This earlier start gives everybody more time on arrival to get settled in and socialise. We still have to respect security issues surrounding our venue. 

For this our November meeting we welcome back our old friend Clive Harris who, I’m sure, will give an interesting evening’s talk about the ‘men’ who returned from Gallipolli, see editorial. Due to ill health Rob Thompson has had to cancel for December and I have passed on our best wishes. Kate Wills from Northampton Branch has stepped in at to will be speaking on Christmas in Khaki. This takes us through each Christmas of the war in company with soldiers and nurses of the BEF, told in their own words, such as those of Lt Jeffrey Blake, attached to D Battery, 235 Bde R.F.A. 47th (London) Division: 

25th December 1915: Well here I am in the Mess as we call it, consisting of a room with one or two windows out, and a bucket with holes in it for a fire place; nevertheless we are looking forward to a good dinner... I am quite fit, but the mud, oh dear me, it is knee deep & runs over my knees into my boots. The rain too is awful, it rains all day, and as soon as I get out of my tent, I am really soaked... got slightly gassed the other day on the road... The French paper boys here do not shout, but blow an infernal trumpet, which annoys me very much, but when the English papers are out, they shout ‘Paper!’. 

It is talk about ordinary people caught up the extraordinary circumstances of war, far from home. There is action in the trenches, but also the chance of a dose of fun and laughter. Princess Mary’s Gift Tin, fundraising at home for our men and women at the front, British, French and German Army Christmas cards, and art and illustrations from the frontline also feature. 

Kate Wills comes from Northampton, where she is speaker secretary for the county branch. Her interest in the Great War stems from her grandfather, who enlisted in the 7th Ox & Bucks LI on 2nd September 1914. After a short spell in the Somme sector, he was posted to Salonika in late 1915, where he remained until the Armistice. She is particularly interested in concert parties and entertainments on active service, and welcomes any information you may have to share on this subject. 

This will be our last meeting before Christmas and has been brought forward to the first Friday (6th) in December, not the usual second Friday, so a note in your diary please. This is our Xmas social night and immediately after the speaker/raffle there will be a cold buffet with wine and soft drinks. Please advise Andy at the door tonight if you will be attending on 6/12 and if a vegan buffet is required by you. Thanks to all our members for your ongoing attendance and interest. Beyond December I can report that we now have speakers arranged right through until next April with Dr Martin Purdy, Professor John Bourne, Dr Jessica Meyer and Geoff Bridger speaking respectively on Gallipoli, Tolkien, RAMC and the RGA. A good selection and variety of subjects.

Ralph Lomas

Last Month’s Talk

The Branch welcomed the Chairman of the WFA, Colin Wagstaff to the Branch to hear a talk by WFA Vice President Jack Sheldon on the myth of the ‘Stab in the Back’. This was subsequently made by the German High Command after Versailles, who believed they were ‘Im Felde unbesiegt’- Undefeated in the field.

In the autumn of 1918 all the original belligerents were suffering manpower crises. This was particularly true of Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had 883K men fit for military service which had declined from 1.4 million in January 1917. The recruitment age was dropped from 20 at the beginning of 1917, 19 in July 1917 and to 18 in November 1917. By January 1918, 2.1 million men were fit for service.

The Michael offensive in early 1918 cost 211k casualties and 1.3 million were lost from March to September. The onset of the influenza epidemic was also beginning to take its toll. The German spring assault petered out by summer at a cost of 227K KIA and 765K wounded. 2 million people were also sick.. Although 2 million returned to duty the army suffered a net loss of 950K. Efforts were made to return the wounded quicker and ‘comb out’ more men for military service. By December 1918 the army had a deficiency of 354K. German women featured far less in the war effort compared to the British where men were freed up for duty by females in many industrial roles.

The initial reverse of fortune had begun at Amiens in August. The German 2nd Army (Marwitz) was pushed back, weak and tired. Britain could see that the Germans were in decline. This was evidenced by the numbers of soldiers surrendering. They were also suffering from a shortage of horses. Germany was much less mechanised than the Allies and the animals were more vulnerable to attack than vehicles.

Foch oversaw tactics that had the enemy running up and down the Front Line as a series of assaults were timed to constantly have them move their meagre reserves from one place to another as a fresh Allied assault opened. Units had to be reduced in size- battalions were down to 400 all ranks. The ability to counter attack was gone.

However, the German High Command was determined to fight on. They had a new lightweight machine gun. It was easy to conceal and determined crews inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. Nevertheless their plight continued and by October the writing really was on the wall. Lacking motorised transport, the horses upon which they relied were in poor condition and their fodder was of poor quality. By the end of the month discipline was breaking down. The Navy mutinied and spread the seeds of the civil unrest that was to follow.

Von Baden became Chancellor and Ludendorff was removed. The Kaiser was obliged to seek refuge in neutral Holland. To many the end came as a surprise. Subsequently the hierarchy passed the blame onto the civilians who had attended the Armistice conference at Compiegne. The subsequent peace was followed considerable unrest and the fragility of the Weimar Republic would eventually see the rise of the Nazis.

A detailed and absorbing account of the final days of the war.


The Bohemian Corporal:  a talk by John Derry

Several members of the Branch recently visited Moor End WI where Professor John Derry talked on the life of the man who had affected the modern world- Adolf Hitler. He was born on 20 April 1889 at Braunau am Inn (Austria-Hungary). This child, the son of an illegitimate custom official Alois (originally named Schicklgruber) and Klara Pölzi, was to affect all our lives, most of those in Europe and in many other parts of the world.

In later life Hitler’s supporters denied his father’s original name was Jewish but that it meant ‘of peasant origin or country worker’. He did not get on well with his father. His wish to be an artist was at odds with his father wanting him to enter the Civil Service. When he was 14 his father died. At 18 he was twice rejected by the Vienna School of Art. Although he could draw ships, guns and buildings, he struggled to draw people. Unfortunately, his mother died of cancer at this time and his late father’s pension was withdrawn.

The family doctor had been Eduard Bloch who was Jewish. However, Hitler appreciated his treatment of his mother and he gave him a painting as a thank you. In later years Hitler enabled him to emigrate to the USA.

However, lacking any finance from the cessation of the pension, Hitler became a drop out in Vienna. He lived in a hostel and sold his self-made postcards of buildings in the city to tourists.

Hitler increasingly hated Vienna and its multi-ethnic population. He was drawn to Germany and went to Munich where again he withdrew from normal society. He had become a vegetarian, teetotal and a non-smoker. On 2 August 1914, the day Germany invaded Luxemburg, a photograph of the crowd in the centre of the city purports to show Hitler there. (However, this was only released in the 1930s and it has been argued this was a fake-TJ).

Hitler volunteered for the German army. (It has been suggested that he despised the multinational Hapsburg army and the Jews who served in it). However, as a runner on the Western Front he was wounded in 1914 and awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In 1918 he was recommended for the 1st Class medal by an officer who was Jewish. He was subsequently temporarily blinded by gas later in the year.

The impact of defeat as he was recovering was subsequently described in Mein Kampf. Post war he stayed in the army until 1920, attending political meetings and reporting on them. He was dismayed by the abdication of the Kaiser. By reporting on fringe groups he became interested in the DAP (Workers) party. He was attracted to their anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist ideology and became an activist. He was an influential orator as the movement progressed, becoming the National Socialist German Workers Party-NSPD (Nazi).

In 1921 he became the party chairman. In 1923 he was imprisoned after a failed coup and whilst there he dictated Mein Kampf to Hess. Within it the stress on the importance of race was made with the white being supreme. It was then not a best seller but when he was in power married couples received it as a gift.

For the remainder of the 20s the NSPD was mainly on the political fringe. Hitler concentrated on gaining power within the system and used his talent as an orator. Initially, things were improving and the USA began to invest in the German economy. In the 1925 elections the NSPD placed Ludendorff against Hindenburg for President but the latter won and the NSPD obtained a very small share of the vote. In 1926 their share only rose to 2 ½%.

However, the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 had severe repercussions in Germany. The Nazis had been concentrating on gaining the support of the army and big business especially in the big cities. By 1932 there were 6 million unemployed compared to 2 million in Britain. The 1932 elections saw the NSDP get 18% of the popular vote. At the same time there was a reaction, especially to the ‘Permissive Society’ that had grown, which seemed to threaten traditional family values. Hitler played on this as his skills as an orator improved

Although the Depression enabled the NSPD to expand it was still unable to dominate the political scene. Hitler increasingly improved his mastering of public speaking. He would transfix audiences by starting quietly and intensify, blaming the politicians for the hardships being suffered. He blamed the actions of the Jews for the collapse of the military in 1918, emphasising that the Germany army had not lost but stabbed in the back by politicians who were in the control of the Jews and increasingly emphasised the race as at fault rather than the religion.  

In early 1933 the Enabling Act effectively gave Hitler supreme power. However, he was increasingly distrustful of Ernst Röhm and the Stormtroopers. Between 30 June and 2 June 1934 Röhm and his supporters were purged in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, in particular homosexuals, which Nazis regarded as part of the degenerate scene. Hitler was able to get the backing of the army and businesses. Himmler formed the elite SS.

A drive was made to improve public services and jobs including Autobahns and workers’ housing. (The former would naturally assist military transport). The Versailles’ terms were held in contempt. His achievements in the German economy were noted by J.M.Keynes and Lloyd George who compared him to George Washington calling him ‘The greatest living German’. (Well he would wouldn’t he? TJ). Officers in the army had to take an oath of loyalty which bound them to the Party.

In 1936 Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, contrary to the Versailles Treaty but by now no major power would intervene. That year Berlin also hosted the Olympic Games. Hitler wanted to show the strength of the Aryan race and had the event filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. However, this backfired when Jessie Owens won four gold medals.

By now Hitler was looking at the long term. Traditionally, Germany had looked east for ‘living space’ to enhance its position as a leading land power. Gradually he flexed his muscles and brought Austria under the Reich’s wing. Meanwhile, Hitler had Ribbentrop negotiate a treaty with Russia. The inability of Britain to prevent Hitler annexing the Sudetenland pushed Europe to the brink and Chamberlain’s ‘scrap of paper’ proved useless as Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

Thus after only 20 years of peace Europe was again engulfed in a World War. Initially there was a period of inaction –‘The Phony War’- before the Germans made a lightning strike in France leading to the withdrawal of British and allied troops at Dunkirk. Hitler spread his forces out into the lowlands and prepared to invade England. However, his air force was sufficiently stopped by the RAF in the Battle of Britain to cause Hitler to call off the plan as an unsupported English Channel crossing was too precarious. When the RAF bombed Berlin Hitler was infuriated. The subsequent Blitz was damaging but the Luftwaffe was a tactical weapon and never had sufficient armaments to bomb Britain into submission.

Gradually Hitler’s over ambitious aims backfired. The invasion of Russia was probably his greatest error which in the long run was to turn the tide. Also when Japan attacked the USA he made the same mistakes as Imperial Germany but this time he initiated them by declaring war on the USA after Pearl Harbor. The eventual defeat of the army at Stalingrad in May 1943 fractured its invincibility especially as the Russians were considered racially inferior. The removal of the Germany from Africa also gave encouragement to the Allies and in September Hitler’s only European ally Italy capitulated.

Gradually the Allies began to turn the tide. D.Day 6 June 1944 was followed soon after in the east by Operation Bagration as the Soviets began to push the enemy back. The western allies were building up a bitter bombing campaign. Despite a heavy cost to allied aircrew, city after German city was experiencing massive destruction. Although there was much fighting still to be done, for many of his officers defeat was staring them in the face. In July Hitler survived the blast of a bomb left at a meeting by a German officer. Reprisals were swift and deadly but it emphasised how detached Hitler had become from reality.

Gradually he realised that there was to be no heroic rescue as by the end of April 1945 the Soviet forces pressed on towards Berlin. Along with his mistress Eva Braun he retreated to his bunker in Berlin, where they were married. Ultimately they both committed suicide. His wife took poison and he shot himself. The bodies were subsequently burnt. A jawbone was subsequently discovered but the whereabouts of his body is still unclear. (Much of the final days were subsequently reported by his personal secretary Traudl Junge)..

In retrospect nothing positive followed from his regime, notwithstanding people such as Anthony Eden and C.B. Fry having found him charming. Nevertheless, his legacy is that he is still the subject of study by historians and politicians.

(As usual our members who attended not only enjoyed the talk but also the fine selection of cakes provided by out hosts. Terry).