Chicago Boyz

                 
 
 
What Are Chicago Boyz Readers Reading?
 

 
  •   Enter your email to be notified of new posts:
  •   Problem? Question?
  •   Contact Authors:

  • CB Twitter Feed
  • Blog Posts (RSS 2.0)
  • Blog Posts (Atom 0.3)
  • Incoming Links
  • Recent Comments

    • Loading...
  • Authors

  • Notable Discussions

  • Recent Posts

  • Blogroll

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Archive for the 'Britain' Category

    How Allied Planes Got Their D-Day Invasion Stripes and other “Retro-High Tech” Secrets of the Normandy Invasion

    Posted by Trent Telenko on 6th June 2019 (All posts by )

    There have been literally hundreds of books and thousands of articles on the June 6th 1944 invasion of Normandy.  Almost every facet of the invasion has been examined in the last 75 years.  Yet for all that, there are simply some subjects related to the Normandy invasion that professional military historians won’t deal with.

    There are a lot of reasons for this, but at it’s heart, it is simply the case many, if not most, academic military historians got into history because they didn’t want to do math.  When you start talking about bandwidth, frequency, wavelength, quartz crystal radio control, atmospheric transmissiblity, radio ducting, and how all this related to the command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) systems of the Normandy Invasion.  When  you bring up all this “Retro-High Technology,” the vast majority run screaming from the subject.

    This is a real shame as it has left out the story of how the Allies created a C3I system to control all it’s air and sea forces. Projected this C3I system across the English Channel while destroying/stunning/jamming the German C3I system. And then implanted that C3I system in France.  All the while making sure thousands of Allied fighters and anti-aircraft gunners didn’t shoot at each other or down dozens of troop laden transport planes filled with paratroopers or towing gliders, as happened in Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily.  It simply hasn’t been addressed.

    This post is my attempt to fill this gap in the historical record by explaining the problems the Western Allies faced. The Operation’s Neptune and Overlord planning process they used to overcome them with cunning yet simple ideas like invasion stripes, and a broad brush outline of how they executed those plans.

    Figure 1. The Allied Operation Neptune Radar Jamming Plan for D-Day Invasion in Normandy. Source: Radar No. 6, page 10, 15 Nov 1944, Office of the Air Communications Officer, Headquarters Army Air Forces, Washington.

     

    RETRO-HIGH TECH BACKGROUND

    World War 2’s “Retro-High Tech” warfare was defined on the ground, in the air and on the sea by the use of electronic signals intelligence (SIGINT) with the addition of RADAR for land or sea based airpower.   Both SIGINT and RADAR had to be tied together to an effective radio and wire telecommunications network in order to provide both intelligence services the necessary data for evaluation and the military commanders the processed intelligence to act upon in order to be effective.

    The effective use of RADAR required a very rapid gathering, processing, decision making and dissemination of those decisions over a vast geographic area by radio, telegraph and telephone.   During World War 2 (WW2)  RADAR networks had the addition of first radio direction finding and then “low level” signals intercepts of voice and Morse code in the clear, simple, easy to use, but quickly breakable codes — Organizations doing this were called “Y-Service” by the British — followed eventually by higher level cryptographic code breaking (or “ULTRA”) being added into this network.

    This four legged stool of military sensors, communications, intelligence, and decision making by military commanders is normally referred to as Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence or “C3I”.   In particular, RADAR played the role of “Keystone Military Technology.”   And by “Keystone” I mean an analogy to the biological concept of a “Keystone species” in an ecosystem, not unlike the role of algae in the ocean ecosystem or grass for a prairie ecosystem. This military C3I ecosystem model is far more developed in the 21st century – especially with the arrival of digital electronic computers — but it is simply a conceptual embellishment of this 1940’s “Revolution in Military Affairs.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, History, Military Affairs, Miscellaneous, War and Peace | 45 Comments »

    Before D-Day, There Was Dieppe

    Posted by David Foster on 1st June 2019 (All posts by )

    June 6 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion.  Most Americans surely have at least some knowledge of this event…but relatively few are aware that there was an earlier amphibious assault on occupied Europe. The attack on the French port of Dieppe took place on August 19, 1942. The objectives were twofold. First, the attack was intended as kind of a “feasibility test” for the large-scale invasion which was to take place later. As stated by General Sir Alan Brooke, “If it was ever intended to invade France it was essential to launch a preliminary offensive on a divisional scale.” Second, the attack was intended to convince Hitler that an invasion was more imminent than it in fact was, thereby leading to the diversion of German forces from other areas.

    The troops assigned to Dieppe were mostly Canadians–5000 of them. There were also British commandos and a small number of American Rangers. Eight destroyers were assigned to the operation, along with 74 Allied air squadrons.

    The attack was a disastrous failure. In the words of military historian John Keegan: “When the badly shocked survivors of that terrible morning were got home and heads counted, only 2,110 of the 4,963 Canadians who had set sail the day before could be found. It became known later that 1,874 were prisoners, but of these 568 were wounded and 72 were to die of their wounds, while 378 of those returning were also wounded. Sixty-five percent of the Canadians engaged had therefore become casualties, almost all of them from the six assaulting infantry battalions, a toll which compared with that of July 1st, 1916, first day of the Battle of the Somme and blackest in the British army’s history. The 2nd Canadian Division had, for practical purposes, been destroyed…Strategic as well as human criteria applied in measuring the scale of the disaster. All the tanks which had been landed had been lost…lost also were 5 of the 10 precious Landing Craft Tank. And, auguring worst of all for the future, the damage had been done not by hastily summoned reinforcements, but by the forces already present; the 3 Canadian battalions which had stormed the central beach had been opposed by a single German company–at odds, that is, of 12 to 1…” If one defending unit could stop an attacking force with 12 times the numbers, a successful invasion would be impossible. Keegan: “(the disparity between the power of the attack and the defense) clearly could not be overcome merely by increasing the numbers of those embarked for the assault. that would be to repeat the mistakes of the First World War, when the solution of greater numbers resulted arithmetically in greater casualties for no territorial gains.”

    Captain (later Vice-Admiral) John Hughes-Hallett summarized the lessons of the failure in a report written shortly after the fact. To quote Keegan once again: “‘The lesson of Greatest Importance,’ his report capitalized and italicized, “Is the need for overwhelming fire support, including close support, during the initial stages of the attack,’ It should be provided by ‘heavy and medium Naval bombardment, by air action, by special vessels or craft’ (which would have to be developed) ‘working close inshore, and by using the firepower of the assaulting troops while still seaborne.’”

    The lessons of Dieppe were taken seriously. Keegan goes on to describe the naval firepower assigned to the actual D-day landings carried out by Canadians at Juno Beach: “Heaviest and furthest out were the two battleships Ramillies and Warspite…They both mounted four 15-inch guns and there were two more in Roberts, their accompanying monitor. Their chief task was to engage the large-calibre shore batteries between the Orne and the mouth of the Seine, but so great was their range–over eighteen miles–that they could in emergency be talked in on any target in the British bridgeheads…Immediately port and starboard of the lowering position was disposed a line of twelve cruisers, the smallest, like Diadem, mounting eight 5.25 inch guns, the largest, like Belfast, twelve 6-inch. Both were covering the Canadian beaches…In front of the Canadian lowering position manoeuvred the supporting destroyers, eleven for the Juno sector…And immediately in ahead of the assault-wave infantry was deployed a small fleet of support landing-craft: eight Landing Craft Gun, a sort of small monitor mounting two 4.7 inch guns; four Landing Craft Support, bristling with automatic cannon; eight Landing Craft tank (Rocket), on each of which were racked the tubes of 1,100 5-inch rockets, to be discharged in a single salvo; and eighteen Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow), which were to fire their loads of twenty-four 60-lb bombs into the beach obstacles and so explode as many as possible of the mines attached to them.”

    In addition to the need for very heavy naval firepower, the D-day planners learned another lesson from Dieppe: rather than immediately seizing a port, or landing in close proximity to one, they avoided ports altogether, landing supplies initially over an open beach and leaving the capture of a port for a later phase in the operation.

    Keegan quotes are from his book, Six Armies in Normandy.

    There is much talk in management and consulting circles these days about the need for organizations to “embrace failure”…much of this talk is fairly glib and does not always consider that certain kinds of failures are truly catastrophic from a human/strategic/economic point of view and are indeed worthy of stringent efforts to prevent their occurrence.  When failures–catastrophic or otherwise–do occur, it is incumbent on responsible leadership to seriously analyze the lessons to be learned and to apply that knowledge diligently.  In the case of Dieppe, that work does indeed appear to have been done.

    Posted in Britain, France, Germany, History, Management, Military Affairs, USA | 53 Comments »

    Seth Barrett Tillman: Orwell’s Newspeak and The Observer (a/k/a the Sunday edition of The Guardian)

    Posted by Jonathan on 13th May 2019 (All posts by )

    The EU is a parliamentary “democracy” that lives and breathes absent anything like meaningful responsible government. What Tisdall means is that Orban—although popular with actual voters in his own country—among people who have an incentive to know precisely what Orban is up to—remains an object of suspicion among the bureaucrats in Brussels and among members of the European Parliament from countries other than Hungary. What Tisdall does not understand is that it is he who is illustrating a contempt for ordinary democracy and ordinary voters.

    Hmm. . . sounds familiar.

    Read Seth’s full post.

    Posted in Britain, Elections, Europe, Politics, Trump, USA | 5 Comments »

    An Unexpected Defeat

    Posted by David Foster on 11th May 2019 (All posts by )

    ‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
    ‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
    When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
    And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
    When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

    (A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

    On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

    The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.

    If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

    This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

    First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.

    France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

    The French plan was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

    The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

    Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

    There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

    The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

    Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to some of the things that are going on in America today.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Europe, France, Germany, History, War and Peace | 38 Comments »

    Seth Barrett Tillman: North Wales Poll for May 23, 2019 EU Parliament Elections

    Posted by Jonathan on 25th April 2019 (All posts by )

    UKIP + BREXIT Party = 50%.
    Labour + Tory = 8%

    Read the full post.

    Posted in Britain, Elections, Europe, Politics | 6 Comments »

    Archive Post: Evelyn Waugh And the Sword of Honor

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 18th April 2019 (All posts by )

    (An archive post from 2015 … working on a new post, but I thought that this was one of my more thoughtful ones…)

    So, leafing – metaphorically speaking – through the video delights on offer through the Acorn video catalogue in search of something amusing to while away the evening after a day’s labor on various book projects, the most pressing of which is not my own, but a paid client – we came upon a two-part version from about ten years ago of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy. I suggested that we watch it, since I had a bout of Waugh fever about the time that I was in college upper division, in hot pursuit of that relatively useless degree in English. (But I enjoyed the pursuit very much on its own merits, not being one of those one-percenters with delusions of the diploma leading me author-matically into an lavishly paid gig anywhere in the academic or in the publishing establishment.)

    Anyway, I had read a good few of Waugh’s books early on; liked Scoop – as vicious an evisceration of Big Media as it was in the 1930s as was ever set to page – and the first book of the Sword of Honor Trilogy, as a similarly bitterly cynical romp through the first years of WWII. The training year, the ‘Phony War’ year … when nothing much (aside from Nazi Germany overrunning Poland, the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark, and France) was happening. And then it all turned deadly serious, with which Waugh just didn’t seem able to cope. The seriousness of it all, I mean. Literary and serious observers, looking through their lorgnettes at current events sometimes have this difficulty, I know. Poor P. G. Woodhouse also had the same trouble, regarding WWII, even as it caught him up in its ghastly coils. I surmise that dear old P. G. dealt with it by moving to America and never dealing with it at all, within the frame of his books; probably a wise literary decision, since he had the formula down pat, so to speak.

    We watched the whole two-part distillation of the Trilogy – enjoying the scenic views of Daniel Craig no end – but the miniseries kind of left us cold. I suspect that re-reading the Trilogy entire would also leave us rather cold. Apparently in the purview of the Great and Good English Literature Establishment, The Trilogy is held to be one of the Majorly Significant Novels dealing with WWII … to which I blow a large raspberry. (That all you got, English Literary Establishment? Really…) Yes, Evelyn Waugh was a magnificent prose stylist, and his satiric novels in the 1930s are bitchy and hilarious, Return to Brideshead is elegiac and heartbreaking … but the Sword of Honor Trilogy is a very odd fish. The first volume was true to the bitchy and satiric form; frankly, I found it very funny because … well, it was to do with the weirdness of the military. Of any age and country, really; a sort of inside black humor, best appreciated by those who have lived through and endured. (G. M. Fraser’s McAuslan cycle is a wonderful example of this, only not burdened by the weight of being A Majorly Significant Novel, so it can be appreciated for its own merits. What a lovely miniseries the McAuslan cycle would make – I can’t imagine why it has been overlooked in this respect… anyway, back to the subject…)

    The rest of the TV version – and take into consideration the fact that I am trying to recall the source novels that I read a lifetime ago – rather fell flat for both of us. We agreed that Waugh couldn’t really write women – although he did have the manipulative bitch subset of the species down cold. It was just rather depressing that just about all the various characters which the hero character tried to help in some way came to rather awful ends. Perhaps that was the inclination of the screenwriters; but really – the message is that it’s useless and futile to be a decent person and do the right thing? How nihilistic is that?

    I wonder also if trying to write a novel about current events isn’t rather a trap for the writer; in retrospect it certainly seemed so for Waugh; the Holocaust together with the Communist aggression in Eastern Europe were just too horrific for a satirist to manage within the scope of a serio-comic novel.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Book Notes, Britain, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Leftism | Comments Off on Archive Post: Evelyn Waugh And the Sword of Honor

    Seth Barrett Tillman: Brexit: Crisis or Success?

    Posted by Jonathan on 26th March 2019 (All posts by )

    What you are witnessing in the UK is not a crisis. It is a success. When most geographical units secede from a larger entity, they do so unilaterally, and sometimes violently. They do it through war or, if lucky, soft power. The UK is doing everything in accord with publci int’l law, EU law, and its domestic legal system. No armies involved. No violence. No threats of violence. Just elections. It is democracy and it is messy. It compares well to our war dead in 1776 and 1861. The world should be taking lessons–not mourning Brexit.

    Read the whole thing.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Britain, Civil Society, Elections, Europe, History, Political Philosophy, Politics | 13 Comments »

    TV Break – DANGER UXB

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 21st March 2019 (All posts by )

    In our complete avoidance of what is being offered in the way of American-produced broadcast and cable TV series, the Daughter Unit and I are ransacking the various streaming services for serial diversion of an evening: series old and new, new to us, or perhaps something old, something that we vaguely recall watching a good while ago and thought that it was worth another round. Last week our choice hit on the 1979 series Danger UXB – which came out the year before my daughter was born and featured a practically teen-aged-appearing Anthony Andrews. (Although he was nearly thirty at the time and seemed to be almost ubiquitous in those British TV series which appeared on Masterpiece Theater in that era. The Daughter Unit loved the 1982 version of the Scarlet Pimpernel, where he co-starred with Jane Seymour. She practically wore my copy of that series on videotape to bits.) Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, Britain, Diversions, Film, Media, Military Affairs, Personal Narrative, War and Peace | 22 Comments »

    Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 17th March 2019 (All posts by )

    The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

    (This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

    Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

    In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

    Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Castlebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

    Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

    Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

    Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

    Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

    John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

    Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

    Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

    Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

    This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, History, Ireland | 2 Comments »

    Some thoughts about Churchill, who is under attack these days.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 9th March 2019 (All posts by )

    I am currently reading Andrew Roberts’ excellent biography of Churchill.

    It does a better job with his early life than the other biographies I have read. I am 2/3 through it and have not yet reached Pearl Harbor so the emphasis is clear. I have reflected on a couple of items, not necessarily about Churchill but about his times.

    Churchill was an observer in the Boer War but had some adventures, which included being captured and escaping from a POW camp.

    For example, had Cecil Rhodes and the British gold miners not invaded the Transvaal would the Boer War have occurred and, if it had not occurred, would Germany have built its High Seas Fleet?

    Now the Transvaal Republic might, like the Orange Free State, have simply remained as a small shut-in self-governing state without creating any disturbance. But the Transvaalers were the sons of the stalwarts who fifty years before had sought to escape from all British control. They looked upon South Africa as a Dutch not a British inheritance; they resented the limitations imposed on them by the British, and their experience had not taught them any respect for the British Empire. Their president, Paul Kruger, had himself gone on the great trek in his boyhood. It is not possible to doubt that President Kruger dreamed his own dreams of a United South Africa, but a South Africa under a Dutch flag, not under the Union Jack; though how far those dreams were shared by others is not equally clear. But whatever his ambitions outside the Transvaal, within the borders of the republic he intended to go his own way.

    But then gold was discovered in Transvaal.

    In 1885, however, the discovery was made of valuable goldfields within the territories of the republic; aliens, Uitlanders as they were called, for the most part British subjects, whatever their actual nationality might be, poured into the Transvaal to exploit the mines. The Boer government had no objection to the exploitation of the mines on its own terms, which did not include the concession of citizenship to the Uitlanders till after a very prolonged residence. All the burdens of citizenship were laid on the Uitlanders without its privileges. The Uitlanders began to feel that they had no security for justice, and to demand approximately the opportunities for acquiring citizenship in the Transvaal which were readily accorded to the Transvaaler who migrated into British territory.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Biography, Book Notes, Britain, Germany, History, Military Affairs | 18 Comments »

    Seth Barrett Tillman: Conlawprof, Voters, and Brexit

    Posted by Jonathan on 1st March 2019 (All posts by )

    Professor BBB wrote: “Not to mention the lies and manipulation of the Leave campaign, which just exacerbated the problem [for voters].” Notice how Professor BBB feels no need to explain what those lies were or how voters were manipulated or how significant the misinformation was. But just so there is no confusion—there were lots of people on hand to argue the other side. Look at the list. I wonder how is it that they were unable to make themselves understood in a publicly funded vote?
     
    Who Supported Remain?
    Her Majesty’s Government was for Remain.
    The leading opposition parties were for Remain.
     
    [. . .]
     
    [long list]
     
    [. . .]
     
    The Bar and the legal profession were for Remain. But …. I repeat myself.
     
    Now ask yourself: precisely, who was on the Leave side?
    Just some voters—and what do they know?
     
    But here at Conlawprof—we are all good democrats—honest & true.

    Read the entire post.

    Posted in Britain, Europe, Politics, Rhetoric, Trump | 4 Comments »

    Snowballs, Sleds, and Cultures, with Some Thoughts from Goethe and the Kaiser

    Posted by David Foster on 5th December 2018 (All posts by )

    A 9-year-old boy lobbied successfully to get his town’s ban on snowball fights overturned.

    Reminded me again of some comments by Goethe, circa 1828, which were the subject of a post here several years ago. He observed that when Englishmen came to town, they were invariably a hit with the local women. Indeed, when one of them came to visit, Goethe found it necessary to brace himself for the inevitable female tears upon the visitor’s departure. His friend Eckermann objected that Englishmen were not “more clever, better informed, or more excellent at heart than other people.”

    “The secret does not lie in these things, my good friend,” returned Goethe. ““Neither does it lie in birth and riches; it lies in the courage which they have to be that for which nature has made them. There is nothing vitiated or spoilt about them, there is nothing halfway or crooked; but such as they are, they are thoroughly complete men. That they are also sometimes complete fools, I allow with all my heart; but that is still something, and has still always some weight in the scale of nature.”

    Goethe goes on to contrast the upbringing of English boys with that typical in his own country:

    “In our own dear Weimar, I need only look out of the window to discover how matters stand with us. Lately, when the snow was lying upon the ground, and my neighbour’s children were trying their little sledges in the street, the police was immediately at hand, and I saw the poor little things fly as quickly as they could. Now, when the spring sun tempts them from the houses, and they would like to play with their companions before the door, I see them always constrained, as if they were not safe, and feared the approach of some despot of the police. Not a boy may crack a whip, or sing or shout; the police is immediately at hand to forbid it. This has the effect with us all of taming youth prematurely, and of driving out all originality and all wildness, so that in the end nothing remains but the Philistine.

    It’s not obvious to me why Goethe didn’t take up this issue of excessive policing with his very good friend Karl August, who as Grand Duke was pretty much the absolute ruler of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Still, an interesting remark, given the increasing constraints on childhood in our own present culture.

    What is also very interesting is that almost a century later, former Kaiser Wilhelm II made some rather similar observations in his memoirs:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Civil Society, Education, Germany, History, Human Behavior, USA | 24 Comments »

    The Great War and its Aftermath

    Posted by David Foster on 11th November 2018 (All posts by )

    Did you really believe that this war would end wars
    Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
    The killing and dying it was all done in vain
    Oh willy mcbride it all happened again
    And again, and again, and again, and again

    The Green Fields of France

    This haunting passage certainly expresses well what has become the common view of the First World War–that it was a war for no really valid reason, conducted with unforgivable incompetence. And there is little question that the War had a shattering effect on the societies of the major belligerents.  I’ve written about this in my post The Great War and Western Civilization (linking a thoughtful post by Sarah Hoyt) and also reviewed Erich Maria Remarque’s important and neglected novel The Road Back, which deals with the War’s impact on a group of young German veterans.

    Taking a contrarian viewpoint, historian Benjamin Schwartz suggests that maybe the British decision to enter the war wasn’t really so unreasonable:

    The notion, advanced by the German historian Fritz Fischer and some of his protégés, that there wasn’t much difference between the war aims of Wilhelmine and of Nazi Germany remains controversial. It’s clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for (along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia) the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a “vassal state,” and the German navy’s taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases—actions that would certainly threaten Britain’s naval security…

    Gary Sheffield’s book Forgotten Victory makes a similar argument about the necessity of the war, at least from a British standpoint.  The author argues that militarism was very strong in the German ruling circles and that there was no effective check on the Kaiser and the generals; he also describes the treatment of civilians in the German-occupied countries as having been in some cases pretty brutal:

    William Alexander Percy, an American volunteer with Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium, remembered seeing batches of Belgian workers returning from forced labor in Germany.  “They were creatures imagined by El Greco — skeletons, with blue flesh clinging to their bones, too weak to stand alone, too ill to be hungry any longer.”

    He also mentions, though, that one major difference between German policy in the two world wars was that the deportations during the First World War were halted in the face of international condemnation.  (It also seems unlikely that this kind of forced labor would have continued after the end of the war, had German won.  The Kaiser was unstable, a narcissist, and a militarist, but he was not a Hitler, at least at that point in his life.)

    Sheffield also challenges the claim of British military incompetence throughout the war…indeed, he argues that the British Army became a “learning organization,” and points to technological innovations (such as sound ranging…”the Manhattan Project of the 1914-1918 war”…and the instantaneous fuse) in addition to tactical improvements.  Finally, he suggests that the perception of universal disillusionment and cynicism in the aftermath of the War has been exaggerated by the writings of well-connected, highly-educated and highly-verbal people, and such feelings were less-common among the population as a whole.

    Sheffield has clearly done a lot of research, and makes his arguments well.  Still, it is hard to imagine that given the countries, technologies, and leaders of the time, any likely alternative could have been much worse than what did in fact happen.

    See also Sgt Mom’s Veterans Day post and the new post by Sarah Hoyt.

     

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, Germany, History, Military Affairs, USA, War and Peace | 15 Comments »

    At the Tomb of Couperin – Thoughts on a Centenary

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th November 2018 (All posts by )

    There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was over-age, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as a driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th Century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, Arts & Letters, Britain, Europe, France, Germany, History, Military Affairs, Music | 20 Comments »

    Tariffs, Trade, and the British Corn Laws

    Posted by David Foster on 8th October 2018 (All posts by )

    Stuart Schneiderman linked an article by Robert Samuelson on the 1846 British repeal of the tariffs on food imports, which further linked an Economist article arguing that:

    With the repeal of the tariffs, instituted to protect British corn farmers, liberal economic policies ascended. Free trade, free enterprise, free markets and limited government became the rule. And the world has not been the same since.  (Schneiderman’s summary)

    To me, it is highly questionable how much the elimination of tariffs had to do with limited government and internal free enterprise. The view that the British 1846 action was economically a very good thing for almost everybody is, however, generally accepted.  From the Economist article:

    The case for getting rid of British tariffs on imported grain was not a dry argument about economic efficiency. It was a mass movement, one in which well-to-do liberal thinkers and progressive businessmen fought alongside the poor against the landowners who, by supporting tariffs on imports, kept up the price of grain…When liberals set up the Anti-Corn Law League to organise protests, petitions and public lectures they did so in the spirit of the Anti-Slavery League, and in the same noble name: freedom. The barriers the league sought to remove did not merely keep people from their cake—bad though such barriers were, and strongly though they were resented. They were barriers that held them back, and which set people against each other. Tearing them down would not just increase the wealth of all. It would bring to an end, James Wilson believed, the “jealousies, animosities and heartburnings between individuals and classes…and…between this country and all others.”

    Again, this is all mostly generally-accepted thinking.  But Stuart’s post and the links reminded me of something I read–oddly enough, in a 1910 book on railroad history.  The author (Angus Sinclair) describes the transition to steel rails (from cast iron) and the heavier trains they enabled, and then discusses the political-economic impact of this transition:

    The invention of cheap methods of making steel rails has exerted a tremendous effect upon railroad transportation, and has created social revolutions in certain part of the world…It threw many farms in New England and along the Atlantic seaboard out of cultivation; it caused a semi-revolution in farming business in the British Isles, and strongly affected the condition and fortunes of millions of people in other countries.  Irish peasants used to go in thousands to England and Scotland to work in the harvesting of grain crops and thereby earned enough money to pay the rent of their small holdings.  Steel rails and Consolidation locomotives stopped the cultivation of so many wheat fields in the British Isles that the help of the Irish worker was no longer needed…

    The woes of Ireland were merely the preliminary manifestations of hardships inflicted through the grim ordeal of competition worked out by our cheapened  methods of land transportation.  (The heavier locomotive enabled by steel rails) is steadily forcing more grain raising farms of Europe out of cultivation and is raising a demand for protection against cheap land, just as our politicians have so long urged the necessity for protection against the cheap labor of Europe.

    About 60 years ago Great Britain abolished all duties on grain…By curious reasoning the statesmen believed that this policy would not only make the British Isles the manufacturers of the world, but that it would increase the prosperity of the agricultural communities as well.  The first thirty years’ experience of free corn did not seriously  challenge the correctness of the free trade theory, for more of the American wheat lands were yet unbroken prairie or virgin forests, and our steel rail makers and locomotive builders were merely getting ready…In 1858 the rate per bushel of wheat from Chicago to New York was 38.61 cents.  The rate today is 11.4 cents…

    The effect of that cheapening of transportation in the United States has been very disastrous to Great Britain, for during the last thirty years there had been a shrinkage of 3,000,000 acres in wheat and another of 750,000 acres in green crops; an enormous amount of land had reverted to pasturage…and the number of cultivators of the soil  had declined 600,000 in thirty years–1,000,000 in fifty years.

    That is a high price to pay for the devotion to a theory which fails to work out as expected.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Business, Capitalism, Economics & Finance, History, Ireland, Libertarianism, Taxes, Transportation, USA | 36 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: That Hideous Strength, by C S Lewis

    Posted by David Foster on 9th September 2018 (All posts by )

    That Hideous Strength, by C S Lewis

    This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner. There may have been a time in the world’s history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But, for him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.

    Mark Studdock is a young on-the-make sociologist, a professor at Bracton College, in an English town called Edgestow. He is is far more interested in university politics than in his research or teaching. and as a member of the “progressive element” at the college, he strongly supports Bracton selling a tract of property to a government-sponsored entity called NICE. The NICE is the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation,which Lewis describes as “the first fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world.”  What excites Mark most about the NICE is this:

    The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past.  One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old freelance science did, but what’s certain is that it can do more.

    Trigger Warning: There is something in this book to offend almost everybody.  It contains things that will offend technologists and believers in human progress…social scientists…feminists…academic administrators…bioscience researchers…and surely many other categories of people.  It will probably also offend some Christians, for the way in which Christian theology is mixed with non-Christian magic. By the standards now becoming current in American universities, this book, and even this book review, should be read by no one at all.  But for those who do not accept those standards…

    The Basic Story. Mark has recently married Jane, a woman with strong literary interests and with vague plans for getting an advanced degree. She has recently started having disturbing, indeed terrifying, dreams, which suggest that she has a clairvoyant ability to see distant events in real time. Afraid that she is losing her mind, Jane seeks advice, and is told that her dreams are actually visions, they are very real, will not stop, and are of utmost importance:

    “Young lady,” said Miss Ironwood, “You do not at all realize the seriousness of this matter. The things you have seen concern something compared with which the happiness, and even the life, of you and me, is of no importance.”

    Miss Ironwood warns Jane that extremely evil people will seek to use her gift, and that she would do well–both for her own interests and those of the entire human race–to join the community of which Miss Ironwood is a part, located at a place called St Anne’s. Jane responds quite negatively to the invitation, afraid that membership in the St Anne’s group will limit her autonomy. She is not interested in the dreams’ meaning; she just wants them to go away.

    Mark, on the other hand, responds enthusiastically when he is invited to take a position at the NICE, temporarily located at an old manor called Belbury.  One of the first people he meets there is the Head of the Institutional Police, a woman named Miss Hardcastle (picture Janet Napolitano), nicknamed the Fairy, who explains to Mark her theory of crime and punishment:

    “Here in the Institute, we’re backing the crusade against Red Tape.”  Mark gathered that, for the Fairy, the police side of the Institute was the really important side…In general, they had already popularized in the press the idea that the Institute should be allowed to experiment pretty largely in the hope of discovering how far humane, remedial treatment could be substituted for the old notion of “retributive” or “vindictive” punishment…The Fairy pointed out that what had hampered every English police force up to date was precisely the idea of deserved punishment. For desert was always finite; you could do so much to the criminal and no more. Remedial treatment, on the other hand, need have no fixed limit; it could go on till it had effected a cure, and those who were carrying it out would decide when that was.  And if cure were humane and desirable, how much more prevention?  Soon anyone who had ever been in the hands of the police at all would come under the control of the NICE; in the end, every citizen.

    Another person Mark meets in his first days at Belbury is the acclaimed chemist William Hingest…who has also come down to investigate the possibility of a job at Belbury, has decided against it, and strongly advises Mark to do likewise:

    “I came down here because I thought it had something to do with science. Now that I find it’s something more like a political conspiracy, I shall go home. I’m too old for that kind of thing, and if I wanted to join a conspiracy, this one wouldn’t be my choice.”

    “You mean, I suppose, that the element of social planning doesn’t appeal to you? I can quite understand that it doesn’t fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology, but–“

    “There are no sciences like Sociology. And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police run by a middle-aged virago who doesn’t wear corsets and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again…I happen to believe that you can’t study men, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything that makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors.”

    Nevertheless, Mark decides to remain at Belbury, and is drawn ever-deeper into its activities–which, as only those in the innermost circles of that organization realize, are not only consistent with the goals of the 20th-century totalitarianisms, but go considerably beyond them.  The NICE seeks to establish a junction between the powers of modern science and those of ancient magic, accessing the latter by awakening the medieval wizard Merlin and using him for their purposes.  At the same time, Jane–despite her reservations–becomes increasingly involved  with the company at St Anne’s and is entranced with its leader, a Mr Fisher-King. (His name comes from the Wounded King in Arthurian legend.)  The St Anne’s group is aware of the truth about NICE and its ultimate goals, and exists for the primary purpose of opposing and, hopefully, destroying that organization.

    I will not here describe the war between the forces of Belbury and those of St Anne’s (in order to avoid spoilers), but will instead comment on the characters of some of the protagonists and some philosophically-significant events in the novel, with appropriate excerpts. Hopefully this will be enough to give a sense of the worldview that Lewis is presenting in this book.

    Mark Studdock. His character is largely defined by his strong desire to be a member of the Inner Circle, whatever that inner circle may be in a particular context.  The passage at the start of this review where Mark agrees to engage in criminal activity on Belbury’s behalf is proceeded by this:

    After a few evenings Mark ventured to walk into the library on his own; a little uncertain of his reception, yet afraid that if he did not soon assert his right to the entree this modesty might damage him. He knew that the error in either direction is equally fatal.

    It was a success. Before he had closed the door behind him all had turned with welcoming faces and Filostrato had said “Ecco ” and the Fairy, “Here’s the very man.” A glow of pleasure passed over Mark’s whole body.

    That “glow of pleasure” at being accepted by the Belbury’s Inner Circle (what Mark then thinks is Belbury’s Inner Circle) is strong enough to overcome any moral qualms on Mark’s part about the actions he is being requested to perform.  Lewis has written a great deal elsewhere about the lust for the Inner Circle, which in his view never leads to satisfaction but only to a longing for membership in another, still-more-inner circle. In That Hideous Strength, there are concentric Inner Circles at Belbury, which Mark does penetrate–and each is more sinister than the last.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Anglosphere, Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Book Notes, Britain, Christianity, Civil Society, Conservatism, Crime and Punishment, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Leftism, Morality and Philosphy, Political Philosophy | 5 Comments »

    On Trusting Experts…and Which Experts to Trust

    Posted by David Foster on 30th July 2018 (All posts by )

    August 1, 1914. As Europe moved inexorably toward catastrophe, Kaiser Wilhelm II was getting cold feet at the prospect of a two-front war. When a telegram arrived suggesting that the war might be contained to a Germany-vs-Russia conflict, the Kaiser jumped at the opportunity.

    The telegram was from Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London, reporting on a conversation with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. As Lichnowsky interpreted Grey’s remarks, England would stay neutral–and also guarantee France’s neutrality–if Germany would confine herself to attacking Russia and would promise not to attack France. (Which was a misinterpretation–but more on that later.)

    Immediately, the Kaiser called in General von Moltke, the Chief of Staff, and gave him his new marching orders: turn around the troops destined for the attack in the west, and redirect them to the eastern front. Barbara Tuchman writes of Moltke’s reaction.

    Aghast at the thought of his marvelous mobilization wrenched into reverse, Moltke refused point-blank. For ten years, first as assistant to Schlieffen, then as his successor, Moltke’s job had been planning for this day, The Day, Der Tag, for which all Germany’s energies were gathered, on which the march to final mastery of Europe would begin. It weighed upon him with an oppressive, almost unbearable responsibility…Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser’s meddling with serious military matters, or with medling of any kind of the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunation lost in the midle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tacks at specified intervals of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.

    “Your majesty,” Moltke said to him now, “it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised…Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete…and once settled, it cannot be altered.”

    “Your uncle would have given me a different answer,” the Kaiser said to him bitterly.

    It was not until after the war that General von Staab–Chief of the Railway Division and the man who would have actually been responsible for the logistics of the redirection–learned about this interchange between Moltke and the Kaiser. Incensed by the implied insult to the capabilities of his bureau, he wrote a book, including pages of detailed charts and graphs, proving that it could have been done.

    So, what happened here? The Kaiser trusted his military expert, von Moltke–but the real expert in railway operations (and this was substantially a railway question)–disagreed. At the time of decision-making, von Staab’s personal opinion was never even solicited.

    Clearly, what the Kaiser should have said when faced with Moltke’s opposition was “Tell von Staab to get his ass in here, and let’s talk about it.” (Or however a German Emperor would have phrased that thought.) Indeed, there was particular reason to do this, given that the Kaiser evidently had some serious concerns about Moltke–as evidenced by his passive-aggressive “your uncle would have given me a different answer” comment.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Germany, History, Human Behavior, Management, Military Affairs, War and Peace | 17 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Nice Work, by David Lodge

    Posted by David Foster on 7th July 2018 (All posts by )

    Nice Work by David Lodge

    What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory?

    This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain.  It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox.  Vic is not thrilled when his boss  (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request.

    Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked.  The way the program works is that Robyn will be Vic’s “shadow,”  joining him at the plant every Wednesday, sitting in on his regular activities, and learning just a bit about what is involved in managing a business.

    Vic is a self-made man, not well-educated and with few interests outside work.  He is acutely aware of the danger that faces Pringle’s under the current economic climate, and is resolved that his factory will not join the long list of those that have been tossed on the scrapheap.

    There is nothing quite so forlorn as a closed factory–Vic Wilcox knows, having supervised a shutdown himself in his time.  A factory is sustained by the energy of its own functioning, the throb and whine of machinery, the unceasing motion of assembly lines, the ebb and flow of workers changing shifts, the hiss of airbrakes and the growl of diesel engines from wagons delivering raw materials at one gate, taking away finished goods at the other.  When you put a stop to all that, when the place is silent and empty, all that is left is a large, ramshackle shed–cold, filthy and depressing.  Well, that won’t happen at Pringle’s, hopefully, as they say.  Hopefully.

    Robyn and Vic dislike each other on first meeting:  Vic sees Robyn’s profession as useless, which Robyn sees Vic’s managerial role as brutal and greedy.  She is appalled by what she sees in her first tour of the factory..especially the foundry:

    They crossed another yard, where hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow, and entered a large building with a high vaulted roof hidden in gloom.  This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn had ever experienced…The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand.  The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof.  Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lave trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor…It was the most terrible place she had ever been in her life.  To say that to herself restored the original meaning of the word “terrible”:  it provoked terror, even a kind of awe.  To think of being that man, wrestling with the heavy awkward lumps of metal in that maelstrom of heat, dust and stench, deafened by the unspeakable noise of the vibrating grid, working like that for hour after hour, day after day….That he was black seemed the final indignity:  her heart swelled with the recognition of the spectacle’s powerful symbolism.

    But still:

    The situation was so bizarre, so totally unlike her usual environment, that there was a kind of exhilaration to be found in it…She thought of what her colleagues and students might be doing this Wednesday morning–earnestly discussing the poetry of John Donne or the novels of Jane Austen or the nature of modernism, in centrally heated, carpeted rooms…Penny Black would be feeding more statistics on wife-beating in the West Midlands into her data-base, and Robyn’s mother would be giving a coffee morning for some charitable cause…What would they all think if they could see her now?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Human Behavior, Management | 1 Comment »

    Extremely Cool, but…

    Posted by David Foster on 25th June 2018 (All posts by )

    A Gloster Meteor in flyable condition–the Meteor being Britain’s first operational jet fighter–has come to the US on a permanent basis.  The jet has been purchased by the World Heritage Air Museum, which is located near Detroit.  It will be at the EAA Oshkosh show this July, along with two other early British jets.

    The prototype Meteor first flew on March 5, 1943, and the type’s first use was against the V-1 cruise missiles that plagued London.  Meteors were sent to the Continent in early 1945, they were restricted in their operating area for fear of having downed aircraft captured by the Germans or the Soviets and were used for airfield defense and ground-attack missions.

    I believe this was the only flyable Meteor in the UK except for two owned by the Martin-Baker company and used to test ejection seats…as working aircraft these planes probably aren’t available for public display very often, if at all.  It’s great to have a Meteor in the US, but I would have thought that given this airplane’s historical significance, someone in the UK would have raised the money to keep it flying there.

    Posted in Aviation, Britain, History, Military Affairs, Tech, War and Peace | 5 Comments »

    A Neglected but Significant Anniversary

    Posted by David Foster on 10th May 2018 (All posts by )

    (rerun, with updates)

    ‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
    ‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
    When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
    And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
    When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

    (A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

    On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

    The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.

    If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

    This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

    First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.

    France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

    The French plan was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

    The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

    Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

    There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

    The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

    Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to some of the things that are going on in America today.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Europe, France, Germany, History, War and Peace | 24 Comments »

    180 Years of Transatlantic Steam

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd April 2018 (All posts by )

    On April 8, 1838, the steamship Great Western..the first steamship to be purpose-built for the transatlantic passenger traffic…left Bristol for New York City. Four days earlier, though, another steamship, the Sirius, had left Cork for the same destination. Sirius had not been designed for the Atlantic run; it was a small channel steamer which had been chartered by the rivals of Great Western’s owners. This competitive enterprise had encountered delays in the construction of their own Atlantic liner, the British Queen, and had chartered Sirius to keep Great Western from scoring a win in the PR battle. Sirius did arrive at New York first, on April 23, but Great Western came in only 12 hours later…its crossing of a little more than 15 days was the fastest ever from England to America.

    There were earlier crossings that had been at least partly steam-powered: the American ship Savannah in 1819 (which actually used only sails for most of the voyage), and the Dutch Curacao and the Canadian Royal William, which made their crossings in 1827 and 1833 respectively. But it was the Great Western vs Sirius race which marked the beginning of steam passenger and mail service across the Atlantic.

    The paddle wheels and auxiliary sailing rigs of the early steamers gave way to screw propellers and total reliance on steam, and reciprocating steam engines were later supplanted by steam turbines…which in turn have now largely been replaced by diesels and in some cases gas turbines. Aircraft carriers and submarines still use steam turbines, though, with the steam generation done by nuclear energy rather than the burning of coal or oil.

    Here’s the British actress Fanny Kemble, writing circa 1882, in annotation of her years-earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by slow communications between the continents:

    To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.

    (The quote is one of several passages cited in my post Further Fannyisms)

    Also: the ultimate development of the steam-turbine-powered passenger liner was represented by the SS United States. This beautiful ship has so far managed to avoid the the scrapper’s’ torches…the SS United States Conservancy is working to raise sufficient funds to preserve the vessel on an ongoing basis.

    Related: 301 years of steam power

    Posted in Britain, History, Tech, Tradeoffs, USA | 8 Comments »

    Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 17th March 2018 (All posts by )

    The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

    (This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

    Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

    In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

    Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Caslebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

    Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

    Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

    Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

    Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

    John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

    Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

    Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishman…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

    Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

    This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:  Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, History, Ireland | 1 Comment »

    2017 Reading, continued

    Posted by David Foster on 30th December 2017 (All posts by )

    Fed Up, by Danielle DiMartino Booth. Following a successful career on Wall Street, the author in 2008 took a job as an analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.  In this primarily-male organization, she did not experience discrimination on account of her sex…but she did face serious prejudice against her on account of not having a PhD.  Her take on the Fed is that is is far too theoretical in its approach and too limited in the backgrounds of its staff:

    Grasping the modus operandi of the Federal Reserve requires first anchoring in your mind two words: hubris and myopia.  We know better than you.  Only our models can decipher and predict the economy.

    The Fed’s battalion of economists–from the top down–believe that their training in the world’s top universities and their unique schooling in analysis gives them wisdom and insight, when in fact their training often blinds them to reality…Virtually no one I met at the bank had ever worked on Wall Street, managed a business, or handled their own investments.

    Indeed, her negative view of the Fed pretty much extends to the economics profession as a whole   Referring to a letter signed by 364 prominent economists in March 1981, which predicted disaster as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal policies, she approvingly quotes Geoffrey Howe, chancellor of the exchequer, to the effect that an economist was like “a man who knows 364 ways of making love, but doesn’t know any women.” She also cites a 1991 report by the American Economics Association which concluded that university economics programs “may be turning out a generation with two many idiot savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”

    One Fed official that she does speak of very highly is Richard Fisher, who was president of the Dallas Fed when she was there and was a noted critic of the way the quantitative easing program was carried out.  (He is now an advisor to Barclays and a member of the PepsiCo board.)

    Forgotten Victory, by Gary Sheffield.  This is basically a revisionist history of the First World War.  The author argues that–contrary to common opinions–the war, although tragic, was not futile, and that the British Army was not the incompetent organization as which it has often been portrayed, but rather was an institution which developed the ability to learn and to adapt:

    The (British Expeditionary Force) did not simply gape at the trenches with incomprehension in the winter of 1914-15.  Instead, British soldiers at all levels began a process of innovation and experimentation as the BEF rapidly began to adjust to the new conditions of warfare.

    If a unit bethought itself of some useful improvisation, such as a new method of firing rifle grenades, carrying rations or making ingenious loopholes combining a better field of fire with greater safety, details were collected and circulated by Army Headquarters. 

    One area of technical innovation cited by the author was in the artillery.  ‘Predicted’ bombardments, using improved calculation methods which accounted for variation in individual guns as well as such factors as wind speed, allow the preliminary ‘registration’ fires to be dispensed with or at least shortened, thereby increasing the element of surprise.  The instantaneous fuse, which triggered the burst before the shell buried itself in the ground, greatly improved the artillery’s effectiveness at cutting barbed-wire entanglements.  And sound ranging, which has been described as ‘the Manhattan Project of the Great War’, employed some first-class scientific minds and resulted in the ability to locate and destroy enemy artillery positions more effectively.

    More important than the technical and tactical points, of course, is the question of whether the war was really necessary at all.  The author argues that, at least from Britain’s standpoint, it was.

    This book probably deserves a stand-alone review and discussion thread.

    The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages.  I picked this up at a book sale…it is actually a children’s book, recommended for grades 5-8, but makes it good adult reading as well.  Dewey Kerrigan, a 10-year-old aspiring inventor, sets off on a cross-country train trip to be with her father, who is engaged in war work.  She is engaged in designing a radio when a fellow passenger, Dick Feynman, offers to help her.  They are both bound for the same destinations, Los Alamos.

    There is also a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace.

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Economics & Finance, History, War and Peace | Comments Off on 2017 Reading, continued

    A Tale for Children

    Posted by David Foster on 27th December 2017 (All posts by )

    The Christmas season, in combination with seeing the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me of a passage from the French author Georges Bernanos.

    In May/June 1940, Nazi Germany defeated the French army. Britain was forced to withdraw its troops at Durkirk–losing virtually all their heavy equipment. Few would have been willing to bet on Britain’s survival…after quickly devastating the (then highly-regarded) French army and demonstrating highly-effective use of airpower, Nazi Germany seemed unstoppable.

    In December of that year, Bernanos, then living in Brazil, wrote as follows:

    No one knows better than I do that, in the course of centuries, all the great stories of the world end by becoming children’s tales. But this particular one (the story of England’s resistance–ed) has started its life as such, has become a children’s tale on the very threshold of its existence. It mean that we can at once recognize in it the threefold visible sign of its nature. it has deceived the anticipations of the wise, it has humiliated the weak-hearted, it has staggered the fools. Last June all these folk from one end of the world to the other, no matter what the color of their skins, were shaking their heads. Never had they been so old, never had they been so proud of being old. All the figures that they had swallowed in the course of their miserable lives as a safeguard against the highly improbable activity of their emotions had choked the channels of circulation..They were ready to prove that with the Armistice of Rethondes the continuance of the war had become a mathematical impossibility…Some chuckled with satisfaction at the thought, but they were not the most dangerous…Others threatened us with the infection of pity…”Alone against the world,” they said. “Why, what is that but a tale for children?” And that is precisely what it was–a tale for children. Hurrah for the children of England! 

    Men of England, at this very moment you are writing what public speakers like to describe in their jargon as one of the “greatest pages of history”….At this moment you English are writing one of the greatest pages of history, but I am quite sure that when you started, you meant it as a fairy tale for children. “Once upon a time there was a little island, and in that island there was a people in arms against the world…” Faced with such an opening as that, what old cunning fox of politics or business would not have shrugged his shoulders and closed the book?

    Posted in Britain, Film, France, History | 16 Comments »

    2017 Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 20th December 2017 (All posts by )

    Some books I’ve read during the year and consider very worthwhile…

    Tom Jones and other works, by Henry Fielding.  Somehow I had never previously read Fielding (who wrote between 1728 and 1755)…now that I have, I am very impressed.  Interesting characters, clever and intricate plotting, many passages that are very funny, and the author, I think, shows great insight into human behavior.  (In addition to his literary efforts, Fielding served as a magistrate and is credited with establishing London’s first professional police force, popularly known as the Bow Street Runners.)

    Fielding sometimes breaks out of the narrative, most notably in Tom Jones, and addresses himself directly to the reader.  In one rather touching passage, he explains why he has taken the trouble to write the book–certainly for money, he says, but also “with the hopes of charming ages yet to come.  Foretel me that some tender maid, whose grandmother is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious name of Sophie, she reads the real worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall from her sympathetic breast send forth the heaving sigh”

    In addition to Tom Jones, I’ve also read his Amelia, Joseph Andrews, and the wonderfully-titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews. All are IMO well worth reading.

    Harmony, by Chicago Grrll Margaret Ball. This is a series, encompassing three books.

    With the development of interstellar travel, humanity had the chance for a fresh start. The colonization of a new planet was carried out with the explicit intent to create a society that would avoid the miseries of the past, that would be based on the principle of harmony.

    (Think about a society designed from the ground up by someone like Hillary Clinton.)  Of course, it works out about as well as utopian projects usually work out.)

    For those who don’t fit in to the Harmonious society, there is exile to a colony known as Esilia.  Book 1, Insurgents, is focused on the Esilian struggle for independence against the forces of Harmony.  Gabrel, a leader of the independence movement, seizes Isovel, daughter of the commander of the invading forces, as hostage.

    In Book 2, Awakening, the protagonist Devra is an unlicensed child, who never should have been allowed to be born.  In an attempt to overcome the stigma of her very existence, Devra makes a point of extreme conformity to Harmony’s rules and expectations.  But when one of her students is threatened with ‘medical rehabilitation,’ she finds herself questioning her role as a good Harmony citizen.

    In Book 3, Survivors, Harmony’s society is approaching collapse. Jillian, a soap opera star in holodramas, has been largely insulated from the impoverishment that is afflicting so many.  When a farm boy named Ruven comes to the city to plead for better terms for his dairy cooperative, she uses her acting skills to teach him how to appeal to the emotions as well as to logical thought.

    A Balcony in the Forest, by Julian Gracq.  In preparing for the German onslaught which actually came in May of 1940, the French general staff made some serious errors.  One was to view the heavily-wooded sector of the Ardennes as basically impassible by major forces.  Hence, the French did not fortify this sector to anywhere near the level of the Maginot Line sector, further to the southeast; furthermore, the troops sent to hold the Ardennes were mostly what one writer referred to as “class B divisions composed of middle-aged reservists.”

    The protagonist of Gracq’s novel is one of these middle-aged reservists, a dreamy sort of man named Lieutenant Grange, who is assigned to command a blockhouse and a small group of soldiers.  It is the period of the ‘phony war’, and Grange has a hard time believing that the war will ever become hot.  He finds that he loves the Ardennes, though, and his assignment gives him a great deal of satisfaction–especially when he meets a local girl named Mona and things develop rapidly between them.

    A strange, almost surrealistic book, with some beautiful descriptive writing.  A commenter at Goodreads remarked that the Ardennes is portrayed as “a mythic forest, by definition unreal, must also be indifferent to human beings- eternity doesn’t bother itself with trifles- and Grange is but a reclusive watchman on this magic mountain during this staggeringly brief period of months closing shut like the jaws of a wolf devouring a faun.”

    Available at Amazon, both Kindle and paperback.

    This post to be continued.

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, Space, War and Peace | 7 Comments »