History and events


BEDE 673-725

 
Thirteen hundred years since you were born
Whose quiet voice settled the date of Easter,
With your book history for the English
Was begun. After so many years
Familiar to us and venerable,
Like an old schoolmaster who taught the sixth
Form’s grandfathers, in a green and chalky gown.
The chieftains flickering outside your light
Found you a kind of Merlin, maker of runes,
No spell more binding this side the Wendel sea.
Sixty years almost on a spit of land
Above the Tyne! Northumbria bounded
By a wall the Romans built to keep out
Anarchy, the long ships of the Northmen
Would bring it in by sea.
Prayer, study, teaching was what you called
Commitment, in these ‘I ever took delight.’
To-day on Jarrow’s central square two figures
Stare from stone and both are Vikings.
Only destroyers need a monument.
The Church has placed you in her calendar.

— Frank McKay *

A LETTER FROM ROBERT GRAVES

 
By Courtnay Place, waiting for the lights to change,
A girl from a class I hardly knew
Slipped from the arm of her boy and held my thought
By the hands. Voice too urgent for greeting
She told how the poet of the three-fold
Goddess found time to write. Hair
Thrown to the wind, eyes blue with mystery,
She whispered his words:
                                ‘Heroes of truth
And innocence are almost gone. Watch for them.’

The southerly blew through her eyes, tears
Came. ‘No,’ she cried, ‘there are none,
Not even one.’ The lights changed and she left me.
Her dress brushed the noses of throbbing cars.

— Frank McKay *

(* “This small collection of poems by Frank McKay has been printed by several student hands to mark his retirement after twenty years as a member of the Department of English, Victoria University of Wellington.”)


Rumpelstiltskin

 
Meeting you again
after all this time,
I’m afraid I won’t like you
Rumpelstiltskin,
King of Compression,
Lord of Inanimate Things!
Why must you stamp
your jewelled words
into the ground at my feet?
I will spin straw
into gold for you
if I must, but know,
cantankerous wretch,
that, being woman,
I am the queen of all
that is transformed.
Little King of Straw, think!
It is I who make you great.

— Meg Campbell

Only My Woes

 
Being unusually happy these
past few weeks, I have stopped
talking to you, my friend–
there is little to say. How can I
tell you of the seemingly trivial
things that elate, or calm me?
‘Tonight, Venus lies close
to the new moon. Tonight
he smiled at me, and I remembered
how his eyes used to burn approvingly.’
I won’t tell you these things
because my happiness bores you
in a way that my misery never does.
By the flickering of your eyes,
I know that your mind is elsewhere.
Something tells me you wish
to hear only my woes.

— Meg Campbell
 

Dream on a Good Friday

a love poem

I slept, and woke
and slept again
and dreamed, inside your arms,
of two darkened figures
moving quietly towards
a brilliant screen.
I was surprised to see
that they were irises–
purple, and black, like secrets
buried in me. I cried out,
and you hushed my mouth,
and took the night watch
and the haunting left me.

–Meg Campbell

8.

For you
or memory of you
my mind writes letters
composing phone calls
things to say, as every day
is rescued, by patterns of its own

these days
the dawn is something
worth getting up for —
kahawai in the estuary
a new neighbour to meet
plans for moving south

but there’s still you
or memory of you

and messages with nowhere to go

–Pat White*

(* on the inside cover of the book:
Prospero:
“What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?”

— The Tempest: Act 1, Scene 2. )

Poems by obscure New Zealand poets, whose small, hand-set and printed volumes found in a Wellington second-hand bookshop.

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1914: “There was a time on the limits of two epochs in human history whence one could more easily see the end of that epoch which was closing than the beginning of the new one which was opening.”

“Stikovic was a born egoist and a monster, a man who could love no one and who as long as he lived, himself tormented and unsatisfied, would torture all those whom he deceived and who were near to him. Glasicanin did not speak much of his own love, but it was evident in every word, every glance and every movement. The girl listened to him, remaining silent for the most part. After every such conversation she felt more serene, more at peace with herself. For the first time after so many months she had moments of respite from her internal storms and for the first time succeeded in looking at herself as othes only an illusion even as her dream of love the previous summer had only been an illusion.”

——

“So be it, thought the hodja. If they destroy here, then somewhere else someone else is building. Surely there are still peaceful countries and men of good sense who know of God’s love? If God had abandoned this unlucky town on the Drina, he had surely not abandoned the whole world that was beneath the skies? But who knows? Perhaps this impure infidel faith that puts everything in order, cleans everything up, repairs and embellishes everything only in order suddenly and violently to demolish and destroy, might spread through the whole world; it might make of all God’s world an empty field for its senseless building and criminal destruction, a pasturage for its insatiable hunger and incomprehensible demands?”

“Anything might happen. But one thing could not happen; it could not be that great and wise men of exalted soul who would raise lasting buildings for the love of God, so that the world should be more beautiful and man live in it better and more easily, should everywhere and for all time vanish from this earth. Should they too vanish, it would mean that the love of God was extinguished and had disappeared from the world. That could not be.”

The Battle of France

The world was stunned by the French loss to the Germans in 1940. France, victor of the Great War, with what appeared to be the world’s second most powerful military (greater than Britain or the USA; second only to the Soviet Union), was defeated in a matter of weeks, scarcely more time that it took Hitler to conquer feeble Poland. Worse, the turning point on the battlefield, caused by the fatal encirclement of the bulk of French and British forces, took scarcely more than days.

The Germans themselves, Hitler included, were stunned by the rapidity of their victory. General Guderian, commanding the German army as it sped for the coast to cut off the Allies, on several occasions found himself arguing vehemently with his superiors in Berlin, once even threatening to resign. The reason being that they wanted him to slow down! The concept of a rapid penetration without the need for careful consolidation of the attacking army’s flanks defied conventional military logic.

The German High Command were right to be apprehensive. The strategy was a huge gamble. If the Allies had successfully attacked German lines of communication — which they failed to do in the early stages of the penetration, and came closer to success but failed again in a poorly co-ordinated two-pronged attack centred on Arras — the Germans themselves would have been encircled and annihilated.

Everything about German tactics and strategy was new. They had invented a new form of combined arms warfare, ‘Blitzkrieg’, which involved mixed formations, heavy in tanks, tightly integrated with mechanised infantry, mobile artillery and engineers, acting in close co-ordination with bombers and ground attack aircraft. Unlike the great battles of attrition of the Great War, Blitzkrieg put an emphasis on speed, penetration and encirclement. Like the Americans in recent years, they brought command and control to a new and vastly more sophisticated level. Every German vehicle had a radio and unit commanders were trained and authorised for independent action like never before.

The German army was already responding to situations before the French and Allied commanders were even aware of them. This doctrine was combined with the professionalism and ruthlessness of the Prussian military class, whom the Allies had failed to eradicate at the end of the Great War. The larger and seemingly more powerful Allied forces were hopelessly out-classed.

The pattern set by General Guderian’s smashing of the Allied armies would be followed around the world in the months and years to come, everywhere German and Japanese victories were marked by long lines of captured Allied prisoners. The Americans were overwhelmed at lightning speed by Japanese forces in the Philippines, Singapore fell to an army one quarter the size of its defending garrison, two hundred divisions of Soviet conscripts — around two million men — were killed, captured or scattered in vast encirclement battles on the plains of the Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

As in all the free countries, overwhelmed by the armies of Fascism, there were some individuals among the French whose courage broke. The French High command in particular were paralysed by what was unfolding. Generals wept. Troops went without orders. Some units became demoralised, but many others fought to the bitter end.

Despite the failure of so many of their senior commanders, on the battlefield the French fought and died for their country and freedom with honour and bravery. Nearly 100,000 French soldiers became casualties during the battle of France, and many more soldiers and civilians would die during the rest of the War. France was collapsing into confusion and despair, thousands of civilians were being killed, like those in the long lines of refugees deliberately strafed by Lufwaffe pilots, but even then, Frenchmen, alongside British and Commonwealth troops, fought a steadfast rearguard outside the port of Dunkirk, outgunned and without hope of rescue, while the Allied command tried to salvage enough of their army to maintain the fight against Germany, evacuating them off the beaches and piers while Hitler’s Stukas screamed overhead.

It’s bitter that so many remember only that the French were defeated. Had they not fought so tenaciously, even long after their defeat was certain, the Allies would never have been in a position to defeat Hitler. Had France fallen quickly, Britain would also have been defeated. Without Britain, and the British-occupied Middle East to her South, Russia could not have withstood the Germans.

The Marne and Verdun

It’s easily forgotten, with the exceptionally brutal behaviour of the Nazis in the Second World War, that Hitler was the second German tyrant to attempt to dominate the world, and that his murderous SS Divisions were the second army of Germans to commit shocking atrocities on a grand scale.The first tyrant was the Kaiser, and it was his massive army whose savage behaviour first earned the Germans the well deserved nickname of ‘Huns’. The ‘Huns’ attacked without provocation. They murdered civilians in the thousands as a deliberate act of terrorism. They brutalised, starved and enslaved the lands they occupied. They were finally halted, by the French on the outskirts of Paris, in 1914, at great human cost, to the benefit of the free world.

Australians and Americans justifiably feel a melancholy pride in our painful contribution to the preservation of freedom in the First World War, although our sacrifice was far less than that of the enormous expenditure of young lives endured by the British. In some places in Britain virtually every man between the ages of 18 and 30 was dead or maimed, whole generations were obliterated, millions of children would be raised in households shattered by war. Yet Britain herself suffered only around half the losses of the French.

The pain of the First World War may never be forgotten, certainly people will still speak of it for many centuries to come. But people forget that only twenty-one years after this nightmare had ended, the evil they sacrificed so much to defeat had risen again; and Frenchmen had to die to defend the world from Germans.

Omaha and Anzio

We all know about D-Day. It is probably the single most famous event in the history of the Second World War. The Allied forces, British, Canadian, Polish, Free French and (most importantly) American, undertook the largest and most complex military operation the world had then seen, to bring freedom to occupied Europe — beginning with France.

Our most vivid images of that day come from the American landing at Omaha Beach. It was the most awful of the D-Day beaches, an almost impossible position to attack with cliffs at each end and steep bluffs in between. Right in the centre of the assailable section of Normandy coast, it was the key to the German defensive strategy. It was also the most heavily fortified of the D-Day beaches. Thousands of Americans died in the sand and the surf trying to storm it, but it had to be done, because taking ‘bloody Omaha’ was essential to the success of the invasion. To succeed, both sides knew the beachhead had to be of a particular size, and the five attacking armies had to rapidly join up. Otherwise Operation Overlord would fail. The reason they knew this so clearly was because six months earlier, the American amphibious invasion at Anzio, on a much smaller beachhead, had been encircled by the Germans and had almost ended in disaster.

At that time, the Allies advancing through Italy were halted at the ‘Gustav Line’, a series of formidable German defensive positions built across mountainous country South East of Rome, anchored in the middle by the fortress of Monte Cassino. The Anzio landing had been an attempt at outflank this obstacle, but the Americans became trapped by an unbreakable ring of German armour and artillery.

Had they stayed on the beach, they would eventually have been annihilated. If they had tried to withdraw by sea, they would have been rapidly annihilated. America appeared to be facing her worst ever military disaster, and there was no way out.

But, just as America was preparing to launch the invasion across the English Channel and rescue France from German occupation, the French were instrumental in rescuing the Americans from this potential catastrophe. A few weeks before D-Day the Gustav Line was finally breached by Free French and Polish forces. To avoid a disaster of their own, the Germans rapidly withdrew to the Gothic Line north of Rome.

Rome was freed. The Americans at Anzio were saved.

Vive La France.

The French resistance in WWII

As part of the trend to downplay the French nation contribution to the defeat of Fascism, there’s a trend in some quarters to downplay the French Resistance’s actions during the Second World War; in particular by comparing them unfavourably to the activity of the Yugoslav and Soviet partisans.

The French Resistance, by any fair measure, should be seen as an extraordinary organisation.

The Yugoslav and Soviet partisans were armies. The Soviet partisans were basically Soviet troops, defeated in the great battles of encirclement of 1941, who had fled to Russia’s vast forests and marshes. Likewise the core of the Yugoslav partisans were also soldiers who, after the successful German invasion, had retreated to the mountains.

The French resistance was mainly composed of civilians, not defeated soldiers. Their extremely dangerous work was performed by ordinary French men and women, not operating from in inaccessible mountain hideouts, but risking their lives right under the noses of the Germans. The expected life span of a Resistance member was a matter of months, but many thousands of men and women took that risk, and their activities in rescuing thousands of Allied airmen, and disrupting German command and control were vital to winning the war.

Free French troops march through Rome

France didn’t have equivalent mountain or wilderness areas into which a defeated army could disappear, but the surviving remnants of the French Army nevertheless did continue the fight, by fleeing to England. By 1944, half a million French troops were fighting in the Free French forces. Free French troops had faced Tiger Tanks in North Africa, spearheaded the invasion of Southern France, saved the Americans from disaster in Italy, and made an important contribution to D-Day and Operation Overlord.

In the final scenes of Akira Kurosawa’s movie masterpiece ‘Kagemusha’, the huge army of Takeda marches forth to do battle with its feudal enemy. The Takeda clan’s old leader, the wise military strategist Lord Shingen, is dead, and everyone knows the army is doomed. They meet the massed musketeers of Tokugawa, who are protected behind earth and pallisade fortifications, and charge at them in three massive waves. One by one each wave is completely destroyed – killed to the last man.

This is an immensely powerful scene, involving thousands of extras, and evokes the tragic slaughter of so many battles — Waterloo, Gettysburg, The Somme, Omaha Beach. It especially brings to my mind the many battles of the Pacific War. In this vast amphibous offensive, in battle after battle from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, the Americans suffered extremely high casualties, up to 50 per cent in some cases. It says a great deal about the later battles that for every two American wounded, one man was removed from combat due to Battle Fatigue — in other words, these soldiers were being driven out of their minds by experiences they couldn’t endure.

In most of these battles the Japanese forces suffered 100 per cent fatalities. With the occasional exception of a few emaciated and shell-shocked prisoners, every Japanese soldier was killed. In some cases the men deliberately ended their lives in futile Banzai charges against superior American firepower. Those who were wounded commited suicide. The result, time after time, was the total annihilation of the Japanese defenders.

No other army in history has ever behaved like this.

Ironically, during the historical period in Japan portrayed in ‘Kagemusha’ — sometimes called the Warring States period — war was conducted according to rules, and there was never an occasion when a Japanese army was destroyed, not even nearly. The Takeda army was indeed defeated in battle, but suffered casualties of around 5 per cent. This was very light by the standards of our time and the 20th Century. Although ritual suicide was known in these days amongst the Japanese aristocracy, no army ever laid down its life en masse for its leader.

Honour and self denial

“Flowers dying gracefully on Hill 109, Will bloom again amid the Kudan trees”.
Last message from Major General Suzuki during the battle of Okinawa

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…”
Proverbs 18:21


Music Link

Some sad and pretty Okinawan music.
‘The Peppermint Tea House’
, Shoukichi Kina
Also available here as individual tracks.
Listen via Amazon.com to a fragment of:
‘Subete No Hito No Kokoro Ni Hanna O’

We blandly and somewhat misleadingly refer to the the Japanese variety of totalitarianism as Militarism, because it was mainly driven by Japan’s army and naval officer class, but Japanese totalitarianism was complex, both as an ideology, part political part mystical, and in the unusually leaderless, almost anarchic manner in which it came to power and operated.

Before the revolution of 1868, Japan was a Buddhist society ruled by the Samurai class, Oriental knights who followed a chivalric code a little like the knights of Europe, and quite similar to the Stoic philosophy of ancient Rome. Bushido or The Way of the Warror was a stern philosophy of loyalty, self denial and honour.

The Samurai held the power of life and death over members of the lower classes, but he was also protector of the weak, with a duty to be honest, fair and just. He followed a higher cause than his own self interest, and in principle he would willingly face death rather than betray his master, his honour, or those whose care was placed in his trust. The true Samurai was selfless, restrained, self-denying and unconcerned with wealth and luxury. You can see evidence of this last principle in the extremely simple living conditions of Japanese nobles at that time, even the Shogun himself.

The Samurai class was overthrown by the revolution, but their history and myths were not discarded. Instead they were skillfully rewritten to serve new ideological goals. It is a chilling testament to the demonic power of totalitarian propaganda that a philosophy with much in it that is commendable could be transformed, with great subtlety, into an ideology that produced one of the cruellest and most murderous regimes in history.

In place of honesty, cleverly crafted lies infused society, even within the ruling factions of the Militarist government. In place of justice and self restraint, untold millions of Asians — including women, children and infants — as well as hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners or war, were murdered, tortured and enslaved.

Instead of defending the defenceless, the Japanese population was placed on the front line — and when the time came, they were sacrificed in the hundreds of thousands. On Saipan, as the Americans advanced yard by gruelling yard, a stream of Japanese civilians — including mothers with children or holding babies — were hurling themselves off cliffs to their deaths. During the Battle of Okinawa, one quarter of the civilian population of this beautiful tropical island perished.

Honourable self denial was transformed into a fanatical desire for glorious self destruction. Young Kamikaze pilots, scarcely more than boys, drank cheerful toasts to their deaths before taking off in aircraft packed with explosives.

The stern code of self restraint had become an insane and fanatical nihilism

The Centurion

And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him,
And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.
And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.
The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.
For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew 8:5-9

If you brought a person from ancient Rome to the modern world — the kind of thing that happens in so many sci fi movies and TV shows — he would no doubt gaze with awe on our technological marvels and the amazing luxury of our daily lives. To him it would be so magical he might wonder if he had come to the land of his pagan gods. But if your time machine were to malfunction slightly, and you accidentally landed during one of the major wars of the 20th Century, your ancient man would say, ‘yes, this is the world I know.’

The brutal and bloody wars of the last two centuries would have been gruesomely familiar to him. Ancient people lacked our lethal technologies, but they lacked for nothing in the horror they inflicted on one another. Armies didn’t merely defeat their enemies — they destroyed them. Once routed an enemy would be pursued and massacred. Survivors and civilians would be sold into slavery.

This was the world that Christ came to heal.

And it was the world into which the early Christians were reborn, defenceless and despised. Like the Communists, National Socialists, Militarists and other totalitarians of our time, the Romans would have thought nothing of the mass murder of a religious minority if they imagined they might pose a threat to the authority of the state. They killed their military and political enemies with equal savagery.

The Centurion, who came to Jesus to selflessly beg healing for another man, would have been quite familiar with this sort of cruelty. Centurion was a high rank in the Roman Army. Low ranking Centurions were a bit like a Captain (in the American army, Major in the Australian army).

The Roman military was a harsh institution. Our Centurion says he has ordered men to come and go, but to have attained this rank he most likely had also led men in battle, perhaps during one of Rome’s civil wars, or against the Germans or Parthians, or in suppressing one of the many revolts that the Roman Empire experienced. He would probably have killed and ordered men to kill many times, and if he had been stationed in the Roman province of Palestine for any length of time, he would probably have killed Jews.

‘I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof’

Being an obviously thoughtful man, it’s quite possible that he was a to some degree a Stoic or influenced by that philosophy. Stoicism began among the Greeks and was widespread by Roman times. Like Bushido, it was a grim but honourable code befitting a militaristic society. A Stoic would seek to be virtuous, rational, self denying, just and honourable. He would be self controlled, not moved by emotion — his own or the emotional displays of others. He would try to endure misforture without complaint and would expect others to do likewise. He would be brave, would dislike weakness in himself or others, would try face death calmly, and like the Samurai follower of Bushido, he would commit suicide rather than face dishonour.

The warrior admires strength, because he understands that man is weak. As strong as he may seem alongside other men, he knows that the day may come at any time when he will look down in surprise at a deadly wound in his own body. That no matter how great Man appears, Death is greater.

After Christianity reached Rome in the early years of the Empire, the honesty, selflessness, faithfulness and bravery shown by the persecuted Christians had a profound effect on Romans of good character. Many or most of these would have been Stoics, and they must have seen in the Christians something they yearned for — not just a moral code they could admire, but the living spiritual power that the Stoic creed lacked.

The Stoics sought to cultivate inner strength to endure pain and death, but the Christians weren’t strong — they were meek and mild — yet they faced death and torment not just bravely, but cheerfully, sometimes ecstatically, with the power of Christ that is greater than Death itself.


For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
‘Death, be not proud’,
John Donne (1572-1631)

Poem also quoted here.

The modern Centurion


Music Link

‘Not of This World’, Zero Enmity
Listen
Download mp3

He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.

The Gospel of Saint John 12:25

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The Gospel of Saint Matthew 5:3-10

Let’s climb back in our time machine and return to our own time. We’ll leave Roman Man where he is, but there’s one part of his world we’ll find when we get back, and that’s his Stoic beliefs, or a deeply assimilated, modern version of them. They’ve worn a little over the years, and become less sharply defined, a little cruder even, but disembarking in Australia (or in most other parts of the English speaking world), we’ll be returning to a society in which Stoicism still makes up a big part of our character.

Modest. Uncomplaining. Unselfish. Discrete. Self controlled. These are modern Stoic virtues we all admire.

But the other side of Stoicism, as in Roman times, is its inner hardness. We despise failure and weakness, in ourselves even more than in others. Living in a world of safety and luxury, perhaps we forget — which the Centurion would never have done — that we are all weak.

And, worse, after thousands of years, our Stoicism remains a philosophy that raises death as one of it’s undeclared gods. The Stoic man, who does not grumble in adversity, confronted with a situation beyond his strength to endure — the farmer who loses his land, the businessman who loses everything, the father who loses contact with his children, the tormented soul whose demons have exhausted him — will often turn to death before he turns to others.

Or the confused young man, who sees nothing to live for, shuns intimacy with his family, declines to confide in his friends, and pilots his car like a Kamikaze.