Thursday, 12 November 2020

BOOK REVIEW - the Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill


This is yet another volume in Churchill's memoirs of the Second World War. It covers the German invasion of Russia and the entrance of the USA into the war. As with the previous volumes in this series it blends together the great events of history, isolated anecdotes and Churchill's personal experiences. And it does so very well indeed. We learn about his trips overseas by ship and by aircraft, and how he very nearly didn't make it on one occasion.

This is very much a personal account, but that just makes it even more interesting. We learn about shortages [or otherwise] of food and drink on this travels, whihc aircraft were comfortable, and which were not. Churchill tells us what he thought of the people he had to deal with - and is always very tactful. I really got the impression that he was telling us the unvarnished truth - and if the truth was not flattering then he did not tell it. 

I especially liked on anecdote about Montgomery. Monty was drafted in to command the 8th Army at the last minute when the chosen commander was killed. He had to be pulled out of the job that he was doing very successfully and bundled off to Cairo with almost no preparation. He was being driven to an airfield to be flown to North Africa with Alexander. Monty suddenly turned to Alexander and started talking about how desperately unlucky it was to be a successful general, commanding forces of men with talent and determination only to be suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by an unforeseen situation fraught with danger which would undoubtedly see the garlands of victory snatched from your shoulders as you are thrown into disaster through no fault of your own.  Alexander was taken aback by this sudden display of trepidation by the man being sent to command a major army in an offensive campaign. "Oh, come on," said Alexander. "Rommel won't turn out to be that bad." Monty stared at him in utter surprise. "I was talking about Rommel," he said. Great stuff!

Anyway, this is a highly readable book packed with observations and anecdotes that carries the reader along on a journey through a world at war. Buy it. Read it.

Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965) was prime minister of Great Britain from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. A prolific writer, whose works include The Second World War and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Legend of the Female Pope



The legend of the female pope comes in many forms and details vary considerably. However, as the tale is usually recounted it goes something like this.

Soon after the year 800 a girl named Joan was born into the Anglicus family of minor nobility at Mainz, Germany. Her parents being somewhat indulgent, the girl was allowed to study books as well as the more customary skills needed to run a household and bring up a family. She showed such talent for learning that she was permitted to acquire a small library and to attend lectures in theology and philosophy at the school attached to Mainz Cathedral. Fearing a minor scandal, and wary of their daughter's safety wandering about alone, Joan's family insisted that she dress as a boy and call herself "John".

As "John Anglicus" progressed through his teenage years her precocious talents were noticed and remarked upon. At some point "John's" parents died and she was free to continue her academic career in the guise of a man. In the 9th century such a career was generally open only to a monk or member of the clergy. Living cost money, and books were formidably expensive before the invention of printing lowered the cost massively. Only a rich person, or one supported by the Church, could hope to avoid the need to work for a living. "John" therefore entered the Church in order to continue with the academic work she loved so much.

"John" then moved to study in Athens, then a part of the Byzantine empire. everyone in Greece accepted "John" as a scholar from Germany. There was, however, one man who knew the truth. either in Athens or just before she left Germany, "John" met and fell in love with a fellow scholar. She revealed her true sex to the man and the two became discrete lovers.

Having learned all she could from the Byzantines, "John" moved to Rome where the greatest libraries of western Christendom were to be found. Her growing reputation as a scholar led to "John" being in demand as a lecturer and preacher. Her talks became famous for their erudition and humanity, attracting large and distinguished audiences.

When the reigning pope died, the clergy and people of Rome gathered to elect a successor. They unanimously chose "John Anglicus" to be the Bishop of Rome, and so the next pope. "Pope John" moved into the Lateran Palace and took up the reins of power. At first all went well, but after a short reign as pope, "John" fell pregnant. This rather inconvenient fact was covered up successfully as the pope pretended to be ill, but eventually "John" was forced to attend a service in St Peter's Basilica. As "Pope John" was riding in procession from the Lateran to St Peter's she passed down Via di San Giovanni.

Suddenly the Pope collapsed off her horse in pain. She suffered a late miscarriage, losing blood heavily and contracted an infection from the dirty street. Fever set in and within days she was dead. She had been pope for two years, seven months and four days.

The Catholic Church was horrified by the scandal. Those who had seen the pope collapse were bribed or intimidated into silence. The reign of Pope John was consigned to the past and the Church moved on to a new era under a new pope. A small statue of an anonymous woman was erected in the Via di San Giovanni, then it was neglected. The fact that a woman had once sat on the throne of St Peter was forgotten.

But, of course, such an important secret could not be kept hidden for ever. People who had been sworn to secrecy told their children about the day that they had seen a pope give birth. The official records may have been purged, but enough of the truth remained for later historians to notice discrepancies. For instance Pope John's immediate successors, who were in on the secret, never went down the Via di San Giovanni. And once that tradition was established later popes avoided the street, though they did not know why. The truth lived on in legends, rumours and misremembered facts.


Sources for Alexander the Great


The real problem when it comes to writing about Alexander is that none of these contemporary books has survived to the present day. All these books were lost when the Roman Empire collapsed. Instead we have to rely on the works of men who lived later, but who quoted from the contemporary sources or relied on them.



Of these later sources the most important are Arrian, Plutarch and Diodorus. Arrian was an admirer of Alexander who drew mostly on the books by Ptolemy and Aristobulous. He also had other sources, some of which were probably official government records. Arrian’s Life of Alexander is long and detailed. Arrian was a Greek who rose to be governor of Cappadocia in the Roman Empire. He wrote his book about the year ad110.



Plutarch was another admirer of Alexander. He wrote a shorter biography, but he put more effort into looking behind events to assess character and intentions. He based the outline of events on the work of Ptolemy, but also quoted from a host of other sources that are now lost. Many of the human interest anecdotes known about Alexander come from Plutarch’s work.



Writing about the year 50bc, Diodorus Siculus is the oldest surviving source on Alexander. Diodorus actually wrote a 40 volume History of the World, of which the exploits of Alexander form only a part of one volume. Diodorus preserves much of the work of Cleitarchus, and so is the main source for any stories that do not portray Alexander in a favourable light.



All these sources share a common problem when read today. They assume that their readers will know things that, today, we don’t. They did not need to set down detail on the weapons of the time, for their readers would have seen them for themselves. They did not need to explain how troops formed up for battle, as their readers would already have known.



Imagine a modern writer producing an account of the invasion of Iraq by the USA and its allies. He would not need to explain what a tank was, nor an aircraft. He would not need to explain that Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, nor that George W. Bush was President of the USA. All this he could assume his readers would already know. He could just get on with telling the story of what happened. But for a reader in the 40th century, unfamiliar with the situation, all this and much more would need to be explained for events to make sense.



For details of how battles were fought we need to look elsewhere than the biographies of Alexander. There are two main sources for Macedonian warfare. The first is Polybius, a Greek writer born in 204bc who later moved to Rome and wrote a “History of Rome”. Polybius also wrote a detailed work on military history, but this has not survived. Other writers quoted extensively from Polybius, and some of these books have survived. By picking and choosing excerpts from a dozen later books it is possible to reconstruct much of what Polybius had to say.



The second main source for military matters is Asclepiodotus, who was writing about a century after Polybius. His works have survived and include some very detailed information on weapons and tactics. Unfortunately for us, Asclepiodotus is writing about how the Macedonian system worked some 200 years after Alexander’s time. By that time terminology and practice had both changed and it is not always easy to decide which bits of what Asclepiodotus tells us are relevant to Alexander’s time.


The German Breakthrough in France, 1940


On the evening of 9 May Hitler and his entourage boarded a train outside Berlin. The staff were told they were going to visit the troops on a morale-boosting mission which would be filmed to be shown in the cinemas. Not until they arrived at Euskirchen did Hitler reveal what was really afoot. He had little choice because as they got out of the train a vast formation of Luftwaffe bombers thundered overhead, flying west.

In Britain the attack prompted a change of government. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Churchill. This event had little immediate impact on the fighting, but that would soon change.

Hitler, meanwhile, was receiving the reports from his commanders. He was most thrilled when he heard that the Eben Emael attack had succeeded - Hitler literally hugged himself. The parachute forces held on for 24 hours, until the two panzer divisions earmarked to invade Belgium arrived, crossed the intact bridges and motored west. Further north the parachute troops had also captured the bridges in Holland and had secured a position in the heart of The Hague, paralysing the Dutch government. These successes were vital to the plan. They convinced the French and British that the main German attack was coming in Belgium and caused them to march the bulk of their forces northwest to meet the threat.

Hitler’s eyes now turned south to where the massed panzer divisions were moving through the Ardennes. The main thrust was being made by Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps with Reinhardt’s XLI Panzer Corps on his right flank, both formations were under the command of von Kleist. To the north was the XV Panzer Corps under Hoth who, like Kleist, was responsible to Rundstedt who commanded the entire Army Group A.

Guderian reached the Meuse at Sedan on 12 May. As expected the bridges had been blown by the French, but the far bank was less defended than the Germans had feared. This was because the French had estimated it would take German infantry, marching and fighting on foot, at least nine days to reach the Meuse. French forces were, therefore, not by then in position. Guderian had identified a loop in the river near St Menges as being ideal for a forced crossing. The wooded hills on the German bank were ideal cover for massing his forces and allowed his artillery to dominate the far bank.

To make certain of success, Guderian called down a vast cloud of Stukas which pummelled the far bank on the afternoon of 13 May. As soon as the Stukas had delivered their loads, at about 4pm, Guderian sent his infantry across in rubber boats. By dusk a secure foothold on the far bank had been secured and by midnight the engineers had built a bridge across which poured the panzers. By the afternoon of 14 May Guderian’s entire corps was over the river and had crushed the French forces opposing them. There was nothing between Guderian and the English Channel except open space.

The next day Guderian linked up with Reinhardt and then with Hoth. There was now a massive armoured spearhead of seven panzer divisions thundering west with some 40 divisions of infantry following as fast as they could march. By dusk on 16 May the panzers were approaching the headwaters of the Somme.

The French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, was one of the few Frenchmen to appreciate fully the possibilities of tank warfare. When he heard that so many German tanks were over the Meuse he phoned Churchill. “We have lost the battle”, was Reynaud’s grim message. Having put down the phone to London, Reynaud picked it up again and sacked the French commander, the elderly Maurice Gamelin, replacing him with the more aggressive Maxime Weygand. The move was understandable, but Weygand was in Syria and it took him three days to reach his new command. They were to be three days of hesitation and confusion in the French high command.