Follow D-Day As It Happened

Dear Readers,

For those of you who are interested, I’ll be posting live updates from June 6, 1944 as they were reported by CBS radio beginning at 0250 CST on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. I’ll be doing it from my Facebook page which you can find here.

They will run for the first twelve hours of so of the invasion, or until the Facebook Nazis put my page in jail for too many posts.

L.H.

Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate

Robert

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar Jack

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar Jack

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore Jack

Faldee raldee raldee raldee rye eye ‘O

We are coming up on the end of another semester, a particularly trying one at that as I spent the first three weeks in the hospital after an emergency surgery, another week in the hospital in March, and I face another larger surgery as soon as it ends, but it is nearly over. I close my 1301 classes covering the Civil War which is something I sincerely enjoy teaching about, but it always makes me a bit melancholy now. In 2014 I lost one of my oldest and best friends unexpectedly. You can read what I wrote an hour or so after learning of his death here. I miss him quite a bit, more so when I’m covering our favorite subject in class.

Robert was my friend and comrade for neigh on 17 years. We met when I was in college and I became a Civil War reenactor. We served in the same unit during all that time and for a good chunk of it, we were the entire unit. Our impression was that of Union sailors during the War. He portrayed a grizzled petty officer and I the Master at Arms and later Ship’s Surgeon. (I also doubled dipped as an Army surgeon.) We traveled thousands of miles together, marched God only knows how many more, stood side by side in the ranks, worked artillery pieces, and shivered in tents while a cold rain fell outside. I never got much sleep as Robert snored loud enough to summon the dead.

But the best of friends must part, fair or foul the weather

Hand your flipper for a shake, now a drink together

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore Jack

Faldee raldee raldee raldee rye eye ‘O

I know he’s up there in Valhalla right now, no doubt enjoying a tin cup of grog around the campfire. I suppose I’ll join him when it’s my time, which is seemingly going to be sooner rather than later at the rate my body is falling apart. Last Monday when I received a phone call offering me a regular full time position as a professor, my first thought was “I can’t wait to call Robert.” And then it hit me. He isn’t here. But he knows, that I’m sure of. Time doesn’t heal the hurt that comes with the loss of a family member or friend, but it does make it more manageable. By teaching, I am helping keep his legacy alive as he touched thousands of lives over the years by sharing his knowledge and damaged a few ears playing the concertina.

So I won’t forget my old shipmate. Not ever.

L.H.

A Reader’s Life

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Dear Readers,

As I was contemplating my personal library today, I began to ponder the influential books I’ve read in my life; books that have changed the way I see the world around me. Now, my own books number around 2,000 physical volumes with several hundred more on the Kindle. I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many more that I don’t have personal copies of. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been ugly, and some have been in between. That said, a select handful have had such an impact on me that I still think of them and the lessons they taught me.

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The first great book I remember reading when I was in 4th grade was the award winning young adult classic Rifles For Watie by Harold Keith. It is an excellent Civil War story set in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Though I was already a Civil War enthusiast by this point in my life, this was the first Civil War novel that I remember reading. It taught me how a novelist can teach you as much as a historian can. I found myself drawn into the story and though I’ve read the book many times since then, I’ll never forget the first reading.

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When I was in tenth grade, I came across a copy of Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson in my high school library. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest World War Two novels ever written. What I like about it is how he manages to capture but the humorous and the tragic scenes that war brings. The back and forth banter between the young RAF pilots is so skillfully done that you don’t catch all of it the first time you read the book. It takes a second or even third reading to pick up on all the one liners. If I had to pick a writer who has influenced my own writing the most, I’d probably say it is Derek Robinson, not just because of this book, which I consider his best, but because of all the books in his RAF and also his RFC series.

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In college, I first read the three volume Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Yes, I know that Civil War historians take great issue with much of what you can find inside these volumes, but as a freshman in college, that was far from my mind as I read through Foote’s weighty tomes. Foote was a novelist writing history, and in his hands, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of those who lived through this tumultuous era in American history leapt from the pages and came to live within my head. Foote once said that historians can learn a lot from novelists. I took this to heart. Yes, I have a graduate degree in history and I guess technically I’m a historian (though I consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller), I am first and foremost, a writer. As such, Foote’s ability to bring these long dead individuals to life had an impact not just on my own writing, but on my teaching as well.

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Several years ago, I came across Bomber by Len Deighton. I was already familiar with both he and his work, but I had not read this particular book. It takes place in a 24 hour time frame as pilots prepare to bomb a German town. The town and its inhabitants also factor into the story and it builds to a terrifying crescendo. This novel taught me quite a bit about pacing and how to create and build suspense, even in novels that are not mysteries or thrillers. It also taught me the importance of careful research. Deighton made sure to get his facts right, and as a writer of historical fiction, I strive to do the same in my own work.

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I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry when I was in junior high. This book taught me how to create characters that appear real. When we think of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, we think of them as real people, not fictional characters. McMurtry was a master of creating a world and inhabiting it with realistic, believable characters. Far from being “just a western”, as my creative writing professor dismissed it as being, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows us that a book about a simple journey from Point A to Point B can be a masterpiece, which Lonesome Dove definitely is.

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund serves as a vivid reminder that history happens to real people, just like us. Also like us, they share all of the same emotions that we do. Though times may chance, human emotions do not and they are the link between us and those who came before. This book paints a portrait of ordinary lives disrupted by the Great War and does so on a broad canvas. The author also uses, whenever possible, the words of the individuals themselves to tell their stories. From this book, I learned the importance of letting the participants speak for themselves as they saw the events, I did not.

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Payback by Gert Ledig is a long out of print novel by a German veteran of the Second World War. The book begins like this: “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” It takes place over the space of an hour in a nameless German town and consists of very short chapters, each a vignette, of how a resident experiences an Allied air attack. It is at times humorous, but more often tragic and stomach churning. This book taught me the importance of not shying away from the more horrific aspects of writing about warfare. By sanitizing our history or cleaning it up, we do absolutely no justice to those who lived through the events.

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Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by John Michael Priest is, in my humble opinion, the best book written about a Civil War battle. The author delved deep into many an archive and though the book may appear disjointed to those who are not already familiar with the ebb and flow of the fighting around Antietam Creek, the reader experiences the battle in “real time” from the standpoint of the soldiers on both sides. If it is confusing at times, well, so was the battle. This book provides a valuable view from the ground, as it were. It is chock full of great quotes such as the Confederate artillery officer who, while under heavy fire, said to his aid “If I am killed, tell my wife I’ve never been happier in my life!” With this book, you really get a glimpse at the chaos and carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

This is not an all inclusive list, Dear Reader, as there are many others, but the above list are the best of the best. As you can see, some are fiction and some are not. So I ask you this: What books have influenced you as a writer, a reader, or as a person?

L.H.

Last Harvest of the Death Angel: 5 Hours of Horror, Franklin, TN

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Dear Readers,

November 30 marked the anniversary of one of the most horrific battles ever fought in North America. Some call the Battle of Franklin the Pickett’s Charge of the West. That is incorrect. Pickett’s Charge was the Franklin of the East. At Gettysburg, 14,000 men crossed a mile of open ground after a two hour artillery bombardment. The charge lasted around 50-55 minutes. At Franklin, 19,000 men crossed two miles of open ground straight into three levels of entrenchments. And it wasn’t just one charge, it was more like 15-17 and it lasted four five brutal hours.

Over night on November 29/30, 1991 when I was thirteen years old, I had a very graphic dream about the battle of Franklin from the point of view of one of the soldiers. In the dream, I knew it was Franklin because of what someone said. At that point in my life, I was a student of the Civil War, but my knowledge, though more than most 13 year olds (or adults for that matter) was still very general in nature. I started reading Bruce Catton when I was 8, for example. I’d never heard of the battle before this dream. Dear Readers, I’ve had the dream every year on the night before the battle since 1991. I’m 39 now and just a few days ago, I had the dream yet again. You can read my written description of it here

I have visited Franklin and when I close my eyes, I see the whole thing played out in front of me again. I do not know why I have this dream. I had several brave ancestors who fought in this battle. Do they have the ability to pass on their memories to us via DNA? Or is it something else? One thing it is not, Dear Reader, is a figment of an overactive imagination because I wrote down the dream at age 13 and it has never changed. And remember, I didn’t know a d–n thing about this battle when I had the dream. But I digress. On my Facebook page on November 30th, I posted firsthand quotes from participants in the battle and probably drove my non-history friends crazy. I set out to do that again here, for those who know me not on Facebook. I’ll also throw in some more that I did not put on Facebook as I didn’t have to time post non-stop all afternoon, though I really wanted to.

I do not propose to describe the tactical decisions, etc, that led up to this battle. I only want you to read the words of the participants and understand this battle for what it was…..obscene and vile. No words of mine could EVER do justice to those brave souls who bled and died here.

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The Carter Cotton Gin. The Confederate attack in this sector was described as “Glorified suicide”. 

“The men seemed to realize that our charge on the enemy’s works would be attended with heavy slaughter, and several of them came to me bringing watches, jewelry, letters, and photographs, asking me to take charge of them and send them to their families if they were killed. I had to decline as I was going with them and would be exposed to the same danger.” Chaplain M’Neilly, Quarles’ Brigade

“It is ominous, and I fear our men are going to be annihilated. Our bands played ‘Dixie’, ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’, and ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. This was the first and only time I ever heard our bands playing on the battlefield and at the beginning of a charge.” — Dr. Phillips, Surgeon, 22nd MS Infantry

“Then the order rings out against the din ‘Fire left oblique boys! Fire left oblique! They are bearing down on our left!There is now a wall of blazing guns all along our front. Men are dropping all along the line. Every second someone is killed. We are loading and firing until the gun barrels burn our hands.” — W.A Keesy, 64th Ohio, Conrad’s Brigade

“My color bearer was shot and the flag dropped. Colonel V.P. Greene grasped the flag staff and said ‘Damn! I’ll carry the flag. Look to your own company.’ Colonel Greene carried the flag through the fight without a scratch. They were killing and wounding our men so fast the order ‘Charge!’ was given. We raised the Rebel Yell and moved in double quick time.” — Lt. Mintz, 5th Arkansas Infantry, Govan’s Brigade

“We ran about 50 yards back and were reforming when a cannon ball took off my right foot. The same ball passed through two other men and wounded Beaumont and myself. We were in a very exposed place and could not move, the dead and wounded were all around us.” Joseph Thompson, 35th Alabama Infantry, Scott’s Brigade

“The ditch was full of men…..dead, dying, and wounded. If I ever prayed earnestly in my life, it was then.” Capt. Rea, 29th Alabama Infantry, Sears’ Brigade

“Go back and tell them to fight! Fight like hell!” General Wagner, 2nd Division 4th Corps, US. (Reported to be “vaingloriously drunk at the battle)

“The force and wind of the grape and canister would lift us clear off the ground at every discharge. As the great clouds of smoke had to some extent vanished, I could look around me and saw to my surprise, I was left alone in the ditch within a few feet of the battery which was still pouring forth it’s messenger of death, and not a living man could be seen standing on my right, nor could one be seen for some distance on my left. They had all been swept away by that mighty tempest of grape, canister, and rolling waves of lead and fire.” John M. Copley, 49th TN Infantry, Quarles’ Brigade

“The ravings of the maimed and mangled were heart rending. Crazed with pain, many knew not what they said or did. Some pleadingly cried out ‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’ while others agonizingly were shouting ‘We surrender! We surrender!'” Sgt. Banks, 29th AL Infantry, Shelly’s Brigade

“We charged up to the works. We used bayonets, butts of guns, axes, picks, shovels, and even…. [Colonel] Opdycke picked up a gun and clubbed with it.’ J.K. Merrifield, 88th IL Infantry, Opdycke’s Brigade

“About 9pm, a large body of the enemy in our front who were lying low and did not dare to go back begged for quarter and were allowed to come in. The only instance when I heard Johnnies beg for mercy.” Lt. Mohrmann, 72nd IL Infantry, Strickland’s Brigade

“Kind reader, right here my pen and courage and ability fail me. I shrink from the butchery.” Sam Watkins, 1st TN Infantry (writing in his 1882 memoir Co. Aytch.

“Call it glorious to die a horrible death, surrounded by an awful butchery, a scanty burial by enemy hands, and then total oblivion, name blotted out and forever forgotten—where is the glory?” Capt. James A. Sexton, Illinois Infantry

So there you have it, Dear Readers, a few quotes from a few brave men from both sides who fought at Franklin, only to have their memory and sacrifices largely forgotten as the battle faded into memory, known only today by true Civil War enthusiasts. Part of that is because the veterans, especially the Confederate veterans, did not wish to speak of the horrors they witnessed here. My great-grandmother’s grandfather fought at Franklin. He lived well into his 80s and so she knew him quite well as a girl. She said he could talk about “stacking Yankees up like cordwood” at Kennesaw Mountain and the first day at Shiloh where they overran Federal positions and “smote them hip and thigh.” But when asked about Franklin, which lay only about twelve miles from his home, all he could do was weep.

I’ll stop there, Dear Reader. I do not know why I have such a strong, visceral connection to this battle. Or why I can see it unfold in my head. Or why each year on the eve of the anniversary, my mind dredges it up in the wee hours of the morning. Bruce Catton once said that “We are the people for whom the past is forever speaking.” Mr. Catton is right on that point. The quotes above come from a few places, Eyewitnesses to the Battle of FranklinThe Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, and Co. Aytch. Though I close here, below I will list my family’s Roll of Honor from this battle.

Hutch

Roll of Honor

19th TN Cavalry

Buford Hanks Fitzgerald

48th TN Infantry

Daniel Fitzgerald

Francis Marion Fitzgerald

Uriah Galloway

Aaron Thomas Vestal

Charles W. Vestal

James Vestal

Josiah Franklin Dugger

William L. Dugger

1st TN Infantry

Haywood Taylor

John L. Jacobs

Thomas Henry Jacobs

33rd AL Infantry

Elisha Potts

George W. Potts

14th TX Cavalry (Dismounted)

Hewitt Rather

Nathaniel Houston Rather

2nd TN Infantry

Thomas Fleming

 

Pass the Pint, London Can Take It

Friends, Romans, Countrymen,

Yesterday I was interviewed by my esteemed colleague Dr. AJP. You can read my interview here if you’d like. It consists of how I came to teach history and what projects I’m working on. One of the questions asked specifically about my blog and I had to admit it has been some time since I’d put words on the internets. Far too long. My problem is that I have the attention span of a 6 month old baby. I’ll write religiously for a month or two and then I’m like “Oh…..look…..shiny things!” and next thing you know a few months have gone by without a post. I don’t have a good excuse, so I won’t waste your time giving you a bad one. In the interview, I do mention my novel project which as you may recall was the subject of a four part series I wrote. You can find the first article here and sort of take it from there.

Properly chastened, I sallied forth this morning to try and find a worthy subject of which to write. Truth be told, the subjects are worthy of a better writer than I, but I digress. Normally I make a pointed effort to not discuss current events on my blog. It isn’t that I don’t have opinions on things, of course I do, but I don’t really think you’d be interested them. However, today I will break my rule a tiny little bit, only because it is what inspired what I decided to write about.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the terrible tragedies to strike Manchester and London. Nothing I can say would bring comfort to those mourning the loss of a loved one. However, a certain picture making the rounds on social media caught my eye and sparked today’s topic. I chuckled when I saw the photo of the gentleman racing away from the scene of the London attack with his pint. Given drink prices in London, I don’t blame him. But it also speaks to something else. Something deeper.

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On this, the eve of the D-Day anniversary, we in the United States should remember that before we entered the war, and even before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the British stood alone against Hitler. The Germans hit London hard. At one point, German bombers flew over the city on 57 consecutive nights. People lost their homes and their lives. Over 1 million British homes were damaged or destroyed and half of all British deaths took place in London. Add to that 1,000 British firefighters who died in the line of duty.  In October of 1940, the British government commissioned a short film called London Can Take It. It was primarily aimed at an American audience to reassure them there was no chance of the British giving up. To quote Churchill, the “full fury and might of the enemy” was indeed turned upon them and the British public emerged from the darkness and carried on into a future which saw IRA bombing campaigns and now attacks by Jihadis.

It also reminded me of an audio file I listened to of a Lancaster crew over Germany in 1943. The same spirit of the man carrying the pint can be heard in their voices. “They’re firing at us now.” “Are they?” “Yep.” The boys in Bomber Command were in their late teens and early twenties. They came from all over the Commonwealth. Australians crewed planes alongside South Africans, Welshmen, Canadians, and Scots. Night after night they flew over blacked out German cities bristling with vipers nests of searchlights and Flak batteries. Night fighters prowled the skies looking for them. Nearly half of all Bomber Command crews were killed in action. The odds of finishing a tour of 30 ops in 1943 or 44 were long indeed, yet they kept calm and carried on (a phrase coined by Churchill during the Blitz). These men had gigantic balls made of steel.

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The same spirit which saw the British through the dark days of the Second World War and the dark days of IRA attacks in British cities from the 70s-90s will no doubt see them through their current situation. You will never defeat a country where people think to save their pint in the midst of unspeakable horror. You will never defeat a country where people, night after night, listen to German bombs raining down upon them with no thought of surrender. You will never beat a country willing to stand up to the Nazis alone. The resolve of the British people is, quite simply, unbreakable.

Hutch

 

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 3)

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Dear Readers,

As I share my journey in writing my book, I thought I’d take the time to share a little about the research process. You can read the other parts of this series here: Part One & Part Two.  My previous completed novel is a mystery, and since I was an investigator, I know something about solving crimes. As my latest work is historical fiction, I thought it worthwhile to say a few words about how the research process works for me.

The past is like a foreign country. It has its own language, culture, and living conditions. I find it best to approach it in that way. Now, I have always had a healthy interest in the past. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve been reading about the past since I was five years old. That’s when I checked out my first book from the library and it just so happened to be a history book. I’ve been held captive ever since. I have a personal library of 2,000 books and the largest single subject is World War Two. Both of my grandfathers were veterans of this war. My grandmothers’ brothers all served as well (one was killed). All of my grandparents’ friends either served in the war or went through it on the home front, so in a way I was surrounded by it as a child. I studied history in college not because I planned on actual doing anything with it (I was happily a fireman in those days) but because I enjoyed the subject. The same goes for my graduate degree in History. Then I changed teams and became a police officer, still with no plans to use my degree, though I started teaching part time as an second job way back in 2004. I never would’ve guess I’d get hurt. I’m still teaching, and it is still part time because I’ve been told I’m not “full time material”. But I digress.

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My book deals with two interconnected pieces of the war. First, is the bomber offensive against Germany, particularly that waged by the British. Thankfully there are some excellent books and documentaries on the topic. I start at the time and read general World War Two histories, then general books about RAF Bomber Command, and finish off with specific books written by people who flew Lancaster bombers over Germany. I have also consulted books on the British Home Front. Start broad and finish specific. The second piece of the book deals with the German Civil Defense system, particularly the fire brigades and how they coped with devastating fire bombing raids. This proves a little more difficult to research as there is not a large amount of material in English. For this aspect, I use interview notes I’ve complied while speaking with those who experienced the war in Germany as civilians, including some who served in the Luftschutz and/or the fire brigades. These interviews were conducted long ago, and long before I decided to write a book. I also read general history books about Nazi Germany, then books specifically about Berlin during the War (and there are some great ones), and finally the published recollections of German civilians. I’ve also uncovered some excellent training videos done by the German government to instruct civilians how to respond to incendiary bombs. For the sake of comparison, the study of the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz and of the British ARP and Civil Defense system has been important too.

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Bomber Boys. 45% of all RAF Bomber Command aircrew were killed in action.

In some ways, I feel as though my entire life has been one big study session and this novel is my final exam. In that case, I hope I pass. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. Writing is a difficult enough undertaking, but with historical fiction I feel a solemn obligation to get it as “right” as I can. I feel I’d be doing a great disservice to the men and women who lived through this tumultuous period in our past if I fudge the truth. Maybe that’s asking too much of myself. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction where the author is so knowledgeable that they can’t help but dump massive amounts of information in a single paragraph to the detriment of the story. To help resist that urge, my motto is : “Storytelling first”. Tell the story and weave the history around it, do not weave the story around the history. But get it right, nonetheless.

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My book is divided into four parts. It takes place over the space of 36 hours and there are four main characters, one male and one female in England and the same in Germany. (There are, of course, a host of secondary characters who dance across the pages. Some for longer than others.) Each chapter is from the point of view of one character and each part has eight chapters. This is how part one is structured:

Part One: Afternoon, Sunday, November 21, 1943

Chapter One begins with Flying Officer Michael O’Hanlon, 22, as he finishes up his weekend pass with his fiance Grace. He has one more mission to reach his 30th which will give him a spell off of operations and an assignment to a training unit. They have plans to marry then. His reason for a weekend pass? The previous Wednesday he brought his plane back from a night mission over Germany with a dead top turret gunner, a dead wireless operator, and a seriously wounded navigator. His Lancaster received heavy damage and his crew got the time off to allow for repairs and to allow for replacement crewmen to be found. Now he will fly his last mission with half his crew inexperienced.

Chapter Two begins in Germany where Oberwachtmeister Karl Weber is teaching a class to a new draft of recruits. These aren’t military recruits, however. Karl is a veteran member of the Berlin Fire Brigade. One of the few men with experience still around owing to the constant drain on German manpower in Russia. Even Karl served during the early days of the war before a wound allowed him to resume his civilian occupation where he’s served since 1929. His recruits? Four young Hitler Youth boys 15-6 years old. Full of love for their Fuhrer and a belief in their own invincibility. The other four recruits are four young women who range in age from 17-20. It will be with these kids that Karl and the three older men at the station must wage a very different war than that waged by Michael O’Hanlon. While one drops bombs, the other tries to save lives amidst the rubble. Both are scared, yet they do their jobs anyway.

Chapter Three follows Grace Robinson,21, the daughter of a doctor and the only surviving child now that her brother, a Commando, was killed at Dieppe, as she leaves Michael at the train station. She can tell something is wrong with him, but she doesn’t know what. They haven’t known each other for long, just a few months, really, but she desperately wants him to return after his next mission so they can get married. Grace has not told her father of her plans to marry, much less her plans to marry an Irish Catholic from Belfast. She also harbors a deep secret, one which is alluded to, but that she won’t speak openly about. Should she tell Michael before they marry? Grace wanted to tell him while he was on leave but decided not to burden him with it before his next and hopefully last flight. Grace understands as much about Michael’s war as any civilian could. She was in London during The Blitz and knows firsthand the power of bombs. To that end, she and Ursula might get along if their countries weren’t at war.

Chapter Four introduces us to Ursula whom we briefly met at the end of Chapter Two. She’s a serious, redheaded German girl who lives on the edge of Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin. Her parents are dead. Frau Muller died in an accident in 1937. Herr Muller, a Social Democrat who referred to the Nazis as ‘Hitler and His Circus Clowns’ died of a heart attack on the day Germany invaded Poland. This was perhaps for the best as he was spared the deaths of his two sons, both killed on the Eastern Front. Ursula got those telegrams instead. She works as a telephone operator and shares a small apartment with two other young women, also phone operators. But she nurses her own deadly secret. We follow Ursula as she delivers forged identity papers to a group hidden in a warehouse. They have another assignment for her tomorrow night. Pick up a pistol and deliver it. She leaves the warehouse, in the middle of the blackout, and reaches her apartment building as the air raid sirens begin to howl in the distance.

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Each of these chapters are taking place simultaneously. The next block of four chapters which finish up Part One pick up where each of these chapters leave off. My working title is So Others May Live though I am also strongly considering A Terrible Symphony which was how reporter Edward R. Murrow described a night trip over Berlin in a Lancaster ten days after this story takes place. Which one do you like best? Since I’m not finished with the book, I’d not wedded to any particular title.

Many thanks to you all for sharing this journey with me. I do not know everything there is to know about World War 2, but I do know a lot. I’d be more than happy to help anyone with their war related questions and I place my library at your disposal. If you’d like to know specific titles I’ve found useful whilst researching my novel, please ask and I’ll forward you a list.

Hutch

 

 

The Forgotten Great War: World War One in Africa

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German colonial troops in East Africa

Friends,

I often say that in some ways, World War One is a largely forgotten war here in the United States. Our troops were only in combat for the final nine moths or so of the war and our casualties, though high for such a short time, were nowhere near as high as the European powers. However, it was a world war and as such there were other theaters. Imagine: cavalry riding zebras instead of horses, columns of men marching through the jungles or plains, gunboats steaming up and down the great African lakes. That sounds like something from a Tarzan movie! But it all really happened. I wish I could dive into the subject and tell you all sorts of tales of midnight raids and pitched gunboat battles while soldiers and sailors dodge crocodiles, snakes, and hippopotami, but time and space prevent me from hitting this subject with anything more than a glancing blow. I can’t fully tackle this subject, but I can give it a flesh wound.

World War One was in many ways a colonial war. Competition for overseas colonies was a big contributing factor to the growing antagonism between Germany and England. When Germany unified in 1871, they set out to become an overseas power since they equated, just like the United States would do, colonies with economic and military power. The problem for the Germans is that much of the world was already spoken for. The British got into the game early and established themselves as the dominant colonial power. Remember the old adage: “The sun never sets on the British empire”. (It is, of course, because God doesn’t trust the British in the dark.) The resulting “Scramble for Africa” in the late 19th Century resulted in Germany carving out a piece of the only real continent with any territory up for grabs. When it came to imperialism, native peoples were never consulted as to their wishes, of course. The Europeans came to Africa to “civilize” them and to “Christianize (ie: Protestantize) them. This was done without regard to existing tribal cultures. But that’s always been the dark side of imperialism.

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Sengalese troops in the Sudan.

In his masterful work (seriously…..it is history that reads like an adventure novel), Byron Farwell notes that though Irishman Earnest Thomas is credited as firing the first British shots of World War One, that is, in fact, incorrect. The first shot was fired by an unknown black soldier in a British uniform in Togoland a week earlier. While a marker notes the spot where Thomas fired his shot, no marker commemorates the actual spot where the first British shot of the war was fired. In other words, Africa was in the war from the beginning. Both sides used African troops and the British also used other colonial troops from India during their campaigns. There were several full scale military operations that took place. The warring powers considered this theater important enough to devote substantial resources to it. There are some really great pictures out there of black soldiers wearing German uniforms, Indian troops marching through the jungles, men on zebras, etc. I was always a fan of the old Tarzan movies (mainly because Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) was not only hot but she had a great Irish name.

The main German commander in East Africa was General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He was, quite possibly, Germany’s most able commander of the entire war. With his invasion of British territory, he was the only German commander to invade sovereign British soil. The thing is, he never really lost! He only surrendered upon being informed of the armistice. His operations are considered one of the best (and most successful) examples of guerrilla warfare in history. After the war, he returned to Germany to a hero’s welcome. In the 1930s, Hitler offered him an ambassadorship. The General’s response was fairly blunt. He is alleged to have said “Go f—k yourself.” In the 1960s, a reporter asked his nephew if he really said that to Hitler. The nephew replied “Yes, but I don’t think he put it quite so nicely.”

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Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: The Lion of Africa

The human cost of the Great War in Africa is difficult to gauge. Since both sides used colonial troops and also civilian carriers, their record keeping was not up to the same standards as elsewhere. It is estimated that over a million Africans died, not just from the war itself, but from starvation and disease that often accompanies large scale conflict. The war laid waste to large parts of German East Africa and also some of the British territories as well, just as it did in France and Belgium. In our current centennial celebrations relating to World War One, we must remember to think of the brave African troops who fought on both sides in far away and forgotten campaigns.

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German troops hanging out with executed “thieves”.

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Beware the Zebra Cavalry! (Actually a horse disguised as a zebra.)

And friends, if you will allow me a moment to editorialize, I would like to point out that there is still a war raging in Africa. The Great Congo War (also known as the African World War) has been ongoing (off and on) since 1998. MILLIONS have died in the Eastern Congo and the world has paid no attention to it. If this had been happening in a country full of white people……well, it would never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Though Africa was far from peaceful before the Europeans showed up (tribes fought tribes on a regular basis), the decolonization process in Africa has been very rough in some areas, though it has gone well in others. Remember, it was in the same Congo which sees so much violence today that the Belgians waged what can only be called a genocidal campaign in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Our government cares so much about ISIS yet pays no attention to Boko Haram in Nigeria other than passing references. We stepped in to stop ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, but cared little about the slaughter that took place in Rwanda. Africa and all her people matter, regardless of what the Western Governments might think.

Here are some GREAT books on World War One in Africa.

The Great War in Africa by Byron Farwell

World War One: The African Front by Edward Paice

Hell, CNN even wrote an article here.

Check out the World War 1 in Africa Project here. (It has a great story about a WW1 German gunboat that is now being used as a ferry!)

And last but not least, if you want to raise your awareness of colonialism in Africa in general, take a look at The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. For a great look at the current “world war” in Africa, read Africa’s World War by Gerard Prunier.