Tag Archives: Remembrance Day

Canadians and the Battle for Hong Kong

Map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, December 1941, by C. C. J. Bond / Historical Section, General Staff, Canadian Army - Stacey, C. P., maps drawn by C. C. J. Bond (1956) [1955].

Map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, December 1941, by C. C. J. Bond / Historical Section, General Staff, Canadian Army – Stacey, C. P., maps drawn by C. C. J. Bond (1956) [1955].

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 11, 2016

On this day 75 years ago, 1,975 men, and two female nurses, of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were steaming across the East China Sea in the New Zealand liner-turned-troop ship, SS Awatea.

This small rough-hewn and makeshift expeditionary force was bound for the British colony of Hong Kong and the Awatea was escorted by the armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert, a hastily converted merchant ship mounted with guns left over from the First World War. Somewhere, chugging along behind after leaving Vancouver a few days after the main force’s departure on October 27, was the freighter SS Don Jose, carrying the regiments’ 212 vehicles.

With war with Japan looming, the first instinct of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had been to leave Hong Kong to its fate. But he changed his mind, and made the belated decision to reinforce the colony’s defences. He believed this would deter the Japanese armies lurking just over the colony’s northern border with China’s Guangdong province.

 

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Canada agreed to rustle up troops to bolster the Hong Kong garrison, then comprising about 12,000 men from a mishmash of units. Among them were only three top rank infantry units: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots, the British Army’s most senior infantry regiment, and two highly regarded Indian regiments, the 5th Battalion of the 7th Rajput Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment.

The only warplanes at Kai Tak Airport were some ageing torpedo bombers, and the Royal Navy’s once indomitable China Squadron was reduced to a destroyer, a few gun-boats, a flotilla of torpedo boats and two minesweepers.

Much has been written in the years since 1941 about the lack of preparedness and training of the men of the two Canadian regiments. While it is true they had no combat experience, unlike the battle-hardened Japanese they were about to meet, they were far from being raw recruits. They were put under the command of the highly experienced professional officer, Brigadier John Lawson, whose last position before the deployment had been the army’s Director of Military Training. Moreover, many of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers were veterans of the First World War.

Six weeks before the battle, a Canadian contingent arrives to reinforce the garrison. Government of Canada archives, Public Domain

Six weeks before the battle, a Canadian contingent arrives to reinforce the garrison. Government of Canada archives, Public Domain

In the weeks that followed the Canadians’ arrival in Hong Kong on November 16 they proved yet again that this country produces unrivalled infantry soldiers. And they made the defence of Hong Kong not only one of this country’s premier battle honours, they forged an indelible bond between Canada and Hong Kong.

Over 550 of the Canadians died in the battle for Hong Kong and in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps afterwards. An equal number were wounded. Of those killed, 283 are buried in the lovely and haunting Sai Wan Bay Cemetery in eastern Hong Kong Island, just below the jungle-covered hills they defended longer than anyone thought possible. Since then, of course, other bonds have formed between Canada and Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have become Canadians in response to Britain handing back the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. And hundreds of thousands of Canadians spend at least part of their lives living and working in Hong Kong.

The arrival of the Canadians on November 16, 1941, prompted the British commander, Gen. Christopher Maltby, to change his plans for the defence of the colony. He had proposed to leave only a token force on the mainland peninsular of Kowloon and the New Territories, and to concentrate the defenders on Hong Kong Island. Maltby now decided to deploy three battalions to defend the mainland territory along the famous “Gin Drinkers’ Line,” an 18 kilometre stretch of trenches, bunkers and machinegun emplacements.

A Canadian signals unit was assigned to this brigade, but Brig. Lawson’s two Canadian battalions and the British machinegun battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, became the core of the Island Brigade on Hong Kong Island. Brig. Lawson’s headquarters was set up roughly in the middle of the island on Wong Nai Chong Gap Road.

The next three weeks were the lull before the storm. There remained some hope, though not much, that the reinforced garrison would deter the Japanese. And there was among senior officers and colonial officials a dangerous underestimation of the audacity and fighting ability of the Japanese military.

That insouciance collapsed on December 7 when the Japanese attacked the United States fleet in Pearl Harbour. So the Hong Kong defenders were alert and ready the next day, December 8, when the Japanese came pouring across the border from China.

Gen. Maltby hoped to be able to hold the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line for a week or more. At this point there was still some expectation of relief forces being hurried from other British Asian outposts, but that hope died when two ships heading from Malaya were sunk. And the hopes of holding the line across the New Territories vanished equally quickly.
Japanese fighter aircraft quickly established air superiority by destroying the few Royal Air Force planes and seriously damaged Kai Tak Airport along with them. This, as much as any of the actions in the battle, made the outcome inevitable.

On December 9 the Japanese showed just how serious was Maltby’s underestimation of their tactical fighting abilities. They launched a night-time attack on the Shing Mun Redoubt, the strategic hub of the Gin Drinkers’ Line, and captured it after heavy fighting.

The next day, “D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent from Hong Kong Island to bolster the defences, but on December 11 Gen. Maltby decided the Gin Drinkers’ Line could no longer be held. He ordered the withdrawal of the Royal Scots, the Rajuputs and the Punjabs down the Kowloon Peninsula and over to the island. This was covered by the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the troops along with most of their heavy equipment were successfully evacuated to Hong Kong proper.

The defences of Hong Kong Island were immediately reorganised. Canadian Brig. Lawson was put in command of the West Brigade, made up of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Royal Scots, the Punjabs and the Canadian signallers. The East Brigade was commanded by British Brigadier Cedric Wallis and comprised the Royal Rifles of Canada, and the Rajput Regiment. The Middlesex Regiment was under the command of Gen. Maltby at Fortress Headquarters.

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Wikipedia

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Wikipedia

The Japanese demanded the surrender of the defenders, and when this was rejected they began an artillery bombardment of the north shore – the Victoria Harbour side – of Hong Kong Island on December 15. After another rejected surrender, the Japanese troops began crossing the harbour on the evening of December 18, and after another successful night-time action were firmly entrenched on the island the following morning.

The Japanese troops then began committing the atrocities for which they became notorious throughout the Pacific War. About 20 gunners from the artillery Sai Wan battery, who had surrendered, were executed. The Japanese went on that night to kill the medical staff and wounded soldiers at the Salesian Mission hospital on Chai Wan Road. Among those killed were a Canadian doctor and two wounded men of the Royal Rifles.

Over the next days of the battle the Japanese continued to kill medical staff, wounded soldiers and prisoners as they were captured. Well over a hundred civilians and prisoners are believed to have been killed by the Japanese during the battle, and many more were killed deliberately or through murderous ill treatment while in captivity during the rest of the war.

On Hong Kong Island, the Japanese troops quickly took control of high ground from Jardine’s Lookout, above Causeway Bay and on the road to Brig. Lawson’s headquarters on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road, to Mount Parker in the east, on the approaches to Tai Tam Reservoir.

Brig Wallis then ordered the East Brigade to withdraw towards the Stanley Peninsula, which extends from the south-centre of the island, and from where he hoped to launch a counterattack. Unfortunately, crucial arms and equipment were lost during the withdrawal, and communications between the two Brigades were cut as the Japanese pushed through to reach the island’s south coast at Repulse Bay on December 19.

East Brigade had been seriously mauled and depleted in the course of the fighting. The Rajputs were virtually wiped out defending the island’s northern beaches against the Japanese invasion on December 18. There were some surviving units of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and some machinegun units from the Middlesex Regiment. The men of the Royal Rifles of Canada were exhausted, had had little sleep and had existed on field rations for several days.

Even so, over the following few days East Brigade led by the Canadians, attempted to drive the Japanese off the high ground and to re-establish contact with West Brigade. They first pushed along the shore from the peninsula to Repulse Bay, and managed to drive the Japanese from the famous Repulse Bay Hotel.

But the Royal Rifles were unable to drive the Japanese from their dominant positions in the hills, and had to withdraw to the Stanley Peninsula. Another attempt was made on December 21 to link up with West Brigade with a more easterly push towards Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. In heavy fighting the Royal Rifles managed to dislodge the Japanese from several of the jungle-clad hill tops. But the Canadians could not hold the positions, especially after they ran out of mortar ammunition.

On December 22 volunteers from the Royal Rifles made a night-time attack and captured Sugar Loaf Hill on the approaches to Stanley Peninsula. The Canadian troops were exhausted, while the Japanese had been reinforced and received supplies of arms and ammunition.

Brig. Wallis ordered the remnants of his command to withdraw to Stanley Peninsula, which the Brigade defended until the end, including a fierce action with many losses on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile the West Brigade was also heavily mauled after the Japanese successful amphibious attack across the harbour on December 18. On December 19, “A” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was ordered to clear the Japanese from their dominant position on Jardine’s Lookout and to then move on to retake Mount Butler en route to Tai Tam Reservoir, with the intention of reconnecting with East Brigade.

The initial attack was successful. Thirty troops led by 42-year-old Company Sergeant-Major John Osborn, an Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1920 after serving in the Royal Navy in the First World War, seized Mount Butler. But the group was quickly surrounded by Japanese troops, who lobbed grenades into the Canadian position. Osborn caught several of the bombs and threw them back. But then one landed just out of his reach. He shouted a warning and threw himself on top of the grenade, which exploded and killed him. After the war Osborn was awarded the Victoria Cross and there is a monument to him in Victoria Park, just above Hong Kong’s Central business district.

On the same day, December 19, a large detachment of Japanese troops surrounded Brig. Lawson’s headquarters on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. A company of Royal Scots attempted to break the encirclement, but were unable to do so. Late in the morning, with the Japanese firing into the command post from almost point-blank range, Brig. Lawson sent a message to Gen. Maltby that he was “going outside to fight it out with the Japs.”

Lawson, armed with two revolvers and with two of his officers, including his deputy Col. Patrick Hennessy, at his shoulders, rushed outside. All three were killed instantly.

A British colonel from the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps was appointed to command West Brigade.

“D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers held out around the Wong Nai Chung Gap Road position for three days and only surrendered after they had run out of ammunition, food and water. The Japanese found only 37 wounded Grenadiers in the captured emplacements.

Meanwhile the remainder of the Grenadiers, together with the Royal Scots, elements of the Middlesex Regiment and what was left of the Indian battalions formed a defensive line centred on Mount Cameron and running from Victoria Harbour at Wan Chai to the south coast near Aberdeen Harbour. The defenders were under constant attack from dive bomber aircraft and mortars for three days, before the left sector above Wan Chai was breached by the Japanese.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers held their position on Bennet’s Hill near Aberdeen until mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, when Gen. Maltby decided further resistance was futile and ordered the surrender.

For the captured Canadians, the horrors did not end there. Their treatment in prisoner camps in Hong Kong and Japan was atrocious. Almost as many Canadians died in the prison camps over the next four years as died in the battle for Hong Kong.

There is, however, a poignant postscript to this story.

On August 30, 1945, British Admiral Cecil Harcourt arrived in Hong Kong on his flagship, aircraft carrier HMS Colossus, to take the surrender of the Japanese and set up an interim military command. On Harcourt’s immediate staff was a Canadian of Chinese heritage from Victoria, Commander William Law.

Twenty years ago I spent two days with Law in Hong Kong, where he had set up as a lawyer after the war, married a local woman and raised his family. As Law recalled it, Harcourt, very much aware of the role of the Canadians in the defence of Hong Kong in 1941, delegated Law to be one of the first ashore.

The day after their arrival, Harcourt delegated Law to find the prisoners of war, who were being held in terrible conditions in former British barracks at Sham Shui Po on the Kowloon side. Law told me he took two Petty Officers, went over to Kowloon on the Star Ferry and marched up to the Peninsula Hotel, where they confronted the Japanese Chief of Police. He was persuaded to give Law and his men a car and a driver who knew the way to the camp.

When they arrived at the gates of the camp the Japanese guards levelled their rifles at the car. Law ordered the Petty Officers to aim their pistols out of the car windows and the driver to burst through the gates.

They did, and once inside Law went to the first barracks building on his left. He went into the darkened room and several of the prisoners from the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers looked up at him, but didn’t react.

“I guess they saw an Asian-looking guy in a uniform and thought I was just another Japanese officer,” Law told me.

“So I said, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you know a Canadian when you see one?’”

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Poppy: medicine, or opiate?

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ALEX KENNEDY 
November 11, 2016

This is a poppy.

It’s a symbol.

It can be used to get people to remember multiple horrific events in our history, and try to talk about, unpack, and reflect upon them, and break apart our insidious myths about war.

Or it can be used to fetishize certain horrific incidents, elevate certain players with thought-terminating cliches about how “Solemn” or “Sacred” all this is…. and completely obliterate the relevance of other horrific events on our history.

Some people who wear this symbol on their chests do so in good faith.

Some people who wear this symbol on their chest do not.

Some literal properties of the poppy:

It can be used to help cope with pain.

It can be used as a drug.

Too much of it is poison.

If understood wisely it is medicine.

© Alex Kennedy 2016

12473838_10153313958817308_2484724313123505070_oAlex Kennedy is a writer, artist, artisan, activist, and former member of the Canadian Armed Forces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Related on Facts and Opinions:

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A Week of Facts and Opinions

Above, Turkish soldiers and paramilitary guard the border with Syria in September as Kurds seek refuge from Islamic State fighters. Photo by  Heike Hänsel via Flickr, Creative Commons

Above, Turkish soldiers and paramilitary guard the border with Syria in September as Kurds seek refuge from Islamic State fighters. Photo by Heike Hänsel via Flickr, Creative Commons. 
Readings: an essay arguing the siege of Kobane is a battle for a stable Middle East (free*), and Jonathan Manthorpe’s column, War on Islamic State caliphate boosts the birth of Kurdistan (paywall*)

Our schedule at Facts and Opinions in the past week has been packed, with a special series each on the fall of the Berlin Wall and Remembrance/Armistice Day, in addition to our ongoing work. Here’s our stellar lineup, below.

Next week, look for new columns by Jim McNiven, Tom Regan and Jonathan Manthorpe, and a careful selection of reporting and features on some of the most interesting news items in the world — work you’ll find only in F&O’s independent, employee-owned journalism boutique. There will also, of course, be an update on the European deep space probe Rosetta. (See our blog post, Rosetta: love astride a comet.)

Lastly, scroll down for a few items elsewhere that caught our interest this week, from Jon Stewart on “citizen journalism,” and the stark silence of Bill Cosby when confronted by a NPR interviewer with allegations of sexual assault, to an important ProPublica piece that nails the perilous state of the global economy.

We won’t waste your time, and we appreciate your support. 

Mrs. Clooney rushes to the rescue of Greek culture. By Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

It had been a tough day interviewing victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities, and it was with great relief that I slumped down in a chair in the hotel bar in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and ordered a beer. Through the window I could see the sun shimmering red as it sank through the torpid, tropical air hanging over the Tonle Sap tributary of the Mekong River. I was the only non-Asian in the bar, which was humming with the chatter of rich locals and visiting businessmen from other parts of the region, who had come to see what spoils there were to be harvested in a country just emerging from decades of war. … read more (paywall).

The Real ‘Game-Changer’ was not in Beijing. Has the ‘Anglosphere’ lost its Mojo? By Chris Wood (paywall)

Once upon a time an amalgam of rigorous, inquisitive candor about the physical world, and a deep delusion about superior racial entitlement, delivered control of two of the four continents that were up for colonial grabs in the 18th century to Britain. Britain’s legal and political philosophy, its English language, and to a large extent genetic descendants of its families, dominate North America and Australia to this day. Europeans, Latin Americans, and others outside this socio-political clan have resented their exclusion and berated the ‘anglo’ model of cut-throat corporate permissiveness — what used to be called laissez-faire and is now re-branded for global distribution as neo-liberalism. That fewer descendants of Empire persist in their delusions of racial superiority is a welcome development. But it’s worrying to see the Anglosphere also abandoning its realism about the physical world. … log in to read more (paywall*)

Out of the Saddle, Playing Papa to a Super-baby: Glenn Ford. By Brian Brennan (paywall)

John Ford with Rita Hayworth, in 1945. Publicity photo

Glenn Ford with Rita Hayworth, in 1945. Publicity photo

The line was, “Martha Clark Kent, are you listening to what I’m saying?” It was scripted for Glenn Ford, playing a Kansas farmer named Jonathan Kent in the 1978 movie Superman. A spaceship containing the baby Superman had just crash-landed in the Kent wheat field and the farmer’s wife – played by Phyllis Thaxter – was suggesting they keep the apparently orphaned boy as their own. After a brief exchange about the pros and cons of doing this, the farmer put his foot down. … read more (paywall*)

Time to end religious holidays in public schools. By Tom Regan

Recently the Board of Education in the Virginia suburb of Montgomery County (which is just outside DC) faced a dilemma. A group of Muslim parents were pressing the board to add religious holidays that would allow Muslim children to observe the important days to their faith without missing any school. On the surface, I have no problem with this. If we’re going to allow Christian students to observe Christmas, and Jewish students to observe holidays like Yom Kippur, then it only makes sense that we allow Muslim students to observe their religious days. But I do confess I wonder where will this end? .. read more

Evolutionary insights underscore need for new natural-world taxonomy. By Ben Holt and Knud Andreas Jønsson

A cat is, of course, a cat. Lions are cats too, as are leopards, lynxes and so on – the “Felidae” family contains 41 species in total. But what about other closely related species such as hyenas or mongooses? These animals are not in the cat family: they are cat-like “Feliformia”, but are in their own separate families. So why are some species grouped together in the same families and others separated into different families? It might surprise you to learn that there is no general answer to this question, despite the fact that we now know a lot about evolutionary relationships for groups like mammals. Science has moved on and so should the way we classify life on earth. … read more

Carolus Linnaeus's first, or 1735, edition of Systema Naturae is the "In the Beginning" text of animal and plant classification. Shown is a scam of Table of the Animal Kingdom (Regnum Animale).

Carolus Linnaeus’s first, or 1735, edition of Systema Naturae is the “In the Beginning” text of animal and plant classification. Shown is a scan of Table of the Animal Kingdom (Regnum Animale).

Siege of Kobane a battle for a stable Middle East. By Karthick Manoharan

Events in Kobane disprove Islamophobes who believe the Middle East to be incapable of progress and politically correct Islamophiles who push the patronizing idea that religious identity is a top priority for Muslims the world over. In their readiness to defend the Yazidi minority against persecution from Islamic State, the Kurds have essentially been promoting a radical secularism and a vision of tolerance in a region torn by religious strife. What is novel about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination is its very definition of self-determination. … read more

Interstellar’s spectacular view of hard science. By Alasdair Richmond

In Interstellar’s near-ish future, our climate has failed catastrophically, crops die in vast blights and America is a barely-habitable dustbowl. Little education beyond farming methods is tolerated and students are taught that the Apollo landings were Cold War propaganda hoaxes. Against this unpromising background, a former space pilot receives mysterious directions to a secure facility. Therein, he finds the American space agency NASA’s last remnants devoting dwindling resources to sending a spacecraft through a new-found wormhole mouth orbiting Saturn.   .. read more

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, Paramount, publicity photo

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, Paramount, publicity photo

In case you missed them earlier this week:

FOCUS ON THE BERLIN WALL:

BERLIN, 1989: A Photo-essay  NEW
GREG LOCKE

History still waits for the Fat Lady to sing (Paywall) 
JONATHAN MANTHORPE

Critical Assembly: A Drama Critic Remembers Berlin (Paywall) 
BRIAN BRENNAN

Children born just after the Wall fell were lower achievers 
ARNAUD CHEVALIER AND OLIVIER MARIE

Graffiti Interpretations of the Berlin Wall 
GAVIN KENNEDY

Postcard from Poland as the Iron Curtain lifted  
ROD MICKLEBURGH

Remembrance Day in St. John's, Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 2014

Remembrance Day in St. John’s, Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 2014

FOCUS ON REMEMBRANCE  

Remembrance, in photos   
GREG LOCKE AND DEBORAH JONES

‘JACK’ and ELEANOR NASH
MICHAEL SASGES

Why I prefer to remember Remembrance Day  
TOM REGAN

A philosopher asks: what do we owe the dead?  
JANNA THOMPSON

Body counts disguise true horror of what wars do to bodies 
TOM GREGORY

Recommended elsewhere:

In NPR Interview, Bill Cosby Declines To Discuss Assault Allegations

Bill Cosby, in 2004. Photo by Jeffrey Putman via Flickr, Creative Commons

Bill Cosby, in 2004. Photo by Jeffrey Putman via Flickr, Creative Commons

In an NPR interview with Bill Cosby that aired today on Weekend Edition Saturday, the comedian discusses the loan of 62 pieces of African Art for an exhibition in Washington, D.C. But, there’s one thing the 77-year-old actor would not comment on: accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him.

The Real Roots of Hedge Fund Manager Rage (For the “Serious business” file)

by Jesse Eisinger, ProPublica

On the “fake” economy and paranoia of hedge-fund managers:

 … corporations have spent the post-crisis years engaged largely in financial engineering. The largest United States corporations took 91 percent of their earnings from 2003 to 2013 and plowed them into buying back their own stock or paying out dividends, according to William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.   

There has been a corporate shift from making investments for the long-term health of the company and the economy toward cutting jobs and elevating share prices, with the end result of increasing top executives’ compensation, Professor Lazonick says. Nobody can say how long this can go on. But it’s not sustainable.

Experience: I founded my own country (For the “Quirky” file)

By Renato Barros, the Guardian

 My father wasn’t a king, he was a taxi driver, but I am a prince – Prince Renato II, of the country Pontinha, an island fort on Funchal harbour. It’s in Madeira, Portugal, where I grew up. …  

In 1903, the Portuguese government didn’t have enough money to build a harbour port, so the king sold the land to a wealthy British family, the Blandys, who make Madeira wine. Fourteen years ago the family decided to sell it for just €25,000 (£19,500). It was of no use to them. But nobody else wanted to buy it either. I met Blandy at a party, and he told me about Pontinha. He asked if I’d like to buy the island. Of course I said yes, but I have no money – I am just an art teacher.

A Finding, last but not least:

Jon Stewart Jon Stewart: ‘Evil is relatively rare. Ignorance is epidemic.’

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique of slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. We appreciate your support: a day pass is $1 and subscriptions start at $2.95 per month.

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Focus on Remembrance

poppies-8

LONDON — Poppies spill out of the Tower of London in the installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, officially opened August 5. The project, by British ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, will fill the tower’s dry moat with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a British or Colonial military fatality during WWI. The last poppy will symbolically be planted 11 November 2014. (Photo handout)

On November 11, 1918, the guns of World War I fell silent on the Western Front. The end of the Great War was, so many participants swore, surely  the end of all wars. It was, of course, hubris; less than a generation later most of the world launched itself into World War II. But November 11 has become the day, in much of the world, to remember. In these pages you’ll find some Facts and Opinions about a day known by many names. Whether Remembrance Day, Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, or Independence Day, it’s a day to pay homage to those who fought and died and suffered in warfare.

‘JACK’ and ELEANOR NASH: Hastily wed, quickly separated in 1914.

The Nicola Valley Museum caption for this photo is "Soldiers lined up on track, Merritt. 1st contingent BC Horse — leaving for Valcartier Que." The date is probably Aug. 15 1914, the first of three days of departures from the valley by members of the militia regiment and volunteers. "Pathetic Scenes at Local Depot," reads the Aug. 21 Merritt Herald headline atop the weekly newspaper’s story on the departures.

Canadian soldiers in  Merritt. British Columbia, ready to leave for the trenches of WW I.

By Michael Sasges

In the spring I “knew” fewer small stories about the Great War than big stories. Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August was probably the biggest because the first I knew; Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919, probably the best remembered because the latest I read. The deaths, in 1917 in France, of two men from “my” street was probably the smallest, and only, Great War story I knew. In the fall, at this Canadian Remembrance Day, I now know that the cenotaph which memorializes Alexander Hogg and David Hogg is short at least one name, Tommy Charters, and the “roll of honour” hanging in one of the local churches is short many names. I also know the man whose name tops one of the cenotaph’s faces was a middle-aged bachelor who got married on his way to the Great War. … read more

Why I prefer to remember Remembrance Day

By Tom Regan

We don’t have much of a tradition of military service in my family, but what we do have is meaningful. One of my uncles fought in the Second World War for Canada and saw some pretty serious action. My father-in-law, an American, was a lifetime aviator, and flew for the US Air Force in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. So I’ve always considered November 11th an important day to observe.  But when it comes to whether I celebrate Canada’s Remembrance Day, or America’s Veterans Day, I almost always prefer the former over the latter. The reason may be a semantic one but it’s an important one. … read more

A philosopher asks: what do we owe the dead?

By Janna Thompson

Remembrance Day is an occasion when people are supposed to remember and honour those who died in their nation’s wars. But why should we believe that this obligation exists? The dead are dead. They can’t be gratified by our remembrance or insulted by a failure to honour them. Those facts do not prevent us from thinking that we have duties to the dead. Most of us believe we ought to remember people who made sacrifices for our sake. Most of us believe we ought to keep promises made to the dead, to protect their reputations from malicious lies and to fulfil their bequests.  … read more

Body counts disguise true horror of what wars do to bodies. 

By Tom Gregory

Every year on Remembrance Day, we pause to look back on old wars and recount the tallies of the dead, including 16 million killed in the first world war and 60 million in the second world war. And every day, news reports use body counts to highlight the human costs of war: from Syria, where the United Nations has estimated more than 191,000 people have been killed up to April this year, to Ukraine, where the latest estimates are of at least 3,724 people killed (including 298 on Flight MH17). But simply counting the bodies of those killed in war may not actually help us understand the death and destruction caused by war. Instead, my worry is that they end up erasing the violence inflicted on each of the bodies of those affected by war, and numbing our emotional responses to the deaths of others. … … read more

 

Private Milton E. Wallen of Company C, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, wounded by a Minié ball while in prison at Richmond, July 4, 1863. He was being treated for gangrene in August 1863 when Edward Stauch traveled from Washington to make this sketch. Wallen survived the infection and was furloughed from the hospital in October 1863. Image from the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Private Milton E. Wallen of Company C, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, wounded by a Minié ball while in prison at Richmond, July 4, 1863. He was being treated for gangrene in August 1863 when Edward Stauch traveled from Washington to make this sketch. Wallen survived the infection and was furloughed from the hospital in October 1863. Image from the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine. 

Images from Canada’s Remembrance Day, 2014

By Greg Locke and Deborah Jones

In case you missed these:

World and War

By Deborah Jones

Every person who fought in World War I is now dead – and yet no one alive today is unaffected. The war consumed much of the globe for, arguably, decades. Many contend that the unresolved conflicts of the “Great War” re-ignited to become the conflagration we call World War II, then set in motion events from the Cold War to today’s Middle Eastern conflicts. A century after it began, I am most astonished at the hubris. 

Far from Flanders Fields

By Deborah Jones

It’s at Ypres that my imagination falters, along with my tenuous grasp of poet John McCrae’s identity, and interest in the tiresome debate over the merits and meanings of his poem In Flanders Fields. It’s because of Ypres I am unable to imagine a man with the sensitivity of a poet and the intelligence of a physician harbouring “romantic” notions of war in the conditions of 1915 trench warfare.

Photo by Greg Locke, Copyright 2013

Photo by Greg Locke, Copyright 2013

The Decline in Global Violence

By Andrew Mack

Has the long-term threat of violence — war, terrorism, and homicide —  been decreasing or increasing worldwide? For some, the answer seems clear. Many in the strategic community concur with General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said today’s world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.”  But there is little evidence to support them. During 2012, the number of conflicts being waged around the world dropped sharply, from 37 to 32. High – intensity conflicts have declined by more than half since the end of the Cold War, while terrorism, military coup and genocide numbers are also down. And this is not a recent phenomenon. According to Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, violence of all kinds has been declining for thousands of years; he has argued “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.” In the 2013 Human Security Report The Decline in Global Violence: Evidence Explanation and Contestation — excerpted here — global security specialist Andrew Mack analyses the evidence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 11 in Poland is Independence Day. Poland regained independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. Its status was fleeting: after WW II it became the People's Republic, controlled by the USSR. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Poland has again celebrated its independence every November 11. Photo of 2009 parade by Magic Madzik via Flickr, Creative Commons

In Poland, November 11 is Independence Day. Poland regained independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. Its status was fleeting: after WW II it became the People’s Republic, controlled by the USSR. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Poland has again celebrated independence. Above, celebrants parade in 2009. Photo by Magic Madzik via Flickr, Creative Commons

 

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A philosopher asks: what do we owe the dead?

A cemetery in Michigan, United States. Photo by Russ Allison Loar via Flickr, Creative Commons

A cemetery in Michigan, United States. Photo by Russ Allison Loar via Flickr, Creative Commons

By Janna Thompson, La Trobe University
November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day is an occasion when people are supposed to remember and honour those who died in their nation’s wars. But why should we believe that this obligation exists?

The dead are dead. They can’t be gratified by our remembrance or insulted by a failure to honour them.

Those facts do not prevent us from thinking that we have duties to the dead. Most of us believe we ought to remember people who made sacrifices for our sake. Most of us believe we ought to keep promises made to the dead, to protect their reputations from malicious lies and to fulfil their bequests.

The American philosopher George Pitcher argues that we have duties to the dead because we can benefit them or cause them harm. A son who solemnly promises his dying father to bury him in the family plot and instead sells his body to a medical school “betrays” his father. Pitcher does not think that the existence of this harm depends on having a capacity to suffer.

But other philosophers, such as Walter Ott, refuse to accept we can harm or benefit someone who is incapable of being affected by our actions. They dismiss the belief in duties to the dead as a superstition. We can celebrate Remembrance Day to call attention to the horrors of war or to give comfort to the survivors of the dead. But in their opinion it is wrong to believe that we owe anything to the dead.

This philosophical disagreement leaves the impression that duties we take for granted are more difficult to understand than we supposed.

In my opinion we do have duties to the dead and the best way of understanding why they exist and what they mean is to locate them in the framework of our intergenerational obligations.

Like Pitcher, people commonly assume they can make requests that their survivors are morally obliged to fulfil. But moral demands bring with them a requirement of reciprocity. You should be prepared to do for others what you demand that people do for you. So if you think you have a right to impose a moral duty on your successors then you should be prepared to fulfil similar demands that were made, or could have been made, by those now dead.

When you are dead you won’t care whether your survivors fulfil your requests. But this has no bearing on your moral reasoning. You care now.

Duties to the dead can be regarded as belonging to an intergenerational social contract. We impose duties on our successors and in return we carry out duties to our predecessors. The communitarian philosopher Avner de Shalit argues in his book Why Posterity Matters (1995) that present members of a community should regard themselves as the partners of past generations in defining and working for a common good. A partnership brings with it obligations to past, as well to present and future members.

This way of understanding why we have duties to the dead helps us to work out what we ought to do for them. If we have good reasons for demanding our posthumous reputations should be protected from malicious lies, we ought to accept a duty to protect the reputations of those now dead. If we think our survivors ought to respect our wishes about the disposal of our bodies or property, then we are also obliged to respect similar wishes of the dead.

The demands we make of our survivors have to be backed up with good moral reasoning. This puts limits on what we can demand of them.

Some people want their children to adhere to the traditional values of their religion, family or community. But this desire cannot be translated into a legitimate moral demand.

Being true to a tradition is not a requirement that people can reasonably impose on their successors or have imposed on them by their predecessors. People of each generation are entitled to choose their own values and ways of life. But it is not so unreasonable for people to insist their successors should make an effort to understand and appreciate what they were trying to achieve.

The same holds for the values of a nation or a political group. Present Australian Labor Party members ought to honour the contributions of Gough Whitlam and other leaders of the past but they have no obligation to adhere to Whitlam’s vision of Australia. They are entitled to determine the direction of their party.

On the other hand, in determining this direction they are obliged to consider what the ideals of past generations can contribute to present concerns. That’s a reasonable demand on those who belong to an intergenerational partnership.

People can have different ideas about what this partnership demands. They can disagree about what contributions matter and how the dead should be remembered. They can have different views about what requests they are obliged to fulfil.

But these differences of opinion do not undermine the basic principle of this partnership: that the interests and contributions of those now dead are a moral concern for the living.

Creative Commons 

The Conversation

Janna Thompson, Professor of Philosophy at Australia’s La Trobe University, received funding from the Australian Research Council for a project on intergenerational justice.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, as part of a series on Death and Dying. Read the original article.

 

f you appreciate our work, please help sustain us. Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is supported entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in the form on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

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Far from Flanders Fields

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
Published November 11, 2013

F&O Flanders Fields

Photo courtesy of McCrae House, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, Creative Commons license

Accounts of Canadian John McCrae, who wrote In Flanders Fields, suggest a man steeped in the romance of war. McCrae was a physician as well as a poet, and also a warrior so dedicated that after fighting in the Boer War he enlisted for World War I. “He considered himself a soldier first,” says Wikipedia, in a quote attributed to a McCrae biographer. “McCrae grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae wrote his short poem, now as intricately bound with Remembrance Day as are red poppies, in honour of a friend who died in 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres. That fight, already horrifically gory from traditional artillery, was made agonizingly worse by German chlorine gas, in one of the first modern uses of chemical weapons.

 We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.


It’s at Ypres that my imagination falters, along with my tenuous grasp of McCrae’s identity, and interest in the tiresome debate over the merits and meanings of his poem. It’s because of Ypres I am unable to imagine a man with the sensitivity of a poet and the intelligence of a physician harbouring “romantic” notions of war in the conditions of 1915 trench warfare. It’s harder to imagine even the soul of a soldier finding romance in war three years after Ypres – after the stark horrors of the “Great War” had long been plain – when McCrae died in 1918 of complications from pneumonia.

But our imagination quavers and warps in the face of war. Individual or collective memories are no match for it, and are besides often suppressed, leaving us only with imagination. Imagination of the worst kind, the kind that finds voice in nostrums like “glory,” “duty,” and “hero.”

Almost alone in my family I have never been a soldier, but I have studied war history and, like almost all of us, I am a child of generations of men and women who waged war. I am also the mother of children who astonished me by signing up as “peacekeepers” in the Canadian Army Reserves. Like almost all of us, I am closer to war than I’d wish. And yet I must resort to imagination to consider the wartime identity of the Scottish grandfather I barely knew, the Black Watch soldier who survived the trenches of WWI. Afterward he refused to speak of it and so, when I was a child, I imagined him a “hero.” Similarly, I could only imagine the thwarted life of a distant English cousin who was gassed as a young man in WW I and (according to hushed family reports) spent his few remaining years writhing and gibbering in a bed in his mother’s house. “Duty” was my childish word for him.

I like to think my imagination matured and that nuance replaced my nostrums for war.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Was McCrae’s bequest more nuanced than the nostrum we have made of his poem, faithfully recited each Remembrance Day? Had McCrae lived to write more poems post-war, would In Flanders Fields have been supplanted by a different work? Had he survived long enough might McCrae – especially after the futility of WWI was revealed by its reiteration in World War II – have changed his exhortation, “Take up our quarrel with the foe?”

I wonder if McCrae would have approved of being remembered so very well, so extraordinarily fondly, and so almost exclusively for In Flanders Fields. I wonder, but just a little, if his poem ought to be left in peace as a product of his time and place. Mostly I wonder if McCrae’s soldiers would rest better under their poppies if they knew that others had indeed caught the torch they threw – but used it not for foes and quarrels, but to shed light on war’s causes and cures. 

We’ll never know what McCrae really thought; he died too soon and lingers only in our flawed imaginations. And that is just one of the infinite small shames buried within the immense disgrace of our warmongering.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones

References and further reading:
In Flanders Fields Wikipedia page
McCrae House page, at the Guelph Civic Museum

 

Related: 

National Peacekeepers’ Day, Deborah Jones, August 2016

Far from Flanders Fields, Deborah Jones, Nov. 2013

World and War, Deborah Jones, 2014

Return to Free Range

Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com (including for republishing.)

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