In 1861, Emperor Alexander II of Russia emancipated the serfs. Serfs, slaves in all but name, were finally given permission to marry without consent of the nobility, own land and property, own a business, and freely move. For the next 50 years a new class of middle class peasant arose in Imperial Russia, the “kulak”, who owned land and livestock, hired laborers, and upon whose backs was the agricultural foundation of the Imperial Russian Empire.
During the Bolshevik Revolution toward the end of the First World War, the kulaks were generally allied with the Red Army despite the socialist rhetoric. Bolshevik socialists prioritized organization and collectivization of the urban workers, the cities, and factories. In 1918, the Bolsheviks needed food for the Red Army and attempted to “organize” the countryside. They seized land and foodstuffs from the wealthier kulaks and organized peasant committees among the rest. Food production dropped, and in 1919 the Bolsheviks eased the pogroms against the kulaks to prevent famine.
In the 20s, “kulak” became a pejorative term used for any peasant who owned a certain amount of land, generally about ten acres or more, but the standards were lowered as the years went by. By the late 20s, Soviet collectivization was prepared to move into the countryside in earnest. In 1928, Stalin announced his “revolution from above”, the first “Five Year Plan” for Soviet industrialization, and this included rural collectivization. In December 1929, Stalin announced the collectivization of the kulak’s land and on 30 January 1930, the Soviet Politburo formally approved “Dekulakization” in the entirety of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The kulaks’ land was collectivized at gunpoint. Kulaks who were not outright killed were sent to camps where they worked as slaves, sometimes in their own communities. Many were sent to camps in the arctic or Siberia, where they froze or were worked to death. As is normal for matters regarding absolute power, Dekulakization quickly spiraled out of control. Soviet commissars and peasant committees quickly found there was no check for their abuses of power. First the definition of “kulak” was broadened as to be meaningless. “Kulak” was first expanded to any peasant who hired labor, then to any peasant who owned any land at all, then to owners of just livestock, then to any who possessed property, and eventually to any peasant who disagreed with collectivization. By 1931, “Kulak” was a not a class but simply a “rural enemy of the state”. Eventually, strongmen on the Soviet peasant committees and secret police deemed anyone who disagreed with their rule a “kulak”, which was effectively a death sentence. Scores were settled with a simple denunciation of “kulak”.
About two million men, women and children across the Soviet Union were deemed kulaks and killed in 1930 and 1931. Millions more were deported, fled, or emigrated to other countries. The resulting famine that gripped the Soviet Union the next year was a direct result of Dekulakization. The Soviet Famine of 1932/33 killed another eight million people. In 1933, 30,000 people a day died, primarily Ukrainians and Kazakhs, from being deliberately starved to death by the prioritization of food to ethnic Russians.
On 27 January 1945, the Soviet forces in the Vistula-Oder offensive liberated the Nazi camps in the vicinity of the towns of Auschwitz and Birkenau in German province of Silesia (Occupied Polish province of Upper Silesia). The “Auschwitz Death Camp” was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, but by 1945 it had grown into a series of 48 extermination, concentration, and labor camps around the towns of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz.
Unlike pure extermination camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belsec, Auschwitz-Birkenau was hybrid camp system of three main camps and their satellite camps. KL Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp and railway terminal, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work makes you free”). Built in the spring of 1940, the first Polish prisoners arrived shortly thereafter. The first gassing and mass cremation took place in August 1941, when 300 Russian prisoners of war were used to test the effects of Zyklon-B. The first mass arrival of Jewish prisoners occured in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference in January. The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high level Nazi officials to work out the logistical details needed to eradicate European Jews, with a planning factor of 10,000,000.
Auschwitz II Birkenau was a purpose built death complex, opened in late 1941, whose slave labor inmates worked the gas chambers and crematorium ovens. Most prisoners never made it to the main camp and went directly gas chambers after their baggage, clothes, and even hair were collected. 900,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz II Birkenau.
KL Auschwitz III at Monowitz was a slave labor camp complex for IG Farben that produced synthetic rubber for the German war effort. Many German corporations threw in their lot with the National Socialists, whom offered free land, labor, and tax credits in the conquered territories for ideologically pure companies. Each SS guard was paid for each inmate that worked a shift under their watch. 23,000 workers were executed, worked to death, or died of disease or malnutrition at KL Auschwitz III. This number doesn’t include the monthly 1/5 worker turnover of those sent to Auschwitz II Birkenau to be killed to make space for healthier workers.
1.1 million people, from all over Europe, were systematically worked to death, or looted, murdered and cremated in the camps. This also includes those that died during the routine sadistic torture, and/or the gruesome medical experiments on human subjects, few of whom survived. 90% of the victims were Jewish but they also included ethnic Poles, Roma, homosexuals, Polish and Russian soldiers, and German political opponents of National Socialism.
The camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were murder on an industrial scale.
When the Soviets launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in early January, 1945, the German administration of the camps attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes: They destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums. They burned down the warehouses of stolen looted goods that had been an integral part of the German economy for the previous five years. They burned the meticulous camp records. They murdered as many inmates as they could, stopping only when they couldn’t dispose of the bodies. The remaining inmates were marched west to rail heads where they were sent to camps further inside Germany. Those that fell out were shot and left behind. Tens of thousands died on these death marches in the frigid January temperatures. However, the scale of their crimes against humanity couldn’t be covered up.
On morning of 27 January 1945, scouts from the 322nd and 100th Rifle Divisions of the 1st Ukrainian Front found first a sub camp of KL Auschwitz III, and then the main camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau and KL Auschwitz I later in the morning and afternoon, respectively.
The Russian troops found only 7000 scattered survivors; most were too sick to move or had hid during the prisoner round ups prior to the death marches.
Auschwitz-Birkenau camps weren’t the first extermination camps discovered by the Soviets, but they were the first to expose the scale of National Socialist crimes against humanity. The first extermination camp “liberated” from the Germans was Majdanek in July, 1944. The Majdanek Death Camp was overrun during Operation Bagration before it could be dismantled. Ironically, or maybe not so, the Soviets kept Majdanek open for Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian partisans allied with Western powers and supporters of the Polish Government in exile in London. At the very moment the Russians were realizing the scale of the German camps around Auschwitz, they were processing tens of thousands of political prisoners in former German camps for transport to the gulags in Siberia. However, several KL Auschwitz III camps were used for workers to dismantle the IG Farben factories for transport east. And several other camps were eventually used to hold Polish political prisoners by the NKVD and its proxies once Silesia was fully occupied by the Soviets. The Soviet vow of “Never Again” clearly didn’t apply to themselves.
The conversion of Auschwitz-Birkenau into a Soviet reeducation camp initially wasn’t attempted due to the scale of the Nazi slaughter and its later documentation. Russian soldiers found 350,000 men’s suits, 860,000 women’s garments, and seven tons of human hair estimated to be from 150,000 people. Entire buildings were full of human feces, to the point where it was caked and solidified on the walls and ceilings. Soviet doctors and the Polish Red Cross managed to save 4500 of the 7000, though some were still in the camps months later because they were too weak to move. Soviet authorities estimated 4,000,000 people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, and the Soviets maintained this number until 1989. The inflated number actually assisted the German cover up, as Western observers dismissed the number as propaganda, and by extension the camps themselves. The discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau was only taken seriously by Western journalists and authorities after similar camps were liberated by the Allies in April.
In 2005, 27 January became known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million Jews and 11 million others murdered by Nationals Socialists during the Second World War, 1.1 million of whom were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On 17 Sep 1939, Hitler’s de facto ally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics better known as the Soviet Union, invaded Poland from the east as the Poles were fighting the Germans coming from the west.
By 9 September 1939, Polish mobilization was complete the Poles and were holding their own along the Vistula and in the Carpathians against the German attack. They even launched a large counterattack at Bzura and repulsed the initial German attacks on Warsaw. Unfortunately on 9 Sep the German propaganda minister Josef Goebbels announced to the world that the Germans had reached Warsaw. The German people thought they had won and were jubilant. Goebbels ran with it. Poland had no way of contradicting Goebbel’s message. The British, French, and Soviets all soon believed Poland was lost. The mistaken belief absolved the Brits and French from any further assistance, and on the 11th, Stalin decided he’d better invade Poland before the Germans took it all.
On 17 September 1939, eight days after the Poles were supposedly defeated by the Germans, Soviet forces crossed the Polish frontier from the east, and made defense along the Vistula pointless. Initially Polish units on the eastern frontier thought that the Soviets were coming to Poland’s assistance, but that notion was quickly dispelled. On 25 Sep, the Polish government announced the evacuation of the country. The last Polish army unit only surrendered on 6 Oct – a month after the war had supposedly been lost.
In occupied Eastern Poland the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, immediately arrested and summarily executed tens of thousands of Polish army officers and NCOs, politicians, police officers, business owners, priests, school teachers, and university professors, anyone exhibiting leadership qualities. The Red Army sacked, tortured, raped, and killed its way through eastern Poland in a prelude of what would happen to Germany 5 1/2 years later. Hundreds of thousands Poles were sent to slave labor camps in Siberia. Sham elections were held by the NKVD to give an air of legitimacy to the brutal occupation. Anyone who ran against their preferred candidate was killed, and anyone who voted against them was sent to Siberia.
“The liberation of Poland (by National Socialist Germany and Communist Soviet Union) is an example of cooperation of socialist nations against Anglo-French imperialism.” – The Communist International, 7 Oct 1939
On 12 June 1942, a young Dutch girl received a red and white plaid covered diary from her father for her 13th birthday.
She would start recording her thoughts in it a week or so later. Her father picked the diary out based on her pointing it out on one of their walks along the streets of Amsterdam. That walk would be one of their last.
Otto Frank and his daughter, Anne, were Jews. In July 1942, the Netherlands’ German National Socialist conquerers and their Dutch collaborators would place great restrictions on them in preparation for the implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish population in the country.
The plight of the Dutch Jews was a difficult one. Unlike other countries, the huge population density of the Netherlands meant there were few places to escape to. There were no vast forests for refuge as there were in Eastern Europe. Also, the advanced Dutch civil bureaucracy had records on the entire Jewish population of the country and the Germans quickly identified and located them all. Moreover, although the Dutch people were sympathetic to the Jewish plight under Nazi domination, the Dutch government was unwilling to publicly intervene on their behalf, even passively. Unlike in other countries, the Dutch administration did the bidding of their National Socialist overseers with cold efficiency. In exchange for continued employment, pay, and benefits, the supposedly apolitical Dutch civil service ushered the Jewish population to its death. Few Dutch Jews were detained by Germans: they were identified by Dutch census data, rounded up by Dutch police who went directly to their homes based on Dutch tax files, held in Dutch camps run by the Dutch civil servants and held there by Dutch guards, and sent East to the death camps on Dutch trains run by Dutch engineers and Dutch rail crews.
Anne Frank and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis and their own countrymen. They hid in a small three story room concealed behind a bookshelf in her father’s workplace. They were taken care of by several of her father’s sympathetic coworkers who visited once a day to deliver food and stay for a visit.
Anne chronicled each day in the cramped space in her diary. Her diary was her escape. She wrote of the dreams of a teenage girl, the boredom and difficulties of their existence, her love for and exasperation with her family, the terror of the listening to German soldiers and Dutch police searching the premises, her budding romance with the son of another family in hiding, and most importantly the hopes of survival in one of the darkest periods in human history.
The Frank family survived in hiding for more than two years, almost each day chronicled by Anne. They were arrested by the Gestapo after being betrayed in August 1944, by whom is unknown and subject to much debate. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where she was separated from her father, but was not sent to the gas chamber with the rest of the children because she just turned 15 two months before. Nevertheless, Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen Belsen Concentration camp to be worked to death. They both died of typhus in March 1945.
Anne Frank’s diary was saved by one of her family’s helpers after their arrest and recovered by her father who survived after being separated from his family. Anne Frank’s unedited record of her family’s existence behind the bookcase was published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl”.
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most poignant documents of the Holocaust, and Required Reading for Humanity.
After Germany’s loss in World War I, the mostly ethnically homogeneous colony of Rwanda (now a very small nation in east central Africa bordering Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Congo) was given to the Belgians for administration. The native people of the area had two social classes: the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu. The only distinctions between them were the number of cows a person owned. When a Hutu man obtained ten cows, he and his family became Tutsi with certain social privileges. If they dropped below ten cows, they became Hutu. Over the next 50 years, the Belgians favored the Tutsi minority and used them to rule over the colony more effectively.
Eventually, the race obsessed Belgians (and Europeans and Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries in general, and even today) assigned the Tutsis and Hutus tribal/racial status and forbade any social movement, ending centuries of social mobility between them. Identity politics (exasperated by “tribal” ID cards) eventually led to resentment of the ruling Tutsi from Hutus. When democratic reforms were introduced in the 1950s and 60s, the Hutu majority made sweeping gains. The Hutu used their new found political advantage to secure state structures and resources, legislative and executive powers, and seek revenge on the “oppressive” Tutsis. For the next 30 years, the history of Rwanda is scarred by reoccurring cycles of violence as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda fought each other in a series of civil wars, wars with Tutsi dominated Burundi, and tense cease fires between the tribes and countries of the region, as they all prepared for the next cycle to begin again.
On 6 April 1994, the tentative peace of the early 90s was destroyed when the moderate presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated. On 7 April, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government and military rounded up all prominent Tutsis and murdered them. Once all Tutsis in any Rwandan official capacity were dead, the Hutu unleashed their gangs and militias to exterminate all Tutsis and Twa (pygmies) in the country and extolled all loyal Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbors. The militias and Hutu gangs widely distributed machetes to Hutus so they could kill any Tutsi they found: man, woman or child. Any who did not do so were killed with the Tutsis as well. Over the next 100 days 1.1 million Tutsis, Twa, and moderate Hutus were massacred, the majority by machete.
That’s 11,000 people a day for the next three months, or one person murdered every eight seconds.
The international response was tepid at best and complicit at worst. The United Nations Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), led by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, was established to oversee the most recent cease fire and transitional government, but was powerless to stop the genocide. Some of the first murders of the Rwandan Genocide were ten Belgian peacekeepers guarding the Tutsi interim prime minister after they were ordered to surrender when there was confusion whether they were allowed to use force to defend their charge. Most of the Rwandan staff were specifically targeted early in the genocide which paralyzed UNAMIR. Several impromptu safe havens for Tutsi and moderate Hutus were established, most notably Kigali’s football (read: soccer) stadium where Dallaire had his headquarters. However, most were abandoned by UNAMIR troops when the UN Security Council ordered Dallaire to concentrate on evacuating foreign nationals. Tens of thousands were left to their fate.
After decolonization in the 1960s, the Hutus fell under France’s “Françafrique” special relationship with its and Belgium’s former African colonies. Despite reports of mass rape and genocide, this special relationship bled over into the United Nations’ and the world’s response to what was happening in Rwanda. France sent troops to assist UNAMIR in evacuating citizens, but refused to evacuate Rwandan nationals with Tutsi identification cards, even if they were married to a French citizen. Hundreds of Tutsis were detained by French troops and turned over to Hutus to be killed. Furthermore, France and the United States blocked all efforts to assist Dallaire. Two weeks after the start, they pushed through UN Security Resolution 912 which reduced UNAMIR from 2500 troops to 270, barely enough to protect the stadium. The United States had lost soldiers during a UN mission in Somalia the previous October (“Blackhawk Down”) and President Bill Clinton refused to become involved militarily in Africa again. Clinton was quoted as saying “Leave it (Rwanda) to its fate”, and didn’t permit his staff to speak the word “genocide”.
The Tutsi had to save themselves.
Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi organization based in Burindi resumed the Rwandan Civil War after it was obvious that the UN would not stop the killing. The RPF invaded Rwanda on 8 April and made steady progress toward Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, while chasing the newly formed Hutu government across the country. Kagame’s forces received a steady influx of new recruits and captured the city in June. Later that month France launched Operation Turquoise, ostensibly to stop the genocide, but actually to prevent Kagame from seizing the southwestern fifth of the country and protect Hutu genocidaires and Hutu refugee camps in Zaire.
30% of the Twa (pygmy) population and 75% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was murdered between April and June 1994.
The Rwandan Genocide was the opening act of the Great African War, which killed an additional 5.4 million people in the Congo and the African Great Lakes region over the next 14 years.
By the summer of 1943, Operation Reinhardt, Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” to his identity politics’ first victim, the Jews, was almost complete: nearly two million Jews in the General Government (German occupied Poland) were killed in industrialized ethnic extermination. National Socialist bureaucrats and technocrats led by SS wunderkind Reinhard Heydrich devised a plan in 1942 to exterminate “non-desirables” as efficiently as possible in order purify Germany of the so-called “untermensch” or “sub-humans”. To this end the National Socialists established three major death camps and an entire support system to liquidate the Third Reich’s Jews and political opponents, Sobibor being the least well known of its murderous sisters: Belzec and Treblinka. By mid-1943, the Jews of Germany and the General Government had almost completely disappeared. Victims had to be sought from elsewhere. In order to maintain the “quotas”, trains full of Jews from as far away as the Netherlands were packed off to the extermination camp at Sobibor in eastern Poland. The National Socialists were running out of Jews to murder in their occupied territories.
The trains from the west arrived with less frequency, and the Jews of the Sonderkommando knew their turn was soon. The Sonderkommando was composed of healthy and skilled Jews taken from the masses of those on the way to “the showers” who could assist the Nazis in running the camp under pain of death. They were sorters of the deads’ possessions, the burners and buriers of their bodies, and the labouers who performed the menial tasks of the camp under the watchful eyes of its Ukrainian guards. (As for the Ukrainians, they had to make a choice between the socialism of Stalin, which starved 8 million Ukrainians to death in 1937/38 or the socialism of Hitler which would murder just as many later in 1941-43.) With no choice but to comply or be killed, the Jews of the Sonderkommando survived to the best of their ability. In the spring of 1943, a “kapo” (a forced Jewish guard that the Nazi’s used to divide the Jewish community) arrived at Sobibor on a train from the recently closed death camp at Belzec, and confirmed what the Sonderkommando at Sobibor suspected: once the camp was closed the Jews who were forced to assist in its administration were killed.
On 14 October, 1943, the Sonderkommando of the Sobibor Death Camp rose up against their jailers and torturers. A Soviet-Jewish Red Army prisoner of war who survived the extermination at Minsk, Lieutenant Alexander Perchesky led the attempted mass escape at Sobibor. The original plan was to silently kill the 16 National Socialist SS overseers, and while the Ukrainian guards were confused, walk out the main gate with all 600 Sonderkommando, and escape into the forest. What actually happened will never be known. Perchesky and his Jewish confederates killed eleven SS administrators and seized the camps armory, but they could not execute their plan. The SS were mostly killed silently but eventually the guards were alerted, and many of the Sonderkommando were killed in the ensuing confusion. Most Jews in the camp were unaware of the plan. Nonetheless, their situation was dire enough that they participated at the moment of decision. 300 of the 600 remaining Jews of Sobibor escaped into the nearby forest, where many joined Polish and Jewish resistance groups. Unfortunately, most, but not all, escapees were subsequently recaptured and shot by the SS and their lackeys.
The Escape from Sobibor was such a stain on National Socialist honor that the chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed. He wanted the camp as anonymous as the 250,000 victims were that passed through. The buildings of Sobibor were bulldozed and pine trees planted over top. The gas chambers were torn down and a road built on their foundations. By 1944, there was no sign the Death Camp of Sobibor existed.
Like every atrocity, victims survive. Some went on and fought in Polish and Soviet partisan units, some just fled. The survivors emigrated to America, Brazil, and Israel, and were instrumental bringing their German National Socialists and their Ukrainian enablers to trial. The Uprising at Sobibor was the greatest mass escape in the history of the Holocaust.
When the Germans conquered Poland in late 1939, they rounded up everyone “with Jewish blood” and forcibly moved them into walled off ghettos. In the Polish city of Warsaw, 400,000 Polish Jews and other National Socialist undesirables were packed into an area of only 1.3 square miles. In the autumn of 1942, Nazi Germany began “liquidating” these ghettos by rounding up a set daily quota of the inhabitants and sending them to the gas chambers. In Warsaw that number was as high as 5,000 a day to the Death Camp at Treblinka.
At first, the Jewish leaders thought that those collected were just being transferred to labor camps and didn’t fight the arbitrary detentions. But eventually the truth became known. By 1943, less than 100,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto, many of whom were in hiding. In response, Jewish resistance groups formed with support from the Polish Home Army and eventually fought back against the quota detentions in January. The surprisingly fierce and widespread resistance caused the Germans to stop the deportations until sufficient strength could be gathered to crush them.
On 19 April 1943, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resumed. 2,000 SS troops backed up by tanks and 5,000 policemen arrogantly marched into the seemingly quiet and deserted streets. On a pre-arranged signal Jewish ambushes were sprung on the unsuspecting Nazi’s. The initial German assaults were repulsed by the fierce Jewish defenders. They were armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades, small arms, and the fanatical resistance of people who have nothing left to lose. Defeat meant immediate execution, and for their families, hiding in homemade bunkers around the Ghetto, a cattle car to Treblinka. That afternoon, the resistance raised the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white flag of the ZZW (the largest Jewish group in the Ghetto) over Muranowski Square. Embolden by this show of defiance, other Polish resistance groups came to the aid of the Jews by attacking the Germans in other areas of Warsaw and smuggling supplies into the Ghetto. However, the approximately 1,000 Jewish defenders were under no illusions that they could save themselves. Their only hope was that the news of the uprising would make its way to the outside world, and expose the National Socialists for what they really were.
The Germans continued to attack and the battle in Warsaw raged for the next 11 days. The uprising was a great embarrassment to National Socialism: for the Germans to be stymied by “untermensch” or “sub-humans” was contrary to all of their racial propaganda. Hitler authorized the subjugation of the Ghetto his highest priority and flooded Warsaw with additional troops and supplies. With practically unlimited support, it was only a matter of time before the Germans overcame the resistance. Nevertheless, the Germans had to resort to using poison gas and burning down the entire Ghetto before they declared victory in May. The German commander, Juergen Stroop, marked the end of the operation with a small twisted ceremony in which the highlight was his personal pressing the detonator button demolishing the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
Stroop reported killing “about 13,000” and capturing 56,065 Jews at the end of the operation to “cleanse” the Ghetto. 7,000 were immediately sent to Treblinka and gassed over the next few days. Because Treblinka could not “process” so many prisoners so fast, the remainder were sent to other camps in the General Government (Germany’s official name for Poland, since the word “Poland” was outlawed.), primarily the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp inside the city of Lublin. Those not immediately gassed were eventually murdered when the Nazi’s liquidated that camp in November.
The outside world ignored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, despite a frustrated Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile committing suicide over the British unwillingness to do anything concrete to help the defenders. However, the Uprising was a great inspiration to the Polish Home Army and led directly to the general Warsaw Uprising a year later. The Polish Home Army managed to rescue about 400 Jews from the Ghetto, and several hundred more continued to hide in the rubble, sometimes for weeks, until they could escape.
After the war the survivors would form the Lohamei HaGeta’ot kibbutz (literally “Ghetto Fighters” in Yiddish) in northern Israel.
The Japanese offensive in early 1942 against the Allies in Burma wasn’t stopped by any successful defensive action on the part of Allied troops, but by the monsoon and lack of supplies. The British just retreated to India faster than the Japanese could advance. Furthermore, the British retreated towards their supply depots while every step forward took the Japanese further from theirs. Moreover, Japanese supplies couldn’t come directly from their bases in Vietnam due to the harsh terrain of the northern Thai Highlands and the Shan Hills of eastern Burma, both “foothills” of the Himalayas. They had to be shipped down around the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, and then back up to Rangoon, where the transports made excellent targets in the confined waters for Allied submarines. In order to mitigate this extended logistics chain, the Japanese decided to build a railroad through the forbidding jungle and over the steep mountains from Bangkok to Thambyuzayat, Burma, where they could be easily ferried to Rangoon. This would cut weeks off the supply timeline, and save countless ships.
To construct the 250 mile long railroad, the Japanese conscripted 270,000 local civilians, many of whom supported the Japanese (Thailand was a Japanese ally in World War Two), and 61,000 British, Australian, Dutch, and American prisoners of war taken during the successful Japanese campaigns in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. The 330,000 workers were overseen by just 14,000 Japanese. Their treatment ranged from lethal neglect to sadistic torture and mass murder. The terrain of western Thailand and southeastern Burma is some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, and consists of thick jungle, steep gorges, and fast flowing rivers.
The most famous portion of the Burma Railroad was the Bridge over the Mae Klong River, a tributary of the Khwae Noi River whose valley the Burma railroad followed. On 4 October, 1942, the first Australian troops arrived at a prisoner of war camp at Tamarkan, Thailand. They would start work two days later on two bridges over Mae Klong River. Bridge 277 was a temporary wooden trestle bridge. It would be used until Bridge 278 was completed further upstream. Bridge 278 was a permanent metal and concrete structure assembled from a Dutch bridge dismantled in Java and transported to Thailand. The workers were given just 250 grams of rice a day to eat, in addition to what they could scrounge from the jungle. On 6 October, the Australians and British at Tamarkan numbered 1700.
Bridge 277 was completed in February, 1943, and the Bridge 278 in October 1943, about the same time the Burma Railroad itself was completed. The Burma Railroad was completed ahead of schedule but nearly 66,000 workers died as a result, including 1300 during the construction of the Mae Klong bridges. Just 400 remained to repair the damage caused by Allied air attacks later in the war.
The plight of the prisoners at Tamarkan and the construction of Bridge 277 was immortalized in the 1952 of the fictional book “Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai” (The Bridge on the River Kwai) by Pierre Boulle, and the 1957 David Lean movie of the same name, starring Jack Hawkins, Alec Guiness (Obi Wan Kenobi), William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa. “Kwai” (Burmese for water buffalo) is an English bastardization of “Khwae” (Burmese for tributary). Surviving British and Australian workers despised the movie for the “wonderful” treatment of the Allied characters by the Japanese, and Japanese veterans called the movie racist because they were depicted as unable to complete the bridge on time without the willing help of the Allied prisoners.
In 1970, the Thai government renamed to the Mae Klong River to Khwae Yai (“Big Tributary) due to tourists wanting to see “The Bridge over the River Kwai”.
Despite local successes such as the Battle of Messines and the Canadian victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917 was a disastrous year for the Allies. The Provisional Russian govt was in chaos, and the Russian Army was worse: most units were in the hands of all-powerful “soldiers’ committees” who refused to fight. In July, Russia’s last gasp in the First World War, the Kerensky Offensive, collapsed and the Russians retreated so far and fast that the Germans and Austrians couldn’t logistically advance any further to catch them. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive directly led to widespread mutinies among French units, with entire divisions refusing to attack. Furthermore, although Unrestricted Submarine Warfare brought America into the war, it had also brought Britain to its knees. In June, Prime Minister Lloyd George informed Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, that unless something changed, Great Britain could not continue the war in 1918.
Haig wanted to conduct further offensives in Flanders in 1916 and early 1917, but the battles of the Somme and Arras (in support of Verdun and the French Nivelle Offensive respectively) always took priority. However, in June of 1917, he could do so. First, he could ostensibly claim clearing the U-boat pens in the Belgian ports on the North Sea as an objective. Also, he could capitalize on the capture of the Messines Ridge the previous month. There would be no time to dig further mines, but Haig felt that the German Army was at the breaking point, and one more big push was all that was needed. Haig could not have been more wrong. German morale was as high in July of 1917 as it ever would be in the First World War. The Germans broke the Russian Army, or at least they thought so. (Bolshevism did actually and the Germans capitalized on it, but in the end it doesn’t matter because that’s what they believed.) They thrashed the Romanians, were on their way south to do the same to the Italians, and had given better than they got despite everything the British and French had thrown at them. They suffered massive casualties, but the Allies more so. America’s entry in the war was problematic, but even the densest and most myopic feldwebel in the German Army understood that the victorious troops on the Eastern Front would reinforce the Western Front and defeat the British and French before America doughboys could arrive in force.
Haig’s thoughts on the state of the German Army were rooted in the belief that he won every battle so far in the war. He did this by “moving the goal posts” during each battle, i.e. changing the conditions by which he could claim victory. Each offensive’s final objective started out as a breakthrough and destruction of the German Army. When that didn’t happen, he narrowed the focus for victory, almost always to a tactically important piece of terrain, that only had strategic significance because he said so. Then he threw more and more troops into battle to achieve what eventually amounted to a face saving “victory” for the newspapers. He would continue an offensive despite the casualties until he felt he could claim victory. For example, his latest claim to a meaningless victory was the Nivelle Offensive, where he claimed victory after the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge despite the lack of a breakthrough and complete and bloody failure everywhere else. In essence he sacrificed long term success for short term headlines, even though the millions of British and Commonwealth casualties and near static trench lines since 1914 would have had anyone else fired long before.
At the end of July 1917, Haig was going to do it again.
On 31 July 1917, twelve British, Australian, Kiwi, and French divisions, nearly 150,000 men, went over the top in the already tortured, blood soaked, and pock marked moonscape of Flanders around the Ypres (pronounced “E-priss”) Salient.
The hard learned reforms by the Canadians proven on Vimy Ridge had not reached the rest of the force, and the Third bloody Battle of Ypres began after a massive week long area artillery barrage. Surprise was lost, and the barrage just enlightened the prepared Germans as to where to place their reserves. The Allies made almost no gains (they captured only a small portion of the hard fought Plickim Ridge) and incurred massive casualties on themselves.
True to form, Haig reinforced the offensive and ordered it continued. But even Haig had no control over the weather, and unseasonal rains flooded the area. The heaviest rainfall in August in Flanders in 30 years turned the battlefield into a swampy morass. That the bombardment ruined what was left of the any drainage systems didn’t help. Tanks were stuck, supply lories immobilized, and men lived and fought in a sea of mud, which was a ghastly stew of earth, the abandoned or discarded accoutrements of war, and the remains of tens of thousands unburied casualties from the previous two Battles of Ypres. Nonetheless, Haig continued the battle into August and September to little gain.
In mid-September, Haig replaced the local British commander, and the new commander, Gen. Herbert Plumer, understood his superior. He pushed for small, local, intermittent gains; just enough for Haig to signify progress. But by October, Plumer’s gains were not enough and his men were worn out. Plumer stalled in the face of Passchendaele (pronounced “Pa-shin-dolly”) Ridge.
Haig brought up his only troops proven to be able crack a strong German position: the Canadian Corps. LieutGen Currie, the brains and drive behind the success at Vimy Ridge and now the commander of the Canadian Corps, demanded time to prepare the assault. With Plumer’s backing, (Plumer was one of only a few British commanders Currie trusted), Haig relented.
Currie didn’t have the time to dig saps and assault bunkers, but he was permitted to employ his other reforms, namely the planning and preparation down to platoon level and the creeping barrage. With Plumer’s encouragement, Currie began a series of “bite and hold” operations that slowly but consitently devoured Passchendaele Ridge.
However, time was working against Currie and the Canadians. Haig was forced to send badly needed men and material to Italy after the Italian Army’s collapse at the Battle of Camporetto, aka the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. Moreover, German troops were released from the Eastern Front after the October Bolshevik Revolution and they went directly into the line opposite the Canadians. The German counterattacks grew more fierce and several employed mustard gas, whose burns were much more efficient than the chlorine gas used previously. Still, the Canadians held their hard won gains.
But Haig needed a victory before the onset of winter and ordered the Canadians to attack and seize the ridge. There was no time for any further extensive life saving preparations. The Canadian Corps went over the top and into the teeth of the German machine guns and artillery fire. After three bloody direct assaults, British and Canadian troops seized Passchendaele Ridge on 6 November 1917. Haig ended the battle shortly thereafter, and claimed victory.
The Allies gained just nine miles at the cost of 450,000 casualties.
The Canadians, whose soldiers’ exploits months before brought together a country, suffered their first national disaster. The cream of the Canadian youth lay dead on “The Passchendaele”. Because of the their sacrifice and face saving limited victory, the Third Battle of Ypres is more commonly known today as The Battle of Passchendaele, despite Passchendaele Ridge comprising only a small part of the fighting from July to November. But all of the propaganda couldn’t cover up the loss of so many for so little gain. The Battle of Passchendaele was the last and most iconic of the great attrition battles of the First World War. Even more than the Somme, “Passchendaele” became a watchword for a great expenditure of men and material in the name of pride.
For the next thirty years “Passchendaele” would be invoked to stop the senseless slaughter of an entire generation of men in a vain attempt at victory.