The Great War, coup attempt and others

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Myth of Somme 'automata' insults memory of Great War dead

Myth of Somme 'automata' insults memory of Great War dead

Sir: Bruce Anderson in his otherwise thought-provoking article on the death of Fusilier Gentle (23 August) perpetuates one of the myths of the Great War when he claims that British soldiers were regarded as "automata" and discouraged from using their initiative. On the contrary, the British Army in 1914 was fully trained in (by the standards of the day) highly sophisticated "fire and movement" tactics and Field Service Regulations placed great emphasis upon soldiers using their initiative.

While it took some time for the frontline infantry, especially in the Territorial and "New Army" formations, to adapt to the conditions of trench warfare, at no time did the High Command downgrade the pre-war emphasis upon individual initiative and the use of innovative tactics. Even on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when the myth presumes that British infantry invariably advanced upon the enemy positions in strictly regimented lines, the use of fire and movement tactics was actively encouraged in those units whose training was sufficiently advanced to practise them.

By mid-1918, when the British Expeditionary Force went onto the offensive in the now largely forgotten "100 days" campaign that brought the German army to its knees, the hard-won lessons of 1916 and 1917 had been well learned and the British Army was able to employ a variety of battle-winning tactics involving the co-ordination of all arms - infantry, artillery, engineers and the new tank arm, as well as tactical air support - that was far in advance of that achieved by any other power.

British soldiers in the First World War neither fought nor died "as cattle" and it does no service to the memory of the 744,702 men from the British Isles and the 202,321 men from the wider British Empire who paid the ultimate sacrifice on the field of battle to pretend otherwise.

Tonbridge, Kent

Regime change in Equatorial Guinea

Sir: Sir Mark Thatcher is accused of financing an armed group to invade an oil-rich foreign country, depose the current dictator, and install a puppet regime with whom a deal can be made concerning oil supplies.

Your leading article (26 August) says the British government should assist in the investigations into Sir Mark's alleged activities. Whilst they would certainly seem to be illegal under international law, I am at a bit of a loss to see what objection Her Majesty's Government could have to the activities he is accused of. Would it not be more consistent for Blair to hire him as a consultant?


Sir: I understand that the charge against Sir Mark Thatcher is that he plotted to overthrow the "legitimate" government of Equatorial Guinea. Who is to determine such "legitimacy" and upon what basis? The South African government may seek to say "the government is legitimate because we recognise it" - but is that recognition de facto or de jure? Will the South African courts allow that question to be canvassed and evidence to be brought to bear upon it?

Many, including supporters of the present South African regime, would have argued, not so long ago, against the "legitimacy" of its own predecessors. Whilst I hold no brief for those who go in for such adventures - in which innocent blood might be shed only to replace one tyrant by another - would it be altogether a bad thing if the courts in one African country now seeking to observe the rule of law come to a decision which will cause dictators to fear that there are legal systems which will not protect them by indiscriminately criminalising those who may seek to depose them?


Sir: You seem incapable of mentioning the name of Simon Mann, in custody in Zimbabwe, without mentioning that he is an Old Etonian. What if he is? What relevance can Mr Mann's educational history have to his current predicament?

Ledbury, Herefordshire

Sir: Equatorial Guinea is not Africa's third largest oil producer (report, 26 August). It is surpassed by Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Angola.

Rotherham, South Yorkshire

Sir: How is it possible that Sir Mark could be guilty of anything when he has never done anything in his life? Free the Privileged One.

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Tories and rights Act

Sir: Thank you for your front page leader defending the Human Rights Act (24 August). The Conservative Party's motives in launching their campaign have nothing to do with human rights or curbing the alleged compensation culture; it is all about conning the electorate into believing that the party will "deal with" matters that the public feels strongly about.

They have reasoned that most people believe that the European Convention on Human Rights was conceived and created by the EU and has been thrust upon Britain as part of the EU conspiracy against this country; therefore if they promise to do something about it, they can harvest anti-EU votes without having to produce details as to how it would be done and what the real effect would be.

Similarly, most people are strongly against the ridiculous awards of compensation that have been made over the years (although in some cases this disapproval is probably mixed with a little envy) but would be sympathetic to those cases where compensation is obviously justified and needed. The Conservatives hope to cash in on the disapproval but have not explained how the courts, which make the awards, are to be controlled.


Sir: Robert Verkaik and Nigel Morris, in their excellent rebuttal of David Davis's ill-informed attack on the Human Rights Act, note that he does not reveal the source of his research. The figures Mr Davis misleadingly quotes were produced by the Human Rights Act Research Project which I formerly directed. The 20-fold rise in cases he refers to in the first 18 months of the Act's life do not relate to new cases taken because of the HRA.

The research demonstrates that, in almost every instance, these cases would have been taken anyway. The difference is that individuals could claim their fundamental rights under the European Convention on Human Rights during the course of such cases whereas previously they were barred from doing so. Although only a small proportion were successful, these have included landmark gains for disabled people, gay partners and mental health detainees. Repealing the HRA so that UK citizens would again have to rely on the Strasbourg court alone, gives a whole new meaning to the term "exporting human rights".

Professorial Research Fellow
Centre for the Study of Human Rights
London School of Economics
London WC2

Liberation of Paris

Sir: John Lichfield is to be congratulated on his balanced and perceptive article on history, myth and the liberation of Paris (25 August).

My nine years of living in Paris included the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the liberation of Paris celebrations in 1994. In the French media the British contribution to D-Day was minimised and the Canadians were entirely left out of the accounts of the Normandy landings. The French celebration of the liberation of Paris perpetuated de Gaulle's myth of self-liberation, and it was then the turn of the Americans to be sidelined.

Fortunately most French adults are too intelligent to be taken in by the Gaullist tradition of falsified history. Without the Anglo-Saxons, there would have been no liberation of Paris at all.

London N19

Women's football

Sir: I thought I would settle down last night and watch some of the ladies football matches in the Olympics. What a disappointment! The game they played was 20 years out of date.

They did not spit every two minutes. They did not dive. They did not fall down whenever they were in the penalty area. They did not feign injury. There was no arguing with the referee. There was no deliberate effort to get an opposing player sent off. There were no amateur dramatics. There were no really nasty tackles.

No, I have to admit that they have a long way to go to catch up with our highly paid professionals. Long may it be so.


Revolutionary ideas

Sir: While I and others may disagree with some of Che Guevara's ideas it is not true that he was simply an apologist for Stalin or the Soviet Union (Johann Hari, 27 August). Like many of his generation he was initially attracted to what he perceived the USSR offered as an alternative system to capitalism. However, the more he saw of the bureaucratic one-party regime which existed, the more disillusioned he became with it.

This was especially the case following his visit to the USSR in 1964. Che at this time began to look for an alternative to the Stalinist regime which then existed, and was studying the works of Leon Trotsky at the time of his death. The reason Che Guevara acts as such an inspiration to young people today is that he fought to the end against capitalism and remained uncorrupted.

London N1

Sir: Johann Hari should visit Cuba and observe the proliferation of school buildings, the cleanliness and obvious good health of the children and the excellent health system. He should then visit Lima and observe the appalling and squalid conditions in which many hundreds of thousands of people live in the shanty towns to the south of that city and reflect that Cuba would be like that were it not for the revolution of 1959.

He quotes Guevara as stating the desirability of becoming "an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine", but in the next paragraph he talks about the murdering of innocent people. It is precisely because the Cuban revolutionaries were discriminating in their use of violence that they secured the co-operation of the local populace, without whom they could not have succeeded.


Sir: The problem for the left is that it may be OK to decry the gulags, but it is less easy to move on from "democratic centrism".

In his History of Moden Russia, Robert Service highlighted the problem with Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to reform the collective farms: "Kolkhozniki and sovkhozniki remained subject to a system of peremptory orders, and of weak ministerial incentives; and they had no positive influence over the running of the collective farm: they were bossed by farm chairmen and the chairmen themselves were bossed by Moscow."

This sounds remarkably similar to the Blairite model of running education, health, and the railways. Gorbachev clung to democratic centrism, and failed.

Thornton Cleveleys, Lancashire

Sir: When Johann Hari calls himself a "left-winger", does he do so in the same spirit of playful irony which causes so many middle-class women to describe themselves as "vegetarian", even though they eat chicken and fish?


Promises, promises  

Sir: So Labour is "likely to rule out rises in income tax after election" (report, 24 August). How nice to know. Just as reassuring as it was to read in Labour's 2001 Manifesto: "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them."

London W7

Dashing away

Sir: It may interest you to know that 65 years ago my twin and I used to send Morse code messages to each other during lessons at school (letter: "Dotty habit", 27 August). Sitting one behind the other, the one in front simply slipped a foot out into the aisle - the toe was a dot and the heel a dash. It was quite an effective pursuit when things got a little boring. I, too, can still repeat the alphabet.

Hope Valley, Derbyshire

London conference

Sir: You labelled the European Social Forum an "al-Qaradawi conference" (Pandora, 26 August). This event is rich in importance and the agenda for reform of our world that it brings; there will be tens of thousands of participants and speakers too numerous to mention. The Mayor of London's support for the event preceded his invitation to Sheikh al-Qaradawi; in any case, the sheikh is not coming, with the forum falling on the first days of Ramadan.

Muslim Association of Britain
London N4

Under threat

Sir: As a procedure for more efficient use of motorways, overtaking on the inside definitely deserves investigation. However, Brad Ingram's use of the term "undertaking" for this manoeuvre (letter, 27 August) could be considered unfortunate - though it does highlight the possible dangers.

London SW18