Sinking Into Oblivion

The SS Arabic sinking (Image: Photo: Illustrated London News [London, England]

The SS Arabic sinking (Image: Illustrated London News [London, England]

The captain was on the bridge of the ship when he saw the track of the torpedo about 300 ft away, but by then it was too late.

Captain William Finch was a portly man, but I imagine him moving faster than someone of his build would be expected. I can almost see those jowls quiver as he issued his final commands before the torpedo struck, sending a huge column of water into the air and hurling him into the sea.

Finch was sucked beneath the roiling waves, but he fought for his life and managed to make his way to the surface.

SS Arabic

SS Arabic

It was August 19, 1915, and his passenger ship, the SS Arabic, was in its death throes, having been torpedoed without warning by German submarine U-24 just four miles off Ireland’s Cape Clear.

There were 180 passengers – 145 British, 26 Americans and several Spanish, French, Belgians and Russians on board, as well as 250 crew, travelling from Liverpool to New York.

Fourteen lifeboats were launched, and all the passengers donned the life jackets that had been placed around the ship’s deck. Finch and his men must have worked very fast because in little over 10 minutes the SS Arabic would be gone, taking 44 lives with her.

Captain WIliam Finch (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Captain William Finch
(Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Had it not been for the quick actions of captain and crew, the number of fatalities would have been higher. As William Finch said later about the engineers, who stuck to their posts up to the last moment: ‘They were heroes a thousand times over, who carried out my orders from the bridge, even when they knew the ship was sinking.

‘It was well that this was so, as otherwise the loss of life would have been very large, as the enemy submarine never gave us any warning whatever, and as a matter of fact we never saw her.’

A little over two months earlier, on June 9, the luxury liner RMS Lusitania was struck by a torpedo just a few miles from the Arabiic’s position. It sank with the loss of almost 1200 lives.

On October 10, 1918, the RMS Leinster would suffer the same fate. A German submarine sank it as it travelled across the Irish Sea to Holyhead. A total of 529 civilian and military passengers were killed that day – the greatest ever loss of life in that stretch of water and the greatest loss of life on an Irish-registered ship.

I’d never heard of the Leinster, much less the Arabic. It is ships like the Lusitania and the Titanic that we commemorate. The loss of life was greater in those tragedies, and in the numbers’ game that sometimes is history, they qualify as somehow being more significant.

Tell that to the families of those on the Arabic, who felt the weight of their loss almost a hundred years ago to this day.

History can be as unforgiving as the cruel sea. It takes complex, nuanced lives that were filled with passions, secrets, loves and fears, and then consigns them to its dusty depths, leaving only a statistic to be browsed by the mildly curious.

I’ll think of the Arabic in the days ahead. That’s not much as far as commemorations go, but it’s all that’s left.

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The Stars Who Earned Their Stripes

I first heard the phrase ‘Do you talk the walk or walk the talk?’ as a child. It came from the lips of John Wayne and it has stuck with me ever since, particularly when someone uses it incorrectly and refers to ‘walking the walk and talking the talk’. At such moments my inner pedant bristles. That peculiar foible aside, it’s nice to know whether someone ‘walks the talk’ or merely ‘talks the walk’.

In the past few days that phrase came up during references to Mixed Martial Arts fighter Conor McGregor, from Dublin. Pundits wondered if he would ‘walk the talk’ when it came to his interim title fight in Las Vegas last week with top contender Chad Mendes. It turned out that McGregor could, indeed, back up his boasting. In Dublinese, he wasn’t ‘all mouth and no trousers’.

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee

Doubts of a similar nature have been cast against the late great actor Christopher Lee, concerning his wartime record.

Amongst his 356 movies, Lee is best remembered for his role as Dracula in the Hammer Horror-produced films and as Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. His career had a resurgence when he played the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings series.

But it is with a previous role that I wish to mention him. During World War II Lee is said to have served with Special Operations Execute (SOE) and the Long Range Desert Group (which was a precursor to the SAS).

Due to Lee’s refusal to speak about his war service, the information concerning his actual role remains sketchy and, according to one historian of the SAS, it is somewhat inflated.

In an interview with The Spectator magazine, Gavin Mortimer, who specialises in SAS history, claims Lee had ‘led on’ the public to believe he played a bigger role.

‘Lee didn’t exactly lie, but he did lead us on, encouraging us to believe it had involved more… than it actually did,’ claims Mortimer.

So, did the actor ‘walk the talk?’ Well, Lee did serve as an RAF intelligence officer in Africa and also had some involvement with the SOE and SAS. At the end of the war he became a Nazi hunter, a job which required him visiting concentration camps.

Personally, I can’t see what Mortimer’s problem is, but here’s something else that might illustrate Lee’s mettle.

While filming on Lord of The Rings, a scene required Lee’s character to be stabbed in the back. Director Peter Jackson wanted Lee to cry out in pain when the ‘blade’ entered.

Lee refused, saying: ‘Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he’s stabbed in the back?’

The director admitted that he hadn’t.

‘Well, I have, and I know what to do.’

Enough said…

David Niven

David Niven

Lee isn’t the only actor who walked the talk, though. One of my favourites, David Niven (for a real laugh and a great insight into the golden days of Hollywood you have to read The Moon’s A Balloon’), did likewise.

Niven was a British actor, debonair, good-looking and charming. He invariably played the hero in movies – he starred in The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dawn Patrol and The Prisoner of Zenda, amongst other films – but he was also something of a hero himself during the war.

Niven trained as an elite Commando and took part in the invasion of Normandy in 1944. He commanded a specialist reconnaissance unit called Phantom, which located and reported enemy positions.

It’s nice to know that Niven not only looked the part of a brave officer in his films but did so in real life, too.

Richard ToddAnother star who did likewise was Richard Todd. He was actually Irish, but played stiff-upper-lip types in his roles. Todd was one of the very first men on the ground on D-Day. He was a captain in the parachute regiment and played a key role in the daring night-time operation to seize Pegasus Bridge.

The movie, The Longest Day portrayed that raid. Interestingly, Todd had a role in the movie – not playing himself (some other actor did that), but his commanding officer during the raid.

I can only imagine what was going through the movie director’s mind as he told Todd how to play the scene.

Lewis Collins

Lewis Collins

Growing up in the Seventies I used to champ at the bit waiting for the latest episode of The Professionals to hit the screen. The show involved two British SAS-type plainclothes men who did all manner of daring things for queen and country. One of the stars, Lewis Collins, was mean and moody and certainly looked the part. The fact that he used to be a hairdresser before he got the role is neither here nor there.

Collins would find himself typecast in action man roles for the rest of his career. He tried out for the role of James Bond but never made it . . . being deemed ‘too aggressive’ to play 007. Ironically, if he was around today, Collins would have made for a great Bond.

The other thing about Collins was that he was obviously tough as nails. Aside from achieving fame in The Professionals, he starred in the SAS movie, Who Dares Wins.

Privately, he yearned to join the elite regiment. He even passed the rigorous and debilitating selection course to become a member of the Territorial SAS (part-time members, but no-less effective) but was refused admission due to his celebrity. Collins had to content himself by training with 3 Company of the 10th (V) Battalion Parachute Regiment instead.

James Stewart

James Stewart

That great Hollywood star James Stewart was another whose real life actions could overshadow any heroic role he ever played in the movies.

Stewart, who played a string of cowboy roles as well as starring in the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Rear Window and Vertigo, was the first A-list Hollywood star to enlist, joining a bombing squadron when America went to war against Japan and Germany.

He also became the highest-ranked star (a Colonel) and the most decorated (the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars).

Stewart continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve for a further 22 years, working on a military base during the Korean War, and even flying a non-combat mission in Vietnam. He was a one-star general in the USAF by the time he retired.

Audie Murphy  (courtesy US Army)

Audie Murphy
(courtesy US Army)

Finally, one can’t talk about heroic stars without mentioning Audie Murphy, who was one of the most decorated US combat soldier in World War II, having received every military combat medal the army could award, including the Medal of Honour.

Murphy won that for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers (over two hundred men) for an hour and managing to lead a counterattack while wounded.

His bravery and cherubic good looks found him fame in Hollywood after the war, when he starred in a slew of westerns, as well as his own biopic. To Hell And Back.

Quite simply put, when it comes to living up to the hype, Murphy could not only walk the talk, he could run, waltz and sashay it too.

To all those stars who earned their stripes, we salute you.

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GIs, Spies and the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’…

A few weeks ago I saw some photos that made for uncomfortable viewing. They showed a paedophile who had been chased by a mob of Irish parents. The man had been kicked and beaten. Blood ran from his nose as he  leaned, dazed against the roof of a car. The parents had learned that he was living in the area and that he had been seen outside a local school. They marched to the hostel in which he was staying and he fled, but they caught up with him and some of the fathers present let their fists and feet do the talking.

I’m a father-of-four, and part of me was glad to see such a vile person get a beating, but there was niggle, too, that I couldn’t quite shake. I think it might have been the image of normally law-abiding citizens breaking society’s rules so blatantly – the anarchy of mob mentality, however justified – unsettled me. Such mob law can infect even the most disciplined of people as history shows.

The scene of the Nazi executions at Dachau

The scene of the Nazi executions at Dachau

Take, for example, what happened when Dachau concentration camp was liberated in April, 1945 by soldiers from the US 45th Infantry Division… Upon their arrival, the GIs discovered more than 2,000 bodies stuffed inside 39 rail goods wagons. That sight, coupled with everything else they had witnessed in the death camp, proved to be the tipping point for these battle-scarred troops.

The soldierss gathered together 30 SS guards, lined them up against a coal yard wall and machine-gunned them. Others were shot elsewhere in the camp. Some of the freed prisoners also exacted their revenge by beating their former tormentors and killing them.

A letter has recently emerged, written by Capt David Wilsey, an anesthesiologist in the Seventh Army, which describes the horrors he saw in Dachau and the revenge meted out by GIs to the Nazis. An article in the New Republic recounts his testimony to those events. On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, Wilsey sent a seven-page letter to his wife, Emily, describing what he witnessed.

He wrote: ‘I saw captured SS tortured against a wall [by U.S. soldiers] and then shot in what you Americans would call ‘cold blood’—but Emily! ‘God forgive me if I say I saw it done without a single disturbed emotion BECAUSE THEY SO HAD-IT-COMING after what I had just seen and what every minute more I have been seeing of the SS beasts’ actions’.

Some have described these acts as shameful, but it’s easy to say that from this point in time. The Nazi guards at Dachau were responsible for the murder of 35,000 innocent people. So, put yourself in those GIs’ shoes and you might have been cheering them on – or worse, in the thick of the blood lust.

In Irish history, one day of revenge stands out more than others . . . that of November 21, 1920, during the War of Independence.

For quite some time, the republican leader Michael Collins had been monitoring British spies in the capital. When he had gathered enough intelligence about their addresses and their movements he sent his hit men, ‘The Squad’ or ‘The Twelve Apostles’ as they were also known. to track them down.

The Cairo Gang

The Cairo Gang

Among the targets were members of the ‘Cairo Gang’ (so-called because of their patronage of the Cairo Cafe on Grafton Street and from their service in British military intelligence in Egypt and Palestine). Within a few hours 14 British officers had been killed, sending shockwaves through the Crown forces.

A reprisal was called for. Later that day, Dublin and Tipperary were playing a charity football match at Croke Park stadium. British Auxiliary forces marched into the ground, ostensibly to search the thousands of  supporters present for weapons.

The troops opened fire almost immediately, killing 14 people. Among those who died were Tipperary players Michael Hogan  and Thomas Ryan, said to have been shot on his knees while reciting an act of contrition to Hogan.

The killings were followed by more deaths later that evening in Dublin Castle when three IRA officers  – Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune -were beaten and shot by their captors for supposedly trying to escape.

The events of the day became known as Bloody Sunday. The revenge meted out by the British backfired. The outcry was loud and fierce and only prompted further support for the IRA.

However, there is one act of revenge the effectiveness of which could never be questioned. It involves one Mariya Oktyabrskaya, a Soviet housewife who decided to get proactive when she received notice of her husband’s death in battle in 1943.

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Rather than go into mourning for his loss, Mariya sold all her possessions and then offered to honour her husband’s memory by buying the Soviet state a new T-34 tank. . . with one proviso – that she would be the one to drive it into battle against the Nazis.

The military agreed, smacking their lips at the prospect of such a propaganda  coup.

After completing her tank driver’s course, Mariya rolled her T-34 – nicknamed ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ – into battle.

Male officers scoffed at this propaganda stunt, but Mariya’s confident command of the tank soon shut them up – as did her bravery, which she showed at the Second Battle of Smolensk, where she led her unit straight into enemy fire.

Shortly after, during another battle, her tank got separated  when a German shell broke the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’s’ tracks. She and her crew had to conduct repairs in the thick of enemy fire, while keeping the enemy at bay with their guns.

In March of 1944, Mariya was hit by shrapnel while conducting more repairs to her tank during a battle. She died of her wounds two months later. Shortly after that she was made a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Had Mariya’s husband not fallen in battle against the Nazis she probably would never have had the opportunity to make the Germans reap the whirlwind of her revenge.

The love of her husband propelled Mariya into the thick of the action with just the beast she needed. I suppose you could call it a case of tank’s for the memories…

It’s okay, you can stop groaning now.

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The Defiant Ones

There are many ways to subvert authority that don’t require resorting to violence. Gandhi did it through non-cooperation and passive resistance against British rule in India in the 1920s. Rosa Parks did it on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person because her feet hurt and she wasn’t in the mood to stand for the journey home.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

That small act of civil disobedience led to her arrest and acted a catalyst to the simmering racial tensions of the day. Rosa’s sore feet brought about momentous events for which she is celebrated to this day.

Last week, Irish citizens caused a seismic societal shift by voting in a change to the constitution to recognise same-sex marriage… the only country in the world to do so by popular vote. It was a bold move, and one which does this country great credit, especially when you consider how repressive Irish society has been up until relatively recently.

Put it this way, such was the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society that it wasn’t until 1979 that married couples were allowed access contraception – and then only with a doctor’s prescription. It would take until 1993 before all restrictions were removed relating to the sale of condoms and, incredibly, it was only in 2011 that the morning-after-pill could be sold without prescription.

These changes to Irish society were largely down to the campaigning zeal of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, which aimed to subvert the country’s strict anti-contraceptive prohibitions. They did so quite effectively by taking a train to Belfast (part of Britain, for those who are unaware), in May 1971. There, they purchased condoms and spermicides over the counter, and returned with them to Dublin’s Connolly Station.

The customs men on duty were so mortified at seeing a gang of over 40 slogan-chanting women walking towards them brandishing their contraband, that they quickly waved them through… banned items and all.

One or two of the ladies even chose to inflate the condoms once they got outside the station. The media lapped it all up and the response across Ireland to the ‘condom train’ was immense, sparking debate on a subject that had been hitherto taboo.

My favourite act of subversion comes from Romania, where one Irina Nistor chose a unique way to defy the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Nistor worked as a translator on programmes for Romanian state television. In 1985, a colleague asked if she would be interested in dubbing banned foreign films.

And so began a momentous era for Romania’s movie fans. Nistor dubbed over 1,000 movies into Romanian – and she played ALL the parts, whether it was Van Damme, Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, Irina did all the voices.

She would finish work and then go to an apartment to dub films until midnight. It was a hurried, secret affair with no time for finesse. Nistor would dub as many as eight French or English movies a day in an improvised basement studio. Since there wasn’t time to watch the movies first, she had to dub them in real time on her first viewing.

Irina Nistor

Irina Nistor

At a time of secret police and repression, the films (which were watched by large groups huddled around a TV set) gave a glimpse into the outside world. It didn’t matter that a 28-year-old woman was voicing De Niro in Taxi Driver or Pacino in The Godfather, Nistor gave people the chance to put two fingers up to Ceausescu’s dictatorship and enjoy a good film in the process (although I’m not sure about some of those Chuck Norris ones…)

Irina Nistor’s small act of defiance had a huge effect. For a generation of Romanians, she became the voice of the movies and gave them some much-needed enjoyment… not a bad way to be remembered at the end of the day.

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For Whom The Bell Trolls

A short while ago a group of authors got together to write an anthology of humorous and dark work, called For Whom The Bell Trolls. The authors receive no financial reward for their work. Net profits go to the charity, Equality Now. However, that’s not the reason to read this book – the reason  to read it is because it is hugely entertaining and  brilliantly illustrated.

Each story or poem is based around the theme of trolls. You will find some great writing inside, trust me on that. Here is a snippet of my own short story, Boiling Point, which I’m proud to have had included in this great ‘antrollogy’…

troll noun: troll; plural noun: trolls (in folklore) an ugly cave-dwelling creature depicted as either a giant or a dwarf.

John Darby stood by the front door and steeled himself for the weekly ordeal. He adjusted the peak of his baseball cap and waited, trying to still his breathing and control the shake in his large hands. When he was ready, he opened the door and stepped out onto the pavement.

It was dark. The moon was hidden behind a thick bank of cloud, and for that John Darby was grateful. The streetlights had long since ceased to work. Well-directed stones from the gang of teenagers who hung out in these parts had seen to that. And Darby was glad of that, too, because the darkness covered a multitude of sins.

He shuffled towards the dim speck of light in the distance, the sack he held in one overlong arm trailing on the ground behind him. Darby’s breathing was laboured; it always was ever since he’d been a boy, back in the day. He could feel the mucus heavy on his chest. He tried to clear it but couldn’t, so he huffed his way towards the light of the supermarket.

It was nice to have these few moments of peace, to feel the light breeze on his face as he walked unmolested. It wouldn’t last. It never did.

He saw them up ahead, waiting — the boys gathering for the show. He kept moving, head down, his large shoulders slumped forward. With each step the tension grew, but he kept going; he had to.

There were six of them, sitting on the low wall of what had once been the Mason family home. He could see the red glow of their cigarettes, like tiny warning beacons in the night.

As he came parallel the abuse began.

“Oh man, look at the head on him… Jeeze put a bag over that thing would ya, it ain’t Halloween.”

Cackles from the others, but he kept moving.

troll“Hey, Joey, I think he fell outta the ugly tree and hit every damn branch on the way down!”

Hoots this time.

One of them walked alongside him, but not too close. They weren’t stupid. The boy contorted himself and dragged his leg like it was a heavy log. “I’m not an animal… I’m a human being.” He slobbered out the words as his friends fell about laughing.

Darby had heard that one before. It was a poor imitation of Joseph Merrick — the so-called Elephant Man.

He felt a sharp sting in his thigh as a coin was flung at him — then another. Ten cent coins hurt.

“Go on Sasquatch… get your food. It’s feedin’ time at the zoo!”

“Man, he’s pig ugly… Can you imagine what his mom musta looked like? I wouldn’t hump her with yours Freddie!”

That hurt. Darby tensed his muscles. He could snap these boys in half like twigs, but what good would that do? It would only bring more trouble on his head.

He reached the supermarket, making sure to pull the rim of the baseball cap lower over his eyes. He didn’t want to scare anyone. Mr. Pargeter gave him a troubled nod as he swung the door open and shuffled inside.

This wouldn’t take long. Pargeter was a helpful man that way. He always made sure to have the order ready — ten tins of meatballs, eight tins of beans, fourteen mini pizzas, a tub of condensed milk and two slabs of Coke, his weekly ration.

Darby paid the bill, noting how the storekeeper avoided looking at him throughout the entire transaction. Then he filled the huge sack with the rest of the items, tucked the slabs under his arm and went back outside.

He waited for the taunting to start up again, but everything was quiet. The boys had gone.

Darby made his slow progress down the ruined streetscape towards home. Home… an ill-lit hovel that had somehow survived the developer’s wrecking ball… for now. His was the only house left on the row. A colony of bats had taken residence in a huge old shed out back and had saved him the inconvenience of moving. The regulations said that they could not be disturbed, so Darby stayed, too.

He opened the front door and stepped back into the welcoming darkness. He didn’t notice the smell; it had been there for so long. Around him the detritus was overwhelming, but he didn’t see it. All Darby saw was his La-Z-Boy amid a mountain of magazines and old newspapers. There was a coffee table somewhere, too, surrounded by dozens and dozens of plastic bags stuffed to the brim. They engulfed him like a comfort blanket, blocking out the world beyond.

He heard giggling. Darby stiffened. He was tired and it was one thing for them to jeer him in the street, but this was his home so he let out a roar and smiled as he heard their panicked cursing, their mad scramble as they tripped through his hoarded life and struggled out the back door.

You’ll find the rest of the short story here…

The good thing is that all net profits from the ‘antrollogy’ go towards Equality Now.

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Class acts – The Irish Sisters who helped bring Communism to the World

Friedrich Engels’s name will forever be associated with that of Karl Marx. Together, they would write The Communist Manifesto, and in doing so would change the world.

There’s a saying that behind every good man is a great woman — well, Friedrich Engels had two… sisters by the name of Mary and Lizzie Burns. The interesting thing about them is that they hail from the Irish slums in Manchester. Engels was wealthy — the son of a mill owner — and yet he seemed to be in touch with the needs of the working class.

How was that possible? Well, that’s where the sisters come in. I know little about Engels or the birth of Communism, but I know a man who does. Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs Engels, focuses on a fascinating partnership that helped bring Communism to the wider world — not the partnership of Engels and Marx, but that more private one of Engels and his working class Irish lovers, the sisters Mary and Lizzie Burns.

There is little recorded about the sisters, so Gavin had to bring them to life, and in doing so he gave Lizzie, in particular, a strong and vibrant voice. Here, Gavin highlights the importance of the two women in the political and psychological development of Engels. Over to you Gavin…

In 1842, at the age of twenty-two, Friedrich Engels was sent to Manchester to do a two-year internship at his father’s cotton mill. It was hoped that this training would prepare the young Engels for a career in the cotton industry. Instead, Engels’s experience in Manchester, his exposure to its mass poverty specifically, was to awaken his class consciousness and lay the foundations of his future communist philosophy.

Back in his native Barmen in 1844, Engels wrote his exposé Condition of the Working Class in England. He did so with a bourgeois German audience in mind. His aim was to lay bare to the literate, property-owning and industrialist class of his homeland — the class he himself was born into — the privation and degradation suffered by the workers as a direct consequence of the capitalist system. He wanted to show the bourgeoisie that capitalism was, in fact, theirs.

It was they, and they alone, who benefited from it; they were responsible for its form and ensured its continuance; and it was they, now, who must be made to see its effects.

Gavin McCrea

Gavin McCrea

‘Let us hear,’ Engels implored repeatedly in Condition. ‘Let us hear, let us hear,’ over and over again. It was thus, by the force of his rhetoric, that he accused the bourgeoisie of turning a deaf ear to the cries and protestations of the people who suffered under capitalism. The bourgeoisie, he was implying, were choosing to ignore the grievances of those who, to their own disadvantage, sustained capitalism and its corrupt order of privileges.

Yet only rarely — on a couple of occasions in more than two hundred pages — did he actually ‘let us hear’ the voices of the suffering workers themselves. Instead, he devoted the vast majority of his text to the comments and opinions of middle-class observers.

It was the bourgeoisie, and not the workers, whom, in the final event, Engels called upon to speak. ‘Let us hear Mr. G. Alston, preacher.’ ‘Let us hear the London Times.’ ‘Let us hear J. C. Symons, Government Commissioner.’ ‘Let us hear Thomas Carlyle.’ ‘Let us hear the bourgeois.’

He did this for a reason. He believed that the bourgeoisie would listen only to voices familiar to their own, voices that they already recognised as worthy of their attention. Faltering or inarticulate voices, on the other hand, would repel them, bore them, alienate them. Thomas Carlyle on the discontent among the cotton spinners, yes. An illiterate worker on the maiming he received on the factory floor, no. J. C. Symons on the squalor of lodging houses for the Irish immigrants, perhaps. A poor Irish woman on the loss of her child to disease, definitely not.

Lizzie Burns

Lizzie Burns

‘Let us hear,’ Engels wrote again and again, by which he meant, ‘Let us hear ourselves until we actually do.’

But — and this is what makes Condition so unsettling to read today — Engels wasn’t always clear about who ‘we’ were. He painted an uncertain picture about which class he belonged to. For while he undoubtedly directed his attack at the class he was raised in, the class with both the education to read and the political and economic power to respond, he was also at pains to align himself—if not by birth then certainly politically, philosophically and emotionally — with the working class he observed in Manchester, the class which had no access to his words.

Which is to say, while he catered to an implied bourgeois audience by keeping the workers themselves silent, he also dedicated the book to the workers themselves, addressed them throughout as if they were his compatriots, and claimed to be fighting with them against a common enemy. Indeed he often spoke as if his middle-class public wasn’t even there:

[Having] ample opportunity to watch the middle-classes, your opponents, I soon came to the conclusion that you are right, perfectly right in expecting no support whatever from them. Their interest is diametrically opposed to yours, though they always will try to maintain the contrary and to make you believe in their most hearty sympathy with your fates.

 Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

So why should the middle classes have listened to Engels’s appeals? What made him so special that he could demand their attention while at the same time keeping a distance from them? If, as his book suggested, the working class and bourgeoisie were unreconcilable enemies, then what gave him the capacity — or indeed the right — to position himself between these two camps and to profess to see the circumstances of each with equal perspicuity?

The answer lay in his private life — where else? During his internship in Manchester, Engels had a relationship with an Irish working woman called Mary Burns. It was Mary who escorted him on excursions through districts which would otherwise have been unsafe for a stranger to enter. She was Engels’s source of information about the factory and domestic conditions endured by the working people of the city.

She helped to provide him with the material for his communist theory. In 1850, when Engels returned to Manchester to take up full-time employment at the mill, again he took up with Mary, and they remained lovers until her death in 1863. At that point — or perhaps even before — he started a relationship with Mary’s sister, Lizzie.

He and Lizzie were lovers until Lizzie’s death in 1878. It was through these remarkable sisters that Engels became acquainted with the ‘undiscovered’ working people of Manchester, its struggles, its sorrows and its joys. It was Mary and Lizzie who gave him the confidence to shed his purely bourgeois identity and feel kinship with a class that, according to his own scheme, was naturally hostile to his ilk.

Mrs Engles blog tourTo the lives of Mary and Lizzie, we have no guide. Because they were illiterate and left no diaries or letters of their own, they remain ghosts in the historical record. They are the silent voices in Engels’s Condition. They are the spokeswomen who call out to be heard. But how can we hear those who are barely there? Our fantasies alone must satisfy us. Our imaginations must do the work of transforming these slight historical figures into the massive fictional characters that they deserve to be.

Gavin McCrea is the author of  Mrs Engels, published by Scribe (£14.99). In shops 1 May.

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Gallipoli’s Breakfast of Champions

It’s almost one hundred years ago to the day that a disastrous invasion plan was put into effect which would lead to eight months of horror, the deaths of 145,000 men and the complete failure of the enterprise.

The idea was to break the stalemate that had developed on the Western Front during World War One. The Gallipoli Campaign, which was thought up by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, started as a bid to take Turkey out of the conflict by launching an attack on its capital, Constantinople. Opening a second front 1,000 miles away would weaken the Kaiser and aid Russia, which was cut off from the Allies, or so the thinking went.

anzac-coveThe Allies couldn’t take the Turkish straits by sea alone, so a land attack was planned. It began on April 25, 1915. Over the next eight months 559,000 Allied forces would join the battle – 420,000 British and Empire troops, 80,000 French, 50,000 Australians and 9,000 from New Zealand.

Almost half of these men would become casualties, with around 58,000 of them dying. More than 87,000 Ottoman and German forces were killed, out of more than 300,000 casualties. The figures are truly mind-blowing.

Such high casualties are due to a number of factors – troops were both poorly trained and poorly equipped, a lack of artillery, a lack of decent maps of the area, poor sanitation and poor tactical decisions by the commanders on the ground. Poor all round really.

Amid the shambles and the profligate losses, though, were acts of incredible bravery. In the first hours of the invasion, six Victoria Crosses would be won by men engaged in a life and death struggle – the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ as they became known at the time.

The attack on the peninsula at Gallipoli began at 6am on April 25 when the First Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers landed on a mined sandy cove amid murderous gunfire from the Turks who were waiting on the high ground above. Despite the hail of bullets and men falling dead before they even left the beached invasion ships, the attack continued.

Bodies piled upon bodies, but still the men advanced onto the beach and up the cliffs where, eventually, at terrible cost, they cleared the Turks out.

Let’s leave aside the small fact that the Allies failed to secure their hard-earned beachhead and, instead, allowed the Turks to regroup and hold them there for most of the campaign that would follow. Instead, let’s look at the bravery of those six men who won the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ – men who exemplified the bravery of all those others who fell by their sides.

VC William KeneallyI’m happy to say that there was an Irishman among the six. Corporal William Keneally (28), from Wexford, was a company runner with the First Battalion. He noticed that his company’s advance on the beach was being hampered by barbed wire. He took a pair of cutters and crawled through deadly gunfire to cut it. It turned out that the cutters he used were faulty and he was unsuccessful, but his bravery earned him a VC. He died two months later.

VC Alfred Richards

Sergeant Alfred Richards had his leg almost cut off by bullets when he hit the beach, yet he continued on, crawling over the barbed wire and urging on the men around him. He ignored his injuries and led by example. When things quieted down somewhat he was evacuated to Egypt, where his leg was amputated. He died in 1953 at the age of 73.

VC Richard WillsCaptain Richard Wills led C Company at Gallipoli. AS the boats prepared to beach themselves on the sandy cove, he stood in full view of the enemy waving his cane and shouting ‘Come on boys, remember Minden’… a reference to a battle in 1759 n which the Fusiliers distinguished themselves. He died in 1966, having lived to the ripe age of 89.

VC John GrimshawCorporal John Grimshaw (19) clearly didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. As a signaller, it was his job to keep contact with the invading force and the commanders on board HMS Euryalus. Grimshaw urged on the men without considering his own safety.

The fact that his backpack and water bottle were riddled with bullets and his cap badge sot to pieces  is testament to the danger he was in. Remarkably, he remained uninjured. Grimshaw was sent home in November, 1915, suffering frostbite. He served in France in 1917 and only retired from the army in 1953. He died in 1980 at the age of 87.

VC Frank StubbsSergeant Frank Stubbs (27) led his platoon through heavy fire to link up with D Company at tree on top of a hill. Stubbs was killed just yards from the tree, but his bravery and leadership earned him the highest military honour in the British army.

VC Cuthbert BromleyMajor Cuthbert Bromley (36) was adjutant to the Commanding Officer at Gallipoli, Despite being wounded in the back, he refused to leave his men. It would be another three days before he reported to a medic after being shot in the knee. Throughout his ordeal, he is said to have distinguished himself under heavy enemy fire.

Two months later he was injured in the foot, but refused to leave his post until the action was won. Bromley was treated in Egypt and was being sent back to Gallipoli when his troopship was torpedoed. Eyewitnesses reported seeing him helping others before being hit by some driftwood and drowning.

Such magnificent men… risking all to obey some half-cocked orders dreamt up in a cosy office far from the front line. Men like these are testament to the loyalty, tenacity and bravery of all those others who fell around that deadly cove in 1915.

Six Victoria Crosses before breakfast might sound impressive, but at what a cost, what a terrible cost…

All VC photos courtesy of the Fusilier Museum

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