Saturday 23 February 2013

The Battle of Fromelles - First World War Tragedy

On the evening of 19th July 1916, British and Australian infantry attacked across a 4,000 yard section of the German front line at Fromelles.   It is situated south of Armentieres on the Aubers Ridge and an attempt to dislodge the Germans from this position in the previous year, 1915, had already cost the Allies many casualties. The battle was partly planned to divert German attention and resources from the battle of the Somme that was raging 80 kilometres to the south, but there was another major battle objective of taking a German salient called the Sugar Loaf.  The British troops were from the 61st Division, also known as the 2nd South Midland Division, and the Australians were from the Australian 5th Division, which had only arrived in France a few days before.

Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, July 1916
Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, July 1916

They went over the top at 6pm and advanced in broad daylight and in clear view of the German defenders, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, over treacherous ground.  The battle plan of General Richard Haking was to mount a daylight surprise attack past the first line of German trenches and advance around 400 metres to a secondary line.  As this was preceded by an 11 hour preliminary artillery bombardment, it was hardly surprising that the Germans were prepared and ready to meet their attackers.  Within minutes the British and Australians had sustained heavy casualties, and tragically they failed to make any ground at all.

The Australian 8th and 14th Brigades did largely hit their objectives, but they found that the German secondary line when they fought their way through to it was merely an indefensible, water-filled ditch.   On the eastern flank, the Australian 32nd Battalion suffered heavy losses attacking a German stronghold at Delangre Farm, although parts of the 14th Brigade reached the main road 400 metres to the south before they were forced to retreat back to the ditch. On the right flank, the British 184th Brigade and the Australian 15th Brigade were mown down as they attempted to cross no man’s land and reach the German front line.

With a display of ineptitude that unfortunately characterised the implementation of many battle plans in the First World War, the British 61st Division requested the Australian 15th Brigade to join in a renewed attack at 9pm.   The British cancelled the attack and failed to inform the Australians that they had done so, so the Australian 58th Battalion attacked the salient again with disastrous consequences.  The Germans managed to get in between the Australian 14th and 15th Brigades, isolating the Australians and forcing the 8th and 14th Brigades to withdraw the next morning.  As they were retreating, the Australian troops sustained heavy casualties from the machine gun enfilades that the Germans had managed to set up.

 In the night and day it took to fight the battle, 1,500 British and 5,533 Australians became casualties and for Australia it is still one of the highest number of casualties that they have suffered in 24 hours of conflict.  The Australian 5th Division was rendered virtually inoperable by the Battle of Fromelles and had to be rebuilt over several months.  These high Australian losses and the way in which the High Command had been perceived to be conducting itself before and during the battle, had the unfortunate effect of souring relations between the Australian Imperial Force and the British.  Although Gallipoli had taken nearly 9,000 Australian lives in 1915, that battle has stretched over several months.  This was 5,533 casualties, effectively all being sustained in one day.

Allied Dead Behind the German Lines at Fromelles, 1916
Allied Dead Behind the German Lines at Fromelles, 1916

After the battle was over, great courage was shown by the surviving troops as they braved the German guns and sniper fire to crawl out into no man’s land and bring in their injured comrades.  On the outskirts of Fromelles is the Australian Memorial Park which has a moving statue of one Australian soldier carrying another over his shoulders to safety.  It is inscribed with one word ‘Cobbers’.  This comes from the story told by Sergeant Simon Fraser of the Australian 57th Battalion who was out between the lines rescuing an injured man.  He was about to lift the wounded soldier when he hears another voice calling out ‘don’t forget me, cobber’.  Luckily, Fraser was successful in rescuing both men, but he lost his own life to the Great War a year later.  Even the new school in Fromelles does not have a French name; it has been called ‘Cobbers’ by the local mayor and has a kangaroo as a weather vane.

In May 2008 eight mass graves were found in Pheasant Wood near Fromelles in Northern France, although only six were found to contain bodies, after several years’ painstaking research and work by an Australian schoolteacher called Lambis Englezos.  They dated from the First World War; from the futile battle that raged over that ground from 19th-20th July in 1916 and were discovered behind the old German lines.  These would have been the bodies of the Australian and British soldiers who had been killed in the German lines and removed by them after the battle.

From May 2009 archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology excavated the site unearthing the remains of the 250 British and Australian soldiers and carefully removing them by September 2009.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was asked to oversee the work on the site by the British and Australian governments.   A new military cemetery at Fromelles was created for the reburial of the bodies, the first new one in Europe in over 50 years, with each set of remains having their own individual plot and commemorative headstone.

Every effort was made to identify the remains and the archaeologists and DNA specialists worked hard to try and link names to the bodies and then inform their families.  DNA samples were taken from all the bodies and a list was compiled of all the casualties from Fromelles who have no known grave.   Out of the 1685 soldiers with no known grave, 450 were British and the rest Australian.  Relatives of all the missing men were encouraged to come forward for DNA testing, in the hope that all 250 of the bodies could be positively identified and have their names carved on their new headstones.

There were also six anthropologists working on the remains, who provided a range of anthropological information on each body that has been added to other data collected about the body, including analysis of any artefacts that were found that with the remains.    The artefacts included boots, coins, fragments of their bibles, rings and probably most poignantly of all, the return half of an Australian train ticket from Fremantle to Perth.  After the remains were removed from the mass graves, they were washed, dried and x-rayed and any anatomical details noted that might help the Commonwealth War Graves Commission identify the body.

The bodies were temporarily stored in a mortuary on the site and then reburied in individual ceremonies with full military honours in the new military cemetery from early 2010. The first burial took place with full ceremony on 30th January 2010 and there was a special commemoration ceremony held on 19th July 2010, the anniversary of the battle.

Fromelles Military Cemetery
Fromelles Military Cemetery

General Ludendorff once made the famous statement about the Allies that ‘these men are fighting like lions, but they are led by donkeys’. So we have to ask ourselves this question.  Even if the British and Australian infantry had gained their objectives on that long ago evening in July 1916, would it have been worth the loss of so many young lives?  It is the fact that the battle proved to be a total catastrophe and that no ground was gained at all, which makes it all even sadder.  That these brave young men gave up their lives fighting for what they believed in and for their country in a futile, pointless battle.  One of the great ironies of the Battle of Fromelles is that a young German Private named Adolf Hitler was serving with his regiment in the German trenches in that area.  One stray allied shell or bullet could have changed the course of world history.

So whatever we think of war and the First World War in particular, let us salute the soldiers who fought and never forget that they were young men with their whole lives ahead of them who were prepared to pay the price asked and selflessly lay down their lives.

53rd Battalion image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain (Australian War Memorial A03042)

Allied Dead at Fromelles image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain (Australian War Memorial PO6285.001)

Fromelles Military Cemetery image Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

Friday 8 February 2013

Albigensian Heresy – Who Were the Cathars?

Some events can change the course of history in a country or region, and the rise of the Cathars in the area known as the Languedoc was one of these important historical flashpoints. Today the Languedoc is a peaceful, largely rural, region in the south west of France, stretching from the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees in the west to the borders of Provence in the east. It is a landscape of sun baked plains planted with grape vines, craggy windswept mountains, ruined medieval castles and ancient traditions. But it is a landscape that is still haunted by the memory of the black-robed holy men, who used to travel the roads and mountain paths between the towns and villages in the Middle Ages, spreading their beliefs and arguing against the established orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, which at that time dominated the religious landscape of Europe.


The beliefs held by these itinerant Cathars, were viewed as so threatening by the Church of Rome that they responded by inciting a Crusade against the Cathars and their supporters, which led to the destruction of towns, mass burnings of believers and ultimately to the founding of that precision instrument of terror known as the Inquisition. Because, make no mistake, the Catholic Church was determined that every last Cathar and any of their supporters had to be destroyed and that their terrible heretical beliefs totally excised from the pages of history forever.

The exact origins of the Cathars are still shrouded in mystery, but their doctrines were probably first introduced into Western Europe by Bogomil missionaries, who were a dualist sect centred in Bulgaria and the Balkans.  Catharism as an individual sect emerged in the mid-12th century and flourished in Lombardy, the Rhineland and some parts of northern France as well as in the Languedoc. But it was in the Languedoc that the Cathars became part of the very fabric of society. It is important to remember that during the 12th century the country that we now know as France did not exist.  The kingdom of France was a fairly small strip of territory surrounding Paris in the north that was flanked by the mighty duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, Brittany and Aquitaine. 

The Languedoc itself was a patchwork of different fiefdoms, the largest and most important of which was the county of Toulouse.  The Languedoc at this time was a wealthy, prosperous region that was rich in culture and learning. It was also a bit of a cultural melting pot, where new ideas and different religious ideas were more readily embraced than in the chillier regions of northern Europe.  The Languedoc was home to a large Jewish community that enjoyed much greater freedoms and prosperity than was usual in Catholic Europe, and it was also the birthplace of the poetical troubadours and the land of courtly love, where knights yearned from afar for their unattainable lady loves.  All in all, the Languedoc was the perfect place in the Middle Ages for a heresy to flourish.

So what did the Cathars believe in that the Church of Rome found so threatening?  The Cathar faith contained both dualist and Gnostic elements. They believed that the world was essentially an evil and corrupt place, ruled by a deity that was sometimes known as Rex Mundi, or the King of the World. The god that the Cathars actually worshipped was a spirit of light and goodness, which dwelt completely outside of the material plane. So essentially, to a Cathar, it was earthly existence that was hell, and they yearned to be free of its shackles and be released into spirit form or heaven. However, to be able to do this they had to lead a life of stringent asceticism and self-denial as a Cathar perfect. There were generally only a fairly small number of true Cathars or Perfect, as most Cathar believers or credentes lived ordinary lives centred on work and family. Becoming a Perfect was a matter of personal conscience, but the credentes were thought to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of reincarnation into this evil world, until that soul decided that they were spiritually capable of choosing the rigours of an ascetic life.

Living as a Perfect involved much self denial, as they had to pray frequently, preach and minister to the credentes, refrain from any sexual intimacy and fast as often as possible. When they did allow themselves to eat they were not allowed to eat any meat, and also had to abstain from eating any of the products of sexual reproduction such as milk, butter, eggs and cheese. They could, however, eat fish, as in the Middle Ages it was thought that fish spontaneously appeared in the water, and they could also drink wine. To achieve the yearned for freedom from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation these strictures had to be rigidly adhered to, as just one mouthful of meat or a passionate kiss, would be enough to lose them the status of a Perfect

As for the credentes, they could live pretty much as those chose, as the Perfects did not believe in temporal laws or any form of temporal power or control. As long as you were not committed to the life of a Perfect, it mattered little if you did not attend the parish church on a Sunday, paid your taxes, had sex before marriage, had Muslim or Jewish friends or even got drunk, as these were all rules imposed by earthly institutions, which were inherently corrupt, and possibly even evil, purely because they were of the material world. The Cathars believed in love, light and peace, and that any form of earthly power was incompatible with these principles. They thought that human souls had been pulled out of the spiritual realms of light at the beginning of time into the dense, corrupt world of matter, but that each soul still retained a spark of divine awareness, which was just waiting to be re-ignited.

The Cathars also believed in the equality of women, and women could choose to become a Perfect, and many noblewomen in the region chose to leave their comfortable, privileged lives to set up Cathar houses in towns, where they taught young women to spin and weave and lived simple, frugal, productive lives. As the Catholic Church was as rooted in the temporal as much as the spiritual, it is easy to see why they were so repulsed by these beliefs. The medieval Church required obedience to an established set of rules, and brooked absolutely no dissent. The earthly power of Rome could be seen in the huge Cathedrals that were lavishly decorated, the acres of church estates, the tithes they collected from the populace and the wealth and pomp of the clergy. The fact that the lives of the Perfect more closely mirrored the life of Jesus than that of the average medieval bishop stung, and that the Cathars encouraged their followers to dismiss the teaching of the Church and even regard them with derision was like a red rag to a bull.

The Cathars were not particularly into written records or even religious texts, although they embraced parts of the New Testament and Jesus’ message of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance of all peoples. One of the things that the Catholic Church found abhorrent was the fact that the Cathars denied that Jesus could possibly have incarnated into this material, corrupt world and still remain the divine son of God. As far as the Cathars were concerned, any being on this planet was bound by it and was removed from the spiritual realms, and so could not be regarded as numinous in any way. Therefore the crucifixion and the symbol of the cross had no importance for them. The Church could not even scare the Cathars witless with the threat of eternal damnation as they did their own faithful, because as far as the Cathars were concerned they were already in hell by being on Earth.

The sacraments of the Church were also disregarded as being of the material world they were inherently evil, and the Cathar faith only had one sacrament or rite, the consolamentum. The consolamentum was the mechanism by which a Perfect was created, and could only be administered by another Perfect. This linked each new Perfect to the Perfect who had given them the rite, and it was thought that these links had been unbroken since the time of Christ and his apostles. The consolamentum consisted of the laying on of hands and repeated admonitions to lead a life of flawless simplicity, poverty and holiness. When a Perfect was approached by a credente, the credente would undertake the melioramentum which consisted of bowing and saying a prayer that asked for a good end to their life.

The word Cathar is thought to be derived from a Greek word Katheroi which means ‘pure ones’. The Cathars themselves simply referred to themselves as ‘good Christians’ or ‘good men’ or ‘good women’. Catharism permeated all levels of Languedoc society, from the castles of the nobles, to the shops of the merchants and the cottages of the peasants. Many a nobleman counted a Perfect as a member of his family, and several of their wives left them to form a Cathar house for women.  Even if someone did not believe in the tenets of Catharism, they often still sympathised with them, as they saw the Cathar Perfect lead simple, holy lives which were often in direct contrast to the corruption and low morals exhibited by their own clergy. 

Many of the senior clergy of the Catholic Church acknowledged that the behaviour of some of their own brethren left much to be desired and that many of the accusations against them were justified, but this was still not reason enough to let the Cathar faith grow and flourish. If a large part of the population of the Languedoc were allowed to pay little attention to the bullying and manipulation of the Church, the Church would lose its grip on the region and, even worse, the rot could spread leading to a loss of power and revenue and abject humiliation.


Initially, Rome instigated peaceful attempts to convert the heretic Cathars back to the true faith, by sending Dominican monks into the region to preach and cajole the populace back into submission. They engaged the Cathar Perfect in wars of words, with long public debates often held in front of large crowds. But they found that the Cathar preachers were skilled orators and debaters, who also had a gift for making the envoys of the Church and their teaching look both ridiculous and hypocritical, without sliding into outright heresy. Events escalated with the murder of the Papal Legate, Pierre de Castelnau, on 15th January 1208, by a knight of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. A crusade was preached against the Languedoc by the Church in Rome and undertaken with a great deal of vigour and enthusiasm by the King of France and the nobility of northern Europe. It is sometimes called the Albigensian Crusade, and the massed armies of the North laid waste to the towns and fertile farmlands of the Languedoc, and everywhere they went they undertook mass burnings and torture of the Cathar Perfect and their sympathisers. 

When the Crusade eventually broke up and the knights with their troops and siege engines returned home, the newly formed Inquisition took over and spent the following decades ferreting out the remnants of the Cathar faith, questioning them, torturing them and finally turning them over to the secular authorities so that their bodies could be burned.  This crusade eventually led to the region being brought under the direct control of the French crown, but the economy and vibrant culture of the Languedoc had been fatally wounded. Even now, hundreds of years later, this is not one of the richer parts of France, and it could be said that Languedoc never really recovered against this brutal assault against its own people.

Montsegur Image Jean-Yves Didier Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Carcassone Image Colocho Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share 2.5 Generic

Saturday 2 February 2013

How to Murder Your Medieval Royal Relatives

You would think that being a member of the royal family would set you up for a life of luxury and security wouldn't you?  Well you would be wrong as being a royal in history has sometimes been a very hazardous occupation, especially if you were a royal child.  If we travel back to medieval times and take a look at the history of the English royal family, you will soon discover that family feuds were common and that several members of the Plantagenet family were murdered or disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  So let us have a look at some of these unfortunate royals and find out a bit more about their tragic fates.

King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral
King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral

Shortly after the Norman Conquest, King William II, better known as William Rufus because of the ruddy appearance of his face, was one of the first to meet with an untimely end.  This unfortunate monarch was out hunting on a summer’s day in 1100 in the New Forest when an arrow pierced his chest and killed him.  Things being what they were back then, as soon as they realised that their monarch was dead, the rest of the hunting party, which included his brother Henry, promptly departed, rushing off back to secure their own estates leaving William Rufus’s corpse lying on the forest floor.  Even the young Prince Henry high tailed it to Winchester to make sure that he would get his hands on the royal treasury before anybody else could claim it and then went on to London where he had himself crowned King of England within a few days. The contemporary chroniclers claimed that it had not been murder, but had just been an unfortunate hunting accident, but as William Rufus had not been a popular king, either with his barons or the Church, it was perhaps inevitable that rumours would abound that William Rufus had been murdered. It was recorded that it fell to a man called Purkis, who was a local charcoal burner, to rescue the royal corpse and take it on his cart to Winchester.

King John enjoys a generally bad reputation even for a Plantagenet king, as he has been widely vilified through the tales of Robin Hood, the outlaw who robbed the rich to give to the poor, as the wicked prince who was trying to steal the crown of his hero brother, King Richard the Lionheart.  King John probably deserves a lot of this evil legacy, as he spent a lot of time waging war and generally trying to get one up on his elder brothers and fairly regularly fell out with the Pope to the extent that he would be excommunicated and the whole country of England placed under interdict. However, it was the mysterious disappearance of his young nephew Arthur of Brittany that could have been the most nefarious deed of his unsavoury career.  Arthur of Brittany was the posthumous son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, who had been killed in a tournament.  A fatherless royal child in possession of vast estates, fortune and titles would always have the wolves circling, and young Arthur became a pawn in the power games between John, Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II of France.  After Richard the Lionheart’s death, John managed to seize the throne of England, but as Arthur of Brittany had declared himself a vassal of the King of France, the French nobility were keen to place the English crown on Arthur’s head instead.  The new King John was forced to invade France in 1202 to combat this threat and, under the terms of the treaty of Le Goulet, Arthur of Brittany was forced to change his allegiance and acknowledge King John of England as his overlord.

King John fairly swiftly fell out with the French King again, and the Philip II gave his territories of Normandy and Anjou to young Arthur.  Even though he was still only a young teenager, Arthur of Brittany decided to assert his authority in his lands by besieging his own grandmother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the castle at Mirebeau.  Eleanor of Aquitaine managed to alert King John to her peril and he raced to rescue her and imprisoned his young nephew at the same time.  The youthful prince was first imprisoned at Falaise in Normandy under the stewardship of William de Braose and the following year he was sent to captivity in the castle at Rouen.  Sometime in April of 1203, Arthur of Brittany mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again.  Although nothing was ever proved or officially recorded, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at King John, with rumours saying that the English monarch had killed his young nephew in a drunken rage and then thrown his body in the Seine, or that Arthur had been blinded and the gelded by the King’s agents and had died of shock and blood loss.   Again we shall probably never know the truth of the matter, but if King John did not murder his nephew, what did happen to poor Arthur of Brittany?

So moving up through the centuries, King Edward II was an ineffectual King of England, who was prone to having unpopular favourites and could not keep control of his barons.  He was married to Isabella of France who, when on an official trip to France, met an exiled English baron called Roger Mortimer, and became his mistress.  The new power couple decided that they had had enough of the dithering King Edward II and his latest favourites the Despensers, and invaded England in 1326. Their army met with little resistance, and they easily took over the country, capturing the Despensers and King Edward in the process.  The Despensers were summarily executed and Edward was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle.  Edward II was deposed in favour of his young son, who became King Edward III.

Tomb of King Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral
Tomb of King Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral

Although he was in captivity, Edward II still posed a threat to the new administration and he was found murdered on 11th October 1327, supposedly by agents of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer.  Contemporary chroniclers stated that the unfortunate Plantagenet monarch had either been strangled or suffocated, but in later years a rather more lurid legend grew up that Edward II had been killed by having a red-hot poker thrust into his nether parts.  This gruesome story has never been substantiated and there are historians that argue that, in fact, Edward II was not killed in Berkeley Castle at all but survived in exile on the Continent until around 1341.  But what goes around comes around as they say, and in time the young monarch Edward III grew tired of being dominated by his powerful mother and her lover, so in 1330 he seized Roger Mortimer and had sent him to the Tower of London. Roger Mortimer was accused without even getting a trial and was taken to Tyburn where he was hung, drawn and quartered as a common traitor.

Of course the biggest, baddest, wickedest uncle of them all, at least according to William Shakespeare, is King Richard III, who stands accused by history of murdering his two young nephews, known as the Princes in the Tower.  Before the death of his big brother, King Edward IV, in 1483 he had enjoyed an entirely untarnished reputation.  Unlike his brother George of Clarence, he had always remained loyal to his brother and worked hard in the North at keeping England’s border with Scotland secure.  However, he was not a fan of King Edward’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, and was highly suspicious of the lands and titles that she induced her husband to shower onto her large and rapacious family.  Edward IV’s death in 1483 was both premature and unexpected, and as Richard III had been named Lord Protector, he hastily assembled an army and marched south to meet up with his young nephew, who was now the new King Edward V and was being escorted to London by his maternal uncle Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers.  

Richard had Anthony Woodville arrested and then executed and took his nephew to the Tower of London, the traditional lodging place of English kings before their coronation. The widowed queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had fled into sanctuary with her younger son and daughters, but Richard persuaded her to allow Richard of York to join his older brother at the Tower.  Both the young lads were reported being seen around the Tower of London and playing in the gardens and preparations for Edward’s coronation proceeded.  However, just before the coronation, Richard seized the crown for himself and was crowned as King Richard III.  Sightings of the two young princes began to dwindle and rumours started to fly that they had been murdered to make the throne safer for their uncle.  However, although their supposed murder has been carefully investigated by many historians, there has never been any concrete evidence come to light that Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower.  In fact, there is no real evidence that they were killed at all, and many stories circulated about their continued existence and several pretenders, such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, came forward to declare that they were one or other of the boys.

So as you see, being a medieval royal in England could prove fatal and it was your own royal relatives that you had the most to fear from.  It wasn’t only uncles and wives that could be murderous; Henry IV locked his first cousin Richard II up in Pontefract Castle after he seized the throne and reportedly starved him to death.  So next time that you bemoan how ordinary your life is, remember that there is nothing romantic or exciting about being murdered, however exciting we think that these historic tales are.

King John Tomb image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
King Edward II image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain