Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

Time Decides for Ireland


Punctuality has never been a strong Irish trait. In historical terms Ireland is particularly late to appreciate things. But a bit like many of the buses I spent what seemed like my entire youth waiting for, eventuality it turns up and life continues on amicably and prosperously.

Yesterday saw the unprecedented recognition of Irish soldiers who fought for Britain and died, along with so many other young men from many other countries, at Gallipoli in the First World War. A ceremony to celebrate the centenary of the battle’s commencement took place and saw members of Britain’s royal family, the Turkish president, and significantly the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. This form of recognition is a vital step in appreciating a significant link which has existed for centuries between Britain and Ireland, and this is the service of Irish men as soldiers of Crown.

Commonwealth soldiers’ graves overlooking the blue of the Adriatic Sea at Gallipoli (image: wikipedia)

For more there is a worthwhile account here: Gallipoli “Shrapnel burst as frequently as the tick of clock”

Since independence in 1922 a blanket has been thrown over this aspect of Irish history, but is now gradually been drawn back. For many years the contribution of Irish soldiers to the British military has been ignored in official circles, and in many corners considered an embarrassment for people who fought for their rulers.

During British rule of Ireland, military service has featured as an important component in the relationship between the two countries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish troopers were recruited regularly and made up a significant human resource for the then expanding British Empire. They were mostly soldiers, and in that respect cannon fodder. At the same time, service in the Royal Navy was considered a worthwhile punishment for miscreants, be they political or social, before the idea of dispatching them to Australia hatched.

Despite the obvious threat that military service presented, it was considered a worthwhile service right up until the end of the World War One. Namely because it paid a salary and also a widows pension, a luxury farmers and labouring jobs were never entertained with. Job security was an attractive perk, as was being away from one’s spouse for large periods of time while the soldier was deployed in places foreign. My own great grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these people, and saw action in Sudan, and the Boer War among other conflicts. I think that he may have been too old to fight during the Great War, but he was certainly enlisted at the time.

The First World War saw an unprecedented number of Irish recruits signing up to fight. It was perceived that with good behaviour Ireland would eventually earn the Home Rule it had so desperately strove for. In total almost 50,000 Irish soldiers perished during the war. The effects of the 1916 rising saw this effort may have been a waste of time.

The National War Memorial, Islandbridge, Dublin 8 (Image: Wikipedia)

While Irish recognition of its contribution to World War One has been slow, the service of its people as soldiers has never been in doubt, it’s role in the second World War is something much more in doubt. The state officially took a position of neutrality, but had no qualms about introducing conscription, rationing, and preparations in the event of an invasion. Meanwhile thousands of Irish people took the short journey to British territory and signed up to take the real fight to tyranny in Europe’s battlefields. While nowhere near as many people died as did between 1914 and 1918, the number is close to 10,000 and it is a figure which exceeds many other political causes of death, including the Troubles and War of Independence.

This process of recognition is probably easy for most people, especially when given an opportunity to consider life as it was. A better understanding of history, as well as a stronger understanding of humanity are key to this. Irish people are more comfortable in their relationship with their closest neighbour than they have ever been, and they are also more confident in their own understanding of their own national identity that we can appreciate who we are and what really makes us so. As a more globablised condition exists in Ireland so does a stronger belief in the necessity to understand Ireland’s role in the future, and to do this right, understanding the past is an important component.

A rain soaked Memorial for the Irish who fell in the Korean War

A post shared by Conor O'Reilly (@conzieshoots) on

It is with a slight sense of bragging that I should be reminded that it was on this day two years ago that I took part in one of these processes of recognition. On a wet morning in Yongsan-gu outside the Korean War Memorial I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to lay a wreath at the newly laid memorial honouring the Irish who during the Korean War. The Irish contribution, while quite small, was an unofficial contribution as those who fell did so wearing mostly British uniforms. The significance of this was twofold, in that it recognised that while Ireland had not officially supported the war, its people had rallied in defence of Korea’s freedom, and this is something that the people and veterans of that time appreciate.

Also, with respect to yesterday’s ceremony in Turkey, it is another step by Ireland towards understanding our contribution to the history of the twentieth century. Previously it was buried away as a past which spoiled Ireland’s image as a nation which fought for its freedom from Britain.

In Ireland we now look at our past and realise that our connection is stronger than the rules inscribed with the mere signing of a piece of paper. We look to ourselves now for our answers, and we look to the way we can make our country better and stronger. This is always a learning process, but knowing that is a process makes the journey a lot easier.

 

Inside Georgian Dublin


Over the past few months I have been somewhat of an English language teaching journeyman. I have navigated my way up and down much trodden streets of old in search of language schools of varying acronymic titles. Often starting with an I or and E, and somewhere else having an E or an I inside them, their meaning is often wrapped within some other flurry of adjectives represented by consonants. But despite this conundrum what I’ve enjoyed most of all is that many of the schools are housed in old Georgian houses.

Georgian Dublin represents a golden age for the city in terms of development. More so that any other period in Dublin’s history, the Georgian period has single handedly defined much of the modern shape, character, and charm of the inner city. This period stretched from the early 18th to the early 19th century, and the prosperity witnessed by the city at the time had a lot to do with the sitting of the Irish Houses of Parliament at College Green (now the Bank of Ireland), whose parliamentarians needed townhouses. The attention of the rest of the wealthy Irish was not lost and it become the norm to own a red-bricked terraced house, hundreds of which are still standing in Dublin today. Today post cards of Georgian Dublin doors and houses can be found around town. Equally, buildings like the Four Courts, Customs House, and the Bank of Ireland are some of the most monumental.

Powerscourt House, South William Street.

These red-bricked houses were designed within the constraints of a public body set up to ensure that the city was redeveloped to a habitable standard. Much of the city was still medieval in shape, and vast tracts of farmland and marsh still lay within walking distance of the pillars of power. The Wide Streets Commission when established saw about ensuring uniformity, order, and perhaps most significantly, fire precautions.

Unfortunately, during the 19th century many of these houses were converted into tenements to house Dublin’s poor, and with this so many fell into disrepair and eventually ruin. Even in areas as picturesque and typically Georgian such as St Stephen’s green, we are only left with remnants of great houses. The story is more stark on once fashionable Gardiner Street and Dominick Street on the north side of the city where some of the poorest slums where to be located. Many houses were torn down, and many now hold offices, flats, or are empty. Now they are tall and hovering over the footpaths, so far removed from the original uses.

Fitzwilliam Street Upper

All is not lost however. These buildings are finding new uses as office space, and several are used as English language schools. For whatever reasons, perhaps their size or number of rooms, but I suppose what is also important is that they are all in city centre locations. There might be other factors at play but I don’t really think that is of any significance, what matters here is that I actually finally got to walk into some of these buildings and have a look around.

I recall first finding out about this part of Dublin while I was doing my Leaving Certificate back in 2000. I studied art, which meant I had to do history of art. There was a particular part of the course which discussed the Georgian period of Dublin. I don’t remember if we had a choice on particular aspects of Irish art, but I do know that I took an instant liking to it. Maybe because it was something that we could see any time we went into town, and it had so much history too, not only in its construction but also in its faded glory and the destitute state it had come to exist in.

I’ve always been interested in these aspects of history. It could be part of my more crude nature, or perhaps some kind of romantic notion which sees the character only in that which has experienced more than others. I’ve always found old photographs interesting, but mostly I prefer photographs or images which show us how far we have come along from when the photograph was taken.

It was probably this interest in seeing how things have and do exist now that drew me towards these buildings so much more than I felt others were being drawn. I couldn’t help walking around the streets which chop through Baggot Street, up towards Herbert Road and around Fitzwilliam Square and Pembroke Street. I have driven up and down here countless times but I had never really earned the chance to simply explore.

Baggot Street

Fitzwilliam Square

I took particular pleasure when given the chance to explore around Parnell Square and Dominick Street. I had thought that all of Dominick Street’s Georgian houses had been demolished and replaced by flats, which themselves were later demolished, the scrub remaining being left for some other fate.

This particular area is where Dublin’s oldest Georgian houses sit. The top of Dominick Street has some fine examples, one of which I will talk about more shortly. But just across the street is a short street which runs up to the King’s Inns. This is Henrietta Street. When I visited, the street was quiet with the morning and damp with the condensation of the night’s clouds. The houses were bold and broad. Some had been restored to offices, but others looked they had been boarded up for a long time. They were scarred with the ignominy of rejection, but they stood with a little bit of humble pride showing that despite many years of neglect they still owned their place in Dublin’s history.

Henrietta Street, all in faded grace, removed from all its glory.

Henrietta Street; so many stories from only one doorway.

Inside many of these buildings all over Dublin is a secret treat, their interiors. The ceilings are high, like really high. The walls are thick, so thick I don’t think you needed to insulate them, and the steps and floors all creak with age. I could be wrong in saying that I would be surprised if many still had the same floors from when they were first built. Indeed, many buildings still maintain the artistic features of their original design.

In some respects there is not much to see in these big houses. The walls as I said are tall, and the floors a bit creaky and old. Because they’re old buildings it is hard to have light fittings and plugs and stuff to make them more modern. Adding to this is that in each ceiling you can’t really drill a hole into the beautifully crafted stucco work which is typical of every house. Of yeah, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I?

At the centre of each room where perhaps a candle chandelier would have hung the most beautiful stucco work is the norm in many of these houses. Even in smaller, clearly less influential homes, having a elaborate floral motif emanating from the ceiling was common practice. Often there are fantastic animal or floral patterns addornig other parts of the ceiling, but the main focus is at the very centre. The level of detail and size depends on the owners wealth, and I suppose also on the owners taste.

Inside a house on Fitzwilliam Street Upper

Inside a house on Fitzwilliam Street Upper

While I was mesmerised by actually being inside just a few fairly standard Georgian houses, I was lucky to have to teach in an overflow classroom for a week in one of Georgian Dublin’s most prized possessions. These overflow classrooms are often temporary solutions to busy periods. This particular acronymic school based on Dominick Street was in need of some room, and the Youth Work Ireland building nearby was in the position to offer space.

I had little idea of what to expect as I stepped in, but I instantly recognised the work on the walls from my Leaving Cert history of art classes. The owner of this house originally was a man named Robert West, and he was known as one of the foremost stuccodores in Dublin at the time. This particular interior is so elaborate that it is near impossible to describe with enough words, and I for one can merely leave some photographs of the beautiful walls and ceilings.

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Lower

In time I hope that I can again visit some of these properties, although not as a journeyman, more as an enthusiast for the magnificent tribute left to a time when Dublin was finally becoming a city of Europe, one with its own shape and its own character. I think Georgian Dublin is something which many of us take for granted, although it is not so serious that we do take it seriously, but we should offer it the respect it deserves. I think that Dublin will grow always around these magnificent monuments, but at the same time I hope that they do not allow for a stagnation of the progress which they themselves were the product of some two hundred years before.

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Do you have a particular building or era from historical Dublin which you like or have an interest in?

Should we seek to restore all these buildings to their original state, or should we allow progress to change these for the better?

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I took all these photos with my camera phone (HTC One M8 if you’re asking). For some reason I never had the sense to bring my Nikon in with me.

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The Robert West house is 20 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin 1. You can read a little more about the building and its history and the restoration project which was carried out on it here.

If you are interested in Georgian Dublin take a look at the Irish Georgian Society’s website.

Here is a detailed post on the history of Lower Dominick Street in Dublin.

Reading the Korean War


I don’t profess to be an expert on much, such is my modesty. Even though I’ve lived in Korea for over nine years now and am invested in the country through family, I can’t really attest an authority on much of the country’s history. This is certainly an embarrassment as I’m supposed to be a history graduate.

When I first arrived in Korea I read Michael Breen’s The Koreans, and it was the kind of book that just seemed to give enough of everything so that, if you were curious about some other aspect of the country, you could easily be wise enough to make the wise decision on some follow up reading. I think I finished that book in 2006, if not 2005, when I first arrived here.

That’s quite a long time to spend learning about a country without reading much on it. This indeed may be a problem which much of Korea’s expatriate experts, in that we spend a lot of time here and profess to be armchair experts on the condition of being in Korea, yet we hold very little knowledge beyond a decent gogi jib and our opinions on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. I say this because this is basically me, and while I know there are plenty who know more than most, I can imagine there are plenty who know less than me.

It was in some respects an accident that I picked up Andrew Salmon’s books on the British, Australian, and indeed Scottish and Irish involvement in the Korean War. Around this time last year I was very fortunate to represent the Irish community in Korea when I laid a wreath at the unveiling of a memorial for Irish people who fell in the Korean War. Throughout the process of arranging the memorial, Andrew Salmon was a constant figure advising on the experiences of the Irish in the war, specifically the Royal Ulster Rifles, who suffered some of the highest casualties of the British and commonwealth units in the war. Throughout the process and after his first book To the Last Round was lauded as a must read.

Reading about the British involvement for me, while being Irish, brings it a little closer to home. While we are at all attempts proclaiming ourselves radically different, a commonality exists in many respects. Maybe this stems from a certain familiarity with our neighbours, one that is more realistic than a television impressed notion of Ameicanism.

I went online to check the books out, and here I found a second book of his Scorched Earth, Black Snow which I saw was from earlier in the year. So being a history graduate and knowing the importance of the period before the period we’re talking about, I decided I’d give that a read first. So I tapped away at the screen of my iPad, and before I knew it I had a digital copy downloading away.

That being said, I didn’t actually get around to reading the actual book until I was in Thailand this winter, about eight months later. So shoot me, but I’m a distracted soul, and admittedly one who really hadn’t been reading as much as I would have liked. But I think I’ve been doing better of late. Good books have helped.

After reading both of his books I contacted Andrew himself and asked him a few questions about the writing of the books. I has always interested me how authors who work full time as writers fit in the time to write a non-ficition book, and especially one on history which requires extreme levels of not only dedication but beyond meticulous research. Pick up either of his books and you will understand what I am talking about.

In an email Andrew explained that most of these books were written ‘after midnight’, and that the writing was ‘personally and professionally satisfying, but financially non-remunerative’. This is probably something that scares many away from writing books, this constraint on our time is not recuperated in our wallets – not that I’d know, I’m just saying.

Throughout both books there is extensive first hand reports from those who fought in the battles and slit trenches. From the Busan Perimeter to the heroic holding action at Pakchon in North Korea, relieving the 1st US Marine Division in Chongsin Resevoir, and the of course the slaughter and defiance from the battles along the Imjin River just to the north of Seoul, so much of these books comes from first-hand experience you cannot discount their authority. It seems at times that it’s unfortunate that there weren’t more pages in the books.

‘I started with the regimental and veteran associations’, Andrew Salmon explained of how he made this possible, ‘the nature of these groups is that, if they trust you or like you, once you speak to Chap A, he recommends Chap B, and so on ad infinitum. I was surprised at how open most of these guys were. I think 99 percent of them had never had anyone ask them about their experiences in the “Forgotten War” and as they are now in their twilight years, they wanted to speak, to get their war on the record for posterity. Many of them volunteered material that I was initially hesitant to ask about. For example, the account of one atrocity – the murder of a Korean civilian by a soldier who simply wanted to test his rifle (told in To the Last Stand) – was told to me, without prompting, in the back of a bus, in the company of several other veterans. None of them contradicted him.  I am pretty sure these kinds of incidents stuck in their minds, and they wanted some kind of release’.

Like these couple of incidents, there are so many images and memories specific to individuals which not one person who would there would attest against. I wouldn’t say you get numbed to atrocity, but after some time you kind of stop being amazed and just accept it as a circumstance.

Of all these incidents though two much discussed ones come to mind which I couldn’t help but be frustrated or shocked by – the first was the accidental napalming of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, or Jocks, which was perhaps as brutal and unfortunate an incident of friendly fire as you’ll come across, and the action of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars as 29 Brigade withdrew from their Imjin defensive positions – not only was it the first time these newly touted tanks had a chance to really operate, but it was in such desperate circumstances that you had to wish they could have done more.

Of course throughout these books, it must be expressed, there is descriptions of rampant slaughter described and it is hard at times to remember that the Chinese who were mown down could have been as desperate as the men whose experiences I was reading about were. It was a time that we can be grateful to have lived after.

With more and more devices providing reading experiences, writers are being coerced into providing a more diverse package. I read my copy of Scorched Earth, Black Snow on my iPad, and as I read I followed 27 Brigade north with Google Maps. I tried and failed to find their positions on the Naktong bridgehead, but as they moved on to Seoul, and then North Korea and along the main highway through Sariwon, Pyongnyang, Sukchon, Anju, and of course Pakchon and on to Chongju, feeling eternally like this was going to lead to one great bloody Borodino – if only it was so glorious. You knew something was going to happen but you couldn’t really tell how or when it would, but when they captured that Chinese soldier while on patrol you knew that something was about to happen that they would have little control over.

‘I wish my publisher had added film of one of those as part of the eBook package’ Andrew said, ‘that would have given the reader a huge amount more visual material to look at, but I don’t think technology has been well-leveraged or well-deployed by traditional media managers’. For the digital age, this is the advantage that eBooks have, and it is one being leveraged by the media, just not publishing. ‘As a print journalist, I am being asked to become a photographer, a film recorder, a presenter, a film editor as well as my core task’ Andrew continued. ‘The upside is that one has to upskill. The downside is that I am not being paid more’. If we expect so much of the media, perhaps publishing will follow soon, but we shall see how high the quality will be.

And perhaps it is our expectations that are dragging so much for nothing from everything. With the internet, nobody expects to pay, and this is where our problems start. ‘The Internet is killing journalism and publishing’ Andrew continued, ‘though it has to be said, the blame for this long, slow, death really lies at the hands of the management of the newspaper and publishing industries, who have failed to come up with financial models that will guarantee the future of traditional media’. This is something that is happening, but it is slow, and expensive, and a learning process. ‘In the future, when online media has matured, we will look back on the first two decades of the 21st century as the critical, transformative period. Alas, it has been bloody; the number of working journalists has fallen horrifically. This is not good for media but – without wishing to sound alarmist – it is not good for democratic governance either.’ A stern warning indeed.

In terms of the books, I’d recommend them to anyone. Enthusiast or casual interest, these books should be read, not only because of what I have said above, but also because they have kindled an understanding and gratitude for our present situation, and made me appreciate my extended family further.

What struck me more than anything in these books was not the descriptions of war and sacrifice by foreign troops, but the images of a poor and agricultural society made destitute by the destruction wrought from the international deliberations over its territory. The people who lowered themselves so dejectedly, who fought their own demons, who fled, who stayed, who starved, but who stuck around and dug in sacrificing more to build up what is truly a remarkable miracle, 21st Century Korea.

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On the reception his books have received Andrew Salmon told me this:

‘[The responses have been] universally positive: Mainstream media – including The Times, The Daily Mail, and BBC History Magazine  – have been kind. I’d add that “To the Last Round” has 130 five-star reviews on Amazon UK, which is an unusual number for a non-fiction book, and which I am particularly pleased about. The only negative review I suffered was from the writer of an expatriate magazine here in Seoul. What is most gratifying is the response from veterans, who have said: “You have captured it – this is what it was like!” One, the late Colonel Mervyn McCord, said in an Amazon review, “Anyone suffering from PTSD should not read this book – they would have a relapse.” I have also had endorsements from two “true” heroes – Derek Kinne, George Cross and Bill Speakman, Victoria Cross. That kind of response is deeply gratifying’.

 

Andrew Salmon’s personal blog/website is tothelastround.wordpress.com (this particular page on the site is worth particular attention in my view)

The books can be purchased online here

Images all courtesy of Andrew Salmon via flickr.