It happened today – September 29, 2015

Sir Robert Peel
It feels like something from a vanished era in all kinds of ways. On September 29, 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel’s metropolitan London police force began operation.

First, it’s hard now to imagine not having an official municipal police force. And by 1829 the older decentralized and more citizen-based system, with some police, some militia and some informal “watches” was having trouble coping with the vast metropolis the industrial revolution had created.

Second, it’s hard now to imagine there being any issue over such matters as blue uniforms and organizational structure. But Peel believed that it was important that the police force should be clearly seen to be an extension of the public and accountable to them, not a military or paramilitary outfit. Hence the uniforms were blue instead of standard military red, there were no military ranks other than sergeant, and the “Peelers” or “Bobbies” carried no weapons beyond a truncheon and a rattle to summon assistance.

Third, the moral authority of established order was such that, while the Bobbies did have weapons for exceptional circumstances, generation after generation of these was retired to museums with very little use. For instance, flintlock pistols were replaced by revolvers in the 1860s but not until 1887 did a constable fire a revolver in the course of duty… to warn people of a fire. And this in a populace then enjoying the right to bear arms and frequently bearing them.

Fourth, as has often been noted of late, nine principles were incorporated into the “General Instructions” issued to every new officer from 1829 on. Peel helped devise them but was not apparently the author of the formal list. But consider that it includes such core constitutional notions as “To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” And to remember always that they are part of the executive branch of government. And such advanced “criminological” insights as “To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”

I have enormous sympathy for the police, who perform a difficult and dangerous job in an increasingly unruly and self-absorbed society. But when I look at today’s police, in their scary black SWAT outfits, or hear them involve themselves in politics via their unions, or witness the deliberate seizure of firearms from law-abiding citizens’ homes in High River, or see them acting as armed social workers who treat self-defence as a menace to decency, I fear that they have forgotten that they are the public and the public are the police.

It may be time to refound the Bobbies on those principles from a sadly vanished era.

It happened today – September 28, 2015

Henry Tandey
What if? What if? Some say such historical questions cannot even be asked, let alone answered. I reply that if we cannot say what would have happened if some event had gone otherwise, we cannot speak intelligibly of causation, separate the essential from the trivial. So what if Henry Tandey had shot Hitler?

In case this question is obscure to you, there’s a persistent legend that Tandey, a British private and VC winner, encountered a wounded German lance corporal near Marcoing on September 28 and spared his life. And it was supposedly Hitler.

It seems highly unlikely. I don’t mean it seems unlikely that Hitler was nearly killed in World War I. He served throughout the war, was twice wounded and twice decorated (once on the recommendation of a Jewish superior) and must have had numerous brushes with death. Still, Tandey’s account, during the capture of Marcoing for which he won the VC, of having a German in his sights and being unwilling to kill a wounded man, who saw him and nodded thanks, has strange but highly placed support, from Hitler himself.

When Neville Chamberlain was in Germany to sign the disastrous Munich Agreement, Hitler took him to his new country retreat and showed his personal copy of a famous painting by Fortunino Matania of Tandey carrying a wounded comrade at 1st Ypres in 1914, and said “That’s the man who nearly shot me.” Tandey did apparently spare someone’s life on Sept. 28, 1918, and Hitler thought it was him. So maybe it happened.

Now I’m all for shooting Hitler. And to kill him in a war would not have been murder, as it would have been to assassinate him between November 1918 and September 1939. But one cannot reasonably be expected to foresee that the 29-year old soldier staggering backward in defeat, exhausted and wounded, will if he lives found a totalitarian movement and, in his early 50s, wage an anti-Semitic genocide on a hideously unprecedented scale and launch a second world war.

It was pity that stayed Tandey’s hand. And pity is a good thing. By September 28, 1918 Germany was beaten, and the battle in question was over and the Germans had lost it too. I do not know whether someone else might have done what Hitler did in the 1930s if someone, Tandey or another, had shot him years earlier. Germany was rife for bitter radicalism, but Hitler brought a special combination of evil insanity and public relations genius to the task of turning that radicalism into global horror.

Whatever one decides, Tandey is not at fault for a split-second decision in favour of mercy on Sept. 28, 1918, at the tail end of a war that had seen so much death.

It happened today – September 27, 2015

John Kipling
One hundred years ago today Rudyard Kipling’s only son, Lt. John Kipling, was killed in the bloody Battle of Loos in northeastern France weeks after his 18th birthday. He was just one of thousands killed there, indeed just one of thousands killed at Loos whose bodies were not recovered, “A soldier of the Great War known unto God”. And yet his death has a special poignancy.

Loos itself was one of a series of offensives that failed of their high hopes as the Allies, like the Central Powers, struggled to overcome the advantages technology had given to the defence at that time. The opening day of the battle, Sept. 25, was the worst in the history of the British Army… until the start of the Somme the following summer. And the offensive was called off on Sept. 27 in the face of its evident futility, but too late for John Kipling.

The death hit his father extremely hard. As one might expect, you might say. Or even it served him right, given Kipling’s ardent imperialism including his enthusiastic support for the war that extended to getting John a commission despite short-sightedness that originally saw him rejected by the Navy then the Army. But don’t think having him made an officer was finding him a soft spot; the junior officers who “led from the front” lasted on average just six weeks before being killed or wounded.

Do not think, either, that Kipling was a bloodthirsty man who deserved to lose a child over whose grave he could never even weep. (John Kipling’s body was officially found in 1992, but there are doubts about the accuracy of the identification.) Rather, he was a man who loved duty, and who saw the need to fight to protect the things worth defending. Think of Rikki tikki tavi killing cobras to protect children, or read Kipling’s concern that if the West lost its nerve “all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” And in my opinion Kipling was quite right about the importance of winning the First World War; see my documentary The Great War Remembered for a detailed discussion.

The loss of his son affected him deeply, and led him to become involved with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (including suggesting the phrase “Known unto God” on the headstones of unknown soldiers and to write a moving poem about the death of John and so many others, that ends “But who shall return us our children?”

It is a very sad sentiment. But not a pacifist one. Barely seven months before his death in January 1936, Kipling gave a speech (“An Undefended Island”, to The Royal Society of St George, May 6, 1935) warning of the menace of Nazi Germany to Britain. And one imagines that had John Kipling been alive and young in September 1939, he would again have found a way to wear his country’s uniform. He was short-sighted physically, not morally or geopolitically.

It happened today – September 26, 2015

A. Peter Dewey
It is, I suppose, always a dubious honor to be the first person killed in virtually any way or for any reason, even a noble cause. It certainly is in the case of Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, who on September 26 1945 became the first American killed in the Vietnam War.

His death has tangled roots, like virtually everything connected with that unhappy conflict. He was with the Office of Strategic Services on assignment to search for missing American pilots (Dewey was not of course the first American killed in Vietnam, just the first killed as part of the struggle against a Communist takeover after World War II) and gather information on the situation following the Japanese surrender. And the situation was murky.

For some reason the Potsdam Conference gave the British the responsibility of disarming the Japanese south of the 16th parallel while Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalists were to do so north of that line. Unsurprisingly, Chiang’s forces rapidly lost control of the North to Ho Chi Minh’s communists, as they would do four years later to Mao Tse-tung’s in their own country, and it became North Vietnam.

The British faced a challenge of their own from Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, who had declared themselves the government of all of Vietnam. The French, meanwhile, wanted their colonial empire back, and the British general in charge, Maj. Gen. Douglas D. Gracey, rearmed the French POWs liberated from the Japanese and had them toss the Viet Minh out of the various government offices they’d moved themselves into.

Now curiously, Lt. Col. Dewey sympathized with the Viet Minh, not the British or French, who he saw as imperialists repressing nationalist rebels. And he said so, loudly and repeatedly, to the point that Gracey ordered him to get out of Dodge. On the way to Saigon’s airport with another OSS officer, Dewey refused to stop at a Viet Minh roadblock, got into a shouting match in French and was shot dead, under the apparent belief that he was French.

It does seem fitting that the first American killed in the Vietnam War should have been a well-meaning sympathizer with local nationalists who opposed “imperialism” but did not grasp the situation and perished as the result of a cultural misunderstanding involving locals he thought were nationalists who thought he was an imperialist.

Many more Americans would suffer the same fate before the ultimate takeover by the “agrarian nationalist” reformers who turned out to be, gosh, violent communists.