Independence Day photos

Our nod in the direction of independence today was a visit to the exhibition called “Wojenne rozstania”, which is held inside the university library. It chronicles the lives of various families that were forcibly relocated thanks to the ever changing moods and allegiances of that time. Some of the journeys are quite incredible.

Following that, and safely after all the pomp and circumstance had died down we wandered around the town. It was cold, dark (considering it was only 16:00), wet and windy. Not the ideal conditions for photography but I took the G9 along anyway.

Flying the flag

Parisian kiosk

Family admiring the Canaletto

One of my favourite views of Warsaw, across Piłsudski square

And rather ironically, given the yawning gap between Polish and British sense of pride in their nation, the only Union Jack was a broken umbrella laying with the trash!

Polish Independence Day (part 2)

Święto Niepodległości (Independence Day) – Celebrates the restoration of Poland’s independence in 1918 after 123 years of partitions by Austro-Hungary, Prussia & Russia.

With a significant amount of summarising. WWI saw all the three powers that had been occupying Poland gradually defeated at the same time as a rise in Polish independence movements (primary figure being Jozef Pilsudski) and support from overseas for an independent Polish state, primarily Woodrow Wilson in the USA. The combination of these events gave rise to Poland’s Second Republic.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire went into the war quite seriously under-prepared and without anything like a good enough fighting force for what was to unfold. They essentially fell out big-time with Serbia after a Serb militant group murdered the heir to their throne, Franz Ferdinand, in July 1914. Wishing to try and head off a Serbian revolt at the pass, the Empire, bolstered by a friendship with more powerful Germany, gave the Serbs an ultimatum. The Serbs agreed to 9.5 of the 10 points but the Empire declared war anyway. Bad move, because the Russians waded in on the side of Serbia and went on over the coming years to kick the stuffing out of the Empire to the point that it all went tits-up in about 1916. In fact, the losses on both sides in that year contributed not only to the end of the A-H Empire but also gave fuel to the Russian Revolution the following year and the distancing of Germany from A-H, feeling by then that it was “shackled to a corpse”. Anyway, this whole mess took the A-H Empire well and truly out of the way of Polish Independence.

Russia gave up any claims it had to parts of Poland during the great war, thanks to the 1917 revolution. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed on 3rd March 1918, between Bolshevik Russia on the one side and the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire (collectively the Central Powers) on the other, marked Russia’s final withdrawal from World War I as an enemy of her co-signatories, fulfilling, on unexpectedly humiliating terms, a major goal of the Bolshevik revolution of November 7, 1917. Russia’s new Bolshevik (communist) government renounced all claim to Finland (which it had already acknowledged), the future Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Poland, Belarus, Ukraine. Most of these territories were in effect ceded to the German Empire, intended to become economically dependent on and politically closely tied to that empire under various German kings and dukes.

Fortunately, despite the Germans being the only ones not to give up until the fat lady sang, everything they had gained through this treaty had to be given up only a few months later when they eventually lost the war.

Meanwhile, in the USA, in January 1918, president Woodrow Wilson was making a speech to congress about his concerns over recent events, particularly the Brest-Litovsk “parlays”. He laid out 14 points that he saw as being “the program of the world’s peace”. Point 13 of those read as follows:

XIII. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

For this, Woodrow gets a part of Warsaw named after him, Plac Wilsona, about 15 minutes walk from where I live.

And so it was by a series of amazing consequences that a rather funky looking Poland, by today’s standards, was born again on November 11th, 1918. You will see on the map below that Poland between the wars was further right (east) than it is today. It took in parts of what is now Lithuania (Vilnius) and also Ukraine (Lviv) but did not have major cities in the west such as Szczecin (Stettin) or Wroclaw (Breslau), most of the Baltic coast was still German and Gdansk (Danzig) remained a free-town, also essentially German. But it did exist and all the other territorial adjustments happened at the end of WWII. Communism of course prevented them (Poles) from enjoying their new westerly shifted but smaller Polish state until 1990.

I have asked the question of Poles many times, “Why do you celebrate the end of the first world war as Independence day and not the date of the end of communism?”. It seems a reasonable question for naive fools like me to ask. The answer, I think, is that they do not wish to consider that communism ever took away the independence of the Polish state, it just put it under new management for a few decades. I suppose this is true, in which case November 11th is the right date.

I’ll leave you with a picture of Polish flags flying to celebrate independence.

Polish Independence Day (part 1)

I like November 11th because it is a public holiday in Poland to celebrate Independence Day as well as Remembrance Day in the UK (Armistice Day or Poppy Day elsewhere). Both are good reasons to celebrate & remember. It was the same event that gave rise to both, the end of the first world war.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 the guns of Europe fell silent. After four years of the most bitter and devastating fighting, The Great War was finally over. The Armistice was signed at 5am in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne, France on November 11, 1918. Six hours later, at 11am, the war ended. As if to emphasize the stupidity of war, this came two minutes too late for private George Lawrence Price (Regimental Number: 256265), a Canadian soldier who is traditionally recognized as being the last soldier killed during the First World War. On the 11th of November, Price was part of an advance to take the small village of Havre. After crossing the Canal du Centre in Ville-sur-Haine under German machine gun fire, Price and his patrol moved toward a row of houses intent on pursuing the machine gunner who had harassed their crossing of the canal. The patrol had entered the house they had thought the shooting had come from but found the Germans had exited through the back door as they entered the front. They then pursued into the house next door and again found it empty. George Price was fatally shot in the region of his heart by a German sniper as he stepped out of the house into the street at 10:58 AM November 11th 1918, just two minutes before the armistice ceasefire that ended the war went into effect at 11:00 AM.

40 million people died as a result of WWI. The war caused the disintegration of four empires: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian. Germany lost its colonial empire and states such as Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Yugoslavia gained independence. The cost of waging the war set the stage for the breakup of the British Empire as well and left France devastated for more than a generation.

As ever though, this great hardship did spawn some fabulous works of art, in this case poetry. Poems that I have remembered ever since school days and that never cease to touch me more than most other poetry or verse ever has. Perhaps because they experienced this madness first hand.

Base Details, by Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour.
‘Poor young chap,’ I’d say-‘
I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

Poems written by Sassoon at the start of the First World War contrast greatly in style to his later work. Driven by anger and frustration at the conduct of the war, Sassoon developed a beautiful style in which to describe the horror and appalling nature of the ongoing conflict. Sassoon continued to stir the emotions and consciences of his countrymen long after the guns fell silent.

In Flanders Fields, by John MacRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Outside a dressing station near Ypres in 1915, John McCrae, a surgeon in the Canadian Army, wrote of the scenes around him. Dissatisfied, he tore the poem from his notebook and returned to his duties. A fellow officer discovered the poem in the mud and sent a copy to the press. Recited in Remembrance services throughout the world, this is one of the most memorable and moving poems of the Great War. John McCrae died in 1918.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds

Perhaps the most famous of the war poets, Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire in 1893, and began writing poetry as a boy. After teaching English in France for a while he joined the Manchester Regiment and fought at the Somme where he contracted trench fever. While recuperating in Scotland, Owen met Siegfried Sassoon who encouraged his writing (and even helped with the poem above). Owen returned to the fighting and was decorated for his actions, but was tragically killed in the last week of the war.