Ireland’s Wars: The Hundred Days

On the 8th August 1918, a combined assault of British, Australian, Canadian, American and French troops smashed into the German lines near Amiens, doing so without a major artillery bombardment beforehand, but relying instead on the support of over 500 tanks. A gap of almost 15 kms was opened, and the Allies advanced 13 kms by the end of the day at the farthest point of penetration. The exhausted, demoralised German armies simply melted away under the onslaught. Ludendorff would famously dub the 8th August as “the black day of the German Army”, as it became clear to him and others that Germany’s defeat was now simply a matter of time.

This was the spectacular beginning of what would subsequently be known as the “Hundred Days Offensive”, the final attack that would bring the First World War to a close. But the Irish infantry weren’t there, at least not on the first day, with the 16th (Irish) held back, the 36th (Ulster) stationed further north, and the 10th (Irish)’s battalions still scattered about.

Who was there was the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, serving as part of the British 3rd Cavalry Division. It wasn’t a glorious war for any cavalry unit really, often re-assigned to support work, cycling units or even machine gunning, but the Dragoons were going to get one more shot at traditional cavalry attacks, despite all of the lessons over the last four years of combat. While supporting Canadian cavalry trying to take advantage of the breakthrough, they were ordered to assault German machine gun posts that were putting flanking fire down on Allied troops near the remains of the Mont Cremont Wood. The squadron that attempted this, drawn swords and all, were cut down to a man; the remainder dismounted and operated as infantry, clearing the position eventually. Even in this moment of Allied victory, the same tactical stupidity was being played out. The Amiens attack went on for another few days, before the Allies had gone too far beyond their artillery and supply lines.

It wasn’t until later in the month that other Irish units were able to get involved, as Haig launched a succession of attacks in the Somme and Ypres sectors, aiming to keep the pressure up on the enemy. It was the 36th engaged around Messines on the 22nd August, where some battalions used the subterfuge of fake gas canisters, that replicated the small of gas without actually containing any, to take enemy trenches. But the battalions of the 36th would not always be so fortunate, as the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took over a hundred casualties in subsequent fighting in the area, as the operations in the Bailleul sector opened up.

As September began, the Germans began pulling back all over the line, seeking to reduce the extent of exposed salient they had created for themselves out of the Spring Offensive. The 36th, due to be pulled out of the line, were instead sent forward again and again, as every unit available was required to maintain the advance. Numerous towns, like Bailleul itself, were taken with relatively little fighting. Other units would not be as fortunate.

It was at nearby Reincourt that the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers were properly re-introduced to the fighting, having been transferred from the 16th to the 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division. There they repelled some of the few vigorously pushed German counter-attacks, with the battalion so badly pressed at one point that a CSM, Martin Doyle, took command for a time, winning a Victoria Cross for leading a bayonet charge, saving a tank from enemy capture and then going on to seize a machine gun post.

The focus of the fighting now turned to getting back to the teeth of the Hindenburg Line, with the Germans losing almost everything they had sacrificed so much to gain during the Spring Offensive. For the Allies, this involved some bitter fighting to re-take positions they had held only a few months before, but now it was clear that the enemy will to fight was disintegrating rapidly. At Wulverghem at the beginning of September, the 7th Royal Irish Regiment was involved in heavy fighting as the British advanced further into Belgium, while the 109th Brigade of the 36th attacked Ravelsberg Hill, pushing close to the nearby village of Neuve Eglise. From there, they moved to support attacks on “Hill 63”. The Germans counter-attacked frequently, and employed mustard gas at times. It took days of fighting, with brigades being rotated due to exhaustion, but the Allied advance could not be halted for long.

By now things were rapidly getting out of control for the Germans, with continued unrest at home from food shortages, as reinforcements sent to the front were sometimes jeered by veteran soldiers, accused of simply prolonging the lost war through their participation. But still, the high command refused to throw in the towel, even though Hindenburg and Ludendorff both privately insisted that an armistice had to now be sought. The initial German terms presented to US President Woodrow Wilson were considered unacceptable, and so the fighting continued.

Ferdinand Foch wanted to maintain the Allied momentum – added to by success in other fronts, such as in the Balkans, the Holy Land and in colonial arenas – and this meant breaching the Hindenburg Line and breaking out into the open country beyond, and maybe even into Germany itself. For this task, he designed, in concert with British, French, Belgian and American commanders, the “Grand Offensive”, a series of multiple attacks all along the front, from Ypres in the north to Cambrai in the south, with the aim of bypassing or smashing through the last serious stretch of German defences.

The Irish units still in the field were on the cusp of helping to secure victory in the titanic struggle, but were nearly all exhausted themselves, from days upon days of frontline service and little in the way of rest. But still, the 36th, the 10th and the scattered units that were part of the 29th, 57th or 63rd Divisions would have to rally themselves again, for what was, for real this time, the last big push. In Ypres, in Cambrai, they would truly now be facing their last fights.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner



You probably couldn’t tell…

Another year, another festival, another animated effort. It was back in 2015 that I was given the chance to see Nora Twomey’s Song Of The Sea, and I found it an entrancing tale of sibling love, loss, depression and exploration, beautifully acted and beautifully animated by Cartoon Saloon. The film showcased a maturity in its animation and in its story, without sacrificing on the kind of vivid and fantastical story-telling that is aimed primarily at children.

But this, this is something significantly darker. Deborah Ellis’ novel tells a grim tale at times, of gender inequality and a desperate fight for survival, but Cartoon Saloon, and Nora Twomey again, have tackled serious topics before, doing so with tact and verve. More importantly, they have done so with a searing honesty. If The Breadwinner is to be an animated adaptation, I can think of no other studio and director I would rather have be responsible. I caught a screening of The Breadwinner as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the family of young Parvana (Saara Chaudry) struggle in an unjust society on the brink of invasion. When her father is arrested on a trumped up charge, Parvana is forced to cut her hair and adopt the clothes of a boy in order to insure the survival of her mother, sister and younger brother. At first doing so cautiously, Parvana soon exults in the freedom her ruse allows her, but in the streets of Kabul danger and discovery are never far away.

It says something about this film, the source material and the director/studio, that this showing of it was able to sell out Screen 17 of Cineworld Dublin, which, and correct if I’m wrong, stands to be the biggest screen in Ireland now that the Savoy is bowing to the inevitable with its fabled Screen 1. A packed house took in The Breadwinner and they, and I, were not disappointed. Cartoon Saloon can call it three for three after The Book Of Kells and Song Of The Sea.

Right from the off, The Breadwinner frames itself as a look at two different views of Afghanistan, the one that is, and the one that could be, one steeped in harsh, painful reality, and one steeped in fantastical freedom and idealism. With an engaging tale within a tale narrative, The Breadwinner ebbs and flows with the story that it has to tell, maintaining its grim look at the unfortunate life of women under the rule of Taliban while also giving itself the breathing room to tell what is essentially an eastern-style fairy-tale.

It will be hard for anyone to see the depiction of female life in Kabul and not feel a little sick, a little upset, a little angry. In the opening scenes, a father does something inherently forbidden in Taliban society, and attempts to educate his daughter; when a young firebrand of the political movement gets in his face, it’s a sure sign that trouble is to follow. Idrees (Noorin Gulamgaus) might only be in three scenes, but he’s still a remarkably affecting villain, the second wave of the Taliban revolution, an angry young man exulting in the power granted to him without having to have fought for it in anyway.

But I might be getting distracted by the intensity of those opening scenes in terms of introducing you to their world of The Breadwinner. The fantasy deserves some consideration to, as Parshava begins telling her story-within-a-story, an off-the-cuff quest of a young boy to save his village by getting some seeds from the evil Elephant King. Animated in a different style to the rest of the film, this story provides the opportunity for some badly-needed levity – sometimes from something as simple as the main character repeating the words of the narrating Parshava for example – in a story otherwise surrounded by darkness. Even this kind of thing can’t escape the shadow, and lines up with the central narrative neatly by the conclusion.


The Breadwinner’s story within a story is one of its strongest elements.

In the real world, Parshava has to risk life and limb in order to do something as simple as purchase basic necessities for her female family members, and The Breadwinner excels at showcasing Parshava’s trembling efforts to do this as herself, and then her trembling efforts to do this as “Aatish” and then that wonderful moment of transformation, as she realises the freedom that she now enjoys when she is perceived as being of the male gender. The wrathful glances from those on the street turn to uncaring, the shopkeepers who refuse to serve her suddenly become friendly and, wonder of wonders, she suddenly has the chance to actually earn money of her own. This sudden introduction to activity, respect and agency usually denied to her sex is a great cipher to showcase the inequality of Afghanistan. One of the film’s stated messages is that women shouldn’t have to hide if their appearance offends men, the men should just stop looking. But then Parshava finds herself in a world where no one is looking at her at all.

But, at the same moment, Parshava is weighed down with additional responsibilities. The film is titled The Breadwinner after all, and there are three hungry mouths to feed, not to mention that one of them, her mother, appears to be entering a catatonic end state of despair, having been beaten severely for the crime of trying to find out if her jailed husband is still alive. This shade of a “loss of innocence” theme doesn’t ever become too weighty within the course of The Breadwinner, but provides a powerful motivating context to Parshava’s desperate venture, and a suitable reason for her to become additionally angry at the state of her circumstances, clinging to childish things through her fairy-tale while being forced to grow up all too fast. And it isn’t a case that characterless women meekly accept the beatings and dominance of men: The Breadwinner, in the full course of its running time, shows you why Parshava’s mother is the person she is.

The film propels itself towards a tension-filled climax, where multiple ticking clocks appear to be going off at once: the danger of Parshava being discovered; her efforts to find out if her father is even alive, requiring her to earn enough money to enact a bribe; the continuing hints that the country is about to be attacked (never identified as the USA, but who else could it be?); and, in Parshava’s fairy tale, the young boy’s gathering of magical items and his march to the Elephant King’s mountain fastness.

In all these things, The Breadwinner is at pains to show that humanity, so lacking in the opening sections, does still exist in Afghanistan, and demonstrations of that humanity are what should define the country. Parshava gets help in her quest from unexpected places, like an older man mourning his recently killed wife, or another girl pretending to be a boy who dreams of seeing the sea, and even her sister that she routinely bickers with. By the end of the film, it becomes clear that the inner message is one of redemption for the country’s people and rejection of its more violent aspects, seen in both examples of Afghan women standing up for themselves in the face of patriarchal oppression and in the simple love between child and parent.

As stated, The Breadwinner jumps between two different animation styles in its two different narratives. The real world of Kabul has a more traditional animation style, with simple colours and simple depictions, that is a good fit for the only occasionally colourful surrounds of the dusty Taliban-ruled country. When Parshava and her friend find coloured sweets on a factory floor, it’s so vibrant in the surrounds that it only calls attention to this fact. But what The Breadwinner, in these sections, lacks in colour it makes up for in detail: in the embossed plate that the family eats its meals off of every day, in the expertly portrayed guns that the murderous Taliban sycophants so carelessly let off at times; in the letters that Parshava reads to illiterate men as a side-business, that frequently contain heart-breaking news.

And then there is the fairy tale, where the film moves into cut out-style animation, of overlaid images of a more basic 2D style, traditionally crafted. Here, the opportunities for colours abound, and Twomey takes full advantage, with a showcase of jewels and villainous tigers and wailing villagers and vengeful skeleton men, before a final confrontation with the fearsome Elephant King during a terrible storm, that is expertly intermingled with the storm of war in the “real” sections. The fairy tale has an ultimately sad point to the story it is telling, but that shouldn’t take away from how cleverly it allows a greater depth of expression in what could otherwise have been a very drab film.

While it will certainly lack the localised pull of The Book Of Kells or Song Of The Sea, The Breadwinner may be Cartoon Saloon’s finest hour, a mature, thoughtful animation, that pulls few punches in its depiction of theocratical dictatorship, abuse of women and the defilement of childhood, yet somehow successfully meshing this with some more child-friendly material. Never patronising, rarely bland, The Breadwinner is another fine example of the kind of stuff that Irish animation studios can create, which remains important in a genre awash with the unexceptional. Highly recommended.


Quite good.

(All images are copyright of Elevation Pictures and StudioCanal).

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Ireland’s Wars: The End Of The Spring Offensive

The latter part of Spring 1918 appeared a grim time for the Allies, and for the Irish. Germany’s offensive had gained significant amounts of ground, casualties had been high, the Irish divisions had taken a pounding and, to cap it all off, the British need for manpower has precipitated a crisis back in Ireland, over whether the policy of conscription would be introduced. More on that at a later time.

In the theatre of war itself, it was a time of desperate reorganisation. I have discovered that it has been often reported that the 36th Division’s final battle were fought in March 1918, and like many a writer since, I too have been sucked into such thinking. Additional reading carried out since my last post has educated me that the 36th did keep fighting, on into the summer and autumn of 1918 and I have altered some of my preceding posts accordingly, so that this can be accurately reflected. It was the last hurrah for the 16th Division though, that unit broken up or relegated to training duties for the remainder of the war.

For the 36th, all who could be found were given rifles and prepared for the frontline, like personnel normally relegated to entrenching works, or reserve battalions not entirely ready for the fight. Irish pools to draw from had all but dried up, and now the 36th was swelled with conscripted men from England and Scotland.

With Operation Michael having ground to a halt, the Germans had to try elsewhere, and on the 9th of April launched Operation Georgette, also known as the Battle of the Lys. Nine German division smashed into the Hazebrouk section of the front, to the north. They couldn’t have picked a better time to do so, that section of the front in the middle of a messy reorganisation, where Portuguese divisions were being replaced by British ones. The first day of the attack brought similar success to Michael, with the Germans re-capturing almost all of the Messines Ridge, and sending Allied units scrambling back to the River Lys. Among them were battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 108th Brigade, swapping the 36th Division for temporary confines of the 19th, but unable to stem the tide. The loss of the Messines Ridge would have been a particularly hard one to take, considering the difficulty in taking it.

On the 10th, the 4th Guards Brigade, now containing the Irish Guards, was flung into the fighting at a gap in the line near Vieux-Berquin. In a testament to the confusion of the time, the Guards had been marching in parade order when they got the direction to head for the front. For four days, the 2nd Irish Guards were involved in brutal fighting, losing over 200 men in an action that delayed that segment of the German advance significantly. It was not a battle without cause: the gap opened up by the initial German advance could, if exploited properly, have led to a rapid strike at the Channel Ports.

Obeying Douglas Haig’s famous “backs to the wall” order as best they could, the Irish battalions with the 19th fought as much as they were able, even if some “battalions” were really companies in all but name. Part of their fighting was the action at Kemmel Hill, were various units of the Fourth Army beat off German assaults for three days, retreating and counter-attacking, whether it be in the front with rifle and Lewis gun, or in support trenches enduring constant artillery bombardment. By the end of this fighting the 108th “Brigade” had to be reorganised as a battalion, before retiring to re-join the 36th. The larger division had held a quieter section of the line, but had been forced into several retreats when the line elsewhere was bent backwards.

Despite the losses, the Lys offensive was not a defeat for the Allies, at last not strategically. The German breakthrough was limited and, as with Michael, the losses the enemy had incurred were pyrrhic in the extreme, and the larger goals were not achieved. Rushed in French reinforcements stemmed the tide, and by the 30th of April Georgette was at an end.

While the 36th was still in the fight, somewhat, the other Irish Divisions were realising their own fates. The bulk of the Irish battalions of the 10th arrived in France around this time, with the remainder fighting alongside their “Indianised” units back in the Holy Land for the rest of the war. But they would not see serious fighting for a while, as they became accustomed to the terrain – so different to that of the desert – cleared up the remaining out breaks of malaria they had brought with them, and were reinforced.

And the 16th underwent its dismemberment, its battalions combined with others and then transferred out, some to do a little bit more fighting, others to act purely in a support role, and others still left to train some of the units of the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force.

For the named Irish units at large, the remainder of the Spring Offensive would past them by, even though the Germans kept hammering on the door in giant numbers. On the 27th May, Operation Blucher-Yorck, better known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, was launched, with another mass deployment of troops near Reims. More tremendous success was had for the Germans here, as they brushed past several depleted British divisions and tore a hole in the Allied line, advancing as far as the Marne River, seemingly putting the French capital at risk again. But by the opening days of June the extended German supply lines and exhausted troops could no longer advance properly, and so another attack ground to a halt.

Ludendorff was running out of options. Blucher-Yorck was originally meant to just be a divisionary attack before a larger blow aimed at the British further north, and the Channel Ports, but the success of the operation convinced him to focus on that sector, with another westward plunge through Operation Gneisenau. Again the Germans broke through in force and again they made a spectacular gain in ground, but again there was only so far they could go, with their French opponents now focusing on a defence in depth. Within two days of the initial strike, a French counter-attack turned the Germans back.

The Germans had just enough left for one last desperate throw of the dice. On the 15th July, Ludendorff launched Freidensturm, or the Peace Offensive, aiming to break the Allied lines on the Marne. His soldiers managed to get across the river in places, but that was as far as they would ever get. There was no second “Miracle of the Marne” this time, just the Allied strengths in every department showing. The Spring Offensive had left the German military crippled: its supplies expended, its best units obliterated, the rest exhausted and its support lines badly over-extended. On the 18th of July, the French counter-attacked, and Ludendorff began the painful process of withdrawing his troops from the giant salient they had created, lest they be overwhelmed and destroyed. By the end of the first week of August, the Germans were back to their original lines in this area.

And the Allies were not of a mind to stop. With the Americans ready to join the fighting wholesale, with the Central Powers’ war effort collapsing on all fronts, and with Britain and France in a position to counter-attack in force, the time had come for the final combined offensive of the war. And, eventually, the Irish would be with them.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Hobbit, Chapter By Chapter: Riddles In The Dark

This may be the best-known chapter in Tolkien’s entire works, and is certainly one of the most highly regarded. Within the pages of the spookily titled “Riddles In The Dark”, Tolkien presents an incredibly vivid and remarkable episodic adventure, and through this we get three crucial things: the real start of Bilbo’s rise to become the heroic character he ought to be; the introduction of one of the most iconic fantasy characters of all time; and our first look at the singular object that will dominate the remainder of Tolkien’s bibliography.

I’ve always really loved the opening paragraph of this chapter, that I feel is just so good at emphasizing the kind of tone and tenor that Tolkien wants to set for this chapter. He starts with the sheer darkness surrounding Bilbo: “When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut.” He extends this by commenting on Bilbo’s loneliness: “No one was anywhere near him.” He injects some of his signature author commentary to make clear Bilbo’s panic at his circumstances: “Just imagine his fright!“. And he concludes his opening with a typically excellent use of repeated words to really emphasise the bleakness: “He could hear nothing, see nothing, and he could feel nothing except the stone of the floor.

Tolkien doesn’t need to elaborate too much of course, because the horror of Bilbo’s situation – trapped in a lightless tunnel at the root of a mountain with no idea of where to go – is plainly obvious. It reminded me, then and now, of Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and how the character of Axel finds himself in a similar situation:

No words in any human language can depict my utter despair. I was literally buried alive; with no other expectation before me but to die in all the slow horrible torture of hunger and thirst…How to get back! Clue or landmark there was absolutely none! My feet left no signs on the granite and shingle. My brain throbbed with agony as I tried to discover the solution of this terrible problem. My situation, after all sophistry and reflection, had finally to be summed up in three awful words:

Lost! LOST!! LOST!!!

Lost at a depth which, to my finite understanding, appeared to be immeasurable. These thirty leagues of the crust of the earth weighed upon my shoulders like the globe on the shoulders of Atlas. I felt myself crushed by the awful weight. It was indeed a position to drive the sanest man to madness!

Bilbo will have a very similar feeling, albeit not quite as bombastic:

“He did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while. He thought of himself frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen at home — for he could feel inside that it was high time for some meal or other; but that only made him miserabler. 

He could not think what to do; nor could he think what had happened; or why he had been left behind; or why, if he had been left behind, the goblins had not caught him; or even why his head was so sore. The truth was he had been lying quiet, out of sight and out of mind, in a very dark corner for a long while.”

In the midst of dealing with all that existential terror, Bilbo puts his hand out into the dark, and finds an unadorned ring, just lying on the tunnel floor. Tolkien, in line with his previous trait of hanging a lantern on such moments (like with Gandalf’s imminent arrival in “Roast Mutton“) says directly that “It was a turning point in his career”, which is arguably an unnecessary thing to say, given his own words on the Ring later in the chapter when its use becomes clear. For now, with the hindsight provided by what the Ring becomes in The Lord Of The Rings, we should note the manner in which Bilbo happens upon this thing, seemingly at random. But, as events unfold in “Riddles In The Dark”, it becomes clear that there is too much going on, regards Bilbo’s survival, the finding of the Ring and his eventual escape, for you to be comfortable chalking it up to happenstance or coincidence. As Gandalf himself will outline in “The Shadow Of The Past“:

It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark…There was more than one power at work, Frodo…beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought.

Gandalf’s implication seems to be that a higher power – Illuvater, Middle-Earth’s version of God with a “G”, presumably – had a hand in Bilbo stumbling on the Ring, when a goblin would presumably have been a more appropriate bearer, if it was the Ring in control of such matters. And while The Hobbit will make no such allusions, there is a lot of stuff going in Bilbo’s favour here, too much to ignore.

In the darkness, there is still the light of hope, figurative and literal. Bilbo draws the dagger he took from the trolls hoard, a short sword of Gondolin that, like Glamdring and Orcrist, glows blue when goblins are close. Tolkien specifically notes that Bilbo had practically forgotten about this weapon up to now, and so has the narrator, it not being mentioned in the “Over Hill And Under Hill” when blades were being drawn and used. The glow of this “splendid” blade gives Bilbo some cheer, as well as some light.

The rediscovery of what will become Sting allows Bilbo to also find some of his innate hobbit sense, that Baggins sides of him taking over a tad when the Took side has hit the brick wall. In a moment where you can almost imagine that Bilbo is quoting some fatherly advice he declares “Go back?…No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” This straightforward down-to-earth attitude is endearing to the reader, while also reminding us of just where Bilbo has come from.

Interestingly, Tolkien makes a rare break in the word-flow here, as if he really wants to underline what has occurred. Looking ahead, we can surmise that a part of Bilbo has been left behind in the tunnel where he found the Ring: the hobbit going forward will be a different individual, with a bigger part to play and a larger impact to make on the story.

When the author goes on, he also takes the time to outline some facets of the hobbit race, as if feeling the need to comfort the reader, who might feel that Bilbo is in a bit too much peril. “Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people” the narrator says, before noting that hobbits do well underground, recover quickly from injuries and have a good store of wisdom to fall back on when the need arises. This all seems to be foreshadowing for what is to come in this chapter, where Bilbo’s sense of direction, vitality and knowledge are all going to be critical to his survival.

All the same, Bilbo is heading into unknown territory. The paragraph following uses negative words and imagery over and over again, really wanting to make its point: the tunnel has “no end“, “going down…steadily” with “half-imagine dark things” plaguing Bilbo’s perception as he goes “down and down“, aware of “no sound” save bats, “hating to go on…until he was tireder than tired“. He passes side-passages that he carefully avoids, much like Frodo and Sam will in “Shelob’s Lair“. By the end of the paragraph, it’s not hard to feel Bilbo’s exhaustion, fear and worry coming off the page.

And we, and Bilbo, have reason to be worried. Stumbling into a subterranean lake, Bilbo has reason to think of “nasty slimy things“, the kind with “big bulging eyes” that grow “bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness“. The mind instantly jumps to sea floor anglerfish, though they have normal sized eyes really. They still have that repulsive look, and it seems that the author is trying to unnerve the reader a bit, to get you in just the right mood by discussing “fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again“, before he introduces, arguably, the most important character in all his works.

Gollum is no ordinary character, or adversary. Tolkien doesn’t make him have to come up with his own name, but gives him the honour of a formal introduction: “Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum“. Very quickly, the narrator waves away any thought of an origin story – “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was” – but in truth we’ll get plenty of hints and clues in the following pages, that would indicate the author had a more detailed backstory ready for Gollum that he wasn’t prepared to reveal to the world just yet. For now, Tolkien wants us to be revolted of this “small slimy creature…as dark as darkness” who, like the disgusting fish just discussed, has “two big round pale eyes in his thin face“. So, he’s clearly been down here a while. And, very importantly noted, the seemingly fearsome locals who so terrorised Bilbo and the company in the previous chapter are terrified in turn of this shadowy menace in the lake: “They had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain” and sometimes those sent to do some fishing don’t come back. Before Bilbo and Gollum actually speak, the threat of this creature is made very much apparent.

Gollum’s initial words to Bilbo give us an instant picture of this wretched, uncomfortable being, who elongates his s’s, seemingly revels in being horrifying and openly talks about eating Bilbo right from the off. And he has a guttural noise that comes from his throat, that almost seems intentional as opposed to some kind of chronic condition. Bilbo is so astounded by the appearance of Gollum that he starts being far too open, yammering about the intimate details of his journey and his companions. Bilbo, in much the same tone as he had when he got flustered with Gandalf in “An Unexpected Party“, seems at pains to be polite, civilised in this uncivil setting, while Gollum is only inclined to be the same due to a relative lack of hunger, a perverse curiosity towards this unexpected prey, and the dagger that Bilbo carries.

In a twisted decision, Gollum, essentially, decides he’s going to play with his food before eating it, suggesting a riddle competition between the two, where if Bilbo wins he’ll show him the way out, and if Gollum wins, well, “we eats it“. The author, or, at least, the narrator, has a high opinion of riddle contests. The use of riddles in literature goes back a long way of course, to the extent that there is a recognized sub-genre of “riddle-tales”, going as far back an ancient Sumar and Egypt. These typically take the form of a “wisdom-contest” between opposing rules, or sometimes as a test of a suitor. We all know the story of the riddle of the Sphinx for instance, but the concept pops up all over the place: in the Bible with both Samson and Solomon, in the One Thousand And One Nights with the tale of Turandot, in old Norse tales where Odin challenges an earthly King, in Grimm fairy tales with “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter”. The general thread between them is riddles as a test of true wisdom – or maybe lateral thinking if we want to put a more modern term on it – and as a means of preserving knowledge of the past.

And the idea is just a simple, yet entertaining, way of pitting two foes against each other, instead of just having Bilbo stab Gollum, or Gollum throttle Bilbo. Bilbo isn’t ready to be that kind of hero yet, and this structure allows him to showcase his bravery and ingenuity in other ways, while Gollum’s knowledge of riddles elevates him from just a lake-side monster to something much more potent and memorable. Tolkien values intelligence in his antagonists, and we’ve been ramping up slowly on that score, from the dim-witted trolls, to the more capable goblins and now to the chillingly effective Gollum.

It’s here that the first hints of what Gollum really is start dropping. The author notes that “…riddle competitions had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago…“. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that, only a few paragraphs before this, Tolkien wrote “Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people; and after all if their holes are nice cheery places and properly aired, quite different from the tunnels of the goblins…“. “Holes” being used in both descriptions is, to me, clearly meant to be taken as a connecting thread, to imply that Gollum, who isn’t a goblin or dwarf and certainly not an elf, might just be something a bit more familiar to the reader.

We might also look at Bilbo and Gollum’s initial appraisals of each other, that demonstrate a certain familiarity in approach (and in writing): “He was anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit, whether he was quite alone really, whether he was good to eat, and whether Gollum was really hungry…[Bilbo] was anxious to agree, until he found out more about the creature, whether he was quite alone, whether he was fierce or hungry, and whether he was a friend of the goblins.”

The narrative moves very quickly suddenly, starting from this point. Tolkien takes his time with the introductory sections of the chapter, but when the riddle competition gets going, it’s rapid back-and-forth between the two principals. This frenetic pace increases the tension nicely, as we roll from riddle to riddle like a penalty shoot out, just waiting for someone to mess up.

The fourth wall is also broken a little bit here again, as the narrator addresses the audience – “Gollum knew the answer as well as you do” – in a neat bit of interaction that tries to place the reader, or listener, right in the heart of the story.

Bilbo varies a bit through the course of this contest, starting timid and fearful, but becoming a little bit more confident, even brash, as we go along. At first, Bilbo is nearly “bursting his brain to think of riddles that could save him from being eaten”. But then he “made up one on the spot” to “puzzle the nasty little creature” and later still he dares to get impatient with Gollum: “The answer’s not a kettle boiling over, as you seem to think from the noise you are making.” While Bilbo still flirts with a sense of overriding panic during these sequences, we still get the feeling of a person who isn’t going to take all this for much longer, which is important to explain some events later in the chapter.

The second hint of Gollum’s origins comes during the contest as well, as Gollum is reminded of “when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank by a river“. Again, the “hole” reference naturally makes one think of hobbits, and Gollum’s general thoughts on these memories – “…they reminded him of days when he had been less lonely and sneaky and nasty” – indicate that Gollum was not always what he is currently, laying the groundwork for, astonishingly, a sympathetic viewpoint on the character, one, crucially for what comes soon, of pity.

On the riddles themselves, Tolkien seems to want to emphasise that simple is better. Ten are exchanged in the course of the contest, and the one that troubles Gollum the most, besides the controversial final one, is the simplest that Bilbo comes up:

A box without hinges, key, or lid,
but golden treasure inside is hid

And Bilbo, in turn is seriously tripped up by Gollum’s abstract reference to something as basic as time.

The variation of the riddles is also telling of the characters. The answers to Bilbo’s, in turn, are largely pleasant, or at least not negative: teeth, sun on the daises, eggs, a man eating fish at a table with his cat, the Ring. While Gollum’s tend towards the morose: mountains, wind, dark, fish and time. The nature of how the riddles are told is also telling, with Gollum repeatedly couching his offerings in negative terms, with expressions like “never grows“, “toothless bites“, “Ends life, kills laughter“, “As cold as death“, “Slays king, ruins town” while Bilbo’s include “white horses“, “green face” and “golden treasure” in response.

Gollum becomes increasingly aggressive as the game lengthens, pressuring Bilbo when he hesitates with his answers, and pointedly getting out of his little boat when it appears that he might be close to winning. Bilbo’s continued survival begins to irritate him, and it’s clear that, regardless of the conclusion of this contest, Gollum fully intends to kill and eat Bilbo anyway. After all, who is going to stop him? We’re beyond the Edge of the Wild here, in a place older than recorded time, where the rules of civilisation are not going to be applied. Gollum is portrayed in somewhat childish terms in a way, petulant and stroppy, wanting to both demonstrate his superior intelligence and skill at killing, and being foiled in the first instance.

Throughout the course of the riddle contest, Bilbo gets his fair share of luck, whenever he finds himself unable to grasp an answer quickly. When he can’t figure out “fish”, one happens to plop up on his feet, and later, when he panics and yells for more time, it comes out so shortened that it becomes the actual answer. Later still, Bilbo will trip up at the exact right moment to avoid a chasing Gollum. Is Tolkien merely trying to present Bilbo, like so many heroes in literature, as extraordinarily lucky? Or is he indicating that, as Gandalf will posit later, a higher power is involved in this whole incident, saving Bilbo wherever it can? Whose to say really. Given Tolkien’s background and religious faith, I would deem it likely enough that he meant this to imply some manner of divine intervention on the behalf of Bilbo (and, in a larger sense, the world in terms of the Ring), as he would make clear later in The Lord Of The Rings. Or, contrastingly, maybe the Ring is throwing its weight around.

The riddle competition ends on a very iffy note, connected to, as the narrator puts it, the fact that “…the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it.” In other words, there are rules and conventions to these kind of things, which makes the conclusion of this contest questionable.

It starts with Gollum using somewhat odd wording, a weakness in the text I feel, as it looks a bit cooked up to make what follows more convenient for Bilbo:

It’s got to ask uss a quesstion, my preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Jusst one more question to guess, yes, yess,” said Gollum.”

Is Gollum literally saying “I want to be asked a question, not a riddle” when he says this? Or is he merely exchanging the word “question” for “riddle” when he means the same thing? Bilbo appears to take him at face value straight away: he “simply could not think of any question“. When, by sheer luck (again!), he blurts out his own internal thought process – “What have I got in my pocket?” – Gollum, it is noted, immediately thinks this is meant as a riddle. And he’s unhappy about it:

Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nasty little pocketses?“.

And he has a right to be unhappy really. Notwithstanding his own poor choice of words, he’s looking for a riddle to be proffered, not to be asked to guess what Bilbo has in his trousers.

Bilbo presses the point though, and, crucially, Gollum relents, and goes along with it, with the quickly agreed compromise that he get three guesses. Gollum’s acquiescence would appear to make it all fair-game. He could have continued his objections, and insisted on a true riddle. But even if he didn’t, it still leaves you with a bit of a strange impression. Bilbo himself, internally acknowledges that this isn’t really acceptable practise: “But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.”

Why did Tolkien do this? Well, we have to remember that “Riddles In The Dark” has actually been re-written a bit. In the original version of the first edition, Gollum wasn’t as villainous as he was in the second edition, and the object of the riddle contest was the Ring itself, a “present” Gollum was willing to present to Bilbo:

I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon. He kept on saying: “We are ssorry; we didn’t mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition.” He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.”

That’s taken from this excellent side-by-side comparisons of the opposing versions.

Later, in a bid to match things up with his other writings, Tolkien changed the chapter to the present form, where Gollum is treacherous and sly, and the prize for Bilbo winning is to be shown the way out of the tunnels. Tolkien would justify this change, in-canon, as a combination of translation error (The Hobbit originally framed as a translation of Bilbo’s diary) and unwilling deceit on the behalf of Bilbo, already under the evil Ring’s influence, and wanting to justify his “claim” to the Ring, by making it the prize of the contest that he subsequently won, as opposed to something that didn’t belong to him that he took when he happened upon it. The nitty-gritty of this will actually come up a couple of times in the remainder of The Hobbit, first in the next chapter, and later when Bilbo reveals the Ring to the rest of the company.

But to sum-up, what we’re presented with here is the truth of the matter: that Bilbo, possibly under the influence of the Ring, unintentionally tricks Gollum a bit by asking a question as opposed to a riddle, and that Gollum goes along with it after an objection, probably because he’s going to kill and eat Bilbo anyway. Tolkien’s final word on the subject can be taken from the prologue section of The Lord Of The Rings: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ … but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise“.

Gollum still frames his first and last answer in the form of what you might expect from someone in a riddle-contest, embracing some lateral thinking by suggesting “Hands” and “nothing”. His other answers – “knife” and “string” – are a bit more desperate, indicating his lack of ability and frustration at how things have fallen out. Bilbo rightfully fears that Gollum will attempt to kill him then and there, but Gollum is an intelligent practical creature, and he is fully aware that Bilbo is armed, and thus a bit more dangerous than his usual prey. Especially because Gollum doesn’t have the Ring. He’s not so calm and collected that he is able to control himself entirely – referring to Bilbo as “nasty little Baggins” here – but he isn’t going to let this hobbit have the last laugh. His curiosity over just what Bilbo does have in his pockets is noted, and then he is off to enact his own villainous plan.

It is here that we get a little bit more into the “ring of power” as Tolkien calls it, not quite the portent of doom that it will later be. It is, to Gollum, a “very beautiful thing, very beautiful, very wonderful” demonstrating his idolation of the object very quickly, that he refers to as “my precious“, words he has used already, before we realized Gollum was the Ring’s bearer, indicating that this mania goes beyond immediate exposure. Mysteriously, Gollum dubs the Ring his “birthday present“, a title that will go unelaborated upon at the present time. In the moment, it would be natural for the reader to distrust these words, coming from Gollum, and the reader would be right. Gollum is “a miserable wicked creature“, a murderer and a sneak: it’s easy to envision that he stole the Ring, and maybe even killed for it.

And in this moment Tolkien also offers a hint towards his magnum opus:

But who knows how Gollum came by that present, ages ago in the old days when such rings were still at large in the world? Perhaps even the Master who ruled them could not have said.”

It is interesting to wonder if Tolkien had this ringmaster fleshed out in any form when he wrote The Hobbit, and what he envisioned for the future: whether it would be Sauron, whether they were an evil figure and what role Gollum played in the history of the Ring exactly.

The idea of the Ring as a malevolent, drug-like force will not be expanded upon much in the pages of The Hobbit, but we do see glimpses of that here, in the author’s description of Gollum’s obsession, and in the way that he blindly panics when the Ring is not where he thinks it is. His dependence on the Ring is partly a thing of practicality, as it allows him to murder goblins with ease, but it does seem to go beyond that, with Tolkien noting that, like a junkie, Gollum seems both obsessed and weary of the thing he is dependent on:

Gollum used to wear it at first, till it tired him; and then he kept it in a pouch next his skin, till it galled him; and now usually he hid it in a hole in the rock on his island, and was always going back to look at it. And still sometimes he put it on, when he could not bear to be parted from it any longer…

Gollum’s panic is both fascinating and terrifying, and it sends a “shiver down the back” of Bilbo, and we can well imagine why. Gollum hasn’t been in control of himself totally in the course of this episode, but this is something different. Gollum rants and rails about his “precious” and only gets more unhinged when Bilbo has the temerity to question what it is going on. Bilbo’s predicament is unenviable: trapped at the roots of the world, and relying on an insane dangerous creature to find a way out. And it’s clear the creature is really only interested in Bilbo as a morsel.

Then suddenly out of the gloom came a sharp hiss. ‘What has it got in its pocketses? Tell us that. It must tell first.‘” These scary words again show the intelligence and the insight of Gollum, and it’s a prelude to a murderous moment, where Gollum comes scrambling back from his island at speed, coming at Bilbo with no good intentions, with “the light of his eyes” burning “like a pale flame“. In the face of losing the Ring, all ideas of self-preservation have gone by the wayside: “…such a rage of loss and suspicion was in his heart that no sword had any more terror for him.”

Bilbo is smart enough to know that this is a moment when he must flee or die, and flee he does. But it all seems so pointless: he doesn’t know where he is going, and his ignorance of the caves is in stark contrast to Gollum, who comes on like a chasing predator. But Bilbo, thanks to more aforementioned luck, is saved twice over: when he trips up just as Gollum is about to pounce, and when he absent-mindedly – or maybe by influence – slips the “very cold” Ring onto his finger.

This allows Bilbo to escape Gollum on this occasion, and the hobbit has enough sense to have an idea of what has occurred to him. From there, all he can do is follow Gollum, and via this he gets to witness one of the classic Gollum moments, one that will be replicated in The Lord Of The Rings and “The Passage Of The Marshes”: a debate between his personalities. “Slinker” and “Stinker” need some fleshing out to differentiate them at this point, but there are signs there. “Slinker” is fearful and cowardly: “It’s no good going back there to search, no. We doesn’t remember all the places we’ve visited…We shan’t ever be safe again, never, gollum!“. And “Stinker” is hard, and capable: “…it can’t go far. It’s lost itself, the nassty nosey thing…let’s stop talking, precious, and make haste.”

Bilbo’s final conundrum, and one of the most defining moments of his character, comes here, as he is presented with a way out of the mountains, but with Gollum in his path. The obvious pathway is clear:

Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him.”

And, much like his initial reaction to the trolls, and how his delusions of grandeur in terms of his action hero prowess were dismissed quickly, Bilbo realises that he cannot do what his darker side is suggesting:

No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second.”

Gandalf, in “The Shadow Of The Past” sums up the heroism of this moment, to be moved by pity to take the more difficult dangerous path, to reject the easy and brutal, in a manner so great I can’t help but quote it again:

“‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.'”

Bilbo will never be a great warrior, or a wizard or a King. But he is still a fundamentally good person, and will not lay aside his moral compass, even in this desperate situation. Tolkien resolves the problem with a very convenient escape for Bilbo, as he literally leaps over Gollum and flees where his enemy will not follow. It can, perhaps, be taken as a non-literal note on the evolution of Bilbo’s character, who goes from crawling in the dark to jumping over his opponent. It isn’t the only time that Tolkien would write about such a thing. Here’s a paragraph from “Of Beren And Luthian” in The Silmarillion:

Even as they spoke together of these things, walking without heed of aught else, Celegorm and Curufin rode up, hastening through the forest; and the brothers espied them and knew them for afar. Then Celegorm turned his horse, and spurred it upon Beren, purposing to ride him down; but Curufin swerving stooped and lifted Lúthien to his saddle, for he was a strong and cunning horseman. Then Beren sprang from before Celegorm full upon the speeding horse of Curufin that had passed him; and the Leap of Beren is renowned among Men and Elves. He took Curufin by the throat from behind, and hurled him backward, and they fell to the ground together. The horse reared and fell, but Lúthien was flung aside, and lay upon the grass.”

The last words of Gollum will ring long in the memory, a haunting expression of sheer contempt, fear and vengeance: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!” The words echo down the tunnel after Bilbo, and while the revenge that Gollum has promised will not catch up on Bilbo in this adventure, the reader will assuredly feel that it will someday.

There is only one last thing for Bilbo to do, one final ordeal: the guarded exit from the mountains. Escape is tantalisingly close with a “a glimpse of light” down the corridor. But the goblins lie in wait. This shouldn’t be a problem, what with the Ring and all, but here the object’s terrible sentience shines as bright as the outdoor sun. Perhaps seeing a chance to be put in the hands of creatures that would serve its purposes better, “Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger.” Bilbo is left with a brief moment of fear before he vanishes, with Tolkien curiously noting the pull of the Ring, already effecting Bilbo: “A pang of fear and loss, like an echo of Gollum’s misery, smote Bilbo, and forgetting even to draw his sword he struck his hands into his pockets.”

The chapter ends on a strange scene, as Bilbo hurriedly puts the Ring back on, to the befuddlement of the goblins, who are left running back and forth looking for the disappearing hobbit, with one goblin actually bumping into Bilbo “who could not make out what he had bumped into“. Bilbo imagines it as a bizarre game of “blind-mans bluff” and it seems an almost comic moment to end an otherwise taut chapter on.

In another somewhat transformative instant, Bilbo is able to escape, but only by shedding one of last visual signs of where he has come from, the buttons on his garments, that come flying off as he squeezes through the stone doorway, leading to an animalistic allusion as Bilbo flees “down the steps like a goat“. The chapter ends on one of Tolkien’s typically excellent closing lines, succinct, simple but full of meaning: “Bilbo had escaped.”

“Riddles In The Dark” is a giant highlight in the works of Tolkien, not just in The Hobbit. It helps that he was able to revise, refine and improve it of course, but I will give the master the leeway he deserves. Episodic to an extreme, this chapter tells an intriguing three-act story in the course of its pages: of Bilbo being lost in the tunnels, of his riddle-contest with Gollum, and of his heart-stopping escape from the same. There are only minor things to pick at: the somewhat inconsistent pace, especially once Gollum enters the scene; the strange conclusion of the riddle-context, which seems needlessly murky; and the convenient nature of Bilbo’s final escape from Gollum, where he displays physical skills hither-to unseen that prevents any awkward confrontation.

Other than that, this is pretty much flawless fantasy writing, with great descriptive flair, remarkably vivid characters and a tense plot. Tolkien excels here and takes what has been an entertaining fantasy story, and sends it into the stratosphere of the genre. And there will be little in the way of slowing down or looking back.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: The End In The Holy Land

The Egyptian Expeditionary Forces had pressed into the Holy Land, taken Jerusalem, and secured their lines to the north. The Ottoman Empire’s military, despite the support of German advisors, was not in a great state to resist them, and, with some reinforcements sent from different parts of the British Empire, it was not unlikely that Edmund Allenby’s troops would end the war in the theatre within a few months.

Or so it seemed. The launching of the Spring Offensive on the western front altered the worldwide strategic situation, and London was very quickly looking for soldiers in the Middle-East to be rapidly transferred to France and Belgium. The 10th (Irish) Division was one of those units selected for, essentially, dissection, with plenty of its best battalions taken out of the theatre, put on a boat, and shipped for the western front.

But the 10th remained in the Holy Land, and there were holes to be filled. The missing battalions were replaced with colonial equivalents, the process commonly known as “Indianisation” from the primary source of the new units. By the time this reorganisation was finished, there were only three of the original battalions left: the 1st Leinsters, the 1st Royal Irish Regiment and the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, who were joined by one new incoming unit, the 1st Connaught Rangers. The entire process was taking place amid constant low-level warfare: one battalion, the 6th Royal Irish Rifles, took an Ottoman position during operations near the town of Mesra at the end of April 1918, and were then disbanded two days later. While sometimes characterised as poor troops, the Indian battalions weren’t all that bad: only a third of them were new recruits, with the rest having experience in other theatres or in pre-war campaigns in various places.

While all of this was going on, Allenby was doing the best that he could with what he had. Jericho was captured and the EEF pushed into the Jordan Valley, but then things stalled. Major offensives had to wait owing to the lack of reinforcements, the reorganisation of the existing troops, and the need to consolidate and extend transport links. Raids continued back and forth, but for the most part the opposing sides were left looking back at each other on a line stretching from sea to sea, Mediterranean and Dead, while the summer rolled on.

Allenby prepared what he hoped would be his final attack in Palestine for September 1918, even while the main drama of the war was being concluded elsewhere. The Ottomans didn’t have enough troops to cover the entire line or the main targets of opportunity: thus, when Allenby’s EEF went forward in the direction of Megiddo on the 19th September, the Ottoman’s were quickly sent reeling into retreat by the extent of British artillery dominance, as well as their control of the skies.

A day after the start of the fighting – the Battle of Sharon – the other section or the offensive – the Battle of Nablus – began. Both towns needed to be taken to smash the enemy offensive line. The Indian battalions of the 10th were involved from the start, in the efforts to break through the Ottoman line and outflank the Nablus position. The 10th would take the town, while the 53rd would swing around and block a retreat. Some of the still in-theatre Irish battalions were not initially ear-marked for serious military operations, with the 1st Royal Irish Regiment repairing roads ahead of the front line on the first night of the offensive. On the evening of the 19th, after a brief artillery bombardment, the 10th, one half of XX corps, smashed into Ottoman positions ahead of Nablus, at the union of two different army groups.

After some initially stiff resistance, the 10th and other divisions made significant ground, advancing nearly seven miles by the time dawn arrived on the 20th. It was the beginning of a spectacular Ottoman collapse, but as their more fluid military forces in the field melted away, those in the more entrenced positions remained. It was not an uncoordinated rout, but neither was it a glorious withdrawal.

It was not until the 10th reached near the village of Kafr Haris that they were seriously slowed by Ottoman rearguards, a situation made worse by the fact that they had advanced ahead of their own artillery support. The 10th’s brigades spent the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon attacking the village from different sides, flustered at points by the skill of German manned machine-gun posts, before Haris fell. The hilly country favoured the defender, but the Ottoman’s were not interested in sustained resistance.

The following day, the 10th was pointed at its overall objective, the town of Nablus. Bitter fighting took place at the small village of Rajib, taken after a brutal bayonet charge from numerous units, including the 1st Royal Irish Regiment. Elsewhere, the 1st Connaught Rangers took the Fir Hill and El Funduk positions. By now, the 10th had been moving or fighting for a few days in the brutal desert heat, and all of the troops were increasingly exhausted. But their task was too important for that to be taken into account, with Allenby himself showing up to urge on the 10th’s forward units towards Nablus.

Nablus, increasingly surrounded, couldn’t hold, and the Ottomans in the town fled, only to be torn to pieces by Allied air power and the attacks of the waiting 53rd. The 10th was among the first of the British units into the town, whose civil authorities were left with the task of a formally surrendering. With that, the Ottoman defences were shattered.

The 10th’s part in the Megiddo offensive were only part of the overall plan, whereby a huge section of the enemy force disintegrated before Allenby’s eyes, opening up the path to take Nazareth and then Damascus within ten days. By then the risk of enemy injury was no longer really a factor for the 10th or the rest of the EEF. Instead, a serious outbreak of malaria was a much bigger killer, typical of the nature of the Palestine war.

As the fighting continued into October, the Ottoman effort in the Holy Land completely collapsed: Aleppo, the third biggest city in the entire Empire, fell on the 25th. The Ottoman leadership was willing to cede these outlying sections of the Empire if the Anatolian core could be retained: as noted, they had already retreated from Mesopotamia, and even enacted offensive operations in the Caucuses region during this time. But the clock was ticking. By that time, it was clear that the Allies were marching to victory on both the western front and in the Balkans, where a breakout from Salonika led to Bulgarian exit from the war by the end of September. Cut off from the rest of the Central Powers, and with Germany no longer in a position to help them, the Ottomans faced the possibility of a landward assault on Istanbul. With the Empire crumbling, its leadership faced facts, and signed the Armistice of Mudros on the 30th October, leaving the war, and essentially leaving their fate in the hands of the Allies. They would dismember the Empire over the following few years.

The achievements of Allenby, the EEF and the 10th (Irish) Division in the Holy Land were spectacular. They had advanced deep into the territory of a Central Powers tentpole, operating in a harsh and dangerous environment. They had done so with a dearth of reinforcements. The end result was a significant weakening of the Ottoman Empire, and a trailblazing combined arms demonstration of what could be achieved with infantry, artillery, cavalry and, by the end, air power.

And yet, their achievements were largely forgotten. While the 10th Division in the Holy Land was forging ahead, the majority of its Irish battalions were in France, where the main focus of attention of the war was. In comparison, the Middle-East seemed like an unimportant sideshow, and perhaps more given that units like the 10th were now largely Indianised. Men like “Lawrence of Arabia” would eventually capture the public imagination, with his role in the Arab revolt and the asymmetrical war he helped to fight. Meanwhile, the 10th, it’s struggles and losses, have not received as much notice or credit as they arguably deserve.

But its individual battalions would have a chance, on the main stage, of grabbing some attention. Our time looking at the other fronts of the First World War are over: what is left is the end of the war in its central theatre, as we look at the remainder of the Spring Offensive, the Allied counter-attack, the emergence of the American Expeditionary Force, and how the Irish units fared.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Black Panther

Black Panther



Duh duh duh duh duh da da da da!

I said while reviewing the last MCU film – the passable yet distracting Thor: Ragnarok – that this shared cinematic universe was side-stepping its way from being primarily superhero/action-adventure focused, to being primarily comedy films, and that this was not something I was all that into anymore. But I also said that the next MCU release – Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther – was a film I would still be supporting, because there were other, very important, reasons for doing so. The quality of the film was, in many ways, immaterial. Much like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman last year, making sure that Black Panther was a success is a goal in itself.

And I would be churlish if I was to claim that the need for Black Panther to be a success does not colour my thinking on the film. The world of film and Hollywood needs more diversity, be it in gender or be it in race: a megabucks MCU project with a largely black cast is Marvel Studios answer to that call from the community (while we still wait on that female-led film). Chadwick Boseman stole the scenes he was a part of in Captain America: Civil War, but a full-length feature is a bit different, but look at this cast – Nyongo, Bassett, Whitaker to a name a few award winners, and the likes of Michael B. Johnson, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis and Daniel Kalyuuya along as well. And Ryan Coogler, he of Creed and Fruitvale Station. Just as with Wonder Woman, it appears to be the right people in front of and behind the camera, and there’s no doubt that Black Panther is a rip-roaring financial success. But was it actually any good?

T’Challa (Boseman) inherits the crowd of Wakanda, a seemingly backward African nation secretly hiding an extraordinarily wealth in vibranium, an element whose fantastical properties allows Wakanda incredible advancements in science and technology. Rule brings its problems:ghaving to choose between Wakanda’s conservative past, pressed by Zuri (Whitaker) or taking a bigger part in world affairs, as pressed by W’Kabi (Kaluuya); re-igniting a relationship with war dog Nakia (Nyong’o) and tracking down a rogue arms dealer (Serkis) out to steal as much vibranium as he can. And worst of all is Erik Killmonger (Johnson), a black-ops veteran whose play for power in Wakanda brings to the fore some dark family secrets.

I think, in a weird way, I am more interested in the kind of things that Black Panther is trying to say as a film, and how it says them, than about the tentpoles of the films production. So, I will be brief on some specific things. The general narrative follows the MCU boilerplate for the origin: the hero rises, falls and rises again, there is a bad guy who is essentially an opposite of the hero (right down to the costume when it comes to it), a love interest (without it dominating proceedings), a chase, an exciting culmination at the conclusion and a stinger for things to come. It isn’t bad and, as I will outline, the quality of the other elements – cast, script, visuals – lifts it all up. But we have seen this story before, and not all that long ago: as others have pointed out, you can swap out characters, plot elements and incidents between Black Panther and Ragnarok easily enough. Black Panther is more concerned with the aesthetic changes than structural ones. Because this is a film that is all about the culture, influences, music and lives of black Africans and black Americans.

And it is that right from the off, in a remarkably low-key opening that is more in line with the reserved prologue of Spider-Man: Homecoming than anything else. As King T’Chaka admonishes his brother, incognito among Los Angeles’ poor African-American communities, Black Panther outlines what it will be all about: what appears to be the stereotypical “angry black youth”, and how they will be making a play for they, and their race, to rise above the shackles they have been weighed down with.

From there we are off to Wakanda, the secret African nation that is hit the goldmine – or rather the vibraniummine – and has been able to become, secretly, the most advanced nation on the planet. Hovertrains, spears that can destroy tanks, nanotechnology suits that enhance strength and agility, forcefields, miracle healthcare, there really isn’t anything vibranium can’t do (a flaw in the story, with the barely explained element essentially capable of doing anything the writers want it to). And more than its technology, Wakanda appears to be a paradise: a peaceful union of four African tribes (spending a surprising amount of time on its political side), enlightened in regards women’s rights yet respectful of tradition, and all ruled by a beloved and benevolent monarchy. Sure, any new King might have to have a potential fight to the death from the Jabari (Wakanda’s “fifth tribe”, with Marvel Studios erasing the comic name for their leader: the “White Ape”), but Wakanda is generally as close to a utopia as you’ll see in the MCU.

But it’s an isolationist utopia, one that hides from the rest of the continent, and the rest of the world. The UN thinks Wakanda is a barely noticeable “nation of farmers”. And therein lies the central crux of the plot. The reason for Wakanda’s isolation are obvious in the context of colonisation and a first world coveting of vital resources. But then there is the rest of Africa, with its oppression, child soldiers and second class women. But then there is America and it’s blatantly racist society. And then there is the whole planet, where people from Africa don’t get as fair a shot at life as many others. Does Wakanda have a moral obligation to not be this hideaway nation? Should it reveal itself as a force for good in the world, intervening to help fellow members of the black race? And if it does, how far should they take this intervention? Tradition and modernity, all clashing.


In both race and gender, Black Panther succeeds.

Black Panther starts off illustrating this viewpoint through Nyong’o’s Nakia, a secret Wakandan operative keeping an eye on things outside the homeland and sometimes going beyond the line of duty, and Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, a leader of one of Wakanda’s tribes who wants revenge against the outsider who murdered his family and is willing to go that bit farther. But then enter Erik Killmonger, excellently played by the ever excellent Michael B. Jordan, hooking up with Coogler again after the brilliant Creed. The angry black man has every reason to be angry: losing his parents, fighting wars for a government that has little regard for him or his race, and in a position to change everything.

Killmonger is one of the best villains the MCU has ever come up with, because, in many ways, he isn’t a villain at all. His motivation is to end the oppression of the black race wherever it exists, using the means that are available. The central thesis is unobjectionable, it’s just the likely violent method that is the issue. And throughout the second half of Black Panther, Coogler plays with the audience a little bit, by making Killmonger the sort of guy that, if you don’t want to see him succeed, you don’t really want to see him defeated either. His intrusion on the Wakandan utopia is destabilising to the extreme, as the united paradise suddenly falls into civil strife, like so many so many other African countries in real life, perhaps exposing the lie at the heart of Wakanda’s glorious façade.

There’s controversy aplenty to see here, and I’m sure some will object o the straight monochrome difference between “black people taking over the world via war” and “enlightened African civilisation peacefully intervenes through culture, economics and charity”. The films approach to racial conflict is somewhat restrained: the two white characters are Andy Serkis’ Afrikanner arms dealer who is just sort of insane and Martin Freeman’s US civil servant ally, and the term “white” is only used in its racial context once, in a comedic moment. But when Killmonger talks about the ones who oppress “us”, you can’t really mistake who he’s talking about. But Black Panther should be praised for presenting some awkward questions to the audience, without being patronising, deflective or deceptive in its motivations, and that’s a marked contrast to the rest of the MCU, which has side-stepped the issue constantly. Remember The First Avenger, when an Asian soldier in the Howling Commandos was questioned, but a black guy was something nobody had the slightest problem with? The non-commenting on it then almost seemed ideal (we’re all in it against the Nazis!), but today I can’t help but think it’s a cop-out, like the MCU is in a different universe where racism wasn’t a thing, until Black Panther came along.

Killmonger dominates the scenes he is in, but I don’t want sell Boseman short. Benefitting from his introduction in Civil War, Black Panther gives him the chance to breathe a bit, and thanks to the fine script from Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, we get a fairly well-rounded character, albeit one that maybe doesn’t hold your fascination as much as Killmonger does. We get to see T’Challa the King, stepping into the shoes of his father tentative and fearful of the kind of leader he is going to be; we get to see T’Challa the lover, pursuing a relationship with Nakia amid all of the drama, in nice cutaways that enhance the story rather than detract; and we see T’Challa the superhero, the action-orientated African avenger, who is trying to be the legendary figure his country and people need.

He’s supported by a fine cast, most notably Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. Whitaker and Basset are adding some need gravitas, Serkis has a ball as Klawe and even Freeman, his Everett Ross so out of place in the surroundings, makes a better go of it here than he did in Civil War, while Daniel Kaluuya, in such different surrounds to Get Out, shows that he can more than horror movies.

Visually, Black Panther is on the same level as most MCU productions. The city in Wakanda looks stunning, with its mixture of alien technology and African architecture, though we don’t really get to spend all that much time there. Elsewhere, there are a few inspired sequences: T’Challa’s trips to the land of his ancestors (though Killmonger’s was more affecting really); a few ritual combats in the midst of a pounding waterfall; and a jaunt to the frozen land of the Jabari.

But there are some deficiencies too, especially in the action sequences, which are rapidly becoming the MCU’s biggest problems, through sheer attrition. Black Panther engages in a car chase – seen it. Ritual combat – seen it. A mass brawl between competing factions – seen it (though the rhinos were a nice touch). Chasing some ships down before they can do a load of damage elsewhere – seen it. A heist of a museum – seen it. Seen it, seen it, seen it. The MCU can change the surrounds and the players, but the choreography, the structure and the outcomes of their fight sequences are all looking very samey. The aesthetic changes work better in the films soundtrack (the score being the usual), it being a fun ride through African instruments and modern electronic interjections.

Black Panther I liked, a lot more than I liked Ragnarok, around the same level that I liked Homecoming. Much of it is the same old thing we’ve gotten used to being served, in terms of structure and narrative, but it is in the details – the African characters, setting, music, themes – that it excels. It is a good movie, it could just do with being a bit more adventurous with its base details and a bit more inventive when it comes to its actions.

But more than anything else, it’s a film, a comic book film even, with a minority cast, that is both good from a critical perspective, and has done incredibly in the commercial stakes. And that is a welcome thing. I’ll watch a second Black Panther, gladly, not just because I want to support a film like this, but it helps. I wouldn’t say I’m all that up for the mash-up mess that Infinity War looks like, but if the MCU keeps pumping out stuff like Black Panther, like Ant-Man, like Spider-Man, then they’ll still have me as a customer. Recommended.


Really good.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Last Fight Of The 16th Division

Operation Michael had stunned the Allies on the western front. A huge gap had been opened in the Somme sector by the ferocious German assault, and now enemy troops were pouring in, the likes of Ludendorff and Hindenburg more concerned with making any kind of headway from the breakthrough then with a strict strategic plan. The Irish divisions had been among those caught in the onrushing tide and now, battered, demoralised and bereft of effective leadership, they were swept up in the confusion of the days that followed.

There was to be no let up for what was left of the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster). On the morning of the 22nd, elements of the Connaught Rangers, Royal Munster Fusiliers and South Irish Horse from the 47th Brigade of the 16th manned defences near St Emille, in what was left of the “battle” zone. Initially tapped for a counter-attack, this idea was scrapped as local commanders witnessed battalions on both flanks pulling back under sustained assault. These units covered the retreat of other 16th Division battalions into the “rear” zone instead, before pulling back themselves. They would face a gruelling fighting retreat, nearly always in range of enemy machine-guns, forced to fall back, form a line, fight and fall back again. There were moments of suicidal courage in this section of the fighting, with one bayonet charge, targeting an enemy held barn and a machine gun, leaving just one of the attackers alive to take the objective.

Much of the fighting now focused on the canal crossings to the west, a natural barrier that carried some hope of being a method of stemming the German advance. All along here, Irish units were engaged in the desperate delaying struggle. The 5th Irish Lancers held one of the bridges till the early hours of the 23rd of March, when German stormtroopers crossed the canal elsewhere and laid down flanking fire. Several battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles were ordered to hold ground near the village of Cugny, where they were nearly cut off, doing so for most of the day. The 9th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers of the 36th attempted to hold the village of Ham near one crossing in a day of bitter attack and counter-attack, but hadn’t the numbers to do so. When the 47th reached their crossing point, at Peronne, they found Royal Engineers already preparing to blow it to pieces rather than leave it for the enemy to use. The Royal Irish Hussars were ordered across the canals to deal with a potential attack of enemy cavalry, but sustained artillery fire spooked the horses so much it was all they could do to lead their animals back across the water, with many of them left behind.

As the days crawled on with a seemingly never-ending fight, the losses began to get truly frightening, with the effective fighting strength of many battalions now being little more than a companies worth of men. One of these, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, missed a retreat order on the 25th, as the 36th Division headed for Villeselve, were surrounded, and made a last bayonet charge on the enemy. A few lucky Rilflemen avoided death or capture and joined up with the 1st battalion, but the 2nd had largely ceased to exist. For the 16th, the 6th Connaught Rangers was so hard up for men that it’s total fighting strength was judged to be less than 190 men. The once proud South Irish Horse was so shorn of men that it was placed into the blackly named “47th Brigade Battalion”. The foggy conditions reduced visibility, the roads were crammed with retreating soldiers and fleeing civilians, and there was no clear sense of a larger direction for what was happening.

On the 26th, Allied leadership held a conference, appointing French general Ferdinand Foch as commander-in-chief of all military forces, while the French committed more divisions to assisting the British. On the same day, Ludendorff altered his own vague plan a bit, pivoting his troops to take advantage of a growing gap between the British and French, and setting the city of Amiens as a key target.

At Roye, the Germans poured through the gap, and the 36th was one of the units ordered to try and plug it as best they could. At Andechy, a few ragtag battalions of the division fought a desperate day-long battle, trying to hold some rudimentary trenches long enough for French support to be sent up. At one point, they mistook enemy advancing to their front as the French, so confused was the situation. Badly under-strength and with their right flank almost non-existent, the 36th did well to hold until the following morning, when they had to fall back in some confusion, just as the French were arriving.

That day, the 27th of March, was one of more heartbreak for the 36th elsewhere. The 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers were cut-off in the retreat as the rest of the division headed west across the River Avre. 20 of them made it back to British lines, the rest were killed or captured by midday. Elsewhere, at Erches, three battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles marched out of a vicious firefight with a total of 63 men still standing between them all. It was to be the 36th’s last fight. The division, battered beyond recognition, was sent into reserve. For some of them, it was the first rest they had gotten in six straight days.

The 16th was in little better position. They were marked to defend the northern part of the battlefield, and one of those divisions tasked with holding Amiens as part of the Battle of Rosieres. Eleven German divisions smashed into them on the morning of the 27th, with the division splintering into smaller groups. Some where surrounded, spending a brutal day and night fending off assault from all directions, and then using the cover of darkness to stumble back to friendly lines. At one point, elements of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Royal Irish Regiment and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers all fought together while elsewhere an American engineer unit temporarily became part of the 16th. It was typical of the confusion of the day, where the only aim was to hold the line, and officers were often cobbling together fighting units from several different sources.

The 16th and other British divisions were forced ever backwards, losing the village of Albert that had been the central node of the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916. Constant fighting continued for the next few days until the 30th March. That day, the Germans would begin their last effort to affect a final breakthrough and take Amiens, assaulting the area near the Bois des Tailloux. The 16th, what was left of it anyway, was used primarily as a counter-attacking force, to hit at German footholds past the rapidly constructed British lines. Just as in Gallipoli, Munster and Dublin battalions became “Dubsters”. The fighting was especially brutal, with the enemy repelled with bombs and bayonet. On the 2nd of April, the 16th’s Connaught Rangers, Leinsters and Munsters, succesfully defended Hamelet from a German assault.

It was the last act of Operation Michael. The exhausted Germans had advanced nearly 65 km’s, captured 75’000 men, and destroyed a large amount of Allied supplies and war material. In return, they had lost nearly 240’000 men themselves. Despite the spectacular gain in ground, the offensive had petered out before they could attack Amiens or Arras, and much  of the ground that had been captured, that of the Somme battlefield, was little more than a churned mess of mud, wrecked roads and nothing of genuine worth.

On the other side, the Allies lost over 255’000 men, most of them British. Hundreds of artillery pieces and thousands of machine guns were lost or destroyed. Gough, his handling of the Fifth Army during the offensive a source of bitter controversy ever since, was sacked during the fighting, and the Fifth Army was actually dissovled. But they had held on. A larger breakthrough was prevented in the Somme sector, Amiens was held, and a huge portion of what was left of Germany’s best troops were removed from the equation.

The casualties were stunning, and it was a testament to the scale of the fighting endured by the two Irish divisions that they are considered to have taken the most of any British division involved in Operation Michael. The 36th is recorded as taking 7’310 casualties, and the 16th 7’149. Some of the individual battalion casualties defy belief: the 6th Connaught Rangers lost nearly 650 men in five days. The 9th Inniskkilng Fusiliers lost nearly 500. The 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers too over 750. And they were just a few.

Sent into reserve, neither division was capable of presenting even a third of their nominal manpower as capable of fighting. For all intents and purposes, the Michael fighting destroyed the 16th.. The division was dismembered wholesale, what was left then officially assigned to helping train those men of the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force, while the 36th was sent as far as the coast of France to re-group for a time. The 16th would not get the chance to re-equip and be swelled with reinforcements before the war came to an end later that year, but some of their battalions, those in slightly better condition than others, would yet have the opportunity to fight once more, as part of other divisions. The battered 36th would still have a few battles to fight.

In some respects, it was ignominious end. The 16th especially was criticised in some quarters for a perceived lack of morale and fighting spirit, with some of its units accused of cowardice and an over eagerness to retreat. This was an unfair accusation from a British leadership shell-shocked by the manner of the retreat from the front: a division can’t take over 7’000 casualties and be realistically considered cowardly. Poorly led perhaps, and in poor defences, but they fought as hard as any. The 36th, a bit more politically favourable for those back home, largely escaped such criticism.

It was the end of one of the three Irish divisions, but it was not the end of the war, or of the Spring Offensive. The Germans had stalled in the Somme sector, but Allied frailty elsewhere would now be exploited. Before the German tide was stemmed for good, the British and the French would have more fighting and dying to do. But before we cover that, it’s the third Irish division, the 10th, that we must go back to. The last of its fighting in the Holy Land had to be done, before they were sent to the western front.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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