28 November 2015

Agreements to protect prisoners of war in World War One

The early-middle 19th century was full of war eg1 the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815) devastated Europe. Eg2 The Anglo-American War of 1812 involved a war against British shipping and repeated American invasions of Canada. Eg3 The Crimean War (1853–1856) led to 300,000 dead or imprisoned from the British-French-Turkish side and 220,000 dead or imprisoned Russians.

These wars devised cartel ships for the exchange of prisoners of war, even while the armies were still fighting. Cartels were ships employed on humanitarian trips, to safely carry prisoners for repatriation to their homes. While serving as a legitimate cartel, a ship could not be captured by enemy action.

During the later C19th, nations wanted to improve the treatment of prisoners of war in enemy countries, AND their safe return home after the war. Multi-national conferences were held, most notably the Brussels Conference of 1874. Although no agreements were immediately ratified by the participating nations, ongoing negotiations led to new conventions being recognised. In international law, prisoners of war were to be treated humanely.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, formally founded in 1863 in Geneva, had a special task within international humanitarian law. For this post, the ICRC's most important task was to establish the International Prisoners of War Agency in Geneva, in August 1914. Its role was to restore contact between people separated by war – prisoners of war, civilian internees and civilians in occupied territories. During WW1, the Agency kept information on almost two and a half million POWs. It also ensured prisoners of war had the right to send and receive family letters.

Tsar Nicholas II strongly encouraged international conferences that fixed the terms of the laws and customs of war, firstly at The Hague in 1899 (and later in 1907). The final principles were published by the Hague Convention of 1899 in Articles 3-20, including:

*In case of capture by the enemy, combatants and others have a right to be treated as prisoners of war. They must be humanely treated.
*All their personal belongings, except arms, horses and military papers remain their property.
*The State may utilise prisoner of war labour according to their rank and aptitude. Their tasks shall not be excessive, and shall have nothing to do with the military operations.
*The wages of the prisoners shall go towards improving their position, and the balance shall be paid them at the time of their release, after deducting the cost of their maintenance.
*Failing a special agreement between the belligerents, prisoners of war shall be treated on the same footing as local troops, as regards food, housing and clothing.
*Relief Societies for prisoners of war shall receive, from the belligerents for themselves and their duly accredited agents, every facility for the effective accomplishment of their humane task.

German prisoners lying and waiting in a field at Longueau 
on the Western Front, August 1916
Photo credit: The Telegraph 12th Nov 2015

But the only thing this 1899 Hague Convention said specifically about the exchange of POWs was as follows: “After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall take place as speedily as possible”.

The Hague Conventions came into force in the German Empire and France in January 1910, but then World War One changed everything. Already by September 1914, 125,000 French soldiers and 94,000 Russian POWs were held captive in German camps. And not just in Germany itself. Very soon POW camps were opened for business in Germany’s occupied territories, especially in northern and eastern France. I wonder how many German POWs were captured and held in Allied prison camps at the same time.

German prisoners being readied for transport home,
20th November 1918
Photo credit: Central News Photo Service

Britain At War 1915 (p22) noted that by the early weeks of 1915, the British and German governments had to urgently consider the internment and/or exchange of wounded POWs. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs told the House of Commons in March 1915 that both the British and the German Governments “had agreed to the principle of an exchange of POWs permanently incap­ac­it­ated for further military service”. All negotiations for the exchange of prisoners were to be conducted through the Foreign Office, with the concurrence of the War Office.

One exchange under this agreement had already been effected, on 15th February 1915. It involved a number of disabled, seriously ill or badly wounded British and German POWs. Those participating Allied prisoners who were held in camps in central and southern Germany were transferred via neutral Switzerland, whilst those incarcerated in the east and north went via neutral Netherlands. The intention was that these prisoners would be held in camps in those neutral countries and nursed back to health before completing their repatriation.

The other neutral nation to get involved in 1915 was the USA. The American Ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, acted as a mediator between the two warring nations. Gerard was delighted to see that the wounded and sick officers and men were sent to Switzerland, still as prisoners of war. From there, they were subject to return to Germany or Great Britain respectively.

There were over 8 million soldiers taken prisoner during WWI. Yet I can find no more formal agreements for the repatriation of POWs until the Treaty of Versailles (articles 214-226), signed in 1919.

24 November 2015

Immigrants, paintings and identity - Jewish artists in London

In July 1915, in an East End restaurant called Gradel’s, the Russian-Jewish artist Lazar Berson invited other artists to support each other culturally and artistically. They planned literary and musical evenings together, to be held in their shared language, Yiddish.

The resulting organisation was Ben Uri Art Gallery. Made up of both historical and contemporary works, the Ben Uri collection eventually spanned 120 years and now includes 380 artists from 35 countries. 67% of these artists were émigrés.

The 1915-2015 century of Ben Uri was always going to be celebrated, but based in a small and temporary space in St John’s Wood, Ben Uri’s treasures were mostly squished up in storage. Now the 70 selected works are being display­ed instead at King’s College London, in the Somerset House East Wing gallery. The exhibition is called Out of Chaos: 100 Years in London.

Rosenberg, Self portrait  
National Portrait Gallery, London

This exhibition is showcasing works that might be not well known. The selected art illustrates the immigrant experience via 19th century artists eg Solomon Hart, the first Jewish made a member of the Royal Academy in 1840, Simeon Solomon and Solomon Joseph Solomon. Then the visitor is invited to view the artists who worked in London in the early C20th, including the sculptor Jacob Epstein. As I have said in previous posts, the Whitechapel Boys were special artists. They were a group of young men that went on to become some of my favourite English writers and artists of the era. I discussed only three: Mark Gertler (1891–1939) was born and raised in Spital­fields, Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918) moved to Stepney as a school boy and David Bomberg (1890–1957) grew up in Whitechapel. Reviewers have suggested that their experimentation gave shape to British Modernism.

And there are examples of the Lon­doners’ intern­ational contemp­oraries, including Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine and Georg Grosz. Finally we will consider the intense, modern imagery of School of London painters Josef Herman, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and RB Kitaj.

You can see the entire online gallery, but I would like to focus on 3 works. The self portrait of Isaac Rosenberg (1915) was a surprise. It seems this immigrant teenager was training to be a painter before the Great War broke out. He fought in the war between 1915-18, dying in the battle of Arras; if anything, we know him now for his war poetry. Yet here we have a sensitive, confident self portrait, dated before he was faced with death and destruction.

Gertler, Merry-Go-Round 
189 × 142 cms1916
Tate Gallery, London

Thankfully the Tate Gallery made a loan of Mark Gertler’s most celebrated work, Merry-Go-Round (1916), his conscientious objector’s reaction to WW1. This very large painting depicted sixteen figures travelling on horseback around a colourful fairground carousel, arranged in five groups of civilians and soldiers. Were the participants screaming?

I particularly liked David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre (1920). The Jewish audience had faces that cannot be seen clearly. Were they exhausted from a day’s work in the factories and shops? Were they embarrassed about not being as well dressed as the Top Hats below? Could they not understand the actors’ speeches well enough?

This exhibition explores a century of past, Jewish émigré history, but it is also creating future dialogue about the universal relationship between immigration, identity and art. Every émigré community in the world has probably faced the same social and political upheavals: loss of extended family, loss of a home, no knowledge of the new land’s language, financial struggle and perhaps distrust from the other citizens. In light of the intense anti-asylum seeker and anti-immigrant environment found today in Australia, Britain, France and everywhere else, it will be interesting to see what parallels visitors to the Ben Uri collection draw.

Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre 
Ben Uri Gallery, London

The exhibition closes in mid December 2015. As ever, if readers cannot get to London in time, I recommend the 2015 exhibition catalogue. It charts a fluid engagement with British and European art and the transition from traditionalism to modernism. The catalogue starts with early artists, including the pre-Raphaelites and the early colourist, Alfred Wolmark, the so-called father of the Whitechapel Boys. And the only Whitechapel Girl Clare Winsten, just one of  the artists who made a distinct contribution to early British modernism.

21 November 2015

The witches of Salem Ma were all hanged: 1692

Religious heresy and dis­s­ension raged in late C15th Europe. People knew that witches belonged to a Satanic conspiracy, working to­gether in an organ­ised, murderous cons­pir­acy. In fact the licence given to witchcraft judges came from Inn­ocent VIII via a papal bull in 1484.

In the sol­id­ly Catholic southern countries of Italy and Spain, witch trials were rare-ish. The Sp­an­ish In­quisition was far more interested to rooting out heresy, secret Jewish converts and Is­lam. So after the Protestant Reformation, we can limit large scale witchcraft trials to Protestant northern Eu­r­ope, in countries like Germany and Scotland. Yet even in northern countries with a long hist­ory of witch trials, witch-hunting largely ended in The 30 Year War (1618-48).

Stacy Schiff’s book The Witches: Salem 1692 analyses witchcraft trials in the USA, decades after they had almost disappeared in the rest of the Christian world. Cotton Mather, minister of Boston's Old North church, was a true believer in witchcraft. In 1688 he had investigated the strange beh­aviour of four children of John Good­win, a Boston mason. The children des­cr­ibed sudden pains and convulsions. Rev Mather was convinced that witch­craft was re­sponsible.

 Witch House in Salem

 Salem, a Puritan town close to Boston, had been founded in 1626. In 60 years, Salem had developed a mer­cantile elite amongst the 600 cit­izens and two families were co­mpeting for control of the village and its church. In 1688 Samuel Par­ris, a successful mer­chant in Barb­ados, was invited to become Salem’s min­ister. During the very cold winter of 1692, his daughter Bet­ty Par­ris acted strangely, contorted in pain and fever. Was it ep­ilep­sy, encephalitis or ergot? No, the most popular explanation was witchcraft. Be­t­ty's behaviour was very similar that of the afflicted washer-woman desc­r­ib­ed in Cotton Mather's book only four years earlier. The devil must have been close to Salem in 1692.

Then other girls began to exhibit similar behaviours. When the local doctor could not cure the girls with regular medicine, super­nat­ural cures were sought instead. The Puritan girls, who were normally con­fined to bor­ing, lady-like behaviour started to yell like boys. The girls con­t­ort­ed into grot­esque and decidedly unPuritan behaviours. 

Convulsive behaviour in front of the judges
Salem witch trial early 1692

Betty Parris and her friends named their demons and the witch-hunt began in March 1692. The first three to be accused of witchcraft were black Tituba, social misfit Sarah Good and old Sarah Osborne. The influential Putnam family brought their comp­l­aint against the three women to county magistrates who arranged for the sus­pected witches to be examined in a local inn.

Hearsay, gossip and spectral evidence were accepted in court as proof! The judges requested exam­inat­ions of the women for Witches' Marks i.e moles for their familiars to attach themselves. Worst still, the accused witches had no-one to defend them in court.

The judges asked the same questions of each suspect over and over: Were they witches? Had the seen the Dev­il? If they were not witches, how did they explain the contort­ions caused by their presence? Clearly the judges thought the women were guilty. So the afflicted girls gave increasingly professional performances in front of the judges.

Suspects thought that if they confessed to witchcraft, they would av­oid execution. The Chief Justice, and most influential member of the five judges, was the gung-ho witch hunter, William Stoughton. And three of the judges were friends of Rev Math­er! 

Hanging of the witches
Salem July 1692

The first to be brought to trial was elderly Br­id­get Bis­h­op, owner of a boozy house, critic­al of her neighbours and slow on bill pay­ments. Spe­c­­ial prosecutor Thomas Newton selected Bishop for his first prosec­ut­­ion because she was guilty, without a doubt. At Bish­op's trial in June 1692, Bishop's jury found her guilty. Chief Justice Stough­t­on signed Bish­op's death warrant, and in June 1692, Bishop was hanged. 

More confident now, the special prosecutor sped up his trials and convictions. Rebecca Nu­r­se was a pious, res­p­ected farm worker. The Nurse jury returned a verd­ict of not guilty which Chief Justice Stoughton hated, so he told the jury to go back to the jury room verdict. The jury reconvened, this time finding her guil­ty. In July 1692, Nurse and four other convicted witches were hanged.

Yet ever more pe­o­ple displayed signs of affliction. Thus accusat­ions and arrests for witchcraft continued to grow. By mid 1692, 200 people had been charged with witchcraft, based largely on spectral evidence.

Any outspoken opponent of the Salem witchcraft trials risked being hanged. Local tavern owner John Proctor accus­ed the judges of bias and corruption, so he was hanged. Wife Elizabeth, also con­victed of witchcraft, avoided execution only because she was pregnant. Seeing how unjust the trials were, an elderly Giles Corey would not cooperate with the trials and was pressed to death under boulders. Soon af­ter Corey's death, in Sept 1692, eight more convicted witches were hanged. They were Salem’s last victims.

By late 1692, Salem's passion for locating and eradicating witch­craft was diminishing. How could so many respect­able people be guilty, especially in such a small town? Cotton’s father, Increase Mather, published Am­­erica's first tract on evidence, Cases of Consc­ien­ce, and insisted that spectral evidence be excluded. 

Cotton Mather's book
Wonders of the Invisible World,  l693

Governor Phips ordered all future trials to exclude spectral evid­ence, and to requ­ire proof of guilt by proper, verifiable ev­idence. Thus most of the last 33 trials ended in acq­u­ittals. Phips dis­solved the Court and rel­eased all remain­ing acc­used witches. Witch-fever, which started with Cotton Math­er’s first case in 1688, disapp­ear­ed by Oct 1692. 19 convicted witches were killed, 4 accused witches died in prison, 1 man had been pres­sed to death. 200 others arres­ted. 

The New York Times noted something an Australian would not have understood. The irony that the Puritans had come to the New World to escape an interfering civil authority was lost on the colonists, who unleashed on one another the kind of abuse they had deplored in royal officials. So was the fact that the embrace of faith, meant to buttress the church, would tear it irrevocably apart. And tear the Puritan town against itself.

The parts of this book dealing with the terrible miscarriage of justice are the most significant. But what happened in Salem after the trials were over and the injustice ended? Cotton Mather was giv­en the official records of the Salem trials to prepare a book that would look on the judges’ role in the tragic affair sympathetically. His book Wonders of the Invisible World: An Account of the Tryals of the Several Witches Lately Exec­uted in New-England l693, vigorously defended the judges’ verdicts, especially Mather's. Governor Phips blamed it all on William St­oughton who re­fus­ed to apologise and who became the next governor of Massachusetts! Did the good citizens of Salem learn nothing?

A few places should be visited. Modern visitors still stand in awe of the memorial that reminds us of those miserable, 1692 victims. Trial relics and documents can also be found in Salem’s Peabody Essex Mus­eum. Witch House, the one house still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Witch Trials, opened with a new museum after WW2. And the historically-minded tourist can still locate John Ward’s house, built for an English tanner in 1684, and the old bakery, built 1682.

I suppose we can be grateful that no one ever died as a convicted witch in the USA again. But could such mass insanity ever happen again? Of course! It may happen as soon as young people break out of their usual powerless role and a community has no proper way of handling divisive clashes. Australians need think no further back than the Cronulla Riots of 2005.