It couldn’t have happened on a nicer day… 23 August, last century.   1 comment

The Battle of Mons and the Massacre at Dinant, Sunday 23 August 1914

In their first major battle, the BEF faced the Germans at Mons. The advancing Germans were unaware of either the strength or position of the British and were unable to press home their numerical advantage. The experienced and well-trained British fought a strong defence but had to withdraw; a French withdrawal on their right flank had left them exposed.

At first the Germans thought they were facing machine guns, so rapid was the rifle fire they faced. The British soldiers’ ability to sustain rapid fire resulted in many casualties. A British NCO said later that the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the masses of the unfortunate enemy. It was all so easy.

The first Victoria Cross (VC) medal of the war to be awarded to a private soldier went to Sidney Godley of the Royal Fusiliers, City of London Regiment. He was severely injured while operating a machine gun to help slow the German advance. At the last moment he threw the weapon into the water to prevent it falling into German hands. Godley’s officer, Lieutenant Maurice Dease, who commanded the machine-gun position, was fatally injured and succumbed to his wounds at the scene. He was also, posthumously, awarded the VC. Godley was taken prisoner and survived the war.

British troops walked 175 miles in the two-week-long fighting retreat from Mons, in the blazing hot summer. The soldiers experienced shortages of water and food and were near to exhaustion; three hours’ sleep in a 24-hour period was common. At times they were so exhausted they preferred to turn and fight.

On that same Sunday morning, in the Belgian town of Dinant, German soldiers forced worshippers out of their church. They were lined up and over six hundred men, women and children were shot dead. The Germans claimed they were rooting out resistance fighters. At Louvain, the university library was set on fire. German atrocities, both real and fictitious, were used heavily in Allied propaganda, but 6,427 Belgian and French civilians were killed by invading German troops.

On 23 August, 1944, Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, met with his advisors at the Royal Palace in Buda to consider the news of Romania’s defection from the Axis powers.

Domokos Szent-Iványi, a diplomat working inside the Regency Bureau, recalled that throughout that summer,

… ‘the Jewish Question’ had again become one of the most burning issues between Hungary and Germany, and Horthy again concentrated on the problem of replacing Sztójay, who proved insufficiently resistant to German demands. The final decision came when the news of Romania’s defection from the Axis became known in Budapest on 23 August… Believing as he did – and now more firmly than ever- that Germany’s defeat was inevitable and  near at hand, Horthy rejected the idea of fighting on through thick and thin.  But neither could he make up his mind to proclaim Hungary’s immediate surrender.  Considerations of these categories held him back. Firstly, a moral scruple. He could not regard it as consistent with Hungary’s honour … to desert an ally – even a hated one – without warning.; ‘a  fortiori’  suddenly to turn against him. Secondly, the practical difficulties… to proclaim immediate surrender would be ‘a leap in the dark’ … more likely a jump down a visible precipice. He did not doubt that Miklós would obey his orders, and the First Army those of Miklós. But the First Army was still outside the frontiers and the German troops inside the country still numerically stronger than the Hungarian. Moreover, the civilian Government was still of Sztójay; and he could hardly hope to carry through a surrender policy until he had a Minister President who would obey his orders.

But the overriding consideration was, no doubt, his still unconquered repugnance to the idea of throwing Hungary’s frontiers open to the Russian Army alone. His belief was unshaken that Hungary’s true salvation lay in Kallay‘s policy of holding out defensively in the east and opening the frontiers to the west; and he had not yet abandoned hope that this might be achieved.

Dőme Sztójay (1883 – 1946) was Hungary’s Envoy in Berlin from 1936 to 1944 and was appointed Prime Minister by Horthy after Hitler’s decision to occupy Hungary, from 19 March to 29 August 1944, when he resigned under pressure from Horthy. He was the PM in charge of the mass deportation of the Hungarian Jews during these months, working directly with the German occupying envoys and officers, including Adolf Eichmann, and disobeying Horthy’s orders to cease the transports in July. The Szálasi cabinet, which came to power in October 1944,  promoted him to the rank of retired Colonel General. He was found guilty of war crimes by the Hungarian People’s Tribunal in 1946, condemned to death and executed.

Col. Gen. Miklós took over the post of Commander of the First Army on 6 August 1944, supported by the Regent. The First Army had reached the Carpathians in July and was well-established along the Hunyadi Line, outside Hungary’s borders, by the time he took command. 

Miklós Kállay (1887 – 1967) was Prime Minister of Hungary between 1942 and 1944. Although publicly supporting the Axis alliance, his ultimate goal was to break with Germany and seek an armistice with the western allies, whilst continuing to fight the Russians in the east. Hitler considered him as his main enemy by March 1944 and the occupation of 19 March led to his capture and deportation to Mauthausen. After his liberation he settled in the US and wrote his memoirs in English, publishing them in New York in 1954.

Twenty-five Years Ago: 23 August 1989: People Power breaks through…

The way 1989 began did not bode well for the proponents of reform socialism or nationalist change. At a demonstration in Prague, eight hundred protesters were arrested – including Václav Havel – for inciting protest against the government. In Georgia and throughout the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia there were demonstrations and rumblings of protest against Soviet rule.

However, seeds of radical change were being planted in other parts of the Soviet ‘Empire’. In Hungary, in early January, the parliament voted to allow freedom of association and assembly. It permitted the establishment of political parties, opening the way for multiparty elections, scheduled for the following year. In May, in a symbolic gesture, Hungarian soldiers began to pull down the countries barbed-wire border fences with Austria, opening the first chink in the iron curtain. When an anxious East German foreign minister telephoned his ‘opposite number’ in Hungary to enquire as to what on earth was going on, he was assured by Gyula Horn that the sections of the fence needed repairing and would soon be replaced to do an even more effective job in preventing East Germans holidaying in Hungary that summer from escaping to the west! Then came Beijing, and the crushing of the protests in the bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square at the beginning of June. Following Solidarity‘s victory in the Polish elections later that month, President George Bush paid visits to Poland and Hungary, praising their first steps towards democracy in front of large crowds. In Budapest, he was genuinely moved when he presented with strands of barbed wire torn down from the fence with Austria.

During August, Poland reached crisis point: the Communists were negotiating with Solidarity about their membership in the new coalition government. At the peak of the crisis, on the evening of 22 August, the secretary-general of the Polish Communist Party , Mieczyslaw Rakowski, telephoned Gorbachev to ask his advice. They talked for forty minutes, Rakowski explaining how deeply divided the Polish communists were. Gorbachev told him bluntly, the time has come to yield power and that they should join a coalition government as part of a process of national reconciliation. Two days later the Solidarity leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was elected prime minister of a new Solidarity-led coaltion. The unthinkable had happened, the Communists had given up power with Soviet encouragement. It was later acknowledged that it was during Rakowski’s call to Gorbahev that the Rubicon was crossed.

Only hours after that phone-call between Warsaw and Moscow, on 23 August, Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him. The dismantling of the border fence in May was of only symbolic importance in Hungary itself, since Hungarians already had the right to go West, if they could afford it and had a sponsor there.  But thousands of East Germans, far more than the usual holiday-makers at Lake Balaton, had been making their way into Hungary to escape from their own unpopular regime. The Hungarians had signed a treaty in 1968 not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through their territory. Now Horn sounded out Moscow for its likely reaction if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. The Soviets did not, and would not object, he was told. So Horn resolved to open the border for the East Germans. He later said that it was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. On 10 September, despite strenuous objections and even thinly-veiled threats of invasion from the East German government, the border to Austria was opened for the East Germans, and within three days of that, thirteen thousand of them, mostly couples with young children, had indeed gone West.

Like the cutting of the barbed wire in May, the Pan-European Picnic, held at the border on the 22nd, played only a small, symbolic part both in the Downfall of the Wall and in the transition to democracy in Hungary.

Posted August 23, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

One response to “It couldn’t have happened on a nicer day… 23 August, last century.

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  1. This is not just about the First World War, but also 1944 and 1989 in Hungary.

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