November 11th – Armistice Day

Liverpool Cenotaph

Liverpool Cenotaph

The first commemoration of Armistice Day in Britain took place on November 11th 1919. In order to get men to fight in the new style of warfare brought about by the start of hostilities in 1914 what was euphemistically called ‘the Great War’ by the British was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. With that as a background it made some sense to remember those who had died fighting for the interests of their respective imperialist countries. However, since the 20 million estimated to have been killed between 1914 and 1918 paled into insignificance in the century following that conflict the whole ethos of the day has changed.

Once the ink was dry on the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 29th June 1919, cities, towns and villages in Britain, France and Belgium (but not in Germany who had other matters – like starvation, an attempt at revolution and the rise of fascism – to concentrate the minds of the people following the draconian conditions of the ‘treaty’) made efforts to raise money so that those who died could be remembered in those places they lived before being shipped off to the trenches of the Western Front or other theatres of war. (The discrepancy about the dates you’ll see on such memorials stems from whether 1918 – which was the year of the end of the shooting – or 1919 – the year of the final treaty – had been chosen as the time when the war ended.)

Even the latter date might not have been totally accurate as the so-called ‘allied intervention’ in the Russian Civil War following the October Revolution – where 14 nations that had been trying to destroy each others’ armies and navies got together in an attempt to destroy the first workers state – continued until 1920. British fatalities in that conflict were, no doubt, listed on the local memorials to appear throughout the twenties although they were fighting in a completely different theatre of war and for completely different reasons.

So even before discussions on the treaty to end the war ‘to end all wars’ had even begun British forces were following the old imperialist road of killing all those who might challenge the right of capitalism to rule the world for the benefit of a few.

Added to that far off conflict the echoes of the guns on the Western Front had barely faded before those psychopaths from the British Army, who hadn’t had their fill of blood, volunteered to join the Black and Tans (the British equivalent of the proto-fascist Freikorps of Germany) who murdered with impunity in Ireland, when the Republican movement was a bit more principled than it is today.

When Nazi forces murdered without discretion, in various countries, during the Second World War the perpetrators were branded as war criminals. When the Black and Tans did the very same in Ireland between 1920 and 1922 they were commended as heroes fighting for the British State. Presumably those that were killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Irish War of Independence are also commemorated on the World War One memorials, if not by having their names recorded at least by association with the recently concluded war.

As time went on, and not too many years at that, the emphasis of ending wars as they were too destructive, in terms of personal suffering as well as the destruction of what a society had already created, was being pushed into the background.

My point here is that the idea behind Armistice Day, November 11th had become a lie, even before it could be first commemorated.

People in Britain seem to have an unhealthy appetite for celebrating war anniversaries. It was in just such a climate that the decision was made to make a big issue out of the centenary of the First World War – I could accept (just) commemorating the centenary of the end of the war in 2018 but the beginning in 2014? That’s just bizarre. But here the politicians are being clever. They know that there’s a deep-seated jingoism in a sizeable proportion of the British electorate that they can tap into. They also know that those very same people aren’t prepared to be critical of what has happened in the past – especially if the British ‘won’.

We have already seen a lot being made of the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’ and no doubt tours to the battlefields of the Western Front and the likes of the Menin Gate in Ypres have been selling like hotcakes but are we really dealing with the real issues at hand?

Although this particular ‘celebration’ was initiated by the Tories and the ersatz Tories of the liberal Party such pandering to the lowest political level is also a forte of the Labour Party. Through the centuries when the British armed forces had been killing, raping and looting throughout the world (of the 196 countries in the world today the British have NOT invaded only 22 of them) there had been no proposal of a day where those forces were celebrated – this was probably because even those in power at the time realised that making these killers out to be heroes would be tantamount to making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

So, if after so many years without a special day devoted to those who had fought and/or died in past conflicts, why did the Labour Party introduce Veteran’s Day in 2006 (3 years later to be called Armed Forces Day)? Because British forces were becoming even more deeply involved in a continuous series of futile, un-winnable, unpopular and more than probably illegal (on their own terms of reference) conflicts which are likely to go on for ‘a generation’. What better to throw in a parade every year and people can forget reality. It also makes it difficult for those who oppose such imperialistic shows of military might as they will be branded as being un-supportive of ‘our boys – and now girls – who are fighting for ‘us’.

Whenever I hear this type of ‘argument’ I always wonder how it would be received if it came from the mouths of the parents of German Waffren SS soldiers whose idea of fighting for ‘us’ was murdering all the villagers and burning every building, as they did in Borove in Albania, or corralling every villager they could into a large building and then setting it on fire, burning all of them alive, as happened in hundreds of villages in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

There was a sound moral reason why ordinary people (not the ruling class) of Britain adopted the idea of a day to remember those who had died in the First World War. Of course, many had died in previous wars but, in numerous senses, the war that began in 1914 was different. Although for the first year or so the war was conducted by ‘professionals’ they were soon joined by ‘volunteers’ and when that wasn’t enough to feed Death’s insatiable appetite mass conscription was introduced for the first time in 1916. These were children in many ways. Whether from the factories or the farms the vast majority of them hadn’t gone much more than a few miles from the place of their birth before being shipped off to some ‘exotic’ location. They took much of the propaganda fed to them uncritically and therefore were like lambs to the slaughter.

Any leadership was denied them when the traitorous Labour Party (yes, it’s been betraying the workers from the earliest days of its existence) decided to go back on the decisions made at gatherings, in the years leading up to the war, in such declarations as the Stuttgart Resolution (1907) and the Basel Manifesto (1912) – which called upon workers not to fight in a bosses war – of the Second International.

Although there had been many casualties in previous wars the overwhelming majority of those from the ‘Great War’ were young men in their late teens and early twenties. This had a not before experienced effect on women who never got closer to the war than those living on the south coast hearing gun fire from across the Channel. For, more or less, each soldier who didn’t return there was a young woman who had little or no prospect of marriage (at a time when this was the norm in society) or experienced widowhood . And this doesn’t take into account the many more who did return but with severe physical disabilities and even more who fought the war every day for the rest of their lives due to the trauma suffered in the trenches.

In Britain the civilian population didn’t suffer in the same way as they did in France and Belgium during the actual fighting. The real suffering followed 1918 and that made Armistice Day commemorations much more meaningful for many more people in the 1920s. This was unprecedented and hasn’t really been repeated in any way close in Britain since (although other countries had to face a similar situation subsequently, most notably the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War).

This should have been a wake up call to British workers. It wasn’t, even with all the suffering caused, both economically and socially, in the 20s and 30s. Even though the conditions showed that the capitalist system offered nothing to the majority of the population the British working class weren’t prepared to go that step further and confine it to the dustbin of history. The working class were responsible for this but then they weren’t able to create in their midst a revolutionary party that would be able to lead such a struggle – not then, nor since.

Although the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the 1914-19 war that was only really a declaration that called for a time out. The war might have ‘ended’ but the same issues that caused the war in the first place remained. Those issues could have been resolved if the workers of Europe had stood firm with the young socialist state in the Soviet Union and changed their own countries but, for various reasons, they didn’t. The rise of fascism generally, the victorious coup carried out by Mussolini in Italy, the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and, especially, the rise of Hitlerite Nazism in Germany made the World War, Part 2, inevitable.

The war in which British forces fought between 1939 and 1945 can safely be said to have been the only ‘just war’ in the history of the country. It was an ideological war for many of the soldiers involved (despite the overarching agenda of the politicians and those capitalists they really represented) with the defeat of fascism being the prime aim. For those who fought the gaining of land, resources and materials for the capitalist class was never an issue, unlike the majority of previous incursions abroad. (This is excepting, as it was fought solely on British soil, the English Civil War of the 17th century where the people rose up in a national liberation war against the God-crazed despot and dictator Charles Stuart.)

When that war officially ended in August 1945 that should have been the point when the world could have said that it had gone through the war to end all wars. But again it wasn’t. The enemy of the war that had been won, in great part, by the unimaginable sacrifice of the Soviet people, changed. Expansionist German had finally been defeated but that didn’t mean that the new kid on the block, the United States of America – together with its already tethered and dependent poodles, the United Kingdom and the other western European nations – hadn’t picked up the baton for world domination. The country which had fought fascism, as one of the ‘allies’, was now the enemy and communists seeking to make a world without war had to be defeated at all costs.

The British Armed Forces were to played, and play to this day, an important and crucial role is this battle against national liberation, progress and freedom.

Lest we forget:


From August to November 1945 Japanese soldiers in Vietnam were re-armed, by the British, to be used as a force against the Vietnamese Viet Minh, the national independence force led by Ho Chin Minh, in order to allow the French time to organise their forces to regain their colonialist control of the region. The Viet Minh had consistently fought against the Japanese invaders, the French had surrendered to the Nazis quite quickly and half the country was under a collaborationist government.


The British were involved in one battle during October and November 1945 against pro-independence Indonesian fighters in the battle for the city of Surabaya. British troops came with tanks, naval support – in the form of 2 cruisers and 3 destroyers – and air support from the RAF. The British ‘won’ but the battle became a clarion call for independence fighters in the future. Thousands of local people lost their lives.


British forces had been in Palestine since the end of the First World War and became increasingly in conflict with the Palestinian population as more and more Jewish immigrants arrived in the country following the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – which promised ‘a national home for the Jewish people’. This decision didn’t take into account that there were already people living on the land and to make the declaration a reality some of these people would have to move. This led to increasingly violent conflicts between the British and the Palestinian Arabs before 1939 and once the war in Europe had been won and the Holocaust became widely known it was only a matter of time before the State of Israel would come into existence. A UN decision at the end of November 1947 came up with a ‘solution’ of the partition of Palestine. This wasn’t accepted by the Palestinians – it was their country and who were European powers to say otherwise – nor the Israeli settlers – who wanted it all.

Although the British were attacked by various Jewish terrorist groups (the leaders of which were later to hold high political office in the state of Israel) they stood aside as the date for the Declaration of the State of Israel (May 15th 1948) approached and the Jewish settlers carried out massacres such as the one of the village of Deir Yassin. This is a sore in that part of the world which has been festering ever since, with the suffering of the Palestinian people become greater day by day.


In March 1946 British forces continued its support of the Monarchist government in Greece. This had been ‘a government-in-exile’, i.e., the King ran away when the Fascists invaded. The Communist guerrillas who didn’t have that luxury stayed and fought against the invaders. Once the Nazis were thrown out at the end of 1944 the British were there to help reinstate the monarchy and gave support to a ‘White Terror’ against left-wing movements within the country. This ultimately led to the ‘Generals Coup’ of 1967 and then seven years of military, fascist rule.


In May 1946 a small convoy of the British Navy sailed through the narrow Corfu straights between the Greek island and Albania. This intimidation of a country with a tiny population who had liberated itself from the Nazi invaders in November 1944 was all part of the British plan, with the aid of its far superior armed forces, to undermine the Albanian Communist Government. As in Greece, Britain favoured the cowardly monarchy that had run away when the Italians had invaded in 1939, this time the self-proclaimed King Zog, and subsequently tried to infiltrate spies and saboteurs faithful to British interests, this all failed miserably.


In April 1949 the British Royal Navy ship, The Amethyst, was sent up the Yangtze River in China. This seems to have been more of an example of latter-day colonial arrogance on behalf of the British government and a similar attitude in the Admiralty. They seemed to be totally oblivious of the fact that tens of millions of Chinese men , women and children had died at the hands of the Japanese invaders; that the Communist Red Army under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung had played the major role in the defeat of that invading force of fascists; and that for four years they had been fighting, and were close to defeating, the capitalist favoured nationalist forces of the Kuomintang – who Britain subsequently recognised as ‘China’ (although limited to the island of Taiwan) in the United Nations until 1971. As in all these situations there’s a huge dose of hypocrisy. What would be the reaction of the British state if a Chinese warship were to start going up the Thames to ‘protect’ the Chinese Embassy, the excuse used in 1949?


The British anti-guerrilla campaign in Malaya, starting in 1948, was euphemistically called ‘The Malayan Emergency’ – it’s interesting that after 6 years of war the use of the term was avoided so as to con the British populace that they hadn’t come out of one war to go into another. This was a dirty war fought in a manner that was to become the norm in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the next 50 years. Here the people were fighting for control of their own country opposed by a colonial power. As many of the guerrillas were of an ethnic Chinese background one of the tactics of the British was to use a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, pitting ethnic groups against each other.

The British troops in Malaya were also the first to use the tactics that the Americans were to perfect in Vietnam in the 1960s. Torture of captives was common, the tactic known as ‘search and destroy’ was widespread and the burning of villages was a matter of course, a shoot to kill policy was in place – meaning that if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time (even if where you lived) you could die, whole villages were ‘resettled’ (read imprisoned in controlled areas) so they could not aid the guerrillas, the use of defoliating chemicals was used to clear the jungle of shelter for the insurgents, and massacres of entire villages were part of the British tactics. One of those villages was a place called Batang Kali, the story of which is very similar to the case of My Lai in Vietnam in 1967, and like the later example of murder by imperialist troops not one British soldier was held to account.


The Korean War took place between June 1950 and July 1953, when an armistice was agreed but not a long-lasting solution. The division of the country was as a consequence of conferences between the Allies in the final months of the war and shows that matters were not always thought through by the Soviet Union – it seems they didn’t fully recognise the antagonism they would have to face from the capitalist nations, who were planning the ‘Cold War’ before the gunfire of WWII had ended. Using the Soviet Union’s boycott of the United Nations Security Council (in support of the People’s Republic of China’s rightful representation in the international body and hence unable to exercise the right of veto) with the US and the UK in the forefront of rhetoric and actual ‘boots on the ground’, an international force was sent in an anti-Communist crusade – a situation similar to which we can all recognise to date. A total of 87,000 British troops (including conscripts) were sent to Korea, resulting in a 1,000 fatalities. The country is divided to this day with occasional flare-ups, either militarily or in a war of words.


As the British armed forces became involved in an increasing number of anti-colonial struggles on moving into the 1950s it’s possible to see how ‘tactics’ used in one place were repeated, and often refined, in others. The Mau Mau Uprising (again a loaded word that indicates the actions of the local populace was somehow illegitimate) was the name given to a liberation movement that fought the British from 1952 until 1956, when the struggle was all but lost by the Kikuyu fighters. In all these actions what are described as ‘war crimes’ can be attributed to the British forces, whether they be actual British soldiers or militias, auxiliaries recruited locally.

In Kenya concentration camps were established, often in very remote areas to keep the activities secret from the rest of the population. (Here it should be remembered that concentration camps were not the invention of the Hitlerite Nazis from the 1930s. No, the Nazis took their lead from the tactics used by the British at the end of the 19th century in their wars against the Boers in South Africa.) Torture was common and recent attempts by those who suffered at the hands of the British to get some sort of redress have been told, surprise, surprise, that the relevant documents have gone missing. There are a number of examples were captured insurgents were clubbed to death and a number of massacres of the local population are also documented.


A move by the British to move their Middle East Head Quarters from the Suez area of Egypt (presumably due to the hostility of the nationalist government of Nasser) to the island of Cyprus in 1955 was the spark to ignite both the Greek and Turkish populations desire to separate from the British and unite with their respective mainland countries. A total of 371 British soldiers died in the 4 year period but figures of Cypriot casualties are unclear – though they would have been much higher. Documents released in 2012 seem to show that, as in other places where the British fought to defend a dying colonialism, they were able to act with impunity in the way they dealt with the locals. To give an idea of the situation I’ll quote from an article in The Guardian newspaper just after the release of the documents: “A young British army officer recorded seeing 150 soldiers indiscriminately “kicking Cypriots as they lay on the ground and beating them in the head, face, and body with rifle butts”.”


In 1956, in response to the Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal the British, together with the Israelis and the French, concocted a scheme to invade the country. Although this was a short-lived occupation and really a debacle for the British and the French before they left there was a tally of 4 to 5 thousand dead Egyptians.


Oman in the 1950s was somewhere between slavery and feudalism. All power and resources where in the hands of the Sultan, who lived in a palace, which he rarely left, and was serviced by hundreds of slaves. There was no development, no schools, no health care and disease was endemic. As a result there was an inevitable rebellion. But, to paraphrase Franklin D Roosevelt when he was referring to the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s Britain’s son of a bitch’. He was also anti-Arab nationalist, something the British liked after the disaster of the Suez Crisis, and he allowed the British to build a couple of air bases in a strategically important part of the world.

This was a ‘war’, which began in the middle of 1957, fought almost exclusively, at least initially, by the Royal Air Force. In supporting the Sultan they followed the tactic of making it so dangerous and unpleasant for anyone to support any opposition to the staus quo that they would think twice to do so. They also attacked water supplies, crucial for survival in such a desert country. These were war crimes in anyone’s definition but the pilots seem to, literally, get away with murder as they are so far from the actual killing zone – just like drone pilots today. If force needed to be used on the ground the British were happy to provide the weapons. Once the RAF had bombed the rebel strongholds to dust the SAS were sent in to finish the job, in the process gaining a reputation for being the hard men of the British Army but really just carrying out mopping up operations. By July 1959, the Sultan, with the military might of the British behind him, seemed to have won.


An anti-colonial rebellion broke out in December 1962. Intelligence of the intention of an insurrection got to the British about a month before it was due to begin, thus allowing themselves time to organise a response. It seems that overwhelming force, with infantry regiments, including a couple of Gurkha regiments, on the ground as well as Royal Navy and RAF support was able to stop the rebellion before it gained any momentum.


Although British troops weren’t directly involved in the October 1965 military coup which put the pro-Western Suharto in control of the country and led to the murder, over the next couple of years, of millions of Communist and trade unionists, the Royal Navy did play the role of protectors of a boat load of Indonesian soldiers on one of their killing sprees. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The Labour Government of Harold Wilson knew what was going to happen before the event, virtually giving Suharto the green light. Communist led attempts at insurrection in Sarawak and the anti-colonial (British) failed insurrection in Brunei had both been supported by Sukarno and his removal suited Britain’s political and economic interests in the region. As was, and still is, the case the question of oil came high on the agenda.


Aden, which is now part of Yemen, had been under the control of the British since 1839 but at the end of 1963 (I know that’s a long time before getting fed up with foreign domination) the local people had had enough of colonial rule. The British response to this was to declare another ’emergency’ and send in the Army’s 24th Infantry Brigade and nine squadrons, helicopters as well as aircraft, of the RAF. This was a short but very intense conflict, with the balance of power changing after each battle. The commander of the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ so that will give you an idea of how the battle was fought on the British side. The British left, earlier than originally planned, in November 1967. Around 60 British soldiers lost their lives but the number of local fighters who were killed is unknown.

(As we were nominally supposed to be in ‘Peace Time’, it’s interesting to note that 1968 was the first year since the end of the Second World War when British troops were not in a combat role somewhere in the world. I think it’s true to say the only year from 1945 till now.)


British troops were sent into Ireland, in the most recent version of ‘The Troubles’, on 14th August 1969. Although it could be true to say, initially, they were welcomed by the Catholic community that soon melted away. With Ireland it’s difficult to know where to start. It would depend where you stand on Ireland whether this was a national, civil conflict or the perpetuation of colonial rule. Whatever interpretation you choose it brings up difficult questions. If you think that Northern Ireland is part of the UK then British troops were mistreating, torturing and generally terrorising British citizens. If you believe in an All Ireland Republic this was a matter of the colonial conflict getting closer to home.

British troops in Ireland: kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night; soon had their backs to the Unionist attackers and faced the Republicans trying to defend themselves; killed children by firing ‘battery enhanced’ rubber bullets into their faces; killed civilians in a virtual ‘shoot to kill’ policy; the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in Derry – in recent days a soldier has been arrested for this, but, as always happens in these circumstances, a lowly soldier becomes the scapegoat for overall Army policy; the Springfield Massacre in Belfast where British snipers shot 5 people, including a 13-year-old girl and a priest; the Ballymurphy Massacre when eleven civilians were killed; introduced Internment; and generally made life miserable for the people of Northern Ireland and despite the Good Friday Agreement the underlying issues remain.

(When it comes to Army recruitment the worsening situation in Ireland changed the way the Armed Forces presented themselves. Into the early years of the 70s the call was for young people to ‘Join The Professionals’. When that was seen as joining a bunch of thugs who kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night advertising for the army virtually disappeared from the scene.

Ireland has now been all but forgotten in the public consciousness – in the mainland if not on the island itself. Despite the disastrous wars that the UK has been involved in since 2002 there is a new level of confidence in the state. However many soldiers might die or return with psychological issues there seems to be no shortage of volunteers to join up. Whether the advertising campaigns are really necessary is another matter, it does shovel money into the pockets of companies who support the State but more importantly keeps the idea of an internationally capable armed force in the public thinking.)

Muscat and Oman

The issues that caused the people to rise up against the Sultan in the 1950s didn’t go away, although the revolutionary forces were severely weakened by British military action. By 1970 oil was a much bigger player in the country and the rebellions continued to break out. Instead of making efforts to ameliorate the condition of the people the British government (Labour) instituted a coup against the old Sultan (who was past his sell by date), brought the more compliant son to the throne, and then used the RAF to again bomb the poor peasants out of existence.


The war with Argentina over the Malvinas was a nasty, tacky war encompassing all those reactionary and archaic aspects of wars fought when Britain was dominant in the world and ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’ and the short campaign brought out the worst in the British population. Those aspects of racism and jingoism latent in the country were given free rein by the Thatcher government, who revelled in the opportunity to distract people’s attention away from their inability to deal with the economy. ‘Victory’ in the South Atlantic also allowed those war-mongers within society to attain a level of influence that was still palpable more than twenty years later when the never-ending ‘war on terror’ was declared. More than a thousand men were to die in that short war, a quarter of them British.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and ……

Perhaps it’s unjust to lump all these countries together but circumstances in the last 13 years make it difficult to separate what happens in one country from the effects on another. There is no perceivable end to this war, even politicians saying (in a perverse way to gain support for their policies) that this was is a generational war, one that will go on for years. ‘Victory’ in one place only means the fighting break outs in another. So far 465 military personnel have died in Afghanistan, 179 in Iraq. When it comes to wounded the situation is not so clear, in Iraq almost 6,000 but the figures for Afghanistan are obscured, presumably to keep as many people as possible in the dark about the true human cost.

But the figures become another matter when we consider casualties amongst those opposing the invasion of their country and civilians who get caught up in the fighting. Those figures are probably well over 200,000 but we’ll probably never know the exact figures as numbers are a political game. And from experience of the past the numbers of enemy combatants will always be exaggerated, and those of civilians played down, to demonstrate that the ‘good guys’, i.e., us, are winning.

Industrial Disputes in Britain

Another matter which is never considered is the role that the Armed Forces have played in industrial disputes in this country. Up to the mid-1980s, when trade union activity dropped considerably with the success of the Thatcher government’s anti-union policies, especially with the defeat of the miners in 1984/5, the British Armed Forces were called out almost 50 times to basically scab (strike break) on behalf of the employers. This was at a time when trade union membership was close to 12 million, so hardly a minority group within society – although lack of solidarity amongst trade unionists often meant that groups could be picked off one by one – the tactic learnt long ago by capitalism but still not by those who oppose the rotten system.

When it comes to party politics in Britain it should be pointed out that the colour of the government at any time in the last 70 years has played no part whatsoever in whether British Armed Forces were sent to other parts of the world or not. The Labour Party has been as willing to send troops to maintain British imperialism’s control of various countries, considered by capitalism to be of such importance that force was necessary, as the ‘traditional’ representative of the ruling class, the Conservative Party. Even in opposition these parties play a game and might make noises around the execution of the deployment but never, ever challenging the morality of the issue.

My reasons for this long list (longer than even I remembered) of occasions where British Armed Forces have been in action since 1945 is to argue that it is impossible – if you have any moral compass whatsoever – to consider those who have been killed or wounded as having done so in order to make the world a better place to live, the sort of statements that have been bandied around in the last week or so leading up to November 11th – a phrase which I can’t remember being used in such the same way in previous years.

It seems that the longer the ‘war against terror’ goes on the more the British population in general are prepared to accept the cost that will have to be paid in men, women and materials – those at the receiving end of this mayhem not really being considered at all. There are crocodile tears for the refugees but the bombs continue to drop, drones get used more and more (becoming more terrifying to the people of the ground with the use of the ‘double tap’ tactic – where the drone will stay for hours if need be just to ready to send another missile on anyone who tries to help the injured.

One of the stated aims of even an imperialist army is to defend the people from the country which they originate but do the people of Britain actually feel any safer as a consequence of all these wars against diverse people’s throughout the world?

If wars against poor peasants in the past didn’t affect the civilian population of Britain that is starting to change. In my travels throughout the world I was always amazed that it was very rare to come across hostility from local people who had suffered under the British Armed Forces over the decades. That has changed now. The combined efforts of Bush and Blair have created a genie which will be very difficult (if not impossible) to push back into the bottle.

So have British troops, in the last 100 years, made ‘the world a better place’? I would suggest not. A better pace for the rich and powerful but not for ordinary working people, in whatever country and at whatever level of economic development.

Why do young men and women still volunteer to join such an organisation when it has such a history? I don’t know. There will always be the psychopaths who, if they did what they do in the armed forces in civilian life they would be pariahs of society. Put them in a uniform and they become ‘heroes’. But they, I would like to think, are in the minority – although I find it disturbing when a parent of a dead serviceman/woman will say that their son/daughter died ‘doing something they loved’, when the job of a member of an infantry regiment is to kill people’.

Way back in the 70s and 80s it was suggested that those who join (especially the Army) do so because they come from poor working class backgrounds and there’s nothing else for them to do. Even if that argument is correct the poverty of their origin does not give them license to go to other parts of the world and terrorise the local population.

And where does anyone think the foot soldiers to defend capitalism are to come from anyway? The highest casualty rate in the First World War was among the lowest ranks of the officer corp. Either because they were in the first ranks of those going ‘over the top’ or because they were shot so that the rest of the soldiers didn’t have to go ‘over the top’ at least they were fighting for a society that had benefited them.

Even in the 21st century troops after coming back from the wars in the east are complaining about the lack of support in civilian life. Don’t they have any idea of history? In the 1914-19 war they were promised ‘homes fit for heroes’, they didn’t get them. Why should the State act any differently now, especially when we are in a time of austerity where we are ‘all in this together’ and everyone must play their part?

I don’t want this country to keep sending its young people to fight wars for whom the ruling class are the only beneficiaries. I don’t want that we have to keep adding different campaigns to the list on the First World War memorials. But unless the people of this country stand up against these wars that is what will continue to happen, and now in a climate where people are so full of hate (and why is that surprising?) that they are prepared to bring the war back to the country which had sent the bombs to kill families on the other side of the world. These are very dangerous chickens that are coming home to roost.

For a time leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the war against Iraq many people wore badges with the slogan ‘Not in my name’. That should be the slogan all the time, a slogan which shouldn’t be forgotten once the fighting has started and the bodies of those young people start to arrive back home. If the country is not prepared to see the processions through ‘Royal’ Wootton Bassett (something which the General Staff of the Army hated and which will never be repeated however height the casualties) then it shouldn’t allow those young people to be sent out in the first place.

That would be in a world without war – but there are far too many vested interests to allow such a situation to arise without a fight. To attain that would be definitely worth fighting for – a war to end all wars.



Dogu Ekspresi – Ankara to Kars

Dogu Ekspresi on Platform 1 - Ankara Gar

Dogu Ekspresi on Platform 1 – Ankara Gar

Dogu Ekpresi from Ankara to Kars

or 24 Hours and 1,200 kilometres through a beautiful part of eastern Turkey

There were two reasons to go through Turkey on the way from Albania to Georgia. The first was to visit the Ayasofya in Istanbul, the second to take the overnight train from Ankara to Kars (in the far eats of Turkey). The first was aborted. The crowds were horrendous, even early in the morning, and the experience inside the building wouldn’t have been too good if I had had the patience to wait in the queue. The second was achieved and was well worth it.

Although the information below has already been posted on this blog in relation to the ‘High Speed’ train from Istanbul to Ankara it won’t do any harm to repeat it here.


There are different routes to booking websites whatever you want to buy. However, I have found that many of those routes lead to a dead end, especially if you want to go to a page in a language other than the native one.

I found the TCDD site here the one that worked for me.

Book as long in advance as possible. I’m not talking about months as the tickets aren’t released until a few weeks but if you leave it to a matter of days then you will be pushed for choice.

So the process

Once on the site click on ‘English’ in the top tight corner. If it doesn’t go to English try until it does. Then choose your starting point and destination, the date of departure then whether you want single or return and, if so, the date. Click Continue.

This brings up the available trains on your date. Decide a time, click on the arrow for the drop down menu for class of travel, i.e., Pullman or Örtülü Kuşetli (4 berth Couchette). Click select. The price for your class of travel will be shown. Click Continue at the bottom of the page.

Then will come up a diagrammatic representation of the carriage with the class you selected. Click on your choice of seat WITHOUT a cartoon face of a man or woman. You will be asked to select your gender and if the system likes you the seat will be selected for you. The system will not allow you to choose a compartment if it already has a booking from a person of a different gender and an error message will come up. Presumably that’s not the case if you are booking as a couple or group. Scroll down and fill in your personal details. Once completed click continue.

This will take you to the payment page. Remember – at least those from EU countries (and even the UK as it is about to leave) if you attempt to make a payment with a debit/credit card from now on you will get a code sent to your registered mobile number so have your phone handy. The code is only valid for about 10 minutes. Complete all transactions requested and you will receive confirmation of a ticket. This will also be sent to your email address.


Pullman (reclining seat, 3 abreast) TL 58

Örtülü Kuşetli 1.Mevkii (Business) (4 berth couchette) TL 77.50

Ust is the upper bunk, Alt the lower.

If the finances allow it I would suggest going in the couchette, it makes for a much more relaxing journey – unless you are interested in experiencing the real Turkey when on a train.

As far as I can see these prices don’t change depending upon when you book – as is the case in the UK.

(There’s also the option of taking the Tourist Dogu Ekpresi. Here you travel in a 2 berth couchette and the cost is TL 480. It takes 1 day, 7 hours and 3 minutes, departing at 16.55 and arriving at 23.58 the following day. It only departs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The extra time is to allow for side trips along the way. I also assume that all meals are included.)

Journey Time

24 hours and 13 minutes.

Depart Day 1 at 18.00, arrive Day 2 at 18.13.

Departure from Ankara

Unless you are already in Ankara you might well have done what I did and that was to arrive in Ankara on the ‘High Speed’ Train from Istanbul earlier in the day. If you did then the train from Istanbul arrives in the enormous, new station. To get to the old station you take the bridge between the old and the new, just where people are having to go through a security check to get into the High Speed system, on the north-east of the new building.

If you have plenty of time and are interested in Turkish Railway history you might want to visit the Railway Museum which is on Platform 1 of the old station. It’s open from 09.00-12.00 and then 13.00 to 17.00. I don’t know anything about it as I didn’t discover the place until after 17.00.

It’s on this platform (No. 1) that the Dogu Ekspresi leaves. On the day I made the journey the train pulled into the platform at 17.00 on the dot, a full hour before scheduled departure. There will always be a lot of people ready to get on the train at that time as most of the passengers will be travelling with a lot of luggage and there’s a ‘fight’ to find a space. This is bad enough in the couchettes, what it’s like in the seated accommodation I hate to think. Although there’s a separate baggage car very few people use it for their personal luggage – whether it’s even possible I’m not sure. But unless trains provide for what is happening everyday (that is, with more luggage space in the carriages) then the authorities should find some way to mitigate the chaos that proceeds every departure.

When the attendant comes to check just after departure you do not necessarily need a printed ticket. The two young lads in my compartment just gave their names and as they appeared on the system in that compartment that was sufficient. I offered my passport and that was enough.

An old carriage and a very new station in Ankara

An old carriage and a very new station in Ankara

The journey itself

The train left at 18.00 exact. My compartment was had its full complement on leaving Ankara, a old Turkish man (a couple of years older than myself, I later discovered) and two young students going to the University town of Erzurum (20 hours away) for the start of the academic year. Only one of the students had any real English and I had absolutely no Turkish – having been in the country for less than a week I hadn’t even mastered the basics of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’

This turned out to be one of those long train journeys where I had the privilege of being on the receiving end of local hospitality. Amongst all the luggage the older man had brought with him was a largish cardboard box. This was to provide sustenance to the four of us for the best part of a day.

Soon after departure, using an old piece of newspaper as a table cloth, he brought out some apples and oranges and after peeling them both with his pocket knife proceeded to pass the fruit around. I hadn’t pre-prepared anything and was just going to see what happened food and drink wise. As it worked out I didn’t need to do anything – although if I had brought something I could have least have added something to the party. (Perhaps by not doing so I was being somewhat selfish and not really getting into the spirit of things.) And he brought out more fruit as the evening wore on. After the beds had been prepared he asked, by sign language, if I wanted to eat but I refused. There was obviously more there than he would need himself.

His box came out just after midday on the second day for lunch – which also had more than enough to feed the four of us.

Food preparation for the journey

The two other young Turks didn’t seem to have prepared for the journey any better than me. Perhaps they were going to depend upon opportunities along the route, as I was. There was a basic restaurant section in one of the other carriages but it didn’t seem to have a wide selection, other than providing tea and coffee. As I didn’t need to I didn’t do much more than have a brief look at one time. I though they might have prepared some sort of breakfast but that wasn’t the case either.

Travelling in a country with a Muslim culture

A few minutes to 19.00 there was a short episode of confusion. I was asked to move from where I was sitting near to the door. I was initially reluctant to do so as I didn’t understand why. With a little bit of ‘explanation’ I eventually realised that the older man wanted to kneel on the seat I had been sitting on as this was the closest he could get in the carriage to facing east in order to pray. He turned his ordinary street hat back to front (simulating a skull cap) and proceeded to pray. The three of us left him to it. Me to look out the window the two young men to get their nicotine fix. (In theory there should be no smoking anywhere on the train but every end of carriage would have smokers there at regular intervals for the next 24 hours.)

He repeated this exercise at 20.00 and then I think it was some time in the early afternoon of the next day that he did so again – but that time I was watching the world go by through the windows in the corridor of the carriage.

Early to bed

Not long after leaving Ankara the attendant had distributed packs of bedding to every compartment. Unlike on some train networks it is the attendant who actually makes up the beds this is not the case on the Turkish Railways – the distribution (and later collection) of the bedding is as far as it goes. That’s not a problem apart from the fact that the design of the lower bunk was that it was supposed to be locked – by a large key which the attendant would hold – but as he played no part in the preparation for sleep that lock was permanently open. Not a real problem until the person next to you decided to use the arm rests to raise themselves – in the process throwing anyone else on that side forward. And however much this happened you would always forget the consequences of an unthought about movement.

Come 21.30, more or less, there was a move to prepare the beds and soon people were in their assigned areas. But by 22.00 I was only one who was not away in dreamland. From my experience an early night always seems to accompany overnight train travel.

Control of the light

I’m happy with that ‘early to bed’ culture. What it provides me with is the vital ‘control of the light’. And this is why travelling in the Pullman carriages would have been so unsatisfactory for me. In an overnight carriage with the internal lights on all you see is yourself and your neighbours. The outside world remains a mystery as the light pollution is so intense.

On the other hand if you can turn off all lights, with the compartment door closed, it’s as dark inside the carriage as it is outside, if not darker. So what you are passing becomes like a film where all that happens can be witnessed. Even the stars become visible – but not so much on the night I was travelling. This was one of the great joys of my time on the Trans-Siberian on the DPRK train.

These are the ideal circumstances in which to let your mind wander, watch whatever might be happening as you pass and let the effects of the raki (the last of which I had bought in Albania and which had been saved for this very moment) decide when you actually go to sleep.

Speed of the train

The train was pulled by a couple of twinned diesel locomotives – although the exact two changed a number of times during the course of the journey, probably every four to six hours, perhaps depending upon the terrain and the schedule they followed.

The power for the first part of the journey

The power for the first part of the journey

But there were times, especially after everyone else crashed out, that the train was able to gather quite a speed on the plains. It was also able to do so on later parts of the journey the following day. But at times when going through the mountains the speed was little more than walking pace as it climbed whilst at the same time following a twisting route through the mountains.

However, by the end of the journey the average speed was, more or less, 50km/h.

Waking up

I might have been the last to go to sleep the night before but I was also the first to stir the next morning, just a little before 06.30. The last I remembered we were racing along, passing towns and small villages, but when I looked out the window in the morning we were in the mountains and the train was crawling along a twisting track that was also gradually climbing. At that time I measured our height at about 1,200m and continuing to climb


But I wasn’t the only one awake for long as the older Turk soon woke up and almost immediately pulled the cardboard box from under the seat and brought out bread, cheese, tomatoes and peppers – shook a carton of drinkable yogurt – and that was the meal we shared between us at about 07.00. It was a couple of hours before the young Turks stirred so as there was no real communication between us after finishing breakfast. We just sat there and watched the world go by.

A word about tomatoes

I’ve probably had more tomatoes during this most recent trip than at any equivalent period in the past. They appeared in the regular breakfasts on offer in both Albania and Turkey. That repetition could become boring if they were not such good tomatoes. Anyone who has had to suffer the excuses for tomatoes that are offered for sale in whatever outlet in Britain has forgotten what a good tomato looks and tastes like. They are rarely red and are devoid of any taste whatsoever. I might be taking Tesco to court over the Trades Description Act on my return.

A word about the sanitary conditions

Whereas on the train from Istanbul to Ankara there were the western toilets on this overnight train you have to deal with the squat version. Not a problem but it doesn’t get any easier when the train is moving.

The terrain

I think someone in Turkish Railways had put a bit of thought into the timetable for the departure of the Dogu Ekspresi, whether from Ankara or Kars. Departing Ankara at 18.00 means it is when people are waking that the train makes its way through the mountains and the more interesting scenery. For the next twelve hours that scenery changes but is still like a nature film with a never ending story. The scheduled arrival in Kars just after 18.00 means that the most advantage has been made of the light. Likewise the departure from Kars is at 08.00 (arriving in Ankara at 08.22 the next day) and so the most interesting landscapes are passed through in daylight. This will take a bit of a blow, in both directions, when the days get shorter in the winter but the timetable gives the best in all circumstances.

Fortunately it was a beautiful and bright sunny autumn morning on the second day of the journey. As the day wore on and as the train reached heights of more than 2,300 metres it was clear that autumn was setting in. At lower levels the trees were just on the turn whilst at the highest levels the leaves on some of the trees had already turned to a bright yellow.

But as is always the case in 21st century societies what you perceive as nature is the result of intervention on a massive scale. Turkey has experienced a rapid expansion in dam building in the last 10-15 years or so, both to ensure potable water supplies as well as for the generation of electricity through the construction of hydro power plants. These create lakes in the mountains where before there were just valleys and, no doubt, there have been more than a few villages lost in the process.

But autumn is before the rains of winter or the arrival of the snow melt from the high peaks in the spring so all the lakes were relatively low whilst not giving the impression that there was any water shortage as such. But it must have been a hot summer as all the land looked particularly parched and most of the agriculture seemed to rely on some form of artificial irrigation.

In the, roughly, 600kms of daylight on the second day the route was bound to take us past various rock formations and as the train moved steadily east we passed sandstone, limestone and then volcanic formations – even at one time, in the late afternoon, similar to those found at Cappadocia, but on a much lesser scale. We were also reminded that Turkey is still in an active and ever changing tectonic location and this could be seen by the way the layers of rock had been twisted and turned by the upward movement of the land.

When the train was crawling slowly through the narrow gorges you are reminded of the effort it takes to build these lines. Now machines can cut through mountains like a hot knife through butter but systems created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries depended upon sheer muscle power. This is evident out in the open but becomes even more so when passing through the innumerable tunnels that lie along the route – many of which took major turns in the dark.

In Turkey, at least at the moment, this huge amount of expended labour power is not going to waste, not like the criminal waste that can be seen in some other eastern European countries, notably Albania. However, even on this route there were signs that lack of investment in the rail infrastructure had led to the run down of certain services with abandoned rolling stock, bogies etc., beside the track in out of the way and isolated places and for no apparent reason – at least as far as I could see.

It’s really only on a train journey, especially when the train has to take it steady due to the difficult terrain, that you can appreciate what you are passing. Not only is it the lower speed of the train compared to road vehicles that helps in this but you are also much higher up and have panoramic windows from which to view the world as you pass through it. The journey from Istanbul-Ankara on the so-called ‘High Speed Train’ was exhilarating when it was topping 250km/h but the journey was more interesting when going slowly through the industrial areas or the mountain ranges between the two major Turkish cities.

For much of the journey the land in the countryside was dominated by arable cultivation – with the production of an incredible amount of maize being most evident. However the further east the train progressed the lower, presumably, the fertility of the land and then what was most evident were the huge herds of beef cattle – together with fields devoted to winter fodder for the animals.

These weren’t the size you would normally see further west but were on a scale, at times, which remind you of ‘Rawhide’ and Wagon Train’ – for those old enough to remember them on TV. And there seemed to be no restriction on where they could go, there being few fences or barriers to prevent them grazing either on wild vegetation or whatever was edible in a field where the crop had already been harvested. In fact, in the latter the passing through of the cattle had the effect of providing natural manure for the next year’s crop.

These large herds of cattle, whether communal or privately owned, also started to have a real visual effect on the small villages that the train was passing on an ever more regular basis. You could make out barns for winter shelter – this was now quite high ground and the winters would be severe – as well as huge piles of straw and hay covered with vast sheets of (mainly) blue plastic. This gave a very distinctive look to the villages at this time of year as preparations were being made to be able to confront and survive the long, cold and dark days of winter.

But that all seemed a long way away as I looked out at bright blue skies and the warmth of the sun coming through the window making for a very pleasant journey.

On my own

With the lack of a lingua franca inside the compartment, and after I had said I was going all the way to Kars, I was of the understanding that everyone else was as well. Also my poor knowledge of Turkish geography, and the fact that I didn’t have a good paper map (indispensable on any long train journey) I wasn’t aware that about 4 hours from the end of my journey was the large University town of Erzurum. As we were getting closer to the city my three travelling companions started to prepare for leaving – me standing there a little perplexed as I thought they were getting off the same station as me.

There weren’t that many station stops on this long journey. Two of them must have occurred overnight and the only other stop had been at about 10.30 that morning when the train stopped for about 15-20 minutes at Erzincan.

Destination Board - Dogu Ekspresi

Destination Board – Dogu Ekspresi

Matters were clarified and we bid our farewells and I was left on my own – in fact there weren’t that many other people in my carriage after leaving Ersurum – and I assume the rest of the train. Although it was good to have the companionship of the three Turks all the way from Ankara it was now also good to have some time entirely to myself. The only ‘interruption’ being the attendant collecting the bedding from the night before.

Four or so hours later, about 15 minutes late, the trains pulled into the town of Kars, just as it was starting to get dark.

Carriage No 7 - and my home for 24 hours

Carriage No 7 – and my home for 24 hours

Tskaltubo – Prometheus Cave

Prometheus Cave

Prometheus Cave

Tskaltubo – Prometheus Cave

What’s there?

A wonderful and not too exploited and damaged natural wonder. There may be many of them in the world – after all so much of the world’s land mass was once under the sea – but that doesn’t lessen the amazement of what you see and pass that took millions of years to create.

And I think the Prometheus Cave is a good example of the different manner in which these limestone caves evolved into the natural wonders they are.

There are the classic stalagmites (rising up from the ground) and the stalactites hanging from the ceiling – the way we were taught to remember the difference when I was young was the idea that tights come down.

But as in all limestone caves there is everything in between – and more.

Cascades that look like frozen waterfalls. Huge globes of accumulated limestone which have percolated through the rock above. And shapes which are difficult to imagine how they were formed with the accumulation of a grain of sand at a time. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to visit such caves I’ve seen something I had never seen before.

Once you have an idea of the process of the construction of these weird and wonderful formations you realise how insignificant our short time is on the planet. When it takes a thousand years for a small stalactite to grow one centimetre and then you see huge pillars that have taken millions of years to reach such proportions we should reflect of the minor part we play in the Earth’s development although play the major part in its destruction.

We are told that Georgians have really embraced religion since the fall of the Soviet Union. How deep that religious feeling is I don’t know. When certainties collapse people have often, historically grasped for something to take its place. The fact that such beliefs can provide some comfort goes no way in solving the economic, social and political problems that gave rise to the uncertainty in the first place.

That being the case I always wonder how Georgians, clutching at these religious straws, rationalise locations such as the Prometheus cave. Why would a all-powerful God make something of sea creatures, then push that land high into the air and then ‘destroy’ the creation by forcing water through it? It must be great when you accept a religion (of whatever brand) as it allows you to avoid the awkward questions of life and you can just switch the brain off.

Why go?

Because if you are near by it would be a shame to miss it. You could take the approach that once you’ve seen one limestone cave system you’ve seen them all. But that’s not true. Every time you go around a corner you see something unique and unrepeatable. A result of the structured chaos that is nature.

And the way the whole cave is illuminated makes a difference. I thought, in the main, the lighting in Prometheus was used in a reasonably subtle manner. And digital cameras are great at creating a colour scheme that wouldn’t have been possible with film – unless you spent hours in a darkroom.

What’s presented in the slide show below is an idea of what you would see in an hour or so walk in the semi-darkness.

It might be worth mentioning that there are a lot of steps, both going up and down, on this expedition. It’s also wet, after all the water dripping through was what created the cave and its architectural wonders in the first place. If that’s a problem DON’T GO!

How to get there

From the nearest town of Kutaisi (unless you are staying in the spa town of Tskaltubo) take the No 30 Marshrutka from the other side of the Red Bridge to the town centre – to the west of the market area. They leave every 20 minutes, more or less, on the hour, 20 and then 40 past. The guide books say GEL 2 but the cost is GEL 1.20 (shown normally on a piece of paper above the driver’s head at the front of the mini-bus). Journey takes about 20 minutes and get off at the market area, just after you pass the large Hotel Prometheus on the left. The road into Tskaltubo goes around the outside of a park and it’s when you leave the park behind and head into the commercial part of the town that you want to get off.

When you get off the No 30 look for the No 42 – or if you look like a tourist they will look for you. This has no set timetable but will leave when there are at least 3 people. In the low season that might mean a bit of a wait – I was there for over an hour before two other people arrived looking for transport. The journey takes less than 20 minutes and you will be dropped off at the car park at the entrance to the Visitor Centre. Cost of one way journey GEL 2. The driver will wait to take you back – about an hour or so later.

Cost of visiting the cave

I thought it was against World Trade Organisation rules for there to be a different price for locals as opposed to foreigners. That is increasingly not the case as I have now experienced this situation in a number of countries.

Assuming anyone reading this is not Georgian then the prices are:

Adult entrance: GEL 23

For the boat trip at the end of the walk: GEL 17.25

Prices for children are roughly half the adult fare.

Sitting in a boat in a cave doesn’t really rock my boat but it might some. More for the children, I think.

Once out of the cave system turn left, uphill a bit, and about 10-15 minutes later arrive at the car park where the No 42 Marshrutka that brought you will be waiting.

Opening times

10.00 – 16.00

but last ticket will be sold a little more than an hour before closing time.

Closed on Mondays.


There’s another cave system close to Kutaisi, this time at Sataplia. This is not that easy to get to by public transport as some guidebooks would suggest. The direct marshrutka wasn’t running the day I visited and I had to take the one that dropped me off at the bottom of a 2.5km climb up quite a steep road. The road is a dead end as it only goes to the cave.

Sataplia is now open everyday, 10.00 – 18.00. Cost is GEL 17.25 for foreign adults (less than half that for locals).

There is a guided tour with set departure times. They alternate between being Georgian/Russian and Georgian/English. Apart from the cave there’s also a small ‘museum’ with information about the park (in Georgian and English) as well as a moving (and roaring) model of a meat eating dinosaur.

A cafe and viewing platform – with a glass floor – has also been constructed which provides a view down on the valley of the River Rioni as well as the town of Kutaisi.

Personally I was disappointed with Sataplia. Perhaps I had been led to expect more. I thought Prometheus by far the better of the two. And unless you have your own transport it isn’t always convenient to get to and away from.

Dinosaur footprints

Sataplia is also unique in the fact that it is the site of an small area where dinosaur footprints, dated more than 100 million years ago, can be found. What also makes it quite unique is the fact there are prints of vegetable feeders as well as meat eaters – although separated by a few thousand years.

This, I must admit, I found slightly underwhelming. The fact they are there is more interesting than the reality. Preserved footprints, however old, don’t look much more interesting than a dog’s footprint in modern cement. But then I might just be being churlish.