While November 11 is the day we Brits honour yesterday’s war dead, and late June is the time we celebrate today’s military members, countries around the world often do it slightly differently.
In Australia and New Zealand, the two ideas are rolled into one. Their war dead are commemorated, and present-day military applauded, on the same day: April 25. This is known as ‘ANZAC Day’.
ANZAC is short for ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’, a unit formed near the beginning of World War 1, in December of 1914, and one of many additional components of the British Army that came from the British Empire.
It’s been noted here before that Britain managed to form upwards of 80 divisions over the course of the war, though not all of them lasted until its end (a division usually being a self-sufficient unit of about 18,000* men, infantry and artillery - though cavalry divisions also existed.)
(*British infantry divisions later reduced in size).
But in reality, 80-plus divisions was only the total number that Britain herself fielded at one time or another over the course of the conflict. This figure leaves out all the empire formations; and because of these, there were almost 100 divisions (98, to be precise) under British command across the world by the end of the First World War, according to ‘Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914-1920’.
ANZACs made up the Australian and New Zealand component (including some British and Indian troops early on), first as one single ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’, and later as I and II ANZAC Corps**.
(**There are two or more divisions in a corps).
The ANZAC units also served in World War 2 and Vietnam, but it is their very first campaign, right after their inception, that is most culturally significant.
This was the ill-fated attack on the Gallipoli peninsula of Turkey in 1915, an effort meant to knock the Ottoman Turks out of the war and to open up the Black Sea. If successful, it would have allowed for a warm-water supply route from Britain and France to their ally Russia, struggling against Germany and Austria-Hungary on the Eastern Front.
But poor planning, bad luck and the dogged resistance of the Turks blighted a campaign that dragged on for much of 1915; and because it proved to be such a testing baptism of fire the very first day when troops were put ashore, April 25, is now remembered as ANZAC Day.
On this day, the ANZACs were landed in the dark and in the wrong place, left fighting their way up from the shoreline and through rugged terrain to reach Turkish defenders on the heights.
Despite the odds, the ANZACs had some early successes, but when the campaign as a whole faltered, a drawn-out, attritional battle resulted. This was exactly the way in which warfare on the Western Front had become bogged down, and might have been bypassed - if the Gallipoli campaign had been a success.
But instead, according to the 2005 documentary ‘Gallipoli’, directed by Tolga Ornek, the absurdities of trench warfare showed up here too:
“In some places, especially at ANZAC (where the Australians and New Zealanders were) the trenches were only five metres apart. To show one’s head against the parapet (the front, top edge of a trench) meant instant death.”
The obvious result of this extreme close proximity was that:
“Grenades were thrown back and forth. Soldiers either smothered them with sandbags or threw them back before they exploded.
“No where on Gallipoli was safe. The trenches, the beaches and the dugouts were under constant shelling, and sniper fire.”
Then, as the campaign pushed on towards the summer:
“…with the warmer weather came the flies, attracted by the putrefying corpses around the latrines and the trenches (there were dead bodies all over no man’s land)… (this all) spread crippling disease… everyone on both sides suffered from some form of dysentery…
“Many soldiers became so weak that they could hardly stand up. Some even fell into the latrines, and drowned in their own excrement.”
In addition, the stench of the ever-accumulating corpses lying adjacently in no man’s land frequently induced vomiting.
One eyewitness, Percival Fenwick, a New Zealand medical officer, said:
“In some cases, the dead actually formed part of the trench wall. It was a terrible sight to see arms and legs sticking out of the sand, underneath the sandbags. I pray God I may never see such an awful sight again. I shall certainly have eternal nightmares.”
As the summer beat on, and the sun beat down, parching men’s throats, the flies came – swarming over food and spreading disease further.
And this was what happened during easy periods. When fighting started up again, as it did on August 6, 1915, attacking troops burst through the Turkish lines and broke into the labyrinth of mining tunnels that had been dug in the interim.
Savage hand-to-hand fighting erupted under the ground:
“Men shot, choked and clubbed each other to death… trenches became cluttered with dead. In some places, the corpses were piled two to three metres high.”
The summer also dried out the shrubbery, which then caught fire, mercifully cremating the rotting corpses, horrifically burning alive some poor wounded men as they lay in no man’s land.
Relief of a kind – extreme relief that is – came in November, when a storm caused great torrents of water to cascade down the peninsula, smashing through the trenches…
And then the snow came. 16,000 Allied troops got frostbite and more than 300 froze to death.
The British government finally decided to pull the remaining troops out.
Though the overall campaign was a failure, the Australians and New Zealanders use April 25 to commemorate and celebrate the heroism of the ANZAC soldiers who endured all this, and to celebrate their present-day military personnel.
Similarly intertwined with World War 1 is Italy’s ‘National Unity and Armed Forces Day’, celebrated on November 4, the day the First World War ended on the Italian Front in 1918.
Geography had always made it likely she’d be dragged into the war. According to Peter Simkins, Geoffrey Jukes and Michael Hickey in ‘The First World War: The War to End All Wars’:
“(Italy lay) on the flanks of both the Central Powers and the Allies (bordering, as she did, both France and Austria-Hungary.) Italy (also) had naval power to control the Mediterranean sea lanes… (and) could have denied access to the Suez Canal (if she’d come into the war on the side of the Central Powers – Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Germany.)”
Nominally, Italy was already on the side of the Central Powers, having entered into the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1882. But she’d declared neutrality when World War 1 started, making careful calculations about what precisely to do next: As the Channel 4 documentary series ‘The First World War’*** explains:
“While great armies (of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) tore at one another’s throats on the Eastern Front, a circle of small nations watched - like vultures, waiting to see which side to join. Forget liberal ideals and high principles (such as the rule of law, national self-determination and individual liberty), the question was: who would offer them the most, and who would win this war?”
(***Based on the Hew Strachan book of the same name).
Though this wasn’t entirely driven by opportunism and the desire for more territory, but by pre-existing problems:
“These smaller nations - Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania – also had scores to settle, lands they wanted back.”
In Italy’s case, as Simkins, Jukes and Hickey explain, that meant not having been “strong enough to stand by itself against more powerful neighbours… (and being) ruled for centuries by Austria… in the north and by… Spain in the south”. It wasn’t until 1861 that Italy broke free and became a modern state.
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson’s account of ‘The First World War’ adds an additional dimension:
“Italy had declared war against Austria-Hungary on 23 May (1915.) In one sense this was odd. Back in August 1914 Italy had been formally an ally of the Central Powers. But given its vulnerability to sea blockade and its dependence on Britain for its supply of coal, and with its territorial ambitions clearly directed against Austria-Hungary, there was never a chance of Italy entering the war against the Entente (Powers of Britain, France and Russia.)”
In other words, there were highly compelling geographical, military, political and historical factors all leading Italy towards war against its neighbour, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Unfortunately, the deck had been deliberately stacked against Italy, as Simkins, Jukes and Hickey point out:
“The Austro-Italian frontier had been created artificially by a Treaty in 1866 engineered by Bismarck, providing Austria with a barrier of mountains (the Alps) from which her army could sweep down at will onto the north Italian Plain.”
Actually, in practice, given the nature of First World War combat (i.e. the defender being at an huge advantage), this is the more relevant point:
“Any Italian offensive would have to be conducted uphill.”
This simple fact would shape Italy’s entire war experience. It would quite simply be, Strachan points out, a vertical war amongst brutal terrain. One Austrian colonel said of his men, arrayed as they were across the mountain peaks and looking down at their Italian attackers:
“They threw several hand grenades on the ridge which was about 100 metres below them. Judging by the screams of the wounded, and from the fact that the machine gun hasn’t fired a single shot all day, we must have been successful.”
Like on the Western Front, tunnel networks soon sprang up – though of course men weren’t digging in dirt, but through rock, into the mountains:
“Both sides worked 24-hour shifts, digging tunnels, trying to reach the enemy’s position, and blast the mountain under them. Some went mad listening for the sound of enemy drills.”
In a letter home, one Italian officer, Fulvio Gianni Colle, recounted:
“My nerves are shot to pieces – I’ve got to calm down. I’ve now been on the frontline four months, amidst constant fear and torment.”
Explosives inside the mountain weren’t the only problem – shell fire might also set off avalanches.
Attacking along the decidedly flatter portion of the frontier around the Isonzo river (now mostly in present-day Slovenia) would have made more sense if they could to it.
And the Italians certainly tried to get through… 11 times. It cost them 300,000 dead.
Part of the problem was that the Italians were still fighting amongst mountains here too – the Julian Alps. One Italian soldier who was there remembered the close proximity of the trenches nestled amongst the mountains:
“Between the two trenches, it’s a cataclysm. The dead are scattered everywhere, half buried – haversacks, rifles, rags of clothing and human body parts. A couple of grenades fall in the middle of the dyke where some soldiers are sheltering, and everything is thrown up in the air – rocks fly and fall with furious destruction; laments and screams for help can be heard from everywhere but how can one move? How can one help them?”
Another Italian, Virgilio Bonamore, recalled in his diary:
“I’m astride the crest, and I carry on, metre by metre, ducking my head under shrapnel fire.”
He describes what he saw when a comrade was hit in the head:
“…(he) screams, and falls down the precipice. I watch his body tumbling down. He was a good lad. I keep going, forever asking myself when my time will come.”
Bonamore’s account is extended in ‘The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919’ by Mark Thompson:
“…he spent 24 hours in a trench… ‘squatting among our own and enemy corpses. The stench was unbearable and on top of that we had to withstand a furious enemy assault and we repelled it. Many of our men fell, hit in the head while they poked out of the trench to fire. The constant stream of bombs also caused some casualties… Their effect is horrific. A poor Alpino lost his legs and had his stomach ripped out. In daytime you can see the bombs coming and dodge them but at night it’s serious stuff’.”
Dodging bombs was difficult enough, but there was far worse:
“When Austrian artillery caused a cliff to collapse above the Italian line, 20 men were swept into the abyss.”
The gains achieved during the Isonzo battles were suddenly reversed in 1917 when the Germans bolstered their Austro-Hungarian allies and attacked at Caporetto.
The madness only ended the following year, when the Austro-Hungarian empire could fight no longer. Prior and Wilson describe the confusing closure of this particular corner of World War 1:
“…the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) army was no longer in a condition even to hold the line. It was short of transport, food and supplies and equipment of all kinds. All sense of purpose now departed. In three months… 200,000 soldiers deserted. By the end of September (1918) this number had doubled. What was happening was that the ‘nationalities’ (of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), which up to now had fought so hard against the Italians, were embracing different ends. Czechs, Croats, Bosnians and Hungarians simply left their posts and went home. So when the Italians launched their offensive on 24 October, they were hardly attacking an army at all, just some pathetic remnants. Within forty-eight hours the end had come. By then the Hungarians had ordered their troops home, a Czechoslovak state had been proclaimed in Prague, and Croatia, Slovenia and Dalmatia had left the empire. Austria sued for peace. The offer went disregarded until the Italian army had advanced a sufficient distance to declare a great victory. On 4 November it came to a halt and the Austrian surrender was accepted. The war in Italy was over.”
Not only over, but over because Austria, which had formerly dominated her neighbour, had been resoundingly defeated. No wonder November 4 has since become the date on which Italy’s armed forces are honoured.
Like some other nations, the Russian Federation has a number of days set aside annually to commemorate different aspects of its armed forces. These include ‘Russian Special Operations Forces Day’ on February 27 and ‘Victory Day’ on May 9.
The latter marks the Russian involvement in the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War. The Nazi surrender came into effect on late May 8, 1945, but, because of time-zone differences, it was already the next day in Moscow.
The former, meanwhile, was established in 2015 to celebrate - rather provocatively - the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But perhaps the closest equivalent Russia has to our Armed Forces Day is what it calls ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’.
February 23, 1919, was the first time ‘Red Army Day’ - as it was known at the time - was celebrated, the date being tied to the official formation of the Red Army the year before, near the start of the Russian Civil War. (Like ANZAC Day and Italy’s National Unity and Armed Forces Day, Russia’s ‘Armed Forces Day’ could also be thought of as a First-World-War-inspired event, given that World War 1 was the catalyst for the 1917 Russian Revolution and civil war that followed it).
‘Celebrated’, of course, might be the wrong word. That is, if the brutal descriptions in David Bullock’s ‘The Russian Civil War 1918 – 1922’ are to be believed. Like days of remembrance associated with the First World War, ‘commemoration’ seems a more fitting description:
“This civil war dwarfed all others of the 20th century in scope and significance. The lives of tens of millions were lost or changed forever in the ensuing conflagration - from battle, disease, famine, imprisonment, execution, dislocation and exile.”
In fact, the vast span of the conflict - like Russia’s contours, stretching from eastern Europe to northern Asia – and the involvement of multiple actors from World War 1 (including Britain) makes one wonder if historians should have called this ‘World War 2’.
It’s also important to point out that, even if ‘the Reds’ (communists) and their allies prevailed, the service and sacrifice of those they fought deserves just as much attention, given some of the atrocities they endured at the hands of one notorious Red unit:
“The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, known more popularly as the Cheka, had formed in December 1917… Their motto, 'Shield and Sword of the Revolution', described their purpose.
“Over time, the Cheka proved itself an equal-opportunity employer dedicated to internal repression. A few ex-tsarist prison guards remained at their posts and former criminals who exhibited revolutionary fervour accepted new positions without discrimination. One black man, a communist-internationalist who went by the name 'Johnson', skinned his victims alive before murdering them in Odessa…
“Local Cheka establishments dotted across Russia and the Ukraine, in fact, were noted for particular specializations. A few examples only will suffice. At Kremenchug the clergy were impaled on stakes, hand-saws were driven through bones at Tsaritsyn, victims were scalped at Kharkov, and crucifixion or stoning was de rigueur at Ekaterinoslav. A few were noted for their artistry: at Orel in winter, humans were turned, progressively, into virtual statues of ice (i.e. by pouring water over them and letting if freeze on them)…
“…Rising to a strength of 37,000 by January 1919, Cheka totals peaked at 261,000 in October 1921, or roughly 10 per cent of the armed forces. In the end, the Cheka establishment proved itself no less heinous and pervasive than Heinrich Himmler's future SS in Nazi Germany.”
As you’d expect, war crimes were committed and endured by both sides, and Germany itself would of course become the enemy when the official Second World War rolled around.
And since Defender of the Fatherland Day has expanded over the years to include appreciation of all troops and veterans and, by extension, men in general, World War 2 is also important to the backstory.
The fighting and brutality of the Eastern Front in the Second World War was every bit as intense as the Russian Civil War, not to mention even more epic in scale. There were about 1.26 million dead, on both sides, after the Russian Civil War and its aftermath (i.e. including the uprisings that followed it) versus somewhere between 7 and 12 million dead for the Second World War, according to Michael Clodfelter’s ‘Warfare and Armed Conflicts’.
It is, of course, absurd that there is such a big range – how exactly does one lose track of that many people?
Equally ridiculous is the scale of the death toll on certain demographic groups, something that dwarfs the clobbering Britain took in the First World War. Consider the following two points:
“Seventy-five percent of the military dead were ages 17 to 35.”
“Ninety percent of those men mobilized who were born in the year 1921 died in uniform.”
It’s well known that of all the colossal engagements on the Eastern Front, the biggest colossus was the Battle of Stalingrad, in which there were around 700,000 Russian fatalities (including civilian deaths.) This was almost as many as all US and British military deaths combined for the whole of the Second World War.
As well as the stupendously large casualty rates, the Eastern Front was also notorious for being stupendously cold. The Russians coped better than the Germans but, as with the Civil War, a look at what the Germans went through offers a glimpse into the extreme conditions Russian soldiers endured whilst attempting to expel the German invaders.
Len Deighton’s ‘Blood Tears and Folly’ features some truly shocking details from the Battle of Moscow:
“Tanks were abandoned as engines failed to run in temperatures that had now dropped to 50 degrees below zero. Light and heavy guns, their recoil mechanisms frozen solid, would not fire. Fingers that touched cold metal adhered to it. Mines did not function and only the woodenhandled stick-grenade could be relied upon… Communications between German units failed, and once-invincible Panzer Groups found themselves fighting for their lives...
“A special Red Army unit of tanks, motorized riflemen, ski troops and cavalry was sent to cut the German escape route westwards. They found a German Panzer division on the only road back through Klin. The road was solid ice, crowded with freezing German wounded and jammed with heavy equipment.
“Soon even the mighty Fourth Panzer Group (now called a Panzer Army) was in retreat. The Russians brought their Katyusha multiple rocket batteries into action. The Germans called them ‘Stalin Organs’, and never forgot the whooshing sound they made in the air or the earthquake they made of the target. It was during this chaos that the first winter clothing arrived. A doctor remembered it: ‘There was just enough for each company to be issued with four heavy fur-lined greatcoats and four pairs of felt-lined boots … Sixteen greatcoats and sixteen pairs of winter boots to be shared among a battalion of eight hundred men!’”
Then it got even colder:
“On 10 December Guderian recorded a temperature of minus 63 degrees. Soldiers lucky enough to find a soup kitchen discovered that boiling hot soup froze solid before they could finish it, while those who dropped their trousers to excrete in the open, died as their bowels froze solid.”
Like Russia, China’s ‘People’s Liberation Army Day’ is rooted in revolution, civil war and the rise of communism and, in fact, Russian figures feature prominently in this founding story, albeit sometimes on the ‘wrong’ side.
Unlike Russia, China’s ‘Xinhai Revolution’ didn’t happen during World War 1, but on October 10, 1911, though likewise resulted in the overthrow of the Chinese emperor.
In the aftermath, the country broke into warlord-run factions that were eventually confronted militarily when Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT - National People’s Party), set up a government in Guangdong (or ‘Canton’) Province in 1924. It was Sun’s lieutenant Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the National Revolutionary Army, who succeeded him in 1925 and set out from Canton to conquer the warlords in 1926. In this effort, his own right-hand man was the Russian General Vasily Blucher.
And as Clodfelter explains, eventually, other Russians would appear on the scene:
“As the nationalists neared Shanghai, Communists and radical labor leaders organized a general strike by the city’s proletariat (peasants) in February 1927.”
Just as the fallout from the Russian Revolution had seen those left over break into opposing camps, class-divisions soon emerged between the Chinese republicans. For the young and future communist leader Mao Zedong, ‘republicanism’ meant something decidedly more left wing (i.e. pro-peasant) than it did to Chiang Kai-shek. According to Stuart Schram in ‘Mao Tse-Tung’, he saw things this way:
“(The) patriarchal feudal class of local tyrants, evil gentry and lawless landlords has formed the basis of autocratic government for thousands of years and is the cornerstone of imperialism, warlordism, and corrupt officialdom… To overthrow these feudal forces is the real objective of the national revolution.”
Though, as a political pragmatist, Mao also accepted the need for Chiang’s KMT, working as he was in the 1920s for the Propaganda Department of the Kuomintang Central Executive Committee. He reasoned that the KMT’s army was “the best instrument for achieving… (the overthrow of) the domination of the imperialists… (and the) national unification (of) China…”
This had been Stalin’s view, and Mao firmly believed that 395 million out of China’s 400 million-strong population would be on the side of his peasant revolution. In early 1926, he wrote that:
“’The real force for revolution… was the alliance of petty-bourgeoise (lower middle class), semi-proletariat, and proletariat (poor or peasants.) Landlord and big-bourgeoise elements who had supported the anti-Manchu Revolution of 1911 (which had overthrown the last Chinese emperor) could not accept the demand for ‘people’s rights’ and ‘people’s livelihood’. ‘Hence, as the revolution has developed and the KMT has progressed, the old and the new rightist factions have split off one by one like bamboo shoots from their stem’.”
This is why the republicans were beginning to come apart at the seams - because peasant uprisings aiming at the redistribution of land (after the KMT had killed off the former Manchu-loyal landowners) spooked many KMT leaders. Many of them were themselves landowners. Thus, were the class divisions amongst the revolutionaries coming to the fore, and, according to Clodfelter, brutally so:
“As the Nationalists (the KMT forces) neared Shanghai, Communists and radical labor leaders organized a general strike by the city’s proletariat in February 1927. This first strike was put down savagely by White Russian thugs and by teams of broadsword-carrying executioners from an anti-union secret society called the Green Gang, who stalked the city streets severing the heads of at least 100 and possibly as many as 500 strikers.”
322 more strikers were killed and a further 2,000 were wounded after a second uprising in the city was put down on March 27 that year. Then came April 12:
“The Communist and radical leftist leadership of the Shanghai labor movement was wiped out. About 300 radicals were slain and 5,000 were reported missing, most of them undoubtedly executed by the Kuomintang.”
It went on:
“In May, peasant and leftist groups around Ch’ang-sha were also purged, with thousands killed. The seeds of Nationalist-Communist civil war had been planted…”
The KMT split next, with a left-leaning faction pulling away from Chiang Kai-shek because of his brutal repressions of the communists. Though, after continuing their fight against China’s remaining warlords, the two wings of the KMT would reunite.
It was in protest against this reunification that caused the communists to stage an uprising in Nanch’ang (because the left-leaning faction had been allied with them briefly).
Because this Nanch’ang Uprising on August 1, 1927, started the civil war that would rage on and off until 1949 – the two sides suspending their hostilities to fight the Japanese during World War 2 – this is the date the People’s Liberation Army was officially created.
Clodfelter says that between 1927 and 1936, when both sides fought together against the Japanese, somewhere between 400,000 and 1,275,000 people were killed. Lost in all this turmoil were an additional 1,035 Chinese soldiers killed during the 1929 border war with Russia. A further 100,000 Chinese died between 1931 and 1933 when the Japanese invaded the north-eastern Chinese region Manchuria and its neighbouring province Jehol, and in 1932 when the Japanese attacked Shanghai. The city seems to have been particularly unlucky during this period, and was attacked again in 1937 when the Sino-Japanese war (essentially, a large part of the eastern portion of World War 2), though not as unlucky as the city of Nanking, which fell in December of that year:
“In an outburst of barbarism almost unparalleled in modern history, the Japanese embarked upon a month-long frenzy of sex, slaughter, and sadism in and around Nanking that left up to 100,000 Chinese dead, including at least 2,000 buried alive, and some 20,000 women who were first raped before many of them were murdered.”
100,000 may be a low estimate, he says, with the death doll possibly being as high as 377,400. Though even this is dwarfed by death and general casualty statistics for the war as a whole:
“According to Chinese figures, always suspect, the total number of soldiers mobilized to fight Japan was 14,050,521. This did not include the millions who fought in the Communist armies or in the many non-Communist guerrilla units. China’s regular forces fought 22 major campaigns (against the Japanese between 1937 and 1945), 1,117 major battles, and 38,931 minor engagements. In this fighting China lost 1,319,958 KIA (Killed In Action)… Again, these… figures do not include the losses of the Communists, guerrillas, and civilians. The total number of dead suffered by China probably neared 3 million… (and the) highest estimate of Chinese deaths from all causes is 6,325,000.”
When war between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists resumed between 1945 and 1949, the death toll on both sides was a further 2 million, according to Matthew White (his figures cited by Clodfelter.)
After all this, a toll that doesn’t even include Chinese involvement in the Korean War (see below), and with the prevailing of the Communists – the Chinese Communist Party ruling the country to this day – it’s little wonder that the date marking the official split with Chiang Kai-shek’s KMIT, August 1, 1927, has so much significance for the Chinese military.
(For his part, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949, making it the ROC – Republic of China – in contrast to the mainland PRC, People’s Republic of China; like the CCP on the mainland, the KMT – Kuomingdang, or GMD, Guomindang, depending on how it is translated – is still politically significant there, being one of the two main political parties).
The rise of communism in China was of course not confined to China. Its influence worked its way out of Manchuria and down the Korean peninsula where it butted up against western-influenced capitalism at the 38th Parallel.
And it is to the subsequent 1950 – 1953 Korean War that South and North Korea’s Armed Forces Days are linked, either directly or indirectly.
In South Korea, ‘National Flag Raising Day’ is held every October 1 and marks the date when the South Korean forces crossed the aforementioned 38th Parallel, the frontier between the two halves (and two versions) of Korea.
The Korean War had started three months before, in June 1950, when it was the North that had traversed the border. This had come as a huge shock, to both the South Korean military and their American allies, as this passage from ‘The General vs. the President’ by H W Brands makes clear. It recounts the experiences of American eye-witness to the opening of the war:
"MARGUERITE HIGGINS WASN'T yet thirty when the Korean War began, but she was already a veteran war reporter. Born in Hong Kong, where her father worked in international trade, she had covered the final campaigns of World War II in Europe for the New York Herald Tribune, which sent her to Germany for the post-war Nuremberg trials. She observed the Berlin airlift, about which she quizzed Lucius Clay. The Herald Tribune subsequently dispatched her to Japan to report on the MacArthur occupation.
"Maggie Higgins was blonde and attractive and determined not to let those tributes keep her from getting story she sought. She was in Tokyo watching McArthur when the fighting in Korea began. "The red invasion of South Korea on Sunday, June 25, 1950, exploded in Tokyo like a delayed action bomb," she wrote. ‘The first reports of the dawn attack were nonchalantly received by the duty officer at the Dai Ichi building. He didn't even bother to wake General MacArthur and tell him. But within a few hours the swift advance and us of the power of the attackers. South Korea, the last non-Communist outpost in North Asia, was crumbling. America had to decide at once whether to lend fighting support to its South Korean protégé or seeded out right to the Reds’.
"The decision hadn't been made when Higgins reached the front lines of the fighting. She and three other reporters hitched a ride on an American transport plane sent to evacuate American civilians from Seoul…”
South Korea’s capital city lay perilously close to the border, which in any case it had been pointed out was not based on any specific geographic feature that was easy to defend. As it was, the only real barrier between Soeul and the North Koreans stampeding down the peninsula was the Han River, just north of the city:
“…(Higgens and her party) arrived amid the chaos at the South Korean Retreat. ‘There were hundreds of Korean women with babies bound papoose-style to their backs and huge bundles on their heads’, she recounted. ‘There were scores of trucks, elaborate leak camouflaged with branches. South Korean soldiers in jeeps and horses were streaming in both directions’. She spoke to an American colonel attached to the Korean Military Advisory Group, or KMAG, about why the South Koreans weren't making a better show of things. ‘The South Koreans have a pathological fear of tanks’, the Colonel said. ‘That is part of the reason for this retreating. They could handle them if they would only use the weapons we have given them properly’. Higgins later had reason to doubt the colonel's explanation, but for the moment it seemed to explain what she saw.
"The same American officer blamed the South Koreans watching the retreat. Higgins was riding in the US Army Jeep with an American Lt toward bridge over the Han River— ’the only escape route’, she wrote. ‘As we raced through the rainy darkness a sheet of orange flame tore the sky. ‘Good God, there goes the bridge’, said the lieutenant".
"Their escape route blocked, the tenant and Higgins turned back toward the city, with the colonel regathered three score members of his staff. ‘The South Koreans blew up that bridge without even bothering to give us warning, and they put much too soon’, he said. ‘Most of the town is still in their hands. They blew that bridge with truckloads of their own troops on the main span. They've killed hundreds of their own men’."
Given the scale of this initial retreat, it’s little wonder the counter-move that saw the South Koreans retake their capital and sweep north across the border resonates so much in the national consciousness.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t put an end to the fighting. The war dragged on until 1953, and American General Douglas MacArthur’s drive into North Korea and towards the Chinese border ignited a furious and even constitutionally dangerous political battle back in the US.
For its part, North Korea has its ‘Military Foundation Day’, which takes place on February 8 and recounts the establishment of the Korean People’s Army right before the Korean War, in 1948. The war no-doubt proved just as much a testing ground and catalyst for national myth and propaganda as it did for the South.
The country also has ‘People’s Revolutionary Army Day’, held on April 25, according to Wikipedia.
Though it’s difficult to ascertain for certain if this information is correct. Videos of North Korean military parades on YouTube don’t always correlate with dates given in Wikipedia – one labelled ‘Military Foundation Day’, for instance, is labelled as having taken place on April 25, which, as noted, is meant to be People’s Revolutionary Army Day.
North Korea is, of course, a uniquely challenging country for journalists to cover, given its extreme isolation and secrecy.
What is known is that it has the second largest military in the world, in terms of personnel – something made even more surprising when one considers its relatively small population base of roughly 25 million.
The UK has a population of 65 million and roughly 150,000 full-time personnel in its armed forces. Korea has 7,679,000 troops – 1,190,000 full-time active troops, 6,300,000 in reserve and 189,000 paramilitary.
Therefore, given what must be the extreme pervasiveness of the military, the fact that it is essential for preserving the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un, and the Korean People’s Army’s baptism of fire in the Korean War, one can surmise that military parades are a hugely important part of the culture. And also that they presumably can happen at the whim of the ‘Dear Leader’.
The following example would appear to demonstrate this, as well as the famous North Korean penchant for hugely impressive and elaborate public displays.
One democratic country with its military similarly intertwined with daily life is Israel. And like South Korea, the history of its armed forces, and its equivalent of armed forces day, overlaps with that of its rival and former enemy Egypt.
One must say ‘armed forces equivalent’ because the Israelis also don’t have an exact equivalent for our Armed Forces Day. Instead they have an event that perhaps can be thought of as a combination of Armed Forces Day and our ‘Remembrance Day’ (or the US’ ‘Memorial Day’.)
On Yom HaZikaron, which takes place on the fourth day of the month of Iyar (between April and June), the Israelis honour all those in the IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces) who have lost their lives defending the country.
In this sense, Israel’s military is also a bit like the early Chinese communist forces, in that it has been more or less continuously engaged military activity since the creation of Israel in 1948. The BBC documentary ‘The Birth of Israel’ puts it more starkly:
“(70) years ago Israel fought and won a war for its independence. For the Palestinians, defeat was a catastrophe. The two sides have been fighting ever since… (and) the current battleground in this long war lies in and around the Gaza Strip. Israel uses air strikes and ground incursions; Palestinians rocket Israeli border towns. Both sides blame each other.”
Britain’s own First World War military history is also interlinked with all of this, given that the British controlled Palestine from 1917 to 1948, having taken it from the Ottoman Empire.
Former Conservative Prime Minister and later Foreign Secretary (under the Liberal wartime PM David Lloyd George) Arthur Balfour wrote a letter in 1917 that was dubbed ‘The Balfour Declaration’:
“The (statement) said the British would ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours’ to make it happen. And it also said it was ‘clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. Now, there’s a whole series of incompatible promises in that, and the British never found a way to keep them. As a result, they were regarded as betrayers, by both sides.”
As the BBC point out, this amounted to what British author and journalist Arthur Koestler said was basically, “One nation solemnly promis(ing) to a second nation the country of a third".
No surprise then that Israel’s birth was fraught with tension and violence, despite efforts by the UN to mediate. As Dan and Peter Snow explain in the BBC series ‘20th Century Battlefields’:
“(The British) promised the Jews a homeland (in Palestine, but) the problem was there were more than 10 times as many Arabs as Jews already living in Palestine. And as hundreds of thousands of more Jews poured into the country, open fighting broke out between them.”
The issue of a Jewish homeland, of course, gained fresh impetus after the end of the Second World War and the exposure of the Holocaust, but the flow of Jews to Palestine added to this existing problem:
“By 1947, things were so bad, the United Nations stepped in with a plan… (They) suggested partition. Palestinians would keep land (in the north-east and south-west of the territory) and Jews would have the rest. Jerusalem would be an open city shared by everyone. The Jews accepted the plan and in 1948 they declared their independence as the state of Israel. But the Palestinians, and the neighbouring Arab countries, rejected partition.”
When fighting broke out and the Israelis got the upper hand, the end result was that the Palestinians did hold lands allotted to them by the UN plan, but that they ended up with far less of it, particularly in the south west. This area is known as the Gaza Strip.
But of course, it didn’t end there:
“…the Israelis felt vulnerable (because they were) surrounded on all sides by hostile enemies. Over the next 20 years, there was regular fighting...the Arabs refused to recognise this new state of Israel and their resentment at the loss of Palestinian lands and homes grew (fuelled even further by the flow of Palestinian refugees across the region from former Palestinian lands.)”
It was 1967 when this tension finally resulted in full-scale war – the Six Day War, to be precise.
It broke out between June 5 and June 10 that year when Israel launched what it considered to be pre-emptive strikes against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula and against Syria and Jordan in the east, Egypt’s allies.
Part of the backstory to this was a fierce dispute between Israel and Egypt in the preceding years over the Straits of Tiran. Essentially, when Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal he also ordered the blocking of Straits, blocking Israeli shipping from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea. (The US would end up guaranteeing passage for Israeli ships through this waterway).
The result of the 1967 Six Day War would be a further expansion of Israel’s borders. This included not just the territories with immediate proximity, such as the Golan Heights taken from Syria, and land bordering the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran, but also the entire Sinai Peninsula.
As Dan Snow so aptly describes it, the Egyptians and the Israelis were now, essentially, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, looking at each other across the Suez Canal:
“Egyptians now watched in horror as the Israeli military machine went to work. All along the Suez Canal, the Israelis built a massive network of walls, forts and trenches that became known as the Bar Lev Line.”
Included in the fortifications was an enormous sand wall that was approximately 60 feet in height. Impregnable, surely?
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat refused to believe so. When he came to power in 1970, Sadat set about planning a countermove, one that came to fruition in 1973 in what would be known as the Yom Kippur War, because it was launched on the Jewish holy day of the same name. (October 6 that year).
“Sadat had decided that the only way to win back the Sinai from the Israelis was the make war on them.”
To this end, he aimed to retake a portion of the peninsula and force them to the negotiating table, and to do this, he was willing to play the game of superpower politics:
“Sadat found a willing ally in the Soviet Union, as the Israelis had with the USA. In the 1970s, both the United States and the Soviet Union were adamant that neither superpower would dominate the oil-rich Middle East.”
It was help from the USSR that underwrote the whole campaign because in 1967 Egyptian ground forces had been devastated by the Israeli Air Force. Now, Soviet SAMs (Surface-to-Air Missiles) would provide a protective shield. (Simultaneous Syrian attacks on the Golan Heights would also help tie down Israeli forces and keep them away from the Sinai).
Leading up to October 6, and like the Allies before D-Day, the Egyptians (and the Syrians in the east) used deceptive troop movements – conspicuously sending large numbers of reserves away, only doing routine exercises etc – to lure the Israelis into a false sense of security.
Then they struck:
“Their assault across the canal of the Bar Lev line was such a momentous event in Egyptian history, it was later restaged for the cameras. Thousands of Egypt’s best-trained commandos crossed the Suez Canal in rubber dinghies… (After they’d landed) the Egyptian commandos then scrambled up the high ramparts (of the Bar Lev Line.)”
Laying rope ladders as they went, the commandos scrambled over the crest.
They’d be reinforced by infantry and over 1,000 tanks, with high-pressure hoses deployed to batter passages through the sand ramparts.
It took four hours, but the tanks broke through, along with tens of thousands of Egyptian troops, ramming their way into the peninsula.
Israeli jets scrambled, swooping low across the desert – right towards the SAMs, which began knocking them out of the sky.
Israeli tank crews got an equally nasty shock when they were hit by rockets from the Egyptians’ Sagger’s, wire-guided anti-tank missile systems also provided by the Soviets:
“To the Israelis, it was (now) abundantly clear this was no longer the poorly-trained Egyptian army they’d fought in the past.”
But just as Egypt had scuppered Israel’s defensive plans, Israel would soon push back on Sadat’s bold gambit to force her to the negotiating table. Having prioritised the fight in the Golan Heights, Syria was now under pressure and required assistance from Sadat. The Egyptians would have to move beyond their protective SAM screen, and engage Israeli armour and aircraft on their own – a disastrous move, as it turned out, and one that then allowed Israel to swing the war back in its favour.
Then 143 Reserve Armoured Division, commanded by Major General and future President Ariel Sharon, spearheaded an assault back across the canal, facilitated by a makeshift bridge (another aspect of the conflict that is somewhat reminiscent of D-Day, in this case being similarly ingenious as the Mulberry Harbours.)
This move split and cut off the Egyptians on the east bank of the canal, figuratively and literally reversing the direction of the war. From there, diplomatic pressure from the international community brought a ceasefire into effect on October 25.
It was hard to know for certain who’d won, given the glittering success of the initial Arab assault but also the impressive Israeli military recovery. Peter Snow’s verdict is as follows:
“Perhaps, in the end, the side that gained the most from this war was Egypt. The Egyptian crossing of the canal was seen as a major military achievement that restored Arab pride and gave President Sadat the confidence to make a spectacular bid for peace.”
Four years later, Sadat found himself standing in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, receiving huge applause from Israeli legislators. (Egypt's Armed Forces Day, held annually on October 6, would be celebrated with great fanfare that year).
Sadat agreed to recognise the state of Israel in exchange for their withdrawal from the Sinai.
It was a gesture that would cost him his life:
“On October 6, 1981, the eighth anniversary of the war, Anwar Sadat was assassinated by gunmen opposed to his peace treaty with Israel. The (Yom Kippur) War had claimed its last victim.”
‘Armed Forces Day’ in South Africa, held every February 21 in honour of their South African National Defence Force, is, like so many other Armed Forces Days, connected to World War 1. It was the day in 1917 when a troop ship carrying members of 5 Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps – a unit with black troops and white officers – was sunk after a collision in the English Channel.
This element of commemoration of both the black troops and white officers fits in nicely with the February 1993 decision by the African National Congress (ANC) to dissolve their militia. Henceforth, white and black troops would all be included in the country’s military as the old South African Defence Force (which had been composed of white conscripts and, sometimes, black volunteers) was transformed into the South African National Defence Force.
This mood of integration was the major feature of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech on May 10, 1994, when he became the nation’s first black president:
“…To my compatriots, I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld.
“Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change.
“We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom.
“That spiritual and physical oneness we all share with this common homeland explains the depth of the pain we all carried in our hearts as we saw our country tear itself apart in a terrible conflict, and as we saw it spurned, outlawed and isolated by the peoples of the world, precisely because it has become the universal base of the pernicious ideology and practice of racism and racial oppression.
“We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom, that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil…”
And he continued:
“We would also like to pay tribute to our security forces, in all their ranks, for the distinguished role they have played in securing our first democratic elections and the transition to democracy, from blood-thirsty forces which still refuse to see the light.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come.
“The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
“The time to build is upon us.
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.
“We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace.
“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world…”
Last, but not least, the United States, like some other countries, has a number of days set aside in its calendar to honour the military.
Probably the most well known of these for those outside the US are ‘Memorial Day’, which falls on the last Monday in the month of May, and ‘Veteran’s Day’, which is effectively the US equivalent of our Remembrance Day, taking place as it does on November 11 – the final day of the First World War.
But in addition to these, the US, like us, also has its own ‘Armed Forces Day’, though theirs falls on the third Saturday of May, at the end of ‘Armed Forces Week’.
It was brought into law on August 31, 1949 and first celebrated the following year.
The event featured B-36 bombers flying over state capitals and various parades and air shows across the country, including a parade of 10,000 troops in Washington, DC and one of 36,000 people in the City of New York.
The essence of Armed Forces Day is perhaps best summed up by the words of several former US generals, presidents and their secretaries of defense. (Quoted on the history page for the US Defense Department’s AFD, Armed Forces Day, site).
Former Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, who officially proclaimed the creation of the day in 1949, said:
"Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 20, 1950, marks the first combined demonstration by America's defense team of its progress, under the National Security Act, towards the goal of readiness for any eventuality. It is the first parade of preparedness by the unified forces of our land, sea, and air defense."
General Omar Bradley, who’d led troops in the Second World War, including the Battle of Normandy, said:
"The heritage of freedom must be guarded as carefully in peace as it was in war. Faith, not suspicion, must be the key to our relationships. Sacrifice, not selfishness, must be the eternal price of liberty. Vigilance, not appeasement, is the byword of living freedoms.”
He also said that:
"Real security lies in the prevention of war--and today that hope can come only through adequate preparedness."
President Dwight D Eisenhower, who’d been the Supreme Allied Commander during Operation Overlord, said in 1953:
"It is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world."
For his part, Kennedy was blunter during his speech nine years later:
"Word to the Nation: Guard zealously your right to serve in the Armed Forces, for without them, there will be no other rights to guard."
This was echoed by his Secretary of Defense, Robert S McNamara:
"Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed."
And Lyndon Johnson, who escalated the Vietnam War, and was criticised for his handling of it by Robert McNamara in the documentary ‘The Fog of War’, certainly knew how to voice appreciation for those in uniform:
"Their contribution to our freedom and safety is measureless. Our national security depends on the maintenance of alert military forces as a deterrent to any possible aggressor."
For more Armed Forces Day coverage, visit Forces.net.
Isonzo image by aiva
War memorial in Seoul image from Republic of Korea photostream
North Korean war memorial image by Stefan Krasowski
Picture of South African troops in the Congo from MONUSCO Photos
Image of the Shanghai meeting place of the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party from Uploadalt
For more on the Russian Civil War, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War read David Bullock’s ‘The Russian Civil War 1918-22, ‘Russian Civil War (1) The Red Army’ by Mikhail Khvostov, ‘The Six Day War 1967 Jordan and Syria’ and ‘The Six Day War 1967 Sinai’ as well as ‘The Yom Kippur War (1) The Golan Heights’ and ‘The Yom Kippur War (2) Sinai’, all four authored by Simon Dunstan; and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.
Read ‘Blood Tears and Folly’ by Len Deighton for more on World War 2, ‘The General vs. the President’ by H W Brands for more on the Korean War and ‘Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1494 – 2007’ by Michael Clodfelter for war stats.