Victor Emmanuel III – a summary

On 29 July 1900, the king of Italy, Umberto I, was assassinated. The throne passed to his 30-year-old son, who, as Victor Emmanuel III, would reign until 1946, a period which saw both world wars and the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascists.

Victor Emmanuel IIIBorn in Naples on 11 November 1869, the future king was so short, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, nicknamed him the dwarf, and, in private, Mussolini called him the ‘little sardine’. He ruled over an Italy that had been in existence as a unified nation only since 1871. Despite unification, Italy was a deeply-fragmented society, steeped in poverty and corruption, and ruled over by a succession of weak coalition governments. But, as a figurehead king, Victor Emmanuel III chose to ignore the affairs of state, preferring instead to focus on his vast collection of coins.

World War One

With the outbreak of war in July 1914, Italy initially adopted a position of neutrality despite having been in alliance, the Triple Alliance, with Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire since 1882. Victor Emmanuel favoured participation in the war, partly as a means of enhancing Italy’s reputation on the international stage. Italy duly entered the war in May 1915, not as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on the side of the Triple Entente allies – France, Russia and Great Britain.


After 1918, Victor Emmanuel again retired to the sidelines as Italy struggled to cope with the post-war instabilities of demobilization, unemployment and inflation. Socialists, communists, anarchists and the newly-formed fascists fought on the streets and on the farms in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing violence.

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Karl Lody – a summary

Karl Lody was a German spy and the first to be executed in Britain during the First World War.

Karl LodyBorn in Berlin on 20 January 1877, Karl Hans Lody spoke perfect English with an American accent, having been married to an American and lived in Nebraska. Having obtained a US passport under the name Charles A. Inglis, which allowed him to travel freely, Lody arrived in Edinburgh on 27 August 1914. Staying in a hotel, he hired a bicycle and cycled each day to the docks at the Firth of Forth and Rosyth’s naval base, both of strategic importance during the First World War, in order to observe and take notes.

Snow on their boots

MI5, who had been monitoring letters sent abroad, intercepted Lody’s very first message back to the Germans. The address in Stockholm that Lody had used was well known to MI5, instantly arousing their suspicions. But they did not arrest him immediately, preferring, instead, to monitor his activities. Lody’s letters were usually signed ‘Nazi’, an abbreviation of the name Ignatz, the German form of Ignatius, and nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party which did not come into existence until after the war. (‘Nazi’ was also a generic term for an Austro-Hungarian soldier, akin to ‘Tommy’ for a British soldier or ‘Fritz’ for a German one.)

Many of Lody’s letters, some of which were coded, contained misleading information, which MI5 were more than happy to allow through. One example was Lody’s assertion that thousands of Russian troops had landed in Scotland on their way to the Western Front, which may have led to the infamous ‘snow on their boots’ rumour that gained popular currency in wartime Britain.


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Rachele Mussolini – a summary

In 1914, in Milan, the future fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician who soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini. The marriage lasted just a few months and on 17 December 1915, before the birth of Benito Jr., Mussolini, at the time at home on army sick leave, married Rachele Guidi in a civil ceremony. Guidi had been his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.

Mussolini and Rachele Guidi shared the same place of birth – the town of Predappio in the area of Forlì in northern Italy. Guidi had been born 11 April 1890. She and Mussolini had first met when Mussolini appeared at her school as a stand-in teacher. Guidi’s father had warned her against marrying the penniless Mussolini: ‘That young man will starve you to death,’ he warned. After the death of her father, Guidi’s mother began a relationship with Mussolini’s widowed father.

In December 1925, ten years after their civil marriage, Rachele and Mussolini were married in a Catholic church. It was less a romantic gesture than an attempt by Mussolini to ingratiate himself with the pope, Pius XI. The Mussolinis were to have five children. As dictator, Mussolini preached about the importance of the family and liked to portray his own family as a model fascist household. But in truth, he had little time for his children and could number his lovers by the hundred. Rachele knew about her husband’s many indiscretions. In an interview with Life magazine in February 1966, Rachele said, ‘My husband had a fascination for women. They all wanted him. Sometimes he showed me their letters – from women who wanted to sleep with him or have a baby with him. It always made me laugh.’

A beautiful companion

Benito and Rachele MussoliniIn 1923, Rachele took on a lover of her own – according to Edda in an interview in 1995, shortly before her death, and only broadcast in 2001. Rachele, according to Edda, told Mussolini, ‘You have many women. There is a person who loves me a lot, a beautiful companion.’ Mussolini may have been shocked but he did nothing to stop the affair, which, apparently, lasted several years.

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John French – a summary

John French spent much of his early military career, like many of his contemporaries, in Africa and India. He was part of the failed 1884/5 mission to relieve General Gordon in the Sudan; and from 1891 served in India.

John FrenchIn India French first met his future rival, Douglas Haig, then a captain. Indeed, Haig later lent French a large sum of money to help the latter stave off bankruptcy. While in India, French had an affair with the wife of a fellow officer. The scandal almost ended his career.  He survived and went on to serve with distinction as a cavalry officer during the Boer War where, most notably, in 1900, under the stewardship of Frederick Roberts, he lead the force that relieved the British garrison besieged in the town of Kimberley.

French was appointed Britain’s army chief-of-staff in 1911 and given command of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF. In 1913, French was promoted to the rank of field marshal.


With the outbreak of war in 1914, the BEF crossed the Channel, landing on the continent on 7 August. (Consisting of little more than 90,000 men, only half of whom were regular soldiers; the other half being reservists, the BEF had famously, and allegedly, been dismissed by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, on 19 August, ordered his army to ‘exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’ Hence British soldiers took pride in calling themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’.) French’s orders, from Horatio Kitchener, minister for war, were to work alongside the French but not to take orders from them. The BEF first saw action during the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, Britain’s first battle in Western Europe since Waterloo ninety-nine years before.

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Thomas Highgate – first British soldier executed during World War One

On 5 September 1914, the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War.

Shot at Dawn memorialThe only son of a farm worker, Thomas Highgate was born in Shoreham in Kent on 13 May 1895. In February 1913, aged 17, he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. Within months, Highgate fell foul of the military authorities – in 1913, he was he was upbraided for being late for Tattoo, and ‘exchanging duties without permission’. In early 1914, he was reprimanded for having a rusty rifle and deserting for which he received the punishment of forty-eight days detention.

(Pictured is the ‘Shot at Dawn’ Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire).

First Battle of the Marne

On 5 September, the first day of the Battle of the Marne and the 35th day of the war, Private Highgate’s nerves got the better of him and he fled the battlefield. He hid in a barn in the village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes by a gamekeeper who happened to be English and an ex-soldier. Quite where Highgate obtained his civilian clothes is not recorded but the gamekeeper spotted his uniform lying in a heap nearby. Highgate confessed, ‘I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it’.

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Winston Churchill and the First World War

Winston Churchill rather enjoyed war. In July 1914, as Britain prepared for the oncoming catrastrophe, Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife, ‘I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And in 1916, in a letter to David Lloyd George’s daughter, Churchill admitted: ‘I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it’.

Winston Churchill 1904Churchill had been appointed to the Admiralty in October 1911, and had continued the policy established by his predecessor of keeping Britain ahead of the Germans and strengthening the navy by expanding the number of Dreadnoughts, the most powerful battleship of the time.

But despite these preparations, Britain suffered a number of setbacks during the first months of the First World War – on 22 September 1914, the German navy sunk a number of British ships at Dogger Bank (sixty miles off the east coast of England in the North Sea), killing 1,459 sailors; and on 16 December, German ships penetrated close enough to British shores to attack Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby causing 137 fatalities. Churchill, in his role at the Admiralty, took the brunt of the blame and the public’s anger.


In October 1914, with German forces bearing down on Antwerp, the British government dispatched Churchill to Belguim. Although, through his efforts, he helped delay the fall of the city by about a week, allowing the Belgian Army to escape and the vital Channel ports to be saved, he was still heavily criticised at home for failing to save Antwerp.

Stung by the criticism, Churchill offered to resign from the government in return for a post as an army officer in the field. His offer, met with derision and loud guffaws, was refused.

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Georges Clemenceau – a summary

Nicknamed the Tiger for his fiery temperament, Georges Clemenceau was not averse to settling personal feuds by duel. He was anti-monarchy, anti-socialist and anti-Catholic. His father, Benjamin, who himself had been imprisoned for his republican views, was a doctor and although Clemenceau completed his medical studies, he didn’t take up the profession, being drawn instead to politics.

A staunch republican and troublemaker, like his father, Georges Clemenceau was once imprisoned for 73 days (some sources state 77 days) by Napoleon III’s government for publishing a republican newspaper and trying to incite demonstrations against the monarchy. In 1865, fearing another arrest, and possible incarceration on Devil’s Island, Clemenceau fled to the US, arriving towards the end of the American Civil War. He lived first in New York, where he worked as a journalist, and then in Connecticut where he became a teacher in a private girls’ school. Clemenceau married one of his American students, Mary Plummer, and together they had three children before divorcing seven years later. (Of his son, Clemenceau, known for his wit, said, ‘If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.’)

Five days after his divorce, Clemenceau returned to France and briefly worked as a doctor before returning to politics. In 1871, he witnessed France’s defeat to Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.

‘A soldier of democracy’

An intellectual, Georges Clemenceau was fascinated by Ancient Greek culture, supported the work of the French Impressionists, wrote a book on Jewish history, and translated into French the works of English philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Following France’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, Clemenceau opposed France’s colonial ambitions, arguing that the country needed to concentrate its efforts on extracting revenge on the Germans and recovering Alsace Lorraine, territory it had lost to the Germans as part of the French surrender.

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The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

On 11 November 1920, two years after the armistice that ended the First World War, the Unknown Warrior was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey in a deeply sombre ceremony that caught the mood of a nation, still reeling in grief following four years of war.

In 1916, the vicar of Margate in Kent, the Reverend David Railton, (a recipient of the Military Cross) was stationed as a padre on the Western Front near the French village of Armentières on the Belgian border when he noticed a temporary grave with the inscription, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Moved by this simple epitaph, he initially suggested the notion to the British wartime commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig that one fallen man, unknown in name or rank, should represent all those who died during the war who had no known grave. In August 1920, having received no response from Haig, Railton muted the idea to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, who, in turn, passed it onto Buckingham Palace.

George VInitially, the king, George V (pictured), was not enthusiastic about the proposal; not wanting to re-open the healing wound of national grief but was persuaded into the idea by the prime minister, David Lloyd-George.

On 7 November 1920, the remains of six (some sources state four) unidentified British soldiers were exhumed – one each from six different battlefields (Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, Somme and Ypres). The six corpses were transported to a chapel in the village of St Pol, near Ypres, where they were each laid out on a stretcher and covered by the Union flag. There, in the company of a padre (not Rev Railton), a blindfolded officer entered the chapel and touched one of the bodies.

The following morning, chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service for the chosen soldier. Placed in a plain coffin, the Unknown Warrior was taken back on a train to England via Boulogne. At Boulogne, the coffin was kept overnight in the town’s castle, a guard of honour keeping vigil.

A British Warrior

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World War One Memorial Plaques

A friend of mine recently bought for a tidy sum Lord Kitchener’s Memorial Death Plaque. He asked me to get it valued. These 12 cm diameter bronze memorial plaques (click picture to enlarge, although this one is not Kitchener’s) were presented to the next of kin of those that had died during the Great War in the name of Britain and her empire.

My friend has a rather macabre collection of over 3,000 of these things, including this one of Lord Kitchener’s. I took it to an auction house in London and yes, it was genuine but, given Kitchener’s status, they reckoned there are probably about five or six in existence. Nonetheless, my friend seems delighted to be the owner of one.


The British government decided in October 1916 to award a token of commemoration for the next of kin to those that had fallen in the war while serving Great Britain and her empire. They settled on a bronze plaque and set up a competition to design it. Judges included directors of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and National Gallery. The competition generated such interest that the deadline had to be extended to 31 December 1917. In the event, the judges received over 800 designs.

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World War One: 1914-1918

On 5 May 2011, Claude Choules, an English-born Australian, died; he was 110 years old. He was also, having served on HMS Revenge, the last veteran to have seen action during World War One. With his death, the ‘Great War’ had truly passed from living memory into history.

Photographs of soldiers in the muddy trenches of the Western Front waiting to go ‘over the top’, from which many would not return, remain iconic images of the Twentieth Century. In Britain alone, barely a family was left untouched by a war that claimed the lives of 700,000 British soldiers, the ‘war to end all wars’. For generations, Britain was haunted by the Battle of the Somme. On its first day alone, 1 July 1916, we suffered 57,000 casualties, killed or wounded, the worst day in Britain’s military history. For the French, the Battle of Verdun holds equal horror.

The Urgency of War

Yet, throughout Europe and beyond, young men answered the call-to-arms in a way we find almost inconceivable today. My own father, Arthur Stutley Colley, born 1900, joined the army as an officer cadet in 1918 and wrote in his memoirs of his disappointment of having just missed the fight: ‘With the signing of the Armistice,’ he wrote, ‘the prospect of getting to the Front in time disappeared, and with it the possibility of any medal ribbons to sport on one’s chest. Faced with soldiering under peacetime conditions, after the compelling urgency of war, we were left feeling somewhat flat.’

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