Wednesday 20 May 2009

War horses + 30 Years War crime

Normally this blog confines itself to human disasters, but this week I went to see the magnificent play The War Horse at the New London Theatre, and was astonished to see in the programme the figures for the number of horses killed during the First World War. One million were sent from Britain to France, and only 62,000 returned.

One of the first revelations of the conflict was that cavalry was now virtually useless, and defenceless, in the face of machine guns, artillery, barbed wire. Apart from their cavalry duties, horses were also responsible for huge amounts of the fetching, hauling and carrying that fed the war machine. Many were killed by direct attack – bullets, shells, shrapnel, poison gas – others maimed by the lethal debris lying around the battlefield.

This day….378 years ago saw the most notorious atrocity of the Thirty Years’ War – the sack of Magdeburg. After a six-month siege, the mainly Protestant city was taken by Catholic soldiers, and then, in the words of the great German writer Friedrich Schiller, there followed “a scene of horrors for which history has no language – poetry no pencil. Neither innocent childhood, nor helpless old age; neither youth, sex, rank, nor beauty, could disarm the fury of the conquerors. “

The city was burned to the ground. Perhaps 30,000 citizens were murdered while thousands of women were dragged off to the victors’ camp. The atrocity caused horror across Europe, so much so that the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor had to call off a victory celebration, and during the war’s remaining 17 years, many a Catholic soldier crying for quarter would be greeted with the retort “Magdeburg quarter!” and killed.

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