In 1918, the emerging Communist government of Russia shocked the world when it assassinated Tsar Nicholas II, his family and members of his staff.
The Tsar had been blamed for a series of national setbacks. First, there was the humiliating defeat of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, followed quickly by a popular rebellion that was brutally suppressed, the pervasive influence of the unpopular Rasputin and finally, disaster at the front and starvation at home during World War I.
Nicholas abdicated in 1917, but that didn’t stop the anger against him. The Bolsheviks were gaining ground in the fight to take over Russia and turn it into a Communist country. They captured the former Tsar and his retinue and moved them to a secret location. On July 17, 1918, the prisoners were led to the basement of the house where they were being held and put before a firing squad.
Now the assassination of the Romanovs is the subject of a new exhibition at the Russian State Archives in Moscow. The BBC reports large numbers of Russians visiting the exhibit, curious about an important piece of history that was glossed over in Soviet times.
Several items from the family and their executioners are on display, including the Tsar’s letter of abdication, some of the weapons and bullets used in the killing, and numerous photographs of them in captivity. One especially poignant artifact is an unfinished embroidery by the Empress Alexandra.
The event has created an enduring interest to later generations. Numerous movies have been made about the family’s last days. Several women claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, weaving elaborate tales of surviving the firing squad, but their claims were later refuted by DNA evidence. The Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed Tsar Nicholas II and his family saints in 2000.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
In the first of a series of events to commemorate the upcoming centennial of World War I, the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France is hosting “1917,” an exhibition of artistic life during that bloody conflict.
While millions were dying on the battlefield, the arts were flourishing in Europe. Much of it was centered on, or a reaction to, the most terrible war the world had yet seen. A large portion of the exhibit is devoted to trench art made by soldiers at the front line. Some drew sketches of their lives; others did creative things with the detritus of war, like the goblets made from artillery shells shown here.
Works from artists on the home front are exhibited too. The star attraction is Pablo Picasso’s largest work, the giant painted theater curtain he made for Parade, a ballet directed by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. This impressive work is more than 30 feet long and is rarely displayed due to its size.
In all, “1917” gives us a snapshot into a crucial year in the development of modern art. The show runs until September 24.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
The common image of the Western Front in World War One is of muddy trenches and artillery barrages. That was certainly the experience of most soldiers. But while huge armies slugged it out in the mud and ruin of France and Belgium, another war was going on underground. Sappers from both sides dug tunnels under enemy trenches, packed them with explosives, and blew them up.
The explosions were huge, like this one the British detonated under the German position on Hawthorn Ridge on 1 July 1916. The explosion used 40,000 pounds of high explosives and marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
Sapping was extremely dangerous. Tunnels collapsed or got blown up by enemy mines. Sometimes mines intersected one another and there were hellish fights in the near darkness. Two good fictional portrayals of this war-beneath-a-war are the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and the Australian film Beneath Hill 60.
Now part of that underground battlefield is being studied by a team of British archaeologists. After detailed research in archives of several nations they’ve pinpointed a network of British and German tunnels under the French town of La Boisselle and have tracked down who fought there and when. They even know where some of these poor fellows got buried alive.
Right now the team is using ground-penetrating radar to map the tunnels and will being excavating in October. Some tunnels can still be entered while others are too unstable or have collapsed. Eventually the site will be opened up as a museum commemorating those who fought underneath the Western Front.
[Photo courtesy UK government]
Underwater archaeologists exploring off the coast of Gallipoli, Turkey, have found a somber relic from the famous WWI battle. A barge that removed dead and wounded soldiers from the beachhead back to a hospital ship was found at the bottom of the sea. The team also found the wreck of the HMS Lewis, a British destroyer.
Gallipoli is a Turkish peninsula that controls access between the Black and the Aegean seas. It also guards the western approach to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which fought on Germany’s side in World War One. In 1915, UK’s First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill decided it was of crucial strategic importance and landed troops there. What followed was a disaster. Allied troops got pinned down on the beaches and endured months of constant fighting before they finally pulled out. The Turks suffered too, with each side losing a quarter of a million men.
The Allied side included not only UK, French, and Canadian troops, but also a large number of men from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The ANZACs, as they’re commonly called, became heroes back home and are national icons to this day. The hospital barge was found near ANZAC Cove, shown here, and was probably sunk while carrying casualties from this famous unit.
Gallipoli is one of the most popular destinations in Turkey. Faint traces of the trenches from 90 years ago are still visible, and guided tours show visitors the locations of the various armies fighting it out for control of the beach and overlooking mountains.
A nice detail about this story is that the archaeologists are a joint Australian-Turkish team. Looks like these folks are remembering their history while putting it behind them.
Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.