Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Guns of Essen

When there's a lot of snow on the ground, I lose my enthusiasm for riding my bike around town. The cold doesn't improve the situation, but mostly I object to the shrinking road shoulder. Banks of snow and ice push out into the street in places and a relatively pleasant morning commute becomes that much trickier. Then there's the air quality: worst in the US when we're under an inversion and cycling just increases my exposure. Still, I can't really bring myself to drive, so most days I walk to work. It's still cold, the air is still dirty and the average Logan sidewalk looks like a section of the Chilkoot Trail. But when I walk, I can listen to a book on tape and that makes it all worth while.

Last week I was "reading" The Guns of August again, Barbara Tuchman's classic book about the first month of World War I. It's a fabulous book and outrageously entertaining. I know hindsight is 20/20, but there is hardly a general or statesman in the whole 544 pages (or 14 disks) that doesn't come out looking like a complete ass. Field Marshall Sir John French, leader of the British Expeditionary Forces, landed in France only to execute a series of brilliant retreats. His troops could only make contact with the enemy when he made a mistake and forgot to retreat fast enough. The French, under Joffre, felt any battle could be won with proper Gallic élan, thereby neglecting to provide troops with items such as weapons and ammunition. The Germans seemed to have every advantage, but had an incomplete understanding of the value of diplomacy. After a gratuitous violation of Belgian neutrality to open the war, they felt the best way to win back world public opinion would be to execute woman and children in villages along the way to Paris. Mostly the Americans escape the worst of the stupidity by remaining neutral themselves, but the American ambassador to France reinforces the European view of American naïveté by suggesting that when the Germans arrive at the gates of Paris, he'll go out and "talk" to them.

I'm probably being too critical here. Albert I, King of the Belgians, shown here walking with the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel II, acted admirably. He was also very tall and sat a horse well. And Joseph Gallieni, French retired territorial General, whose intelligence, strength of will and resourcefulness saved the French from defeat, certainly deserves our respect. The Germans, under Moltke, had transport figured out to the timing of every axle of rolling stock and the second it would cross the French border, but Gallieni delivered his troops in a fleet of taxi cabs and stopped Moltke cold.

A big part in the first month of the war was played by German arms manufacturer Friedrich Krupp AG of Essen, Germany. It was their siege guns that allowed the Germans to overrun Belgian forts so rapidly. So imagine my surprise as I crested Old Main Hill on campus last week and spotted a ThyssenKrupp delivery truck in the parking lot behind our administration building, just as Ludendorff surrounded Liege in my headphones. It turned out to be nothing more serious than a routine elevator inspection. But it made me wonder about the resemblance of certain Utah State University administrators to General Erich Ludendorff.

Krupp AG merged with Thyssen, another Ruhrgebiet industrial giant, in 2000 and their new world headquarters is nearing completion in the Altendorf neighborhood in Essen. It's the sort of development that makes me really think the world might be getting better. Instead of invading one another's countries, almost everyone in Europe is busy now planning to sell bratwurst or some other local specialty in Essen as a part of the World Cultural Capital celebration. Krupp isn't building siege guns, but is instead insuring my safe transportation to the dean's office on the third floor of Old Main and back. The "Krupp Belt" that wraps around downtown Essen to the west, a phalanx of belching smoke stacks in WWI, and a heap of rubble at the end of WWII, is now a beautiful park with a new north/south boulevard and public transit line. The transformation has taken over one hundred years and I try to keep the long view myself as I walk the frozen trails of Logan, an urban planning waste land in the air pollution capital of Utah. If Europe survived the foolishness of their leaders, there must be hope for Cache Valley too.


Tyler Vance said...

I have GOT to get some knee-high canvas spats. I think I'd look pretty cool.

Thanks for the post. I'll probably check this book out.

Christopher T. Terry said...

I think the spats are particularly chic on a miniature Italian king. You could be too tall for the look, but give it your best shot. ct