Monday, August 04, 2014

War Game

"Of the events in British chess history in the four years which followed the tragedy of August, 1914, it is not necessary to write much, for the simple reason that there is not much that could be written. Such a statement, of course, is not limited to this country's chess history." 

This is how P. W. Sergeant began his chapter XIX "Interregnum" of his classic A Century of British Chess published in 1934, twenty years after the declaration of war on Germany - which itself was exactly one hundred years ago today.

Other commentators have reflected on the impact of the '14-'18 war on "normal" chess activity at international, national and club level (see note), where it scaled right down for much of the four years. This mini-series of three posts will, however, be about chess on the battlefield and the Home Front. It documents the dreadful irony that a game supposedly devised as a substitute for war should be played in the hell of the trenches and in the grim adjunct of transit camps, hospitals and convalescent centres behind the lines and back home. Chess didn't disappear - it was played somewhere else.

Although a focus on chess in the war can't possibly encompass the enormity of what happened, these posts, with several asides, may show how people coped with the cataclysmic events that engulfed their lives. What follows, in words and pictures, is an album, a collage, of snapshots of chess and of chess players in uniform (with one or two exceptions), during the war years. The items have been culled from various sources; I can't vouch for their authenticity or accuracy of their content; and I have not made any attempt to cross-check them.

In this first part we'll look at the wider picture, and then go on later to look at chess on the front line and the rear of the fighting. Chess took no sides in the war (even if chess players, willingly or otherwise, might have) and nor need these blogs - although the material available to your blogger comes faute de mieux mainly from English-speaking sources.           


In propaganda it was perhaps inevitable that the chess-metaphor would be trundled out like one of those lumbering tanks.

Marshal ("Papa") Joffre (left) Commander-in-Chief of the French Army said, in May 1915, that they would win the  war in three months (By Gilbert Gauthier, from here). On the right a German counterpart shows Hindenburg and another Chief of the General Staff with other ideas also in 1915: "Schach! Schach!  (From here).
La Danse Macabre Europeenne, n. 9
Scacco al Kaiser, de A.Martini, 1914
(Also from here) 
The Chess Amateur (which provides a lot of the material in these posts) set out, in October 1915, to correct a widespread metaphor-mangle, although they were inevitably partisan as they did so:
Not Stalemate but Deadlock
Many newspapers [etc] have…alluded to the situation in the Dardenelles and in France as that of a “stalemate,” painfully illustrating the adage how dangerous a thing is a little knowledge. No one with any real familiarity with chess would use the expression in describing the war in either if its areas, which would convey the idea that it was all over and that a draw had resulted. A deadlock perhaps at one time would have been a correct definition, but a stalemate is a climax, a finality, and is absolutely misleading. The Germans in this awful contest would jump at a stalemate, but their opponents have got some good “moves” to spring on them at the psychical moment, when the Kaiser will be effectually checkmated – a totally different matter to being stalemated.
Regrettably the self-same rhetorical device remained in service and was still, even near the end of the war in 1918, inflicting damage on the hapless reader:
Wars Greatest Chess Game
It was the skimble-skamble stuff of idle words to dispute whether the battle between Arras and Ypres was first meant as a diversion or a main attack. Obviously it might be either or both. The battle of destiny is a battle of brain, which will test to the utmost the intellectual resources of the combattants. It is far and away the greatest game of chess that was ever played in war.:- “Sunday Observer” The Chess Amateur May 1918
World Champion Emanuel Lasker was German of course, so he really drew fire (if we may continue to employ, as if in retaliation, a military turn of phrase) from the British side. The rankle seems to have started innocently enough in The Chess Amateur of October 1914:
Are Chess Players at War with Lasker ?
It seems strange to British chess players, and especially to those who have met Dr. Lasker, that they must consider themselves in a state of war with him. We wonder what his feelings are in the matter – he is not an ordinary German, being of the Hebrew race, and very cosmopolitan in his experiences and tastes. He has made several long stays in England and the United States.
In December The Chess Amateur had its answer, and drew a none too flattering conclusion...
Herr Lasker
According to Herr Lasker the movements of the French Army are similar to those of the Chess Knight! His comments of the final results of the war would do credit to the intelligence and profound judgement of a well trained parrot.- (“C.A.”) May 1915 The Chess Amateur had worked up a full head of steam, referring now to Lasker's "foamings and lashings and foolish exhibitions in the Press"; and the The Times thundered away in unison...
Dr. Lasker talks of War
Dr. Lasker devotes the greater part of his chess column in the Vossiche Zeitung of September 27 to a dissertation on tactics, as carried out on the larger board of battle with human beings for the pieces. Discussing the position then of the Battle of the Rivers, he states that the problem that the German commanders have to solve is quite like the position of chess players who, in a strong position, are trying to overcome their adversary…
We have great respect for Dr. Lasker’s abilities as a chess player, but time will prove whether his theories on warfare are equally deserving of respect. We also seem to have heard something in this country of German methods of warfare, as well as reports of the doings of the Crown Prince. It may be as well to remind Dr. Lasker that chess is played according to certain universally accepted rules. Under these rules a player making an illegal move may be compelled to move his king. – “The Times”. American Chess Bulletin Vol X11 (1915)
...and, as if they could take no more, some in the chess fraternity took matters into their own hands - implicating others at the same time.  
At the annual meeting of the City of London Chess Club the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, Dr. Emanuel Lasker and Dr.Tarrasch were struck off the list of honorary members. And the following notice was posted at the club: “All Germans and Austrians and all naturalized Germans and Austrians are requested not to use the club during the period of war and until further notice." American Chess Bulletin Vol XIII (1916)      
This looks to be four-square with the virulent anti-German feeling that had gripped the country (see below); though as we see later, The Chess Amateur itself was to be sympathetic to Tarrasch for his bereavements as a consequence of the war; and other commentators, too, tried not to lose sight of the universal camaraderie of chess:
The Tie That Binds

The tie that binds chess enthusiasts could not be subjected to a more severe strain than that caused by the present European conflict. In spite of the war, however, the universal game is the one medium through which the only semblance of friendship between contending nations is maintained. J. F. Magee, Jr., secretary of the Good Companions Chess Problem Club, with 162 members from all parts of the world, informs us that instead of the interest decreasing, the organization is increasing its membership, and that French, Russian, English and German composers continue to compete in the monthly tournaments.

John Keeble, of England, who is a captain of musketry, writes: “To be efficient in our battalion of musketry one must do at least forty drills and fire ten rounds deliberate and ten rapid (ten in 100 seconds)…

A. Pape, the Good Companion vice-president, in France, writes: “Being at present in the French army, I cannot be of much help to the club. If I am alive after the war you can depend on me to interest the French solvers and clubs in your tourneys. I am afraid I cannot arrange for a 1916 tourney for you in one of the camps of the German prisoners.”

Count Guidelli, of Italy, sends Mr. Magee six new problems and writes that he is going to the front next month.

Dr. B. Weiss, of Berlin, Germany, also contributes six problems, and there are three entries from Russia by the Kubbel brothers and L.B.Salkind.

Comins Mansfield of England, writes: “As I am joining the colors, kindly address all further correspondence to my father in North Devon.” – David A Mitchell in Philadelphia “Ledger”. American Chess Bulletin Vol XII (1915)

The Chess Amateur (September 1915) even jested that a chess game between two of the heavy guns might be a solution to...
How the war might be settled
Hindenburg, who is Germany’s military idol of the moment, is said to be a crack chess player, and it is suggested that the war might be settled by a game between him and Mr. Bonar Law.


As the country cranked up its war capability, volunteer recruitment was the order of the day (conscription wasn't brought in until 1916). "Nearly all the members of the City of London Chess Club of military age" wrote Mr. Antony Guest (The Chess Amateur March 1916) "have joined our Forces", and later in (November 1917) it reported the example of 21 members of Bradford Chess Club who had joined up to fight (more examples, from what must be countless others, later in the series).

Chess was a popular pastime among the first waves of recruits in the training camps, an enthusiasm hampered by a shortage of chess sets (as well as, according to other accounts, weapons).
Naval and Military Recruits and Chess
Chess is zealously practised as an appropriate winter recreation by our Naval and Military recruits, and at the Crystal Palace where 12,000 are in Naval training there is a great demand for boards and men. Several have been sent from the City of London Chess Club, and other clubs and players who have disused pieces or boards may turn them to very good account in the same way…The chess circle includes old Public School boys, clergy, and others of the professional class who have responded to the call to arms….Similar enthusiasm prevails among many of the 20,000 Army recruits at the White City where tournaments between the different Battalions have been started, and here the City of London Club is assisting, especially by adjudication on doubtful positions and ever-ready advice…Among the Canadian contingent now established on Salisbury Plain is Mr. Charles Blake, a champion of Canada, who recently journeyed to London and visited the City of London Chess Club… The Chess Amateur January 1915
The mobilisation of the colonies mentioned in the above extract introduces an international perspective on the war preparations; and this story from the American Chess Bulletin of 1915 on that theme enables us to enjoy a reasonable game of chess.
Chess on the High Seas
Lieutenant Bruno Garibaldi who went from here (i.e. The States – MS) to France to serve the cause of the Allies in the French Army and subsequently fell in battle in the Argonnes, was an accomplished chess player...In fact, on his journey across on board the steamship Adriatic, he was fortunate enough to encounter kindred spirits ... and in consequence many a friendly bout was had before the[y] landed in Liverpool. One of the games was a consultation game and of such special merit that the score found its way into the pages of “La Strategie” of Paris...
...Lieutenant Garibaldi and M.A.Hawkins, secretary of the British Correspondence Chess Association, play[ed] the White pieces, and Dr. K. N. Shamoff, a Russian physician, and Lieutenant A.R.Farrand, of the Belgian Army, play[ed] the Black. The French defence was adopted by the Black Allies, who, after obtaining the better of the opening, essayed the sacrifice of a piece. Very fine and correct play on the part of the White Allies was necessary to save them from disaster and they emerged with two minor pieces against a Rook. [They] conducted the rest of the game with consummate skill and brought it to a conclusion on the forty-fifth move, when they administered an unexpected checkmate. In fact, the play throughout was creditable and fearless on both sides and gave no indication of any dread of prowling submarines. American Chess Bulletin Vol XII (1915) 

A pretty good game in the circumstances - which nicely illustrates one appeal of chess during the war: it "reliev[ed] the dreary monotony of life in the trenches, in the North Sea, in hospital etc." (Mr A. J. Neilson quoted in The Chess Amateur in October 1915).

Here's another recruitment story, this time from the side of the Central Powers - again from The American Chess Magazine in 1915 (and slightly abridged) when the US was still neutral (as it was until April 1917):   
 ...One of these ... Teutonic journals is authority for a very interesting little anecdote anent Spielmann…(who) even in the midst of his game with Reti in the memorable last round of the uniquely famous Mannheim tournament, received his military summons…he had to appear before a captain to be assigned…: “What are you?” asked the captain. “Chess player,”  said Spielmann….” I am a chess master”. “Is there such a thing and can one make a living thereby?”…“Certainly, if one is a good enough player,” …“Very well, then,” said the officer finally, “we’ll assign you to the artillery in a fortress, where we can make use of your ability as a tactician.” – “The Times-Picayune."

Rudolf Spielmann served in the Austrian Army, survived the war, but as a Jew had to flee the Nazis in WW2. He died in Sweden in 1942 (from here, and see note)


On the Home Front the citizenry was especially vigilant :
Residents in the neighbourhood of Golders GreenEngland, have noticed recently considerable agitation and activity in a certain field by a party of flag-waving soldiers. Whispered suggestions of German spy work were for a time prevalent, and much discomfiture was exhibited among the feminine element. The mystery was, fortunately, soon probed, however, for they were chess enthusiasts playing a game by flag signals. The game is continued every Saturday, and they hope to finish before the end of the year. This is the first occasion on record of a game of chess carried on by this mode. – “The Australian” American Chess Bulletin Vol XIII (1916)
The Government, and popular sentiment, turned against many "aliens" in the country. Germans, even if long domiciled (as with poor Muller below, who had frequented London chess circles since the previous century), were objects of suspicion...    
Of some prejudice against “enemy” players as the War proceeds, and one chessplaying British subaltern actually carpeted by his Commanding Officer for being seen on a bus discussing the Ruy Lopez with that “dangerous” alien, O. C. Muller.                                    "BCM" - A Reader's Retrospective by G.H. Diggle; in BCM Vol LXXV 1955) (and see notes) 
...or worse. After the sinking of the Lusitania by a U-boat in May 1915 German owned shops were attacked. And not just in the mother country either: The Times reported (according to The American Chess Bulletin that year) that in South Africa - another colony that sent troops to Europe - "Johannesburg CC lost all its chessmen, boards, etc., during the anti-German demonstrations last May, the building in which they were stored being among those wrecked by the demonstrators"). Collateral damage, indeed.

Many thousands of "aliens" were interned. The imposing Ally Pally in North London was turned into an internment camp, as shown in this striking watercolour by German born artist George Kenner.
George Kenner (1888-1971). Alexandra Palace as an internment Camp 1915-6.
© and reproduced with kind permission of Christa Kenner Bedford.
Album in the IWM, and online via here 
Kenner came to London in 1910 and jointly ran a commercial-art company. He used his considerable skill and talent to record his internment experiences in Ally Pally, Surrey and the Isle of Man. He is mentioned in this post because of this:

Evening Game of Chess.
© and acknowledgements as above.  
Kenner later set out a detailed account of his detention in which he mentions that "[b]efore bed-time we read, wrote letters, played chess or cards, until the lights were darkened at 10.30 for the nights rest." He was returned to Germany in 1919 as part of a "prisoner" exchange, emigrating to the States in 1927.

Read subsequent episodes on chess in WW1 via these links to War Game 2, and War Game 3 and the History Index

Notes and acknowledgments.
Thanks to Paul Timson for help with digging out items on this subject, especially from the American Chess Bulletin; and thanks again to Christa Kenner Bedford for her generous co-operation in relation to her father's brilliant artwork.

See Tim Harding on chess in 1914 here.

Tony Gillam's Mannheim 1914 and the Interned Russiansjust published, may elucidate the Spielmann story.

This is the section of Diggle's reminicences, in the BCM in 1955, which relate to the War.
"Of the coming of the First World War, dislocating the B.C.F. Congress at Chester, and heralded rather weightily in the “B.C.M.” for September,1914, where Europe is announced to be “suddenly steeped in horrifying collisions of opposing national interests and ambitions” and the “B.C.M.,” though “naturally writing from a pro patria point of yiew,” is “imbued with solicitous feelings for a general satisfactory denouement.” Of some prejudice against “enemy” players as the War proceeds, and one chessplaying British subaltern actually carpeted by his Commanding Officer for being seen on a bus discussing the Ruy Lopez with that “dangerous” alien, O. C. Muller. Of foreign chess, except in America, fading from the headlines, and the Mechanics Institute and local correspondence player coming into their own. Of the “B.C.M.” struggling manfully on with lsaac Brown still at the helm, assisted by men of the calibre of Amos Burn, P. W. Sergeant, and B. G. Laws. Of the “silver lining,” well symbolized by the Victory Congress of 1919; "   
History Index

1 comment:

ejh said...

All Germans and Austrians and all naturalized Germans and Austrians are requested not to use the club during the period of war and until further notice.

I'm reminded of the notices that appeared in various English pubs during the Falklands War saying that Argentinians were barred, a fairly painless prohibition since none of the pubs concerned were noted for their Argentinian clientele. Was the same true of the City of London Chess Club? I'm guessing that German and Austrians weren't queueing at the doors then either.