Saturday, August 16, 2014

War Game 3

The final episode in this series on chess in World War 1 starts at another grim location where the game had a following: the prisoner of war camp.


Naturally in British documentation it is captured Germans who are playing, as here watched by a soldier from the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment...    

At Querrieu, near Amiens, Battle of the Somme, 1916
Photographer: Lt. Ernest Brooks.
© IWM Q1598  Also here 

...or not. 

These were POWs - prisoners of war. But there was another kind of prisoner during the war: the prisoner of conscience. The conscientious objectors - 16,000 in the UK is the figure that crops up - varied in degree: from a refusal to take the lives of others (and who may yet have served at the front as medical aides or stretcher bearers i.e. in considerable danger), through to a blanket rejection of all war-related activity. Possibly this chess set was fashioned by one of those latter "unconditionalists" whose stand on personal principle cost them their liberty.                                                                   
Copy negative of an improvised chess set
made and used by a conscientious objector to pass the time while in prison (IWM caption)
© IWM Q103672  Mr Henry Smith photograph collection. 
Here is reference to another improvised chess set - demonstrating an abiding need to have one at hand.
A correspondent writes: through the generosity of a friend of mine, Sapper E. Bramwell, I have added to my collection of chess a set of men made in France from old cartridge cases, bullets, etc. , and very well made too. The board is made out of a bit of a piano which was shattered by a shell in one of the YMCA Huts. This will form an interesting memento of how chess eased the time for our boys during the war. The Chess Amateur April 1918
I don't suppose the "conscies" were in the forefront of Mr. A.J. Neilson's mind when he made the following observation, quoted by The Chess Amateur in October 1915... 
It is remarkable how many eye witnesses and correspondents are testifying to the universality of chess and how the game is being played under the most adverse circumstances on the battle front and even under the fire of the enemy guns, both on land and sea. The reports ... are not only about the Allied forces, but also about the Hun; and by all accounts, it would appear to be the case that there is a goodly proportion of chess enthusiasts amongst the combatants of all nations…  
...but we should applaud the sentiment anyway - and we'll come back to the significance of chess in the war at the end.


In the rest of this final episode we'll count the cost of the War among chess players, and we begin with another game played under those "most adverse circumstances".  It requires, as an introduction, a further re-telling of the appalling (though it would have been - if you take out the chess - commonplace) story that was given, said The Chess Amateur of  August 1915, by The Australasia who had taken it from L'Italia Scacchistica. It was published "not because of any merit" in the game itself, "but because of the especially interesting circumstances under which it was played". After you have read it you may wonder whether that word "interesting" quite meets the case.
Game played in the trenches.
A. Vanoode, of Brussels, was stationed in one of the trenches in the neighbourhood of Saint George, and during a lull in the hostilities proposed a game of chess to a fellow enthusiast, a French comrade named Dussaaixe. This was played upon a pocket chess-board produced by one of them, and proceeded without incident to Black's 17th move, when the sentinel sounded an alarm, and the discharge of artillery shook the ground. M.Vanoode at once made his way to his post at the extremity of the trench, M. Dussaixe calling after him "j'aurai vain....," but the sentance was never finished, for with a terrible crash a shell exploded in the trench killing him instantly. In truth, a tragic ending to the game. White was killed in a moment of victory, and Black lies in hospital dangerously wounded."         

Here are some further examples of the relentless toll that the war took on those "chess enthusiasts amongst the combatants of all nations" (and all strengths). The Chess Amateur was even-handed in reporting on players enlisted for both sides. What follows (in approximate date order) is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg, perhaps your club could add to it...
From German sources, we glean that no less that 584 chess players have been called to the front; that of these fifty-nine have received the Iron Cross for heroic deeds, fifty-five have been wounded and thirty-two fallen in battle. – “The Times-Picayune." American Chess Magazine Vol XII (1915) 
The Field” had recorded on 3rd July 1915 the death of Sergeant R.D. Dawkins of the Liverpool Scottish, killed in action at Ypres. Dawkins, aged 24, had played for Lancashire against Yorkshire in 1913 and 1914. Mike Conroy, History of Lancashire Chess (2012)

The sinking of the Lusitania, torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915, claimed the life of F.G. Naumann (amongst other things a patron of the Monte Carlo Tournament of 1902), reported The Chess Amateur of November 1915.
Dr. Tartakower Recovering
It will be remembered that Dr. Tartakower, the well-known chess player, who volunteered for service in the Austrian Army, and met with a severe accident resulting in concussion to the brain, is now stated to be recovering. It is reported that his brother (Dr. A. Tartakower) has been killed in action. The Chess Amateur May 1915
Casualties extremely heavy
"The Yorkshire Weekly Post" states that the well-known Bohemian chess masters Treybal and Kadera have been wounded, and Hromadka taken prisoner. Some time ago it was stated that Hrdina had been killed... The Chess Amateur May 1915  
Another Chess Master in the Casualty List 
This time in the ranks of the enemy, a chess player of reknown - John Szekely, the well-known Hungarian player - has been severely wounded when serving in the Austrian army...He is now in hospital. The Chess Amateur May 1915  
Killed in Battle
The last number of the 'Deutches Woenschzach' (dated May 23rd)...announces the death in battle of Dr. Fritz Tarrasch,...he had been twice wounded and even decorated with the Iron Cross...he was a fine chess player...the sympathy of chess players everywhere will go out to his famous father, who has thus been unhappily bereaved of two sons during the past eventful war. The Chess Amateur  September 1915 quoting The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Public School’s Brigade Chess
Mr S.W. Billings, home for Easter, informed us that there are a great number of chess-players in the Public School’s Brigade, four battalions…we take it that Mr Billings is the chess champion of the brigade. The Chess Amateur May 1915 
But then...
S.W.Billings Killed
Mr. S.W. Billing has been killed while fighting in the ranks of the Universities and Public Schools’ Battalion. Mr. Billings was a regular competitor at annual national congresses of the British Chess Federation. The Chess Amateur July 1916
In Honour’s cause
We regret to notice that Captain Norman Annandale Black, R.F.A. has been killed in action….and like his father, he was a member of Glasgow Chess Club…he is [its] first member who is reported as having fallen in action. The Chess Amateur July 1916
Friedrich Köhnlein, born 12 December 1879 was a German chess master and problemist. He drew with Alekhine and Nimzowitch and beat Yates in the 1900s. He died in the Battle of the Somme in the 5th July 1916 (Wiki. Games here). 
With regret we heard of the death of Mr F.H. Chubb, killed in action. He was one of the few strong chess players of North Gloucestershire, and had long been considered the best in Gloucester where he resided till he joined the army – the RGA….he was about 38.  The Chess Amateur August 1917
The son of Mr John A Guy of Bradford is posted as missing. He was for three years co-secretary of the Bradford Chess Club. His father and uncles are well known in northern chess circles. The Chess Amateur August 1917
Sec.-Lieut. R.H.V.Scott the well-known Metropolitan chess player has returned from France suffering from the effects of gas poisoning. Of course, everybody will wish him a speedy permanent recovery. The Chess Amateur  (date?)   
 The matter of factness of the next one suggests that cock-ups came as no surprise...  
Lieut G.F. Anderson
We are more than glad to hear that the report that Lt G.F. Anderson (last month) was incorrect. Mr. A. R. Cooper writing from Portsmouth says “ Lt. Anderson…is alive and well. I had a letter from him from France dated May 24th containing solutions to problems. He is a very clever composer. It was his brother that was killed. The Chess Amateur July 1918 
Canadian chess player Frank Percival Benyon had held his own against Marshall and Janowski, but volunteered - and perished as war exhausted itself in September 1918 (see this piece by Olimpiu Urcan).

And so it went on...

All that wasted life is troubling enough, but the words of Corporal D. M'Arthur, chess champion of New South Wales give considerable pause, and an insight into how the war was experienced at the time by some serving soldiers. In September 1915, The Chess Amateur reported that M'Arthur had joined up with other chess-playing comrades from Australasia, and then in November 1915 it reproduced part of his letter to a friend in Melbourne. To me it is chilling, but not because of details of death and destruction in the trenches:
I am well satisfied. Ever since I enlisted I have been having the time of my life, and not once have I regretted the step that I have taken...It's a great life, and I would urge any eligible young man to come and join us. Personally I feel that ten years have been taken off my life. I have never been happier.                
M'Arthur would later be decorated for conspicuous gallantry (The Chess Amateur January 1918).


This series finishes with a counterpoint to M'Arthur's enthusiasm (how to describe it: misguided? cavalier? blasé? heroic?) about the war. The salutary memorial in stone featured below is to the German fallen, but it speaks to all sides; and the evocation - by a modern-day poet - that frames it contains a passing chess allusion. Here chess transcends its mundane yet merciful role in the war as temporary escape or incidental pleasure, as seemingly good only for "whiling away the dull hours when we must needs stand by" (see note), and prompts reflections of a more enduring nature. The words are by Ruth Padel, speaking just this year:
Two giant granite figures on granite blocks - enormous Viking chess pieces - a man and a woman, kneeling side by side a little distance from each other, with folded arms, their backs to a beech hedge...
From Wikimedia Commons

...The man's head  is bare. He kneels upright, his fingers pressed under his arms. He is stiff. He is cold. He is holding himself in. The woman, covered, leans forward head and shoulders bent, swags of her robe dropping like tears. These figures are The Grieving Parents - monumental images of grief, but also of guilt and self-reproach for a generation which encouraged its sons to go to war. This cemetery, near Vladslo in Belgium ... holds the bones of 25,644 German soldiers. Each flat stone carries 20 names. The male figure gazes at the ninth stone, and the name of his son 'Peter Kollwitz'. 
The sculpture is by Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Text is from Minds at War Episode 10: The Grieving Parents by Ruth Padel.  BBC Radio 3, 4 July 2014, as transcribed by MS.

The quote comes from Sgt. H. Allman, who'd learnt the game in uniform just three weeks previously: given by The Chess Amateur November 1915.

Links to War game, and War Game 2
History Index

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