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Lest we forget: 100 years since Passchendaele



Today is Remembrance Day, variously called Armistice Day or Veterans Day in various countries.

99 years ago, the First World War came to an end. Over the years and many wars since then, on the anniversary of this day we pause to think about the war and the people who fought, were wounded and died in it.

And we often think, too, about the families and communities they left behind.

As the author of three books set during wartime, I do a lot of research into the wars, and I am struck by the very different ways we think about it now compared to a hundred years ago.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, known in Canada as the Battle of Passchendaele because that phase of the battle was fought by the Canadian Corps.

The Canadian Corps had established a reputation at Vimy Ridge six months earlier as the most effective Allied fighting force. They relieved the Anzacs at the Ypres Salient on October 18. Their three attacks, on October 26, October 30 and November 6, met fierce resistance, but the final attack captured the town of Passchendaele in three hours. By November 10, the Canadians had cleared the enemy from the high ground north of the village.

Learn more about the battle at the Veterans Affairs Canada website.

Almost 16,000 Canadians were casualties in the battle, including over 4,000 killed.

From Veterans Affairs Canada

Euphemisms

Think about some of those words, like “cleared” and “casualties.” They’re stand-ins for “killed” or “horribly wounded.” Men who were not wounded so badly they could not fight were patched up and sent back to the front lines. Those sent home lost limbs, eyes, the ability to walk, or such severe “shell shock”—known now as PTSD—they could not continue to fight. They all carried these wounds for the rest of their lives.

Think about those numbers, too. 12,000 Canadians wounded. Over its course from July to November, the Third Battle of Ypres killed more than half a million soldiers on both sides.

That’s a good-sized city wiped out, and that does not include the numbers wounded.

The numbers are shocking.

Also shocking is the attitude of the commanders who kept sending men into the fight, following the thousands already killed. The commanders called the men killed during “quiet periods” on the front “normal wastage”—up to 35,000 men per month.

Thirty-five thousand every month. More than a thousand killed every day, for no reason, achieving no goal.

Legacy

We tell ourselves today that the men who fought and died for our countries in these conflicts did it to preserve our way of life, freedom, democracy and human rights.

That’s arguable, but let’s accept it for now. Let’s remember that the people on all sides of a conflict believe they’re defending something worthwhile.

And let’s remember the impact on the families and communities left behind by those killed. Widows, orphans, parents grieving. After the First World War, the number of women who would never marry climbed significantly because so many young men had been killed.

A century later

The First World War ended a century ago. For many young people, that makes it almost ancient history. They think about it much differently than I did, because when I was a teenager, there were still people around who lived in those times and fought in those battles.

I remember talking about the First World War with my grandmother, who told me about how thoroughly the people at home in Canada believed the narrative (or propaganda).

But there’s no one, or almost no one, left who can remember that time first-hand. There are precious few who can remember the Second World War.

The focus of Remembrance Days now is shifting to later wars. For Canadians, that includes Korea, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

We lost so many irreplaceable people in those conflicts. The world lost so much.

And yet we continue to go to war.

We remember, but it seems we have not learned anything.

Army of Worn Soles is on promotion today



Book 1 of the Eastern Front trilogy is on promotion through BookDoggy. If you haven’t read it yet, now is your chance to get it at a reduced price. Because after this promotion, the price will go back up to its regular setting.

Get it at BookDoggy http://bookdoggy.com/?p=2671&preview=true

What’s it about?

A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?

Get Army of Worn Soles for just 99 cents.

See a free sample.

Happy Hallowe’en! A spooky story for those who liked Dark Clouds



As a Hallowe’en treat, I’m reprising here a little story I wrote as an entry in a writing competition about four years ago. The idea was to start with “Shadows crept across the wall.” Extra points were awarded for ending with “everything faded,” and using the word “orange.”

This vignette follows the action in Dark Clouds. See if you can guess where Matt and Helen will turn up next.

Helen’s prison

Shadows crept across the wall, then slithered across the floor. Their teeth reflected the orange sunlight that slanted through the dirty, narrow window.

Slumped on the floor, back against the wall, Matt watched it slide onto his thigh. It grinned at him. Its fangs tore wide rents through his jeans.

The shadow laughed, a sickening hiss. Its fellows joined it in shredding Matt’s pants. The lead shadow laughed again and sank its teeth into his skin.

Matt sighed and shook his head. Won’t she ever learn?

The shadow teeth did nothing to him. How could they? They’re just shadows.

All the shadows hissed, frustrated. They merged and faded into the gloom of the doorless cell. A new shadow appeared on the floor. It grew into Helen.

“So you are immune,” she said.

“Hello, Mom. Do you have anything to drink?”

“Wipe that smirk off your face…you’re no good to me here. And you are my son.” A door appeared in the concrete-block wall and swung open slowly.

“You’re letting me go?”

It was Helen’s turn to smirk as she faded back into shadow.

The last of the sunlight disappeared. Matt crawled out the door just as everything faded.

Dark Clouds: a cross-genre occult paranormal espionage thriller in the making.

Matt always knew when his mother was about to arrive: the wind would swirl from every direction at once and dark clouds would mass in the sky.

He and his pretty wife, Teri, try to get out of the way, but as the Witch’s Son, Matt is drawn into a spider’s web.

He has to use his special abilities to spoil the Witch Queen’s plans—but the price for that is to be paid in blood.

Fortunately, Teri has a few special abilities of her own …

Find it on Amazon or download it for free.

RIP: Canada’s everyday poet



Gord Downie passed away last week.

Okay, that’s not news anymore. Every Canadian and many others around the world know that. But I need to acknowledge the passing and honour the man whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

Gord Downie was the front man and lyricist for The Tragically Hip, which has become known as “Canada’s Band.” Which makes Downie Canada’s principal poet and conscience over the past 30 years or so.

So I thought I’d share with everyone the words of the first Tragically Hip song I remember. Please, pay attention to the words. They are powerful, and like all great poetry, they have many deep layers of meaning.

“New Orleans Is Sinking”

All right

Bourbon blues on the street, loose and complete
Under skies all smoky blue green
I can’t forsake a dixie dead shake
So we danced the sidewalk clean

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim

Colonel Tom, what’s wrong? What’s going on?
You can’t tie yourself up for a deal
He said, Hey, north, you’re south, shut your big mouth
You gotta do what you feel is real

Ain’t got no picture postcards, ain’t got no souvenirs
My baby she don’t know me when I’m thinking bout those years

Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire
Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire
Picking out the highlights of the scenery
Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me

I had my hands in the river, my feet back up on the banks
Looked up to the lord above and said, Hey, man, thanks

Sometimes I feel so good I got to scream
She said, Gordie, baby, I know exactly what you mean
She said, she said, I swear to god she said

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim

Swim

What’s your favourite Tragically Hip song? What’s your favourite poem? Leave a comment below.

Niqabs and niqab bans: Both are wrong



You know the phrase “fashion statement.” The clothes we wear can be as much an attempt to draw attention, to attempt anonymity or to fit into a tribe.

Most men my age, at least in Canada, are attempting that anonymous-member-of-the-tribe look with our golf shirts and jeans. We’re saying “We’re regular guys, just give us what we want without wasting time trying to connect with us.”

Niqabs, the traditional face veils worn by some Muslim women, do all three jobs: call attention to the wearer, identify their membership in a group and produce anonymity.

In Canada and in most of the West, they also have another effect: they make most other people deeply uncomfortable. Hence the restrictions imposed on them in several jurisdictions, most recently Quebec.

The Quebec National Assembly just passed Bill 62, banning public workers as well as anyone receiving services from provincial or municipal officials from wearing any kind of face covering. That means that a woman wearing a niqab will not be able to borrow a library book or get on a bus or metro.

It’s a controversial decision. Its supporters say it enforces Quebec’s secular culture and it is not aimed at any particular religious group.

That’s transparently false. It’s anti-religious for the simple reason that there is one particular, if small group of Muslims who believe that wearing a face veil is a religious practice.

And as for not allowing ostentatious religious symbols on public property, when will those who want to enforce Quebec’s secular nature take down the giant crosses in the National Assembly or on Mont Royal?

I’m opposed to both sides

Personally, I don’t think anyone should wear a face-covering except for protection from the environment. Have you ever waited for a bus in Montreal in February?

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a Muslim, and I will not pretend to understand the faith. At the same time, I do not believe that any piece of cloth can bring a person closer to God. Not a niqab nor a hijab, the head scarf, nor a kippa nor a plain black suit nor a beard nor a turban.

“It’s a sign of my faith.” Exactly: an outward signal that you choose to display. To the women who say not being allowed to wear a niqab in public means they won’t be able to go out at all, I say: That’s your choice. Don’t expect me to cry about it.

I’ve heard the arguments by women who choose to cover up that doing so forces men not to look at them as sexual objects, but to focus on their words, behavior and character. That’s the same argument that women are to blame for sexual harassment and rape. No. It’s up to men to respect women and treat women as people. It’s not women’s responsibility to hide part of themselves in order to force men to respect them.

Some countries that have banned face-coverings have done so because they are part of a culture of oppression of women. And there are countries that force women to cover their faces in public. It’s an oppressive, hateful practice that dresses itself up as “religion.” I reject that idea.

This is the double-edged sword of this debate: the niqab is a symptom of an oppressive society. Even women who choose to wear them have to acknowledge this.

And it’s unequal. Men don’t have to wear them. And we in Canada believe in the equality of men and women. If you don’t believe in that, you’re out of step with Canadian society.

What problem does this law solve?

Quebec’s law was not written to prevent people from wearing balaclavas or scarves. It’s intended to prevent women from wearing the niqab. The language about any face-covering and support of the secular culture is spin, designed to dance past the issues that blocked previous attempts to legislate the niqab out of existence.

Is this what we want? Image from Pinterest

Less than a century ago, cops would patrol public beaches to measure the length of women’s swimwear, to make sure they weren’t offending public decency. Is that where we want to go back to?

No. This law is about the niqab, and it will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court in a couple of years.

The bottom line

Women, if you want to wear a face covering for whatever religious reasons you have, I believe you should go for it. I reject your justification and reasoning, and you’re going to have to accept the criticism and judgement of the rest of society.

I support your right to wear, or not to wear, whatever you want. But I don’t have to respect what you wear, nor do I have to agree with your reasons for wearing it.

And if any government truly wants to be secular, they’ll take down all religious symbols, including giant crosses.

There. I think I’ve offended everyone.

Writing amid calamity



Redwoods in the Muir Woods, Marin County, California.

California is a land of extreme beauty and extreme horrors. From the contrived glamour of Hollywood and Los Angeles to the awe-inspiring majesty of the redwood forests. From the unique personality of San Francisco to the wind-blasted isolation of the northern coast.

It’s also home to disastrous extremes. For the past three days, I’ve been at the Lei Crime World Authors Retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet between the devastated Santa Rosa and the rocky coast of Bodega Bay. From day to day, the skies can be high and blue or a low, gray-brown haze as wildfires tear through the Napa Valley and leap over mountains into Sonoma. As I write this, more than 25,000 people have had to abandon their homes and flee the fires, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, more than 200 people are missing and 31 people killed.

For the past three days, I have been participating in the first Lei Crime World authors’ retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet halfway between the devastated city of Santa Rosa and the coast at Bodega Bay. It’s safe, for the moment, anyway, although the first thing we all do when we get up in the morning is look to see whether the sky is blue or hazy, and sniff for the odour of smoke. From time to time, ash drizzles down, coating surfaces with gray. As another participant, Erin Finigan said, “That could have been someone’s home falling on us.”

A terrible juxtaposition

It’s not guilt that I feel, but there is relief mixed with helplessness. We gather in the the hotel bar to watch the news on the big TV. In night scenes, the fires dance bright orange among the trees. Day scenes show destroyed towns and weeping, shell-shocked residents. Stories people who left everything to the flames, grateful for having their family alive. Others crying because they cannot find a mother, child or sibling.

The situation, only a half-hour’s drive away, comes even closer when an evacuated family arrives at the hotel: wife, husband, daughter, son, dog and cat. They had minutes to gather family, photos and pets ahead of the fire when the power went out. In the dark, they found the cat, jumped into their car and fled before the fire consumed their home. They had to leave their computer behind, which held more precious family photos and memories, because it was in another structure which housed their family business, and which was already burning. They arrived at the hotel, shaken, pale, their faces drawn, their eyes wide but dull.

We writers, nine of us, pool what cash we can to help console them. It’s a moving moment, and one that underlines how small each of us is in the face of an elemental force like fire.

We are safe. For now. But we keep our suitcases packed, ready to go.

The most compelling stories

Today, I look out over my hotel balcony. The leaves on the trees that I cannot identify are turning red. Above, orange-tinted gray clouds accent the blue sky. Is that smoke? Or just a cloud? The news reports that the situation has become worse. The fires continue to grow. Long-time residents recall fires in 2007 and 2008 that were extensive, but not as bad nor as deadly.

We prepare to leave, to head south to Santa Cruz and Monterey. We will escape the fire zone easily, and in a few more days, will fly home to Ottawa. We may face other dangers there, but from everything I can gather, no existential threats.

We are all writers here at the Russian River town of Monte Rio. We tell stories for a living. We strive to make our books engaging and immersive, entertaining and evocative. We have come to reinforce our ability to write new stories.

But there is nothing that we could write to rival what evacuees are living now, whether they’re from Napa and Sonoma, or Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, the Congo, Libya, Syria and many many more are living now.

They have lost everything. The rest of us are unscathed purely through luck, or the grace of whatever god you believe in.

Let’s remember that.

Last week, three-quarters of a century ago



Last week in Second World War history

Those who know their history know that the Eastern Front was by far the largest theatre of operations during the Second World War. The Soviet Union put more men and women into the fighting than all other Allies combined, and the countries of the Eastern Theatre suffered over 11 million casualties.

The Germans also put far more men and resources into the Eastern Front. The launch of the war in the east, Operation Barbarossa, sent nearly 4 million men across the Polish frontier, overwhelming—at first—a Soviet strength of under 3 million.

Source: Britannica.

In comparison, the western Allies sent 1.3 million men into Italy between 1942 and 1945, and 156,000 stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

On Facebook and Google+, I’ve been posting daily updates on “on this day in the history of the Eastern Front of the Second World War.” And here, I’ll post a summary of the previous week in history, three-quarters of a century ago.

September 25 – October 1

1939:

September 25:

  • Hitler arrives in Poland to observe the bombing in Warsaw.
  • Soviet troops capture Bialystock, Poland.
  • Stalin proposes to Germany that the USSR take over Lithuania, giving Germany areas near Warsaw in exchange.

September 26:

  • Insignia of the Polish Home Army, Armia Krajowa.

    The resistance Polish Home Army, Armia Krajowa, established in Warsaw.

September 27:

  • Polish government in exile sets up in Paris, France.
  • After a 2-week siege, Warsaw falls to Germans.
  • Soviets execute 150 Polish policemen.

September 28:

  • Estonia and USSR sign a 10-year mutual assistance pact, allowing Soviet troops to be stationed in Estonia.
  • Germans and Soviets sign agreement denoting common border in Poland.
  • Joachim von Ribbentrop, Reich Minister of Foreign Affairs.

    German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop arrives in Moscow to announce joint Soviet-German negotiations for peace with Western powers.

September 29:

  • Hitler orders repatriation of ethnic Germans living in Estonia and Latvia to Germany, as he knows the USSR will soon demand control of the Baltic States.
  • Formal surrender of Poland and division between Germany and USSR

1940:

September 26:

  • German ambassador to the USSR tells Soviets that Japan would join alliance with Germany and Italy.

October 1, 1940:

  • Erich Hartmann in 1944.

    Erich Hartmann, greatest fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare, begins basic training in East Prussia. He would shoot down 345 Soviet planes and never be shot down himself. After the war, he was wrongfully convicted of war crimes and served 10 years at hard labour in Soviet prisons. After his release, he joined the air force of the Federal Republic of Germany.

  • Hitler orders Polish gentry exterminated and civilians’ living standards in Poland reduced, as they are now “workers” for the Reich.

1941:

Einsatzgruppen killing unarmed civilians in 1942. Wikipedia.

Karl Jager, commander of Einsatzkommando Group A, a Nazi death squad, begins keeping detailed records of numbers of Jews and other civilians his team murdered each day. These became known as the “Jager Reports.” The Einsatzgruppen were special detachments of the SS, specifically charged with killing civilians. For example, during this week in 1941, he reports killing:

  • September 25: 575 Jews in Lithuania
  • September 27: 3,446

September 25:

  • Hitler orders cease of attacks on Leningrad, in favour of starving the city.
  • German and Romanian troops reach Perekop Isthmus to cut off Crimean Peninsula

September 26:

  • German battleship Tirpitz joins naval manoeuvers in the Baltic Sea.
  • Free French sign alliance with the USSR

September 27:

  • German truck stuck in the mud in Russia. Pinterest.

    Rain begins on the Eastern Front, making mud a problem for German invaders.

  • Lord Beaverbrook and U.S. diplomat Averell Harriman arrive in Arkangelsk.
  • 23,000 Jews murdered at Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine.

September 28:

  • US and UK officials travel to Moscow to discuss western aid to USSR.
  • Soviet General Gregory Zhukov announces that family members of captured Red Army soldiers would be arrested and shot.

    Georgy Zhukov in 1944. Wikipedia.

  • Jews in Kyiv, Ukraine order to gather at Dorogozhitshay Street at 7:00 the next morning.

September 29, 1941:

  • Reinhard Heydrich named Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.
  • Vyacheslav Molotov, Lord Beaverbrook and U.S. representative Averell Harriman discuss Western aid to the USSR.
  • Soviet submarine ShCh-319 attacks German ships off Latvia, then strikes a mine and sinks.
  • Hitler orders Leningrad wiped out by bombardment.

    Leningraders during the siege. Source: Daily Chronicles of World War II.

  • Einsatzgruppen death squads murder 50,000 – 96,000 Ukrainians at Babi Yar near Kyiv.
  • Red Army prevents German forces from entering Crimea.

September 30, 1941:

  • Military photographer and long-time Nazi Johannes Hahle turns over some photos in a folder marked “in the East” to his superiors, but keeps photos of the Babi Yar massacre a secret.
  • Soviet Black Sea fleet begins considering transferring from Odessa to Crimea.
  • German Operation Typhoon begins with early assault on Moscow.

October 1, 1941:

  • US-UK-USSR aid conference produces protocol for immediate, long-term aid deliveries to the USSR.
  • Finnish troops reach Petrozavodsk, capital of Soviet Karelia, further isolating Leningrad.
  • Majdanek Concentration Camp in Poland begins operations.
  • Soviets release over 50,000 Polish POWs to form a Polish unit of the Red Army to fight Germany.
  • Soviet POWs in 1941.

    Germans launch Operation Typhoon, attack on Moscow.

  • Panzergruppe 2 splits into two to advance on Orel and Bryansk, Russia.

1942:

September 25:

  • Hitler sacks Colonel-General Halder as Chief of the Army General Staff and replaces him with General Zeitzler

September 26:

  • Soviet ace Lydia Lytvyak, the first female ace. She made as many as 14 kills.

    Red Army launches offensive in Tuapse region in the Caucasus.

  • German forces begin new offensive in Stalingrad.
  • Soviet ace Lydia Litvyak shoots down German bomber over Stalingrad, and shares credit for downing a second.

September 27:

  • Sgt. Jacob Pavlov and three other Soviet soldiers attack an apartment block in Stalingrad with hand grenades, expelling occupying Germans and freeing wounded Soviet soldiers. This building became the iconic “Pavlov’s House.” The men defended it for 58 days against infantry, artillery and tank attacks.

    “Pavlov’s House” in Stalingrad, where a handful of men under Sgt. Jabo Pavlov defended the building against repeated attacks for two months.

September 29, 1942:

  • Sigmund Freud’s sister Esther Adolphine dies in Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.

September 30, 1942:

  • Soviet forces cross the Volga River near Moscow.
  • Due to a typhus epidemic in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Commandant Rudoph Hoss forbids guards from consuming any raw foods.
  • 610 Jews arrive at Auschwitz from the Netherlands. 454 gassed immediately.

1943

September 25:

  • Red Army captures Roslavl and Smolensk.

September 27:

  • German forces in Ukraine begin withdrawal to western bank of Dnipro River.

    An iconic war photo of the Red Army preparing to cross the Dnipro River in 1943, chasing the retreating Germans. From Bill Downs, War Correspondent.

  • Red Army captures Temryuk, Russia, the last Black Sea port held by Germans.

September 28:

  • Germans recapture Split, Yugoslavia from partisans

September 28:

  • Minesweeper USS Aspire transferred to the USSR under the lend-lease agreements.

September 30, 1943:

  • Red Army expands is bridgehead over the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine to 500 km.
  • U-boat “wolfpack” in the Kara Sea north of Russia sink freighter Arhangelsk.

October 1, 1943:

  • German U-boat, circa 1942. Pinterest.

    German u-boats sink Soviet freighter and escort ship in the Kara Sea, off northern Russia.

1944:

September 25:

  • Soviets trick Slovakian Captain Frantisek Urban to visit Moscow, then arrest him, sending him to Lubyanka Prison.

September 26:

  • Red Army completes occupation of Estonia.

September 27:

  • 2000 soldiers of Armia Krajowa, Poland’s resistance army, surrender in Warsaw

September 28:

  • Germans begin transferring 18,000 prisoners from Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland.
  • Josip Tito authorizes Soviet troops to enter Yugoslavia. Red 57th Army begins moving toward Belgrade.

September 29:

  • US OSS agents parachute into Bucharest to liberate 1,888 Allied POWs, and take Romanian diplomatic documents to prevent their capture by Soviets.

October 1, 1944:

  • Slovak resistance fighters name themselves the Czechoslovakian 1st Army.
  • Hungarian delegation comes to Moscow to discuss armistice separate from Germany.
  • Red Army crosses Danube into Yugoslavia.

October 2, 1944:

  • Boy Scouts in the Armija Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, during the Warsaw Uprising. Wikimedia Commons.

    Warsaw Uprising ends after 63 unsuccessful days of fighting. 15,200 Armia Krajowa insurgents and 200,000 civilians killed, along with 16,000 German forces.

This is the history that I cover in the Eastern Front trilogy, through the eyes of a man who was there: my father-in-law, the late Maurice Bury.

Check out the books from their page on this website, or on Amazon.

Have anything to add about last week in history? Leave a Comment!

 

Welcome to the Dark Age



 

As you know, I’ve been working on The Triumph of the Sky, the sequel to my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. And I thought I should familiarize you with this fantastic, yet historical universe so you’re ready to find you way around when the book comes out.

The Byzantine Empire

The setting is the Eastern Roman Empire, which most of us in the West call the “Byzantine Empire.” But to the people who lived in it, it was the Empire of the Romans.

The story of The Triumph of the Sky begins five years after the end of The Bones of the Earth, so that’s 603 CE. The Empire had just been through a particularly tumultuous period, even for the Roman Empire.

I learned in school that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CD, when Odoacer, a Germanic soldier in the Roman Empire, deposed the teenaged last Emperor, Romulus Augustus. A year later, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths killed Odoacer and conquered most of Italy. Other “barbarian” tribes took over Gaul, Iberia, Britain and most of the rest of the Western Roman territories.

But the Eastern half of the Empire continued for another thousand years. In the sixth century, its capital Constantinople, on the narrow straits that separate Europe and Asia, was the largest and wealthiest city in the world. With walls six metres thick and 12 metres high, sea walls and the natural protection of the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn on two other sides, it was considered unconquerable. Indeed, it would fend off all attacks for another 600 years.

An ancient drawing of Constantinople, facing roughly west, showing how the city was roughly triangular shape with water on two sides. On the right, northern side is the Golden Horn, a huge harbour. A heavy chain stretched across it at night or when the city was under threat, which would prevent ships from entering.

The walls of Constantinople: Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Roman Empire in 600 stretched from the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea, all along the southern Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic Ocean, and included Egypt, and as far north as the Danube River. Emperor Maurice, who ruled from 582 to 602, reconquered parts of Italy that had been lost to the Ostrogoths and Lombards.

The Roman Empire in 600 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 602, troops revolted against Maurice. Their leader, Phocas, butchered Maurice’s family in front of him, then killed the Emperor and took the throne.

Possibly a bust of Emperor Phocas

Phocas was especially brutal, even for a Roman Emperor. He used mass torture to rule, and became the object of many plots and intrigues. Eventually, he was deposed and killed by the next emperor, Heraclius.

During Phocas’ rein, though the Sassanid Persians attacked in the east, taking Syria and Mesopotamia, raiding Anatolia and even at one point setting up a military camp within sight of Constantinople. On the north, Avars and Slavs, or Sklaveni, were conquering deep into imperial territory.

This is the political and military situation that surround Javor and the other characters of Triumph.

The people of Constantinople

The people of Constantinople were cosmopolitan, with a great range of ethnicities represented at every social stratum—even the Emperor. About 30 percent were literate, far ahead of western Europe and the rest of the world at the time. There were renowned schools and universities in many of Rome’s cities.

The key to Constantinople’s wealth was trade. It was located at a crossroads: where the land route between Europe and Asia crossed the major sea trade route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As a result, it had several huge markets, great ports and incredible numbers of people moving in and out all the time. Wealth brought about great demand in the city for art and other luxury goods.

The Christian Church dominated social life in Constantinople. The Emperor was the head of both the Church and the Empire, although the bishop, called the Patriarch, wielded a great deal of power.

Leo VI Prostrating before Christ, Mosaic c.900 CE, Hagia Sophia / Creative Commons

Byzantine Mosaic with Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus – Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child.

Even though the Church dominated social and moral life, there were still many slaves in the Roman Empire. At that time, most of them were prisoners of war, and their children. But another source was poor parents who sold their children into slavery to pay their debts and feed the rest of their children.

Politics: Blues versus Greens

The people of the city generally divided into two groups: the Blues and the Greens. This originated as racing teams in the Hippodrome, and like today’s sports fans, they could be fanatical. There were times after races when one team would massacre thousands of members of the other. The rivalry between the two sides reached a peak in the Nike riots in 532. I’ll go into that in more depth in a future blog. But the Blue-Green divide went far beyond the horse races: neighbourhoods could be Blue or Green, and there were social and religious divisions between them, too.

In short, the early 7th century in Constantinople was a complex time — arguably as complex as our own, in its way, with political intrigues, wars on more than one front, social divisions, and contradictions between religion, society, politics and money.

Till next time … keep your paddles in the water.

 

Army of Worn Soles: Battle of Poltava



On this day, September 18, 1941, the German forces invading the USSR captured the city of Poltava, Ukraine. My father-in-law, Maurice Bury, was in that battle. I wrote what he saw and experienced in Chapter 10 of Army of Worn Soles, the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy. Here’s a sample. 

 

Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 10: Panzers

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave permission to General Kirponov, head of the Soviet 5th Army, to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than twenty-four hours.

But the withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10. On the September 14, the two generals shook hands a hundred miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, more than half a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last. The Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped near Uman in mid-August. And after the Wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

General Kirponos had fought hard against the encirclement in September, but a landmine killed him. Only a few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement. Maurice and his men joined the retreat, heading southeast to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans sent more Panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the Red Army pulled back another one hundred kilometres. Soldiers dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol River to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain. The soft soil of the trench walls crumbled. The food was bad or there wasn’t enough. But they could not complain for long. The Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counterattack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Maurice’s fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons. The lines stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast, alert and fearless like a predator.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads. The drivers down-shifted and continued on.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’ bodies fling up out of destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” Andrei and Orest pulled their triggers and the kick-back of the rifles geysered dirt into the air. Damn, Maurice thought. If that doesn’t draw the Germans’ attention, nothing will.

The shells went wide.

“Reload.”

Machine guns erupted from behind and a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded, throwing bodies high into the air.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time one shell hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank. The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting.

All at once, shells began falling behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans had turned their heavy artillery guns on the Red Army.

“Down, boys,” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire relented, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, a heavy anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

But more Panzers splashed through the river. Behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit landmines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

To his right, eastward, came a deep rumble. Maurice saw hulking Soviet KV heavy tanks, looking twice as high as a man, crawled forward on their wide treads, firing cannons and machine guns.

Why are they moving so slowly, he wondered. He saw their tracks moving, churning the earth and sinking into it. They’re too heavy for the soft ground. They were impervious to enemy fire unless it was point-blank on, but they were soon immobile. The Panzers just went around them.

“Pull back,” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the guns and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the guns and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late.

The tanks swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. Andrei and Nikolai swung their gun around. “Aim at its back,” Maurice said. “FIRE!”

The gun whooshed and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical fuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned. The explosion rang in Maurice’s ears for minutes.

“Let’s get them, Lieutenant,” Orest said. He stood to pick up the gun, and Viktor, his loader, looked at Maurice wide-eyed. “We killed one tank. Let’s get more of the bastards.”

Big Eugene stood too, submachine gun at the ready. “Get down,” Maurice said. He grabbed Orest’s uniform and pulled him to the ground. Big Eugene dropped as a shell burst thirty metres away. Maurice saw him crawl back to the trench, flat on his belly.

Army of Worn Soles

A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?

Army of Worn Soles is the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy, which tells the true story of Maurice Bury’s experiences in the Second World War.

Find it on Amazon.