Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (500)
In the army
Al-Ahram's six-month-long series of articles on armies of the world, beginning in 1932, was precipitated by the first international disarmament conference, held in Geneva, which aimed to ban offensive and limit defensive weapons. It was also published at a time of global anxiety as another major conflagration seemed imminent and, in fact, erupted seven years after the series concluded. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews the military's who's who
"On the occasion of the Disarmament Conference: Armies of the World" -- under this headline, Al-Ahram introduced a weekly series of 27 instalments, appearing first on 15 January 1932 and lasting for about six months.
The series would have held Al- Ahram readers in thrall throughout this period for several reasons. On the one hand, it probed the mysteries that generally surround the armed forces of various nations. Perhaps rendering these mysteries more tantalising was the fact that the author was anonymous, signing himself merely as "The Colonel" -- and one cannot help but suspect that attribute.
On the other hand, it cast into relief many of the realities of the inter-war period. It was a world full of tension, a constantly shifting political map in which countries vanished, emerged, expanded or shrunk at a pace unprecedented in history. It was a world of grave anxieties and grandiose ideals. Another major conflagration seemed imminent and, in fact, erupted seven years after the Al-Ahram series concluded. At the same time, utopians propounded practical formulas to bring to realisation the dream of universal peace. Shortly before the end of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his famous Fourteen Points, one of which eventually came to fruit with the creation of the first international organisation dedicated to the preservation of peace.
The League of Nations, which took Geneva as its headquarters, pursued a number of avenues to promote the aim for which it was established. One of its landmark achievements was the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Signed in 1928 by 63 nations, this was the first international convention to condemn war as an instrument of foreign policy. Four years later came the first international disarmament conference, held in Geneva, whose aim was to ban offensive and limit defensive weapons. It was this conference that occasioned the "Armies of the world".
Before proceeding to this series, it is important to note several observations. Firstly, it made no mention of armies in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Iraq. Although these two countries had attained a degree of independence, the first in 1922 and the second in 1930, neither was yet a member of the League of Nations at the time of the Disarmament Conference. Iraq's membership was forthcoming several months after the conference began, while it took Egypt another five years to gain admittance.
Secondly, it was a time of considerable flux and ambiguity. While the US had refused to join the League of Nations upon its founding, throughout the 1920s it began to play an increasing role in international affairs. Frank Kellogg, one of the two to have given their name to the above mentioned pact, was none other than the US secretary of state. In addition, one of the byproducts of the post-World War I peace settlements was the emergence of new countries which set about to create the manifestations and symbols of statehood such as a national army. Simultaneously, the breakup of erstwhile empires into smaller national entities brought the dissolution of large imperial armies while the expansion of other empires, which had annexed the colonies of nations defeated in World War I, had a major impact on the size, composition and deployment of their armies, large parts of which were put to service in the newly acquired colonies. Add to this was the rise, in the 1920s and 1930s of fascism with its concomitant militarism, dreams of territorial expansion and the drive to build up the military machinery to realise this aim.
Thirdly, among the participants of the conference were many Latin American and other lesser powers. Although these nations had not played a significant role in World War I, it appears that the great powers were keen to include them, more in the interests of completing numbers than in giving them an effective say.
Rather than chronologically, we will proceed in our review of "Armies of the world" according to the observations above, beginning with the newly emerged nations Poland, Yugoslavia and Albania.
Poland, writes the colonel, was "a recently created nation, having been stripped from Russia following the Great War, with a population of 31,148,000". After describing the functions of the Polish National Defence Council and the various divisions of the army, he discusses the conditions of military service. A career in the army could last up to 29 years. Were one to enlist at the minimum age of 21, he would serve two years in the regular army, then in the reserves until 40 and then join the "Territorial" until retirement at age 50. There was also a form of compulsory service in the "support forces", for which men from 17 to 60 could be called up in the event of general mobilisation for national defence. Women could also enlist in these forces as volunteers. Concluding this segment, the colonel noted that the Polish army was "one of those modern armies formed in the aftermath of the Great War, after the Polish victory over the Bolsheviks in the battle of Warsaw in August 1920".
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, another nation to emerge from the Great War, had a population of 13,931,000 spread over 249,000 square kilometres, an average of nearly 56 inhabitants per square kilometre. The most important feature of the Yugoslav army that struck the colonel was that portions of it formed the national gendarmerie, the police and the border patrols. Perhaps for this reason, he suggests, these forces were highly trained and organised.
Albania was a small country, with a population barely exceeding a million, and it followed that it had a small army. Indicative of its size, it possessed only eight tanks and the same number of cannons.
The Ottoman, Austrian and Prussian empires met their demise in World War I. The three had formed what was known as the Central Powers. The Ottoman Empire, which until the war had extended beyond Asia Minor to include most countries of the Arab world and a large tract of the Balkans, had shrunk to what is present-day Turkey, with an area of 763,000 square kilometres and a population of 14 million. "It maintains a standing army formed on modern military lines and headed by a group of famous Turkish officers who had served in the European and Asiatic war theatres. The Turkish defence forces consist of an army and a naval air force, all of which are under the command of the Supreme Defence Ministry." Like most other nations, military service in Turkey was compulsory, with service beginning at the age of 21 and lasting for 25 years. We note, however, that the colonel overlooked an important fact. Unlike the other Central Powers, the Turkish army, under Kemal Ataturk, was the driving force behind the reconstruction of Turkey, thereby becoming the decisive power in domestic politics up until today.
The once large and powerful Austrian-Hungarian Empire became, "after the treaty of Saint Germaine, a modest republic of 6,722,000 inhabitants". With 80 people per square kilometre, it was also one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, Al-Ahram informs us. Under the post-war peace treaties Austria was prohibited from forming an air force, unlike its neighbours, and thus possessed only infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments which performed primarily domestic security functions. The writer continues, "The Republic of Austria does not possess colonies filled with soldiers, nor military bases, an air force or a navy, but it has 21,634 so-called peacekeepers. In addition, compulsive military education for youth is unknown here." Interestingly, too, Austria was unique in that military service was not compulsory. Rather, men between 18 and 26 could volunteer for army careers lasting 20 years for officers and 12 years for non-commissioned officers and other recruits. To the colonel, such qualities in its army made the new republic "a model for peaceful nations".
Germany was another case entirely. According to the author of "Armies of the World", although the Central Powers had capitulated, "the German army had not been defeated in the theatre of war." Moreover, while the conditions under the Versailles Treaty were stringent -- the Republic of Germany was not permitted an army greater than 100,000 voluntary recruits -- the treaty had failed to shake the morale of the German people. True, in addition to what the Allied armaments committee had destroyed following the war, this "militaristic people" had voluntarily "blown up their fortresses, destroyed their fleet of military planes and shut down their naval bases". Yet in spite of all the restrictions Versailles had put into place in order to prevent German military expansion, "there have emerged throughout the republic dozens, indeed, hundreds of military societies which, on the surface, engage in sporting activities but in reality are in the nature of training camps for inculcating German youth in all manner of the academic, technical and formative aspects of the military arts." In addition, the Germans had also created "offensive brigades". With some 400,000 recruits housed in military barracks these brigades "serve the principles of the right-wing parties, the most important of which are the German Nationalist Socialist Party and the Imperial Science Society". Thus, while Versailles may have destroyed the political will of the German people, it did not destroy their military spirit, "that same spirit of which the Germans have always boasted".
Turning to the third group of nations, those that participated with the Allies and that had yet to realise their full ambitions or sate their appetite as it were. Prime among these were Italy and Japan which not only maintained large armies but also engaged in actions destined to undermine all efforts aimed at establishing universal peace. In 1931 Japan occupied Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo, and in 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia.
Italy had an army of the "first order, on par with those of Britain, France and Japan, having attained this status over the past 10 years". Although the colonel does not mention it, during those 10 years, Italy had been under the rule of Mussolini's Fascist Party which had come to power in 1922.
With a population in 1932 of 41,445,000 and a land area of 310,000 square kilometres, Italy had colonial possessions in Africa -- in Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, Eritrea and Somalia -- with a total population of 2.5 million. "Therefore, Italy has two armies, one for Italy proper and the other for its colonies." The former, spread over Italy's 30 provinces, fell under the Ministry of War and consisted of 462,281 soldiers under the command of 21,174 commissioned officers. The latter fell under the Colonial Ministry which oversaw all outlays and appointed the governor-generals to the colonies. The colonial army was much smaller, consisting of a total of 29,137 soldiers and 963 commissioned officers spread over the four colonies, with 11,446 soldiers and 400 officers in Tripolitania, 11,890 soldiers and 303 officers in Cyrenaica, 3,180 soldiers and 127 officers in Eritrea and 2,621 soldiers and 75 officers in Somalia.
The colonel was particularly impressed with the Italian air force, which he ranked among the world's finest. "Suffice it to say that it has 1,507 aircraft with a total of 876,847 horsepower, and 21,418 and 775 men of all ranks in Italy and the colonies respectively. The air force falls under the Ministry of Aviation which has its own general staff and corps of military engineers. Every year it stages manoeuvres independently of the army and navy, although it also participates in joint manoeuvres with these branches of the armed forces."
Japan was something of an enigma to Western military experts, including the author of "Armies of the World". It puzzled them that this nation of the Orient at the ends of the earth could have defeated Tsarist Russia in the war of 1904-1905. Perhaps, in the colonel's opinion, this had something to do with the fact that the Japanese emperor was the supreme commander of all branches of the armed forces of the land of the rising sun. The bureau of general command, which oversaw all matters pertaining to national defence, was directly responsible to the emperor who had a council of marshals and naval commanders to advise him.
As was the case with Italy, the colonel's attention was drawn to the Japanese air force which emerged as a subject of some controversy in the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In a memorandum to the conference, the French had proposed that Japan be banned from manufacturing aircraft capable of delivering bombs, although the memorandum made it clear that it would be preferable to prohibit Japan from possessing all types of military aircraft. Japan was not about to obey such orders, having built up one of the most powerful air forces in the world. Its drive in this regard began in 1919, with the creation of a special military air force bureau, a military aviation training academy the following year and two more such schools two years later. By the time "Armies of the World" appeared, Japan had "eight airship regiments and an airship division spread out across various military air bases, in addition to a marine air force which was created in 1912 and now has 136 airplanes of diverse models".
Smaller nations with a colonial past occupied a significant portion of "Armies of the World". The start was in Portugal, the oldest colonialist power, which the series described as "a small republic which, with its nearby islands, has a population of 6,650,000 and a land area of 89,700 square kilometres". As Portugal still possessed some of its colonies in Africa and Asia, the Portuguese army was divided into home and colonial branches. That Portugal's colonial possessions were much larger than Portugal itself dictated how its forces were deployed. Unlike the case with Italy, "the armed forces of one colony can be used in another or even in Portugal itself if the need arises." Demographic circumstances also dictated that while the army in Portugal consisted of Portuguese, its colonial forces drew on available human resources, recruiting among other European and indigenous inhabitants of the colonies.
Military service in Portugal was compulsory and lasted 15 years, 10 in general service and another five in the reserves. In addition to the army, there were also "support forces" -- the National Republican Guard which fell under the Ministry of Interior and was responsible for the preservation of public order, three regiments of guards belonging to the Ministry of Finance and the national security and police forces, again under the Ministry of Interior.
Belgium, in the words of the colonel, was a small kingdom with a population of only 8,130,000, "yet it maintains a huge army to protect its colonies in the Belgian Congo and Rwanda- Urundi, which have a combined population of 13,485,000. Keeping those colonies secure dictated Belgian recruitment policies. Military service was compulsory. A career in the armed forces lasted 25 years, 15 in the army and reserves and another 10 in the provincial army." The writer adds, "Every Belgian between the ages of 16 and 30 can volunteer for the army, the period for which service varies between three to five years depending on the age of the volunteer."
Further northward, among the Scandinavian countries, the Swedish army drew the author's attention as something of an anomaly among the armies of the colonial powers. With a population of 6,142,000, Sweden had a force of 24,869 soldiers and 2,340 officers plus non-commissioned officers. It was a relatively small force for a colonial power which reflected itself in the country's recruitment policy. While service was compulsory for men between 20 and 43, actual service in the field for draftees was 260 days, whether in the army, navy or air force. However, the colonel qualifies this. "This is the period of service for youth enrolled in a university or academy. Some specialists serve only 225 days."
"Armies of the World" then turns its attention across the Atlantic, to the Americas, specifically Argentina, Brazil and Canada, and from there to Australia.
According to the latest census, conducted in 1928, Argentina had a population of 10,912,000. This relatively small nation, demographically, had three types of militaries: the regular army, the national guard and the provincial guard. The colonel writes: "The first consists of the standing army and the reserves, the members of the latter of which are called up twice for a period of no more than a month for training."
Brazil, with a population of 41,079,000, presented a stark contrast. "Its army follows the modern style of organisation and consists of a regular army, a republican army, an air force and a navy," writes the colonel who goes on to observe that the armed forces were constantly being changed and rearranged "due to the instability of the political situation in which the army is forever intervening because of the pre-eminence of military leaders over politicians". As both Canada and Australia were still part of the British Empire, "Armies of the World" only draws attention to them insofar as to point out some minor differences between their military systems and that of Britain.
In presenting Al-Ahram readers with a panorama of national armies around the globe as they stood in the early 1930s, the colonel sought to contribute to the efforts to curb the appetite of some countries towards intensive militarisation. Such efforts, of course, were destined to run aground on the shoals of megalomaniacal ambitions which eventually propelled the world to a second conflagration which took a toll far, far greater than its predecessor.
A parade in Warsaw marks the end of manoeuvres of the Polish army in 1937 ( photo AP)
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.