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By Tony Boullemier, Jun 19 2017 11:00AM

THE centenary of arguably the worst of all World War One battles – Passchendaele – is upon us. The ghastly struggle in the Belgian mud cost Britain and Germany half a million casualties.

But like every other battle in the two world wars and in two other great conflicts, it happened because of one man’s lucky break.

Ever since I published my novel about the French Second Empire, I’ve wanted to visit Biarritz, where Napoleon lll built a holiday home for his empress in the 1850s and named it Villa Eugenie.

Since then it has since been rebuilt and extended into the magnificent five-star Hotel du Palais. It looks a bit like the London Ritz and sits imposingly above the resort’s main beach.

I chose a stormy week to stay and the day I arrived, big waves were sweeping in from the Atlantic and the surfers were out in their dozens. The following day the waves were massive, spry was lashing the cliffs and the sea appeared to be boiling.

The surfers were now sitting safely on the sea wall and telling of powerful currents that pulled in opposite directions. No-one was in the water. And that made the tale I was told by the genial hotel manager Jean-Louis Leimbacher all the more intriguing.

His hotel has played host to a long line of royalty, politicians and showbiz stars. Queen Victoria stayed. So did the Duke of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra.

King Edward Vll was a frequent visitor and his ground floor apartment had a back door through which his mistress Mrs Alice Keppel would enter, unobserved by staff.

Monsieur Leimbacher knows Prince Charles, who was yet another guest. And he confessed that when Charles married Alice’s descendant Camilla, he almost wrote to the couple inviting them to honeymoon in the same room where their great grandparents had made their assignations.

A rather less congenial guest a few years earlier was Otto von Bismarck. He visited in 1862 when he was in his 40s and acting as Prussia’s ambassador to Paris.

Bismarck arrived at the Villa Eugenie with his mistress, a 21-year-old Prussian Princess called Katherina Orloff and the two of them went for a swim. It was the currents that did it. Both of them were swept out to sea and got into difficulties.

A local lighthouse keeper and part-time lifeguard called Pierre Lafleur spotted them and went to the rescue. The princess was unconscious by the time he reached her and he pulled her to the shore first. Then he went back for the floundering Bismarck who was waving frantically for help.

By the time Lafleur got the giant Prussian back to the beach he too had passed out and it took the attentions of a doctor to revive him.

Three years later Bismarck returned to Biarritz and strolled with Napoleon lll along the same beach. He was now Prussia’s Chancellor and was planning to make war on Austria to remove their influence from the south German states. His mission was to persuade Napoleon to remain neutral while this happened.

Napoleon did so and Prussia duly defeated Austria at the Battle of Koneggratz in 1866. The stage was set for the next part of Bismarck’s plan – a crushing victory over France which would convince the remaining independent German states to combine into a Greater Germany.

Had Bismarck drowned in Biarritz Bay, it is unlikely there would have been a war with Austria and therefore no Koneggratz, no Franco-Prussian War and no Greater Germany created over the fallen body of France.

With no German land grab of Alsace and Lorraine to avenge and no crazed kaiser ruling in Berlin, France and Germany would have been unlikely to enter the 1914 Balkan conflict involving Austria, Serbia and Russia that turned into World War l. And ergo no World War ll either.

So it was certainly a bad day for Europe when Pierre the lifeguard pulled Bismarck out of Biarritz Bay. We came unbelievably close to avoiding four major wars and countless millions of unnecessary deaths.

And all the more so when I tell you that just four weeks after Bismarck’s lucky escape, Pierre Lafleur was himself drowned in the Atlantic.

By Tony Boullemier, Aug 17 2016 03:00AM

Tony Boullemier reviews Philippa Gregory’s novel The White Princess and compares her theory on the Princes in the Tower to that of David Baldwin in his work of research, The Lost Prince.

If you enjoyed The White Queen TV series, based on Philippa Gregory’s book, you might enjoy her follow-up novel The White Princess - the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. On the other hand, if you’re a bloke, you probably won’t.

The admirable Philippa’s research appears to have given her a peerless grasp of what life was like for a Tudor queen. But this is very much a book for female fans of historical fiction. It dwells at length on feminine fears and feelings which in the opinion of this reviewer makes the book 20% too long. Philippa - writing in the first person – tries to get inside the skin of the Yorkist princess betrothed to Lancastrian Henry Vll to unite their warring houses.

And she suggests a very interesting theory for the fate of the Princes in the Tower.When Richard Duke of Gloucester seized young Edward V on the road to London, his mother Elizabeth Woodville took herself and her other children into sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.

When Gloucester demanded she hand over her younger son, Richard, Duke of York, to join his brother in The Tower, viewers of The White Queen will recall that Elizabeth sent a changeling in his place. Whether this would have worked must be open to doubt of course.

The real Duke of York was last seen being rowed to safety down the Thames.

We presume that the young king and the changeling were done away with and that it is the boy in the boat, now a young man in his 20s, who in Philippa’s novel emerges on the continent as pretender to the English throne.

The Kings of France and Scotland and the Holy Roman Emperor believe he is Richard and so do the Irish lords. He is provided with some troops and makes several invasion attempts while Henry Vll loudly claims that his real name is Perkin Warbeck, the son of a drunken Belgian barber from Tournai.

When the boy finally falls into Henry’s hands he is put under house arrest and initially treated well. But the King of Spain, who is negotiating to marry his daughter Catherine of Aragon to Henry’s son Arthur, demands all pretenders must be eliminated before he gives his consent. The boy’s fate is sealed.

We never know whether ‘Perkin’ really is Richard because his sister Elizabeth never says so. If she does know what is going on, she keeps it to herself.

According to the book this is because Henry tells her that if she recognises him as her brother, then she and anybody else who does so will be executed for treason. Another dubious scenario.

The book is at its best when it brings the character of Henry Vll out of the shadows. Not the most charismatic Tudor monarch, he is described in The Little Book of Monarchs as ‘dour, manipulative and suspicious, beset by rebellions and pretenders’. He did set England’s finances and legal system straight and encourage a revival of learning and he slowly grew to love Elizabeth after initially viewing their marriage of convenience as a duty.

Philippa Gegory puts flesh on his bones and shows us a cautious, nervous individual whose love for his wife is repeatedly tested by the suspicion that she is plotting with his Yorkist enemies. We see with some surprise how weak the Tudor hold on the throne must have been for nearly 20 years into Henry’s reign.

Behind Henry, holding it all together, is his God-bothering mother Margaret Beaufort, every bit as obsessive and hateful as she was portrayed on TV in The White Queen.

So how good is Philippa’s theory about the Princes in The Tower?

It just about works but I still have a sneaking preference for the hypothesis of medieval expert and author David Baldwin in The Lost Prince. He points out that Edward V was being regularly treated by a Dr John Argentine in The Tower and could easily have died of natural causes.

David suggests Edward’s younger brother was then quietly taken out and brought up in a remote safe house while his uncle, who had decided the Yorkists needed a competent adult on the throne, took the crown as Richard lll.

After Bosworth it is suggested the young Duke of York was spirited away by the king’s friend Lord Lovell to Colchester, where he was enrolled as a lay brother in the abbey and taught the art of bricklaying.

We know that Henry Vll visited Colchester more than any town of its size during his progresses – very possibly to check up on Richard. And that Catherine of Aragon later went there too.

After the dissolution of the monasteries Richard turned up in Kent, by now an elderly man. He helped build a house for the lord of the manor at Eastwell and confessed to his employer who he was.

The gravestone of a Richard Plantagenet lies in Eastwell Churchyard to this day and the tale comes down to us from the lord of the manor.

So there you have the two theories. Which one is right? Or could each one be half true?

Could the boy in the boat have become the bricklayer. Or could ‘Perkin Warbeck’ actually have been the boy from the safe house.

Are we onto something here?

All we can know for sure is that the search for the truth will go on.

The White Princess is published by Simon & Schuster, hardback £20, paperback £7.99. The Lost Prince is published by The History Press, paperback £9.99.

By Tony Boullemier, May 18 2015 08:00AM

it all happened a century ago but we are still looking back - often in horror - at the anniversaries of World War One battles. TONY BOULLEMIER reviews a book that gets right to the bottom of what caused The Great War.

FIRST PUBLISHED in 2007, DREADNOUGHT – Britain, German and the coming of the Great War, by Robert K. Massie is well worth revisiting. Being American, he can view it from a neutral angle. Indeed, he looks at it from every angle, starting around 1870.

He gives us a mini-biography of every major player from Queen Victoria, King Edward Vll, Lord Salisbury, Balfour, Joe Chamberlain, First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher, Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill. Plus Tirpitz, father of the German Navy, Bismarck and subsequent German chancellors, including Bulow and Bethmann-Hollweg. And towering unsteadily over them all, Kaiser Wilhelm ll.

Massie explains that this was literally true. William’s difficult forceps birth had left him with a left arm that was useless and looked like a miniature version of his right. All his life he needed someone to cut up his meat and he was so unbalanced that riding a horse was extremely difficult.

It is not hard to accept that this must have contributed hugely to his mental state. He was unhinged and totally unpredictable.

He admired Britain and wanted to be respected here. But he felt he was not. He loved visiting Cowes Week yet even when his yacht, the Meteor won, he would still lambast the Royal Yacht Club for giving it too high a handicap. In modern parlance, he felt he was being ‘dissed’.

William was mightily impressed by Britain’s Grand Fleet and wanted one of his own. Admiral Tirpitz seized on this ambition and so began the great naval race. Thanks to the eccentric but brilliant Jacky Fisher, Britain pioneered the Dreadnought, the first all big-gun battleship. Soon, Britain and Germany were racing to outbuild each other’s Dreadnought fleets.

A model of the Super Dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth

Fisher said we had to stay ahead of Germany as it had now replaced France as the European power we had to fear most. But despairing Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said the spending was “a satire on civilisation.” If it went on, he said, “I believe it will submerge civilisation”.

The crises kept piling up with Germany always in the thick of it as she kept flexing her empirebuilding muscles: Fashoda, the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion, Morocco . . . and the Daily Telegraph interview in 1908. In it, the Kaiser said he had always been a friend of England but his friendship was unappreciated.” He asserted that the British were “as mad as March hares” and talked of “distortions” by our press at his “repeated offers of friendship.”

He said this made it difficult for him to promote friendship because “the majority of Germans disliked the English.” Among several enormous lies, he claimed to have supplied the plan by which Lord Roberts defeated the Boers.

The Kaiser was so mortified by the domestic reaction to his interview, that for a while he seriously considered abdication. Sadly he did not consider it again.

The Anglo-German rivalry was not the only major pointer to war. The Russians were smarting from their humiliation in 1908 when the Tsar climbed down from war with Germany’s ally AustriaHungary, over its annexation of the Slavic provinces of Bosnia and Herzogovina.

The many fuses, which had long been laid, were finally lit on June 28 1914 when the heir to Austria’s throne was assassinated in Sarajevo. Austria blamed Serbia for being behind the plot and began to bombard Belgrade but the Tsar was in no mood to let another Slavic ally fall into Austrian hands and began to mobilize his army.

Russian’s ally France wanted to remain neutral but Germany demanded that to guarantee this, she handed over her great border fortresses. France had to refuse. And as this also gave her the chance of recovering her lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, she too was drawn in.

Britain had not long before moved its Mediterranean Fleet to home waters and France had done the reverse, moving its Atlantic Fleet to the Mediterranean. There was an informal arrangement to look after one another’s interests.

Years earlier Fisher had predicted that Armageddon would come as soon as the Kiel Canal was widened to allow Dreadnoughts to pass quickly from the Baltic to the North Sea. And by a deadly twist of fate, this work was finished in July 1914 as Europe was reeling from the assassination crisis.

There was now the prospect of German Dreadnoughts suddenly appearing in the Channel and shelling a defenceless French coast unless Britain intervened.

If it fell, as it had done in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Germany could have hoovered up the Low Countries and Denmark too. And with its Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian allies, bestrode all of Northern Europe and the Balkans. We simply could not let that happen.

One man could have stopped it all. The man who gave Austria ‘a blank cheque’ to attack Serbia and allowed his own generals to set in motion their long-cherished plan to knock out France in six weeks before turning on Russia. The man with the miniature left arm.

Whoever handled the forceps on the day the Kaiser was born, may unknowingly have set Europe on the way to its costliest ever war.

My one criticism of the book is its length. I feel the biographies and the diplomatic comings and goings could have been beneficially edited down to make Massie’s conclusions more prominent.

DREADNOUGHT is published in paperback by Vintage Books, price £14.99.

This blog first appeared on The History Vault website

By Tony Boullemier, Mar 28 2015 09:00AM

WITH dignity and honour they laid King Richard lll to rest in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015. Just as organisers of this extraordinary event promised they would.

The city did the one-time Duke of Gloucester proud and proved London doesn’t have a monopoly on great state occasions.

Leicester University professor Gordon Campbell asserted in his opening address that Richard now has a greater following than any monarch bar Elizabeth ll - who was disappointingly not in attendance.

She did send a message for the order of service saying it was an event of “great significance. But her representatives were not the Royal Family’s most sparkling team.

It was right for the present Duke and Duchess of Gloucester to be there. But surely Sophie, Countess of Wessex, should have been accompanied by husband Prince Edward. Or better still, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Never mind. Leicester is now in England’s premier league of tourist towns and the Richard effect is said to be worth £50m to local business. It even threatens to wrest the crowds away from Stratford, birthplace of Shakespeare. Ironic, considering it was his play that gave Richard lll his controversial and very possibly undeserved reputation.

Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens told the packed cathedral that this reputation was now being contested and “would continue to evolve”. And that Richard had “stepped out of the pages of history.”

And how! One can hardly move around the area of the face-lifted cathedral, for statues and banners, plus a spanking new visitor centre containing the king’s carefully preserved former grave beneath a glass walkway. And more than 20,000 people filed past his coffin in three days.

Richard lll’s prowess as a general and a legislator were stressed at the service. And we were reminded that he and his wife Anne were “almost out of their minds with grief” when their nine year-old son died. “More than five centuries later, these words still have the power to move us,” said Professor Campbell.

The Duke of Gloucester placed beside the coffin Richard’s prayer book, discovered in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth. Celebrities like Julian Fellowes and Robert Lindsay abounded and actor Benedict Cumberpatch read a poem by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

Then the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby presided over lowering this Catholic king to rest in a tomb near the altar, his coffin born by six strapping soldiers.

And looking on from places of honour were academics and Ricardians without whose efforts none of this would have happened.

The most notable were historian David Baldwin, who predicted back in 1986 where Richard would be found; and Philippa Langley, who led the long battle to do that dig in the car park across the road.

Suddenly it was all over. The great and the almost good slipped away for lunch.

And in the visitor centre, the tills began to ring.

By Tony Boullemier, Mar 17 2015 03:00AM

THEY say the sun shines on the righteous. If so, the controversial reputation of King Richard lll was vindicated on Sunday, March 22, 2015.

It was a glorious day for a funeral as the remains of our last Plantagenet king were taken back to Bosworth Field, the scene of his final fateful battle.

There were so many of us at the Leicestershire ceremony, it seemed all of middle England had come out to give a proper farewell to this monarch, who was born in Fotheringhay and died in 1485 aged 32.

And it was a real Bosworth Field day for the re-enactors. A procession of them dressed as armoured knights, black-cowled monks with blazing torches, richly attired courtiers and medieval matrons preceded the King’s plain oak coffin.

The last occasion this one time Duke of Gloucester who had made himself king passed this way, his naked body was strapped to the back of a horse.

He was caked in blood from his many wounds including a poll-axe blow to his head, delivered by a Welsh billman who had wrenched off his helmet.

The March 22 ceremony was conducted by Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester.

“Richard was carried from this place to Leicester a defeated man,” he told his open-air congregation.

“Today, 530 years later we have the opportunity to allow King Richard to undertake that journey again; this time however with the dignity and honour that befits a king of England.”

Then Phil Stone, stout and white-bearded, chairman of the Richard lll Society, stepped up to remind us that Richard was a warrior who had won every major engagement except Bosworth.

“His legal reforms and laws to help the poor were already marking him out as a good king when he died due to bad luck and misplaced trust in treacherous allies,” he said.

“Let us remember him as a good king and a warrior king.”

The 21-gun salute that followed was performed with creditable speed by seven replica cannon from the period, one of them owned by a lady re-enactor from Basingstoke whose father had handed it down to her.

And this mysterious monarch does seem to hold a fascination for the ladies.

Among a couple of hundred re-enactors camped at the site was Christine Power, a 67-year-old retired telephonist from Liverpool

She was dressed in a Burgundian gown, the 15th Century equivalent of Paris fashion and she confessed she had been a Richard fan since she was 12 and had torn his picture out of a library book to pin on her bedroom wall.

We were brought back into the present when the sober-suited current Duke of Gloucester stepped forward to light a remembrance beacon at Bosworth which was due to burn until the king was re-interred at Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015.

My own final thought on this extraordinary occasion was that I had expected the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up when Richard’s coffin appeared.

They did when I visited the actual site of his death at nearby Fenn Lane Farm last year and I espied a row of thorn bushes. They were in my imagination descendants of the one where Lord Stanley found Richard’s crown in 1485.

That they didn’t this time was possibly because the coffin was so utterly plain and bizarrely pulled up Ambion Hill by 30 local army cadets in modern uniform.

Far better to have dressed them in medieval garb.

But it was a highly impressive and emotional day nonetheless, organised by Leicester’s council, university and cathedral plus Bosworth Battlefield Museum.

And if Richard’s reputation stood at zero for hundreds of years, it now appears to be approaching hero, with even the Bishop of Leicester and the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster going into bat for him during their sermons.

And methinks that Leicestershire is now securely based in the English premier league of tourist attractions.

And by the way . . .

THE discovery of Richard lll’s body under a Leicester car park came as no great surprise to some Northampton history buffs.

Medieval expert David Baldwin has been telling adult history groups in the town for 22 years that this is where he would be found.

He wrote in an historical journal in 1986: “It is possible . . . that sometime in the 21st Century an excavator may yet reveal the slight remains of this famous monarch . . . most probably . . . beneath the northern (St Martin’s) end of Grey Friars Street.”

This helped prompt the Richard lll Society to press for the dig and on March 21, 2015 he told a packed lecture theatre at Leicester University why his researches made him so sure.

“It was claimed Richard’s bones had been thrown into the River Soar when the monasteries were dissolved. But this account had been written 70 years later and I wasn’t inclined to believe it,” he said.

“The mayor of Leicester later built a house on the site and erected a stone pillar to mark Richard’s grave. This disappeared – probably during the Civil War - but its existence had been well documented and indicates the mayor was sure he had Richard’s remains.”

David, 66, from Leicester and an author of several acclaimed books on the Plantagenets,was giving interviews to media from all over the world during the week.

“Richard lll is now more popular than he’s ever been,” he said. “No other king has caught the same imagination.

“Shakespeare made him into an arch-villain but to find more about his character we’ll have to keep digging. Only this time it will be in the archives.”

Post Script: Sadly, David Baldwin passed away in 2016 after a brave battle with throat cancer.