The latest clashes in Sudan have been predicted by the dedicated journalists and humanitarian workers who have been covering this troubled region for the past two decades. The causes (power, religion and resources) are well-known and date to the first civil-war after independence. The embers of previous conflicts have been stoked by external actors and led to an eruption of violence and the murder of three World Food Programme workers.
The reaction of the United Nations has been lamentable. Instead of deploying a protection force for its staff and telling the protagonists that it will not be intimidated by warlords and violent extremist organisations, it has fled from the scene when it is most needed. The US and UK reaction reminds me of the retreat from Afghanistan two years ago. This spineless capitulation has been disguised by the energetic work of British service personnel who have conducted the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) with great aplomb. In the meantime, the vacuum left by the West is being filled by Russia and other countries, which are less sensitive to casualties suffered abroad.
When will learn that words are not enough when it comes to physical security in conflict zones?
The British system of awarding medals to members of the Armed Forces has always been shrouded in secrecy, but is broadly divided into two categories. The first includes those which are earned for overseas duty in danger zones and the second includes the so-called tokens that “come up with the rations” for non-operational work. Our system is very different from the American arrangement where the low qualification threshold devalues the many ribbons worn by US personnel.
The four Queen’s Jubilee medals fall into this latter category. They are obviously worn with great pride by anyone lucky enough to have received them, but they are in no way comparable to the hard-earned awards for front-line service in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, or Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the current discussion about Coronation medals has become mired in the cost of the metal, but this misses the most important point, which is that a British medal should be something that is rare and treasured, not handed out like a Boy Scout badge. The armed forces were not recognised formally for their much-needed help during the 2012 Olympics, nor their outstanding assistance during the pandemic, so on that basis they should not receive gongs for security duties during the Coronation. Please do not dumb down our historic British awards by handing coronation medals to all and sundry.
General Service Medal 2008 with North Africa clasp
It is wonderful to hear that 6,000 members of the armed forces will play a huge part in the Coronation on Saturday 6 May. I am certain that the soldiers, sailors and air personnel will be magnificent on parade and in the lead up and to the big day. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that these ceremonial duties, which replicate outdated Victorian tactics, will have a negative effect on Britain’s fighting capability similar to the security duties for the 2012 Olympics and the assistance to the Department of Health during the pandemic.
In August 2000, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, delivered a stark warning about Britain’s fighting capability because the armed forces were involved in too many non-core tasks. According the government figures, the army is now 25% smaller and the full time trained strength of the armed forces has dropped by 2,540 in the past year.
The current head of the army, General Patrick Sanders, recently complained about how the war in Ukraine has left the British army weaker, so I wonder what he now thinks about another non-core task diminishing his fighting capability.
Francis McCullagh was arguably the finest war correspondent since William Howard Russell, earning the highest praise of the great newspaper editor WT Stead (who went down in the Titanic). In World War I, he joined the British Army and was assigned to help Alexander Kolchak’s White Russian Government in Omsk, for which he was awarded an MBE in the Siberian honours list. As an accomplished cypher operator, he ended up with the last group of British soldiers ordered to remain behind and assist the evacuation of the city as the Red Army approached from the Ural mountains.
With these soldiers, he was captured at Krasnoyarsk on 6 January 1920, but instead of becoming a prisoner-of-war he resumed his journalistic career and accompanied a Bolshevik reconstruction team on its way to Moscow. En route, he managed to interview the Tsar’s murderer and many leaders of the Russian revolution, but on Good Friday 1920 he was arrested by the Secret Police and taken to Lubjanka prison where he was tortured by the infamous Tcheka. Although, he had a terrifying experience, he was more afraid of catching epidemic typhus than the interrogation by the brutal inquisitors.
After his release, his name was added to the list of British prisoners being repatriated as part of the exchange treaty negotiated by the British and Russian envoys, Jim O’Grady and Maxim Litvinov. McCullagh’s extraordinary story touches so many themes that are relevant today and which I will include in my book-talk at Dartmouth House in London on Tuesday 11 April at 6 p.m. I am delighted that for this event, I will be joined by a special guest and relatives of British soldiers, marines and pilots who fought against the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1919.Tickets are available by contacting me direct, or on the ESU website at: https://www.esu.org/event/churchills-abandoned-prisoners-with-rupert-wieloch/
Captain Francis McCullagh with Admiral Kolchak before the collapse of the White Government in Omsk
The appointment of Russia as President of the United Nations has cast a doubt on the integrity of its role in maintaining international peace and security. In 2001, I was closely involved in the efforts to improve its peacekeeping capability under the leadership of Lakhdar Brahimi. Unfortunately, all the lessons that were learned following his influential report appear to be forgotten twenty years on and the UN has regressed in its stated aims.
The problem should not simply be defined in terms of the relationship between the USA and Russia because at its heart, there is the ideological question about the relationship between the individual and the state. The origins of this impasse were founded just over 100 years ago, when an international coalition fought against the Bolsheviks who had taken control in Moscow. On Tuesday 11 April, I will be touching on this subject in my talk “A Christmas Card from Siberia” when I tell the story of the last British prisoners-of-war in World War I. Tickets for the evening event at Dartmouth House in London are available on the English Speaking Union website: https://www.esu.org/event/churchills-abandoned-prisoners-with-rupert-wieloch/
British Prisoners of War at Captured at Krasnoyarsk on Russian Christmas Eve 1920