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Remembered Today:

Zuber and Mons


phil andrade
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A five day visit to Verona has kept me out of the fray. I reflected on the book, and decided that Zuber should have "stuck to his knitting" ; his study of German training and tactics is compelling, and has certainly taught me to treat accounts of Mons - that I used to cherish - with great circumspection. It does, in retrospect, seem unlikely that German soldiers would have advanced shoulder to shoulder and allowed themselves to be cut down in thousands, even though some units did get more than a bloody nose. He does also allude to the high regard which the Germans expressed for the effectiveness of British musketry and for the toughness and professionalism of the Old BEF. His work is rather too formulaic - there was a lot in this book that was almost a replica of his Ardennes work. His big transgression, in my opinion, is to stray into the realms of war guilt. I wonder why he did that...it's compromised the work.

Phil

Perhaps, Phil, that when taking such a narrow view of the war as Zuber does i.e. a focus on the tactical level alone in just one or two battles, that such a basis is bound to create massive problems for the author? It seems to me, that in total-war the tactical level will always come up against the operational/strategic levels before very long - that tactics cannot be divorced from its "big brothers" without misleading the reader.

What I mean is, given the time-span between the opening battles of WW1, it could be strongly argued that the campaign of 1914 was in fact one continuous battle, with all sides experiencing the joys of success, the downs of defeat and the frustration of stalemate within a few short weeks. Whatever the quality of pre-war training for any of the combatant forces, whatever the levels of discipline and leadership, whatever the tactics employed by the respective armies, the-end result of that campaign (one continuous battle) was stalemate.

And that simple fact suggests to me that not only were both sides evenly matched overall, but that Zuber had no choice but to pad-out this book with stuff from his previous work - one-sided tactical analysis and pre-war training considerations alone, will invariably restrict the amount of new material that an author can use before running-up against a literary dead-end, just as both sides ran up against a tactical dead-end in 1914 (and for the rest of the war, of course).

Cheers-salesie.

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May I just make a pedantic point that regimental histories are secondary rather than primary sources and potentially rather partial ones at that?
It depends on who contributed. Many German regimental histories that I have read include multiple contributions, quoted, from soldiers who were there. These are primary sources. In addition, many writers of such histories served in the regiment.

Robert

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Good point, salesie...that might well be so ; maybe Zuber seeks to lend his account a measure of "saleability "- or should I say salesie-ability? - by injecting a controversial dose of something that extends well beyond the confines of tactical deployment on the battlefield.

The sheer scale of French casualties in August/September 1914 was something phenomenal : I reckon we must allow that these were not so much a result of French ineptitude as an exhibition of the skill of German soldiers on the battlefield. With this in mind, the achievement of the Franco-British armies in holding the Entente together is all the more remarkable. The "Miracle of the Marne".

Zuber is in a sense disparaging about the Belgians. For a historian who prides himself on the authenticity of his statistical data on German casualties, he makes a significant error by emphasising how low Belgian casualties were, citing an estimate of Belgium's war dead that needs to be revised upwards by two hundred per cent.

Phil

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Do British primary sources claim that the Germans attacked in mass formations?
Yes. There is a Classic thread entitled something like 'Machine guns at Mons'. Several of the accounts make these claims, but others do not. Examples are quoted in the aforementioned thread.

There was also a thread on the definition of primary and secondary sources that is worth looking at. Basically, memoirs still count as primary sources (though you are perfectly at liberty to constrain the definition if you wish, just as long as that is clear). Very little 'primary source' material was created in real-time - probably only timed messages. Virtually everything else written first-hand is a 'memoir', ie written from memory minutes to years after the event.

Robert

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Thanks Robert, I've skimmed the thread to which you linked. Yes regimental histories contain eyewitness accounts which could be described as primary sources!

Simon

May I just make a pedantic point that regimental histories are secondary rather than primary sources and potentially rather partial ones at that? They may contain first hand accounts which some would describe as primary sources. Others might maintain that a primary source is a verifiable documentary account produced by an eyewitness to the events described and in a published form such an account could not necessarily be verified.
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Early impressions, on reading the first third of the book, is that it contains some useful correctives to some of the extracts in standard works (e.g. German soldiers firing from the hip). It also spells out, in uncomfortable detail, what we probably already knew - that the British army were woefully inexperienced in this kind of warfare (what were the Cavalry Division up to?). Sir John French and his staff have never, I think, been greatly admired for their role in the early days, and I am more inclined to think he should have been dismissed by Kitchener at the Paris interview (if not earlier).

However, I am going to have to re-read carefully the arguement about the relative numbers engaged, and there is a note of "Hunnishness" that pervades and jars upon British ears. By the way, I enjoyed the bit where a German patrol observes some English troops on picket duty, smoking and surrounded by local children. Just like good old Tommy, always had a soft spot for kiddies.

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Here is a quote from the book., p156. " British accounts of Mons do not much consult German sources, which gives the imagination free rein". The Official History on page XXV to XXIX has a ' List of Books to which most frequent reference has been made'. This lists 33 separate entries. Of these, 23 are German language sources including multi volume works and a general entry covering Regimental histories. 4 or 5 are English translations of German books. In other words, some two thirds of the reference works consulted during the compilation were German. Because Walter Bloem's book paints a different picture from that of Zuber with his continuous paean of praise for the superlative skills, training tactical awareness etc. etc. of the German soldiers, he is singled out for special criticism.

Oh, if you are wondering how this collection of well trained troops who swept all before them managed to lose the Battles of the Marne, the one they lost in 1914 was down to Kuhl. He was von Kluck's chief of staff. He made lots of mistakes and all those years of training and unparalleled skills at all levels in all arms were wasted. Kuhl was CoS to von Kluck and they led 1st Army which was under the control of von Buelow who also commanded 2nd Army. How the chief of staff of a subsidiary army could lose a battle involving 3 armies is not covered. Perhaps that will be the next Zuber book. The Myth of the Marne.

I have in my possession a strange little pamphlet written post war by Ludendorff. in 1934 to be precise. It is titled, " Das Marne-Drama : Der Fall Moltke-Hentsch". In this little work, much is made of Moltke's involvement with the occult. The reader's attention is drawn to Hentsch's involvement with Freemasonry. It was the fashion in the Germany of that time to associate the two. Ludendorff has no hesitation on blaming on Moltke and Hentsch the failure at the Marne and thence the war. So we have a conundrum to chew over. Perhaps I'll start a new thread. Was it the occult practices of the freemasons, von Moltke and Hentsch or the gross errors of the chief of staff of 1st Army which robbed the glorious German Army of its well deserved victory?

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George reminded me that there were many primary sources written in real-time before battles. I was just thinking about the 'heat of battle' situation, but operational orders etc are all examples of primary sources.

Robert

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In his appraisal of Belgian strategy, Zuber alludes to an estimated figure of 13,715 military fatalities sustained by Belgium for the entire war, and concludes on page 76:

" These low casualties were a source of significant friction between Belgium and the Entente....It was therefore in Belgium's interest to emphasise German atrocities...."

If revised estimates are to be believed, the true total of Belgium's military dead was about three times the figure Zuber cites. More to the point, his suggestion that Belgian accounts of German atrocities were calculated to act as an antidote to a perceived lack of military sacrifice is rather hard to stomach : at Dinant alone, 674 civilians - one tenth of the town's population - including many women and children, perished at the hands of the Germans in a series of mass executions in late August 1914.

I don't like the tone of his narrative, even if I acknowledge that his argument about German tactical skill and training is an important contribution to Great War studies.

Phil

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Robert, thanks for the links on primary sources.

The British Official Histories for 1914 (only) are available online at Archives.org. This is the result of a search on James Edmonds, so also includes the book that he wrote jointly with Walter Birkbeck Wood on the ACW. Three different editions come up on the search. These are, in the order listed, the 1922 First Edition of Vol. I, the 1937 printing of the 1933 Third Edition of Vol. I and the 1925 edition of Vol. II.

The 1937 version of Vol. I has 682 pages, 72 more than the 1922 edition. The later work says on p. v of its Preface that:

'The volumes of the French and German official histories dealing with the period, besides numerous regimental histories, French, German and British, have been issued. It was therefore thought desirable to carry out a thorough revision of the text, particularly as the portions of the original dealing with the French and German forces had been pieced together from various unofficial books, and were by no means complete.'

The list of books consulted mentioned by Tom is shorter in the earlier edition but still dominated by German works: a total of 28 splits 21 in German and 2 English translations of German originals, 1 Belgian and 4 French.

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As far as Mons is concerned, I have still not seen my copy of Zuber's book, but if I have correctly understood that he says that British writers have made little use of German sources, then he has right on his side. One of the classic and highly readable British accounts of the battle is Mons by John Terraine (1960). All Terraine says is that, 'The information contained in this book is drawn from many sources ... A special mention must, however, be made of the following works on which all else rests: The Official History of the War, compiled by Brig-Gen J E Edmonds; Liaison 1914, by Sir Edward Spears; The Memoirs of Marshal Joffre; 1914 by The Earl of Ypres; Memories of Forty-Eight Years of Service by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien; The War in the Air, by Walter Raleigh; The Wilson Diaries, edited by Maj-Gen Sir C E Callwell; and Alarms and Excursions by Lieut-Gen Sir Tom Bridges.' So you could not accuse him of balance with that list could you? Furthermore, if you examine the index, you will see that there is no mention of any German formation lower than army; whereas on the British side there are dozens and dozens of entries right down to individual battalions and gun batteries.

A more recent treatment is Mons by David Lomas (Osprey 1997) The only German title in the bibliography is our old friend Walter Bloem; those who remember last year's MGs at Mons thread will perhaps recall that the case was made that Bloem's experiences were entirely untypical. The only other titles in Lomas' list, in addition to the books listed by Terraine are The Old Contemptibles by Keith Simpson ( a book of illustrations), The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and The Mons Star by David Ascoli, none of which, if I remember correctly, draw heavily on the German record of Mons. That said, Tuchmann, has an index entry Mons: The myth of the battle p377, which pours scorn on the British attitude to Mons and claims for their performance and its significance.

The Old Contemptibles by Robin Niellands (London 2004) and 1914:The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald (Michael Joseph 1987) do not have one single German item in their bibliographies.

Let us now turn to the sources in the BOH referred to earlier. The great majority have nothing to do with Mons.

Baumgarten Crusius deals with the Marne in his two books.

Bloem is relevant, of course, though see the point made previously.

Brandis Die Stuermer von Douamont has its focus on Verdun, with only a passing reference to earlier battles. He wrote the regimental history of IR 24 Die von Douamont which is good on Mons, but was not written when Edmonds was at work.

Buelow's book does not cover Mons

Poseck has two uninformative paragraphs on Mons (pp37 - 38), one of which is a direct quote from Stegemann (see below) and one sentence viz. (p 48) 'The reconnaissance squadron Knyphausen of the Guards du Corps Regiment was sent out to reconnoitre the line from Mons to the east of Maubeuge.'

Falkenhayn, unsurprisingly, has nothing to say about Mons. he did not take over until later

Hausen commanded Third Army so he has nothing on Mons.

Heubner, a member of IR 20 was at Mons as a company commander. He fought at Jemappes and pp 69 - 75 of his little (literally) book are good and atmospheric.

Kluck has 5-6 pages on Mons, but not much detail.

Kuhl's two books are not about Mons. One concerns the pre-war period and the other is about the Marne.

Lohrisch was with IR 27 which did not fight at Mons, nor at Le Cateau, despite what Edmonds says. His regiment was there, but it did not arrive on the field until 4.00 pm. It was in a second wave behind IR 165, deployed on the extreme British right, which was long gone by then.

'Luettich- Namur' has nothing to do with Mons.

'Mons' in the Einzeldarstellung series is good, much better than the well known 'Ypres', but that is only because the latter was translated into English.

'Schlachten und Gefechte' mentions Mons and is useful for the orders of battle it contains, but then the ORBAT in 'Mons' is excellent anyway.

Stegemann dismisses Mons (inaccurately) in two paragraphs on p 140 of Vol I.

Tappen has hardly anything on this subject. His focus was the highest level of command.

Vogel was with the Guards Cavalry Division, part of HKK 1 and had nothing to do with First Army at Mons, which was supported by HKK2 under von der Marwitz.

Wirth - cannot comment. I have never seen it and do not have a copy.

'Ypres' is about that place and not Mons.

So where does this leave the discussion? I am not criticising Edmonds at all. I think he included every single published German book of even the most marginal relevance that he could get his hands on, otherwise Heubner and Vogel, for example, would never have got a look in. There were quite a few more books of that type in print in Germany, but they were pretty obscure. Furthermore it is not Edmonds' fault that his work was complete before the regimental histories and the Reichsarchiv books came out. The BOH team were quick to use them later when they were available.

As far as Mons was concerned, the best guide for Edmonds must have been the 'Mons' monograph, with bits and pieces from one or two others on the list. Most of them were completely useless in terms of assembling a narrative of Mons, so Tom is quite correct in saying that Edmonds made use of a number of German sources in the writing of the whole volume but if Zuber does indeed complain that British writers do not use readily available German information about Mons - and masses appeared after the BOH was published in 1922 - then I say he is also correct.

Jack

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As an aside, Jack's comment shows how fortunate we are to have people like him, and now Ralph Whitehead, at last presenting the view from 'the other side of the wire', even if it is nearly 100 years after the event. And, perhaps, also Zuber too if one is able to strip away what some suggest are his 'prejudices'. We have been treated to nine decades of Anglo-centric analysis of the war and it seems inevitable that there be some divergences of opinion when writers start to present alternative points of view. And we haven't heard much from our great French allies on the subject yet either. That should be fun.

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And we haven't heard much from our great French allies on the subject yet either. That should be fun.

With regard to Franco-German perceptions of the fighting of August 1914, I suppose we have to acknowledge that, in terms of its relative scale, Mons was hardly more than skirmishing.

Phil

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I am at the moment reading Tyng's The Campaign of the Marne and am thoroughly enjoying it. I find it quite refreshing to read a book that is 75 years old that has such a lot to say in relatively few pages; of course there are problems with the amount of information available then and now, but he seems to me to have read a significant amount from the various armies' perspective. Above all the book is readable as well as showing clear indications of extensive reading within the limitations of access to sources - most significantly primary ones.

What impresses me is the appalling state of communications within the German higher command and the mishandling of command functions at a high level; at the same time the sheer resilience of those involved is also notable - from the lowliest rank right up the ladder. One of the problems of looking at an engagement microscopically is the danger of removing the whole thing from the wider context - perhaps not so significant to Tommy Atkins and his equivalents on the ground but certainly so for a wider understanding of the opening phases of the war. Obviously 'monographs' have their part to play, but I am not sure how far wider conclusions can be drawn from them - they can be illustrative but hardly provide conclusive evidence in coming to overall assessments.

I think we can safely say that the Germans expected to complete their campaign victoriously on the Western Front within a limited time span - ie before winter set in, whatever the plan might have been called; they failed to achieve this. We can also say that the BEF played its part in the proceedings; and that Joffre was the man who ensured that the war did not end in 1914. I would also say that the fighting quality of NCOs and regimental officers was of a generally very high standard - looking at the utter chaos of the British action at Le Cateau, when I was doing my BE book, only served to increase my admiration of what these men achieved.

Very generalised comments from one who has yet to read THE book (something to which I am not particularly looking forward, as I do not find Zuber an easy read at all - but I suppose that's my problem). I suppose what I am trying to say is that when looking at Mons one has to see what impact, if any, the action had on the decisive moment, which was the Marne; and the same would apply to Le Cateau (looking at things from an anglocentric perspective). Whatever German successes there were in August 1914 - and who in their right mind would deny them? - the fact was that the French and British armies (and not to forget the part played by the Belgians) managed to retain integrity in retreat and then Joffre managed to completely reorder the disposition of his armies in such a way as to leave the German High Command wrong footed.

[The atrocities issue seems to me to be a bit of a red herring if Mons is the main agenda, but one has to wonder what was going on in the minds of soldiers when very young children and a very old man were executed - I am in Kenya at the moment, so I cannot check the name of the village (Crevecoeur?), south of Cambrai, where their names appear on the war memorial; whilst the burning of the great library at Louvain has not even got the excuse of being conducted in the heat of battle.]

Just some ramblings late on in the evening and I am not sure if they are particularly helpful...

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Good evening All,

Thanks for your comments Nigel, I bought your (and Jack's) book on Le Cateau and your (and Jack Horsfall's) book on Mons, along with Zuber's Mons book and Herwig's Marne book to expand my knowledge of the opening weeks of the war. From what you say I might add Tyng's book to the pile ! I think I'll start with Zuber's book as 1). it would allow me to see what's causing the furore; 2). It seems to cover the initial cavalry reconnaisance in August in some detail (an interest of mine) and, like you, 3). I don't find his writing style easy to read.

Whilst posting, may I compliment the moderators for "rescuing" an extremely interesting thread and resisting the easier option of closing it !

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[The atrocities issue seems to me to be a bit of a red herring if Mons is the main agenda, but one has to wonder what was going on in the minds of soldiers when very young children and a very old man were executed - I am in Kenya at the moment, so I cannot check the name of the village (Crevecoeur?), south of Cambrai, where their names appear on the war memorial; whilst the burning of the great library at Louvain has not even got the excuse of being conducted in the heat of battle.]

And what, I'm inclined to ask, is going on in the mind of Zuber, when his admiration and appreciation of the tactical prowess of the German army - and I am convinced by his research and much of his argument - allows him to ignore the stories of Dinant, Louvain, Aarschot, Andenne, Tamines and a host of other places ?

Phil

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I have read a few books recently, relevant to Mons and Le Cateau. Certainly read Zuber's book as it is bound to be quoted in future. I have to say that Tyng remains a top recommend for me even if it is getting long in the tooth. Head and shoulders above them all is the OH. This was the only volume which was able to deal with brigade and divisional operations. After this, it was mainly corps and army stuff. Sir John's 1914, is very partial. To be read for insight into Sir John rather than the battle. His dispatches are rather sparse and add nothing to the account in the OH. Smith Dorrien's Memoirs are a good read and interesting as the other half of a literary argument between him and Sir John. The so-called battle of the memoirs during which Sir John contradicted his own dispatches in his determination to deny S-D the least credit. Whatever his merits as a soldier he was a vindictive little man. Walter Bloem's book and John Terraine's Retreat to victory should be read as a pair. Von Kluck's March on Paris is available in English and not dear. For the German reader, the monograph on the Mons also deals with Le Cateau, has a couple of nice maps and is still very cheap. The Reichsarchiv Weltkrieg 1914 1918 is still about but rather pricey now. Volume 1 if you are interested. The massive losses in the Battles of the Frontiers, the trauma of seeing so much of France fall under occupation leave little room for our rather poor showing on the extreme left wing. From the French point of view, we turned up late, then retreated half across France, were loath to stop and when we did, were always half a day behind the French. Joffre, remember, had to get KoK to stop Sir John retreating even further. It was this perception that we were not pulling our weight and that it lasted a year through the great and futile battles of Artois and Chapagne in 1915, that forced the Battle of Loos on Sir John.

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Good evening Phil,

Why ? Although I appreciate the wealth of "dry" information contained in his books, as Nigel and other contributors have highlighted, his style isn't particularly easy to read. He, or his publishers, are quite switched on: he called the previous book "Battle of the Ardennes", search on Amazon for Ardennes books (a more populist field in WW2) and his book is right there. He provocatively trailered the new book as exploding the Mons myth. Add even more controversy about the atrocities and sales increase further.

But let's not detract from the fact that he gives a different viewpoint on August 1914 and certainly stimulates further study and debate. We all learn from that, even if only after re-examining the issues our viewpoints are re-inforced.

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But let's not detract from the fact that he gives a different viewpoint on August 1914 and certainly stimulates further study and debate. We all learn from that, even if only after re-examining the issues our viewpoints are re-inforced.

Yes, he's certainly made me think again.

Phil

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Good evening Tom,

Thanks for your thoughts (and more suggested reading). Not reading German, I find Jack's ,Zuber's and other books invaluable, if only in the latter case for the "dry" information therein. I don't get much time to read and can only commit 20-30 minutes a day when I'm working - so it'll be a while until I get through the current backlog !

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Whilst posting, may I compliment the moderators for "rescuing" an extremely interesting thread and resisting the easier option of closing it !

Much appreciated by us all - thank you. I have to be honest, I have very selfish reasons. I'm really enjoying reading one of the best and most illuminating threads on this forum for quite some time.

Anyway, stop reading this and keep posting...

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It depends on who contributed. Many German regimental histories that I have read include multiple contributions, quoted, from soldiers who were there. These are primary sources. In addition, many writers of such histories served in the regiment.

Robert

Regimental histories, unfortunately, vary somewhat in content, but in many cases the history will rely heavily on--or are, I believe, in part transcriptions of--war diaries which of course would be primary sources.

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Zuber alludes to an estimated figure of 13,715 military fatalities sustained by Belgium for the entire war

Does he give a source for these numbers ? and does he give a source for the emphasis Belgium alledgedly put on the massacres ?

German regimental histories are valuable sources but all suffer from similar problems. How do deal with the defeat Germany suffered ? Is any of them willing to accept part of the responsabilty for this defeat ?

Carl

still waiting for my copy

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It's really a shame that more hasn't been translated into English. There is a mass of German literature from the 20's and 30's that addresses so much of what's being discussed here. Some of it has been touched on by various authors, but not all, and not comprehensively. " Die deutschen Gefechtsvorschriften von 1914 in der Feuerprobe des Krieges," is a a perfect example of a great article on this subject.

In doing my own research I have been struck by one fact more than any other--On many issues--tactical or strategic, there was not a consensus from German authors in the post-war period. Unfortunately, later authors have missed, or ignored, this lack of consensus, and presented, especially in English, one of the other sides as representative of the situation, or opinion.

I would represent a German evaluation of German infantry tactics in 1914 as spotty to fair. Lessons learned from the wars before (Boer War, Russo-Japanese War--and one that is often not mentioned--the Balkan Wars) were incorporated into the regulations (or discussed in professional journals), but often ignored. Tactical practice varied from unit to unit, for example, the Guards were famous for their adherence to close order attacks--this looks good during peactime maneuvers, but not so good on the battlefield. Units often launched attacks without adequate preparation. Many German leaders expressed their horror at the "rivers of blood" being shed in France. Reading the German regulations sure gives you the impression that "they got it" before the war, but what was done on the battlefield most certainly did not always reflect that. "Attitudes are are stonger than regulations," is a quote from one German writer.

Paul

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