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Selection of the Unknown Soldier candidates


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I agree that the story of the selection is interesting if only for the light it sheds on the mind-set of the senior management of the British army at the time. But it is more than that. It seems clear that the responsible officers tried to rig the slate to favour the selection of a certain type of soldier. This was an outrageous attempt (probably successful) at the deception of the British public who had lost their territorial or new army volunteer or conscript son, father or brother, on the Western Front and who were being offered the illusion that the Unknown Warrior could be him. They were lied to, to assuage the self-importance of pre-1914 Edwardian regular army officers who were still running the army in 1920. Shameful really.

 

Another question relates to the lack of any civilian or political oversight of this process, given that this was a national commemoration for the British public and not a private one for the army. Civilian supervision might have insisted that other branches of the armed service were included, or indeed civilians such as those who had served in the merchant navy. I know that there were time pressures, but surely the body of an unknown British sailor could have been included. The civilian cemeteries of the French and Belgian coastal towns, not far from St. Pol, contain many such examples.

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On 12/09/2020 at 22:20, Skipman said:

Does anyone else agree with me that it is simply wrong even to try to identify the unknown soldier?

 

Mike

I do Mike - bad form. There is nothing wrong with discussing the subject but some aspects  should be left alone for very obvious reasons. 

 

TR

Edited by Terry_Reeves
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53 minutes ago, Hedley Malloch said:

I agree that the story of the selection is interesting if only for the light it sheds on the mind-set of the senior management of the British army at the time. But it is more than that. It seems clear that the responsible officers tried to rig the slate to favour the selection of a certain type of soldier. This was an outrageous attempt (probably successful) at the deception of the British public who had lost their territorial or new army volunteer or conscript son, father or brother, on the Western Front and who were being offered the illusion that the Unknown Warrior could be him. They were lied to, to assuage the self-importance of pre-1914 Edwardian regular army officers who were still running the army in 1920. Shameful really.

 

Another question relates to the lack of any civilian or political oversight of this process, given that this was a national commemoration for the British public and not a private one for the army. Civilian supervision might have insisted that other branches of the armed service were included, or indeed civilians such as those who had served in the merchant navy. I know that there were time pressures, but surely the body of an unknown British sailor could have been included. The civilian cemeteries of the French and Belgian coastal towns, not far from St. Pol, contain many such examples.

 

I totally disagree.

That is an extreme view and I see little or no primary evidence in this thread on which to base it. Could you take us through the evidence, rather than state a conclusion please?.

Regarding "the self-importance of pre-1914 Edwardian regular army officers"  that is a quite outrageous generalisation and needs to be supported with facts.

Sorry to be blunt, but I find the post offensive. I hope that others will agree with me.

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29 minutes ago, Hedley Malloch said:

Another question relates to the lack of any civilian or political oversight of this process

 

It needs to be considered that Railton's idea was not universally well received, neither did the timing allow for too much thought. 

 

Although his inspiration dated from 1916 he did not make his formal proposal to the Dean of Westminster Abbey, Herbert Ryle, until August 1920.  The Dean wrote back to Railton offering his support, but asserted they should 'proceed slowly'.  The Dean approached King George V who rejected the idea out of hand.   He then wrote to Lloyd George who, after carefully weighing the political considerations, managed to persuade the King to accept the idea.  It was discussed in Cabinet and on the 15th October Lloyd George informed the Dean that the idea was 'accepted in principle' but needed to be announced in the House of Commons first. 

 

The burial of an 'unknown warrior' was first mentioned in the Times newspaper on October 22nd, with the arrangements to be made by Lord Curzon, who led the Cabinet Committee responsible for the ceremonial around Armistice Day.

 

There was political oversight of the arrangements, it was a very political decision not least as a consequence of the fact the 'Homes fit for Heroes' had not materialised and the war had not ended across Europe where many factions, including disenchanted soldiers were still fighting for ascendancy.  The Army was given responsibility for arranging the  exhumation working together with the Abbey authorities who had to identify the final resting place.  There were less than two weeks to make these arrangements.  As so often happens when there is a call for urgent and decisive action the Army is called upon, those making the arrangements had to consider the requirements of the Abbey authorities as well as the politicians.  Hanson mentions the Admiralty more or less left them to it and as previously noted above selection of the cemeteries would give a good steer towards men of the old Army.  The burial parties would not want, nor would they have the time given the apparent urgency of their clandestine task, to disinter and rebury partly decomposed remains.

 

As previously mentioned the identity of the Unknown Warrior is of no significance, what is important is the story around his selection and the 'mystery' or mythology of the process, the fact, for example he is buried in French soil; the sword on the coffin etc.  It is what people believe and the sacrifice he represents that is important.

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Steven Broomfield
On 12/09/2020 at 22:20, Skipman said:

Does anyone else agree with me that it is simply wrong even to try to identify the unknown soldier?

 

Mike

 

I absolutely agree with you.

 

I would go further: I find it somewhat unpleasant that we are here, 100 years on, with all the hindsight we have at our disposal, attributing mean-mindedness to the work of those who set out to honour our dead, and to provide a central point of mourning for the bereaved.

 

The poor ******'s dead: has been dead a long time. Must we dishonour him, and those who served with him, by picking at the threads of his burial shroud? There are times that the 21st century, with its cynicism and disbelief, and willingness to disbelieve everything, believe nothing, and allocate self-interest to every decision, leaves me quite sad.

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13 minutes ago, Steven Broomfield said:

 

I absolutely agree with you.

 

I would go further: I find it somewhat unpleasant that we are here, 100 years on, with all the hindsight we have at our disposal, attributing mean-mindedness to the work of those who set out to honour our dead, and to provide a central point of mourning for the bereaved.

 

The poor ******'s dead: has been dead a long time. Must we dishonour him, and those who served with him, by picking at the threads of his burial shroud? There are times that the 21st century, with its cynicism and disbelief, and willingness to disbelieve everything, believe nothing, and allocate self-interest to every decision, leaves me quite sad.

 

Agreed sir.

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The Americans attempt to find an 'unknown warrior'  from Vietnam didn't end well, later successful identification left them with an empty tomb. 

 

Unlikely (impossible) that will happen at the Abbey. 

 

Whilst the current Dean nearly caused me to hit a tree when he announced in a recent Radio 4 interview, 'well it could have been a woman' on reflection as it is the story that is important if he wants to believe it may have been a woman, or indeed any of the soldiers of Empire, then that's OK, the Tomb is a symbol of loss anyone can put their own interpretation on the identity is unimportant. 

 

However I would contend in the context of remembrance and the war the reaction and political significance surrounding an innocent idea is worthy of further study.  Even more so that the Establishment considered the idea and the expressions of grief around the Cenotaph to be 'extreme sentimentality'  unbecoming of the culture that created an Empire.

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I think the intent was only to square the circle- how could someone be indisputably identified as a "British" soldier yet not have any other indications of distinction-eg Boots. Officer or OR?  I would suspect that part of the last checks done at St Pol were to make sure that both bases were covered.

   I would not support any fools' errand to "out" the UW- I believe the Americans had a bit of a problem on that with a Vietnam UW. It seems that everything connected with the UW was  done to a high standard of moral correctness-and it shows in the way the UW and the Cenotaph continue to play such a part in remembrance.

    The question of closure and grief must have been a raw wound  in the immediate post-war years-and for many,many families it was never resolved. No reason why it should. I grew up in Plymouth-one of our neighbours was a war widow of the Second World War My mum's best friend was the same-both naval of course. One of the most poignant memories is of  the Naval War Memorial on Plymouth Hoe- burnished bronze panels. But every now and again there would be one name that was highlighted as family members used Brasso to polish off the burnishing, often with a small vase of of flowers right in front of that panel. Nobody in my youth ever objected to this little foible- It was part of the grieving process and it would have been churlish (and short life expectancy) if anyone had objected-say,some Jobswoth from the local council.

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22 hours ago, Steven Broomfield said:

 

I absolutely agree with you.

 

I would go further: I find it somewhat unpleasant that we are here, 100 years on, with all the hindsight we have at our disposal, attributing mean-mindedness to the work of those who set out to honour our dead, and to provide a central point of mourning for the bereaved.

 

The poor ******'s dead: has been dead a long time. Must we dishonour him, and those who served with him, by picking at the threads of his burial shroud? There are times that the 21st century, with its cynicism and disbelief, and willingness to disbelieve everything, believe nothing, and allocate self-interest to every decision, leaves me quite sad.

Agreed.

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20 hours ago, kenf48 said:

.... I would contend in the context of remembrance and the war the reaction and political significance surrounding an innocent idea is worthy of further study.  Even more so that the Establishment considered the idea and the expressions of grief around the Cenotaph to be 'extreme sentimentality'  unbecoming of the culture that created an Empire.

 

Well put. I wholeheartedly agree that it is a topic worthy of further study. 

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25 minutes ago, headgardener said:

 

Well put. I wholeheartedly agree that it is a topic worthy of further study. 

 

Agreed that "the idea" and its treatment is of interest, but with facts, properly referenced.

What is, or should be, off limits is any attempt to identify, the warrior. That would be grotesque, in nobody's interests except the conspiracy theorists and those who despise our past.

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On 12/09/2020 at 22:20, Skipman said:

Does anyone else agree with me that it is simply wrong even to try to identify the unknown soldier?

 

Mike

absolutely I think it is truly dreadful that this should even be considered for all that he represents  to this country 

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But no one is trying to ID him. Just trying to make sense of the process by which he was selected and trying to place it in the context of what the UW was intended to represent and what he was understood to represent. At least that's how I'm reading this very interesting thread. 

Edited by headgardener
Changed the word 'mean' to the word 'represent', for the avoidance of doubt...!
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On 13/09/2020 at 17:53, PhilB said:

Relax, folks. Nobody’s trying to identify him. The thread is trying to understand the nuts and bolts of the process by which a suitable unidentified body could have been found.

It bears repeating!

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Tom Tulloch-Marshall

The likelihood of identifying the Unknown Warrior is almost certainly beyond any possibility - unless there is a hidden away smoking gun somewhere - and even if there were, how believable / acceptable would the new "evidence" be ? Not at all probably, except to conspiracy theorists. What is of legitimate interest though is the question as to whether the selection of the remains was skewed towards them being a man of the 1914 BEF. Theorising here is of no interest - identification of the places of the exhumations is the only legitimate way forward. A good project for somebody - good luck with that.

Tom

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Having been directed to bring back “a bag of bones”, the exhumers’ first question would be “How long does a body, buried in local soil, take to become a skeleton?” This is  a “How long is a piece of string?” question but here’s one view:-

“When buried six feet down, without a coffin, in ordinary soil, an unembalmed adult normally takes eight to twelve years to decompose to a skeleton.“  I sought out a local gravedigger who suggested up to 10 years in local soil.
However accurate or inaccurate that may be, it indicates that the exhumers could not guarantee that a body had become bones - unless it was just bones when buried. That suggests that they would by preference go to a grave they knew to be from battlefield clearance of long exposed bodies. That, of course, does not make the bones any more identifiable but it makes their job manageable and ensures a genuine battle casualty. I am not aware to what extent the exhumers could have made such a selection.

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51 minutes ago, PhilB said:

Having been directed to bring back “a bag of bones”, the exhumers’ first question would be “How long does a body, buried in local soil, take to become a skeleton?” This is  a “How long is a piece of string?” question but here’s one view:-

“When buried six feet down, without a coffin, in ordinary soil, an unembalmed adult normally takes eight to twelve years to decompose to a skeleton.“  I sought out a local gravedigger who suggested up to 10 years in local soil.
However accurate or inaccurate that may be, it indicates that the exhumers could not guarantee that a body had become bones - unless it was just bones when buried. That suggests that they would by preference go to a grave they knew to be from battlefield clearance of long exposed bodies. That, of course, does not make the bones any more identifiable but it makes their job manageable and ensures a genuine battle casualty. I am not aware to what extent the exhumers could have made such a selection.

 

    Phil-  the question is not one of reduction to skeleton of the physical body- it's what was with the body in the way of items that "decompose" at a slower rate or not at all. Natural decomposition would strip a corpse of facial identity fairly quickly- witness the photographs of Somme corpses in recent threads..  The question re. ID would turn on how long uniform cloth takes to go, boot leather or nails, regimental shoulder badges,etc.  That was the main point of the questions asked-not to "out" the UW but the paradox that there had to be sufficient to identify the body as "British"-beyond doubt-yet not enough narrow the ID by rank markings,regimental markings,etc. Thus, the only suspicion- done from the best of motives (ie To stop nosy s*ds like us a century later) -may have been that the last checks at St.Pol. may have lifted uniform,boots,chevrons,pips etc from ALL the candidates-just to make sure.

       I cannot recall exactly where I read it-years ago- that there were some grieving Brits.-mostly mothers- whose grief took the mental affliction that the UW was their son- in the same manner that some mothers continued to believe their sons were POWs in Germany but had lost their memory (even after the Armistice)

  UW was a great idea- Can't explain why it worked but it did.

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4 minutes ago, voltaire60 said:

 

    Phil-  the question is not one of reduction to skeleton of the physical body- it's what was with the body in the way of items that "decompose" at a slower rate or not at all.

But the instructions seem to have been to return a bag of bones - or, at least, that’s what they got. So the question is one of reduction to skeleton?

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mission creep...... to be avoided at all costs, happens too often 

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1 hour ago, PhilB said:

Having been directed to bring back “a bag of bones”, the exhumers’ first question would be “How long does a body, buried in local soil, take to become a skeleton?” This is  a “How long is a piece of string?” question but here’s one view:-

“When buried six feet down, without a coffin, in ordinary soil, an unembalmed adult normally takes eight to twelve years to decompose to a skeleton.“  I sought out a local gravedigger who suggested up to 10 years in local soil.
However accurate or inaccurate that may be, it indicates that the exhumers could not guarantee that a body had become bones - unless it was just bones when buried. That suggests that they would by preference go to a grave they knew to be from battlefield clearance of long exposed bodies. That, of course, does not make the bones any more identifiable but it makes their job manageable and ensures a genuine battle casualty. I am not aware to what extent the exhumers could have made such a selection.

 

1 hour ago, PhilB said:

Having been directed to bring back “a bag of bones”, the exhumers’ first question would be “How long does a body, buried in local soil, take to become a skeleton?” This is  a “How long is a piece of string?” question but here’s one view:-

“When buried six feet down, without a coffin, in ordinary soil, an unembalmed adult normally takes eight to twelve years to decompose to a skeleton.“  I sought out a local gravedigger who suggested up to 10 years in local soil.
However accurate or inaccurate that may be, it indicates that the exhumers could not guarantee that a body had become bones - unless it was just bones when buried. That suggests that they would by preference go to a grave they knew to be from battlefield clearance of long exposed bodies. That, of course, does not make the bones any more identifiable but it makes their job manageable and ensures a genuine battle casualty. I am not aware to what extent the exhumers could have made such a selection.

 

Good contributions, thank you.

I pick up on ""battlefield clearance of long exposed bodies". The inference is that long exposed surface cadavers will be reduced to bones more rapidly than about the ten years if buried 6 feet down. Thus, graves containing battlefield clearance [mostly post war and close in time to the UW decisions] would be favourites for the four exhumation parties.  If true, this makes the alleged conspiracy theories of favouring 1914 burials less tenable: what was needed was a cemetery recently created or recently repopulated. with corpses which had been recognised initially as British but without badges, shoulder titles and dogtags. We are then reduced to cloth, webbing and boots I suppose.

Am I on track in tandem with recent posters please?

This thread is an example of GWF at its best.

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I would add that a badly damaged cadaver can be skeletonized within a matter of months if covered by little more than a thin layer of earth or stones and exposed to scavengers (most obviously rats), plus variable weather conditions. Plenty of remains from the 1918 Spring offensive could have been skeletons by the Armistice. 

 

EDIT: I recall Edwin Campion Vaughan writing that he found a cat feasting on the remains of a dead German soldier, so scavengers could evidently come in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

Edited by headgardener
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1 hour ago, Muerrisch said:

Having been directed to bring back “a bag of bones”, the exhumers

 

     Little bit concerned about the phrase "bag of bones"

 

1)  Unlikely to be the actual terminology in any official docs. relating to UW-  It isnt in "Army-Speak". Or does it really say that?  Or  is that just the recollections of someone long after the event?

2) Notionally, UW could be someone killed but unidentified (other than as British) on the last day of the war. "Bag of bones" would thus exclude the more recent casualties (even allowing for the 18 months or so  from Armistice to selection) -   It's a good supposition that the  exhumers would have gone where bones were more likely than flesh-but is that what the Army technically instructed???

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3 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

 

If true, this makes the alleged conspiracy theories of favouring 1914 burials less tenable: what was needed was a cemetery recently created or recently repopulated. with corpses which had been recognised initially as British but without badges, shoulder titles and dogtags. We are then reduced to cloth, webbing and boots I suppose.

Am I on track in tandem with recent posters please?

This thread is an example of GWF at its best.

 

There was no conspiracy and those who have questioned the received truth of this story have never alleged that there was one. To understand it is necessary to look at how the project to select and retrieve a body was set up and executed. First, look at the organisation of the project. The only organisations involved were the army and the church. And once the church had stated their preference for a 1914 body, they let the army get on with it. There was no civilian involvement and no political oversight of what was a national commemoration of the nation's losses. This was an incredible omission. Second, the army were not given any objectives which could have reflected this wider national purpose. It was never conceived as an private affair for the army, but in the absence of a controlling organisation which could enforce a wider purpose, a private affair is what it became. It is this absence of constraints and purpose that enables the army to refuse the navy any say in the choice of the body. Apparently, the army were initially favourable to the navy's request to the possible inclusion of a RND body in the final four, but then it was pointed out to them that there were no RND forces on the Western Front until much later than 1914, and therefore to include RND bodies on the site or cemetery long-list would compromise the quest for 1914 purity. The navy's request was then ignored.

 

What did guide the choice of a body appears to have been the culture of the senior officers of the army, as expressed in their beliefs, assumptions and values, all tacit, implied and assumed, about the relative worth of the socially and culturally quite distinct groups who comprised the different cohorts of the army between 1914-1918. Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that they would have favoured a 1914, time-served, ex-colonial old sweat, who had freely volunteered to serve the King, rather than a 1918 conscript who really did not want to be there. Of course none of these values would be written down. Perhaps the selection problem would be discussed between friends in the Army and Navy Club late at night over a few brandies, the message conveyed by a raised eye-brow here, a subtle inflexion of vocal tone there, all conveyed in a similar manner to the officers in charge of site or cemetery selection. I know this view will infuriate positivist historians (of whom there are a few here) who seek 'smoking guns' and incontrovertible hard facts to support every argument, but this is how organisations and people often work. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

 

Hanson gives sources for this view and I have quoted those in an earlier post. His information sources have been in the public domain for some time. Did the army behave honourably in rigging the selection process to favour the selection of 1914 BEF soldier, of trying to hi-jack (probably successfully) a symbol of national mourning in order to idealise a certain type of soldier, and therefore indirectly of the Edwardian army.  Hanson argues that, 'it was an outrageous deception on the millions of relatives of servicemen who had died in the succeeding years of the war, and who all, to a greater or lesser extent, nurtured a belief that that Unknown Warrior might be their missing son, husband or father'. (pp.432-433). I find it hard to disagree with that conclusion.

 

 

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8 minutes ago, Hedley Malloch said:

 

There was no conspiracy and those who have questioned the received truth of this story have never alleged that there was one. To understand it is necessary to look at how the project to select and retrieve a body was set up and executed. First, look at the organisation of the project. The only organisations involved were the army and the church. And once the church had stated their preference for a 1914 body, they let the army get on with it. There was no civilian involvement and no political oversight of what was a national commemoration of the nation's losses. This was an incredible omission. Second, the army were not given any objectives which could have reflected this wider national purpose. It was never conceived as an private affair for the army, but in the absence of a controlling organisation which could enforce a wider purpose, a private affair is what it became. It is this absence of constraints and purpose that enables the army to refuse the navy any say in the choice of the body. Apparently, the army were initially favourable to the navy's request to the possible inclusion of a RND body in the final four, but then it was pointed out to them that there were no RND forces on the Western Front until much later than 1914, and therefore to include RND bodies on the site or cemetery long-list would compromise the quest for 1914 purity. The navy's request was then ignored.

 

What did guide the choice of a body appears to have been the culture of the senior officers of the army, as expressed in their beliefs, assumptions and values, all tacit, implied and assumed, about the relative worth of the socially and culturally quite distinct groups who comprised the different cohorts of the army between 1914-1918. Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that they would have favoured a 1914, time-served, ex-colonial old sweat, who had freely volunteered to serve the King, rather than a 1918 conscript who really did not want to be there. Of course none of these values would be written down.

Perhaps the selection problem would be discussed between friends in the Army and Navy Club late at night over a few brandies, the message conveyed by a raised eye-brow here, a subtle inflexion of vocal tone there, all conveyed in a similar manner to the officers in charge of site or cemetery selection. I know this view will infuriate positivist historians (of whom there are a few here) who seek 'smoking guns' and incontrovertible hard facts to support every argument, but this is how organisations and people often work. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

 

Hanson gives sources for this view and I have quoted those in an earlier post. His information sources have been in the public domain for some time. Did the army behave honourably in rigging the selection process to favour the selection of 1914 BEF soldier, of trying to hi-jack (probably successfully) a symbol of national mourning in order to idealise a certain type of soldier, and therefore indirectly of the Edwardian army.  Hanson argues that, 'it was an outrageous deception on the millions of relatives of servicemen who had died in the succeeding years of the war, and who all, to a greater or lesser extent, nurtured a belief that that Unknown Warrior might be their missing son, husband or father'. (pp.432-433). I find it hard to disagree with that conclusion.

 

 

 

We will have to agree to disagree.

I hope that "positivist historians" and many others will accept my assertion that the italicised section above is pure speculation, with no evidence to support it.

I am not infuriated, merely saddened that the integrity of the senior officers should be impugned without a shred of evidence. Without having access to the references cited, or to Hanson, I believe this is journalism, not military history.

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Isn't this the key element in Hedley's comment, though.....? (EDIT:.... or, at least, that's how I see it) 

 

1 hour ago, Hedley Malloch said:

There was no civilian involvement and no political oversight of what was a national commemoration of the nation's losses........

 

It was never conceived as a private affair for the army, but in the absence of a controlling organisation which could enforce a wider purpose, a private affair is what it became.

 

This seems central to our discussion of this topic, and all theories (conspiratorial or otherwise) arise from it. 

 

FWIW, I definitely do not have an agenda here. 

Edited by headgardener
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