Monthly Archives: July 2013

Churchill’s First World War – BBC4

On 30 July 2013 BBC4 broadcast a documentary called Churchill’s First World War. The BBC website describes it as follows:

Drama-documentary about Winston Churchill’s extraordinary experiences during the Great War, with intimate letters to his wife Clementine allowing the story to be told largely in his own words. Just 39 and at the peak of his powers running the Royal Navy, Churchill in 1914 dreamt of Napoleonic glory, but suffered a catastrophic fall into disgrace and humiliation over the Dardanelles disaster.

The film follows his road to redemption, beginning in the trenches of Flanders in 1916, revealing how he became the ‘godfather’ of the tank and his forgotten contribution to final victory in 1918 as Minister of Munitions. Dark political intrigue, a passionate love story and remarkable military adventures on land, sea and air combine to show how the Churchill of 1940 was shaped and forged by his experience of the First World War.

The programme was billed as being a drama-documentary, but the dramatisations were fairly limited: scenes of Churchill (Adam James) in the trenches and making a speech and shots of Clementine (Verity Marshall) at home. Most of it consisted of comments by experts, archive footage and extracts from private papers. The majority  of these were letters between Winston and Clementine, but there were also extracts from the papers of others, including Admiral Jackie Fisher, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife Margot and Andrew Gibb, an officer in Churchill’s battalion on the Western Front.

Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s political head. In July 1914 the bulk of the fleet was at Portland on the south coast. He decided to move it overnight to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which was, according to Prof. Andrew Lambert of King’s College London, the critical point.

Prof. Gary Sheffield of Birmingham University said that Churchill’s problem was that he was not trusted. He regarded himself as a soldier, perhaps a warrior, and possessed an unquestioning belief in the British Empire, as did most British people at the time.

In 1914 Churchill wanted to be involved in the land campaign, which was then more significant than the war at sea. The RN’s air arm, the RNAS, had sent units to Dunkirk in order to bomb Zeppelin bases, which gave him an opportunity. They were accompanied by armoured cars, which were supposed to protect the airfields, but also undertook what David Tilley, Curator of the Tank Museum, describes as ‘buccaneering patrols.’

Churchill would build on the RNAS’s experience with armoured cars to carry out experiments with trench crossing machines, eventually leading to the development of landships, or tanks. Prof David Ceserani of Royal Holloway London noted that Churchill was a very modern military figure who appreciated the value of science and technology in warfare. However, he was an egomaniac, who had enormous self-confidence and energy, but sometimes struggled to work out what was a good idea and what was a bad one.

On 3 October the port of Antwerp was on the verge of surrender. Holding it would stall the German advance. Churchill rushed the Royal Naval Division, made up of naval reservists without ships and marines, to Antwerp, with some of them travelling in 100 commandeered buses. He wanted to resign his Cabinet post and be appointed a general. According to Sheffield, this caused derision amongst his Cabinet colleagues, who laughed at him.

Antwerp fell on 10 October, and 1,000 member of the RND were interned in the Netherlands. Churchill was branded a reckless adventurer by the Press, although Lambert noted that the extra week that the Germans took to capture Antwerp did make some difference to the war.

Lambert and Sheffield agreed that Churchill wanted to emulate his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough by producing a war winning stroke. He saw Gallipoli as being his chance, but the campaign ended in disaster. Churchill fell out with Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the navy’s professional head, the First Sea Lord. Lambert said that each really wanted the other’s job. The deterioration in their relationship was shown by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, via letters held by that archive.

The failure at Gallipoli meant that the ruling Liberals had to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government. Churchill had originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, but then switched to the Liberals, so was distrusted and disliked by the Conservatives. He lost his job as First Lord, though he remained in the Cabinet.

It was at this time that he took up painting. It had a therapeutic effect on him, although Alice Martin, the House and Collections Manager at Chartwell, his former home, noted that he painted a very dark self-portrait at this time: usually his paintings were bright.

In late 1915 he resigned from the Cabinet, and sought a commission on the Western Front: he was a Major in the Oxfordshire Hussars, a yeomanry [reserve cavalry] unit. He hoped that Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, would give him command of a brigade, but French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig before this could be finalised. Haig gave Churchill command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill was English, but he was MP for a Scottish constituency, Dundee.

It was probably better for Churchill that he was given command of a battalion rather than a brigade; the latter would have been too big a promotion, and would have meant that he would have been out of touch with the average soldier.

Clementine, according to Dr Tiffany Jenkins, agreed. She knew he was under great danger in the trenches, but urged him to stay for the sake of his political career, which was more important to him than his life. Clementine saw Winston’s war lust and realised that she was the only person who could restrain him. She wrote to Asquith defending Winston when he was sacked as First Lord, but Jenkins said that she was really accusing Asquith of being weak.

Packwood noted that Clementine was his defender and anchor in Westminster whilst she was in France. She was very busy, since she was also involved in setting up canteens for munitions workers. She and Winston wrote to each other almost every day whilst he was at the Western Front.

Patrick Hennessey, a former Army officer, noted that Churchill, a cavalry officer commanding an infantry battalion, got off to a disastrous start, but quickly turned it round. He recognised the importance of making the men’s conditions better, and targeted lice. His battalion became, and remained, one of the least lice plagued battalions on the Western Front. His time on the Western Front showed him as caring, focussed and sensitive. He possessed the ability of great military commanders to be imperturbable under fire.

On 7 March 1916 Churchill returned to the House of Commons. He had by then made his peace with Fisher, and made a very badly received speech calling for Fisher to be recalled. He returned to the Front, staying to May, when his battalion was merged with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers because to casualties

Churchill believed in attrition by metal and machines rather than men. He noted that the Allies had lost air superiority, and criticised the government and the generals. He said that: ‘Machines save life. Machine power is a substitute for manpower. Brains will save blood.’ He wanted tanks to be used in a mass attack, so was angry when the secret was given away in November 1916 by an attack of only 50 tanks.

Churchill was close to David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister in late 1916. He hoped that this would mean his return to the government, but Prof. Richard Toye of Exeter University pointed out that Lloyd George was not initially in a strong enough political position to bring Churchill back to office.

By the summer of 1917 U boats were threatening  to starve Britain into submission. Lloyd George took the  risk of appointing Churchill as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 as his spirit and imagination were needed to increase production of the equipment and ammunition required to win the war. Churchill also had the grasp of detail needed to organise munitions production. He was not, however, in the War Cabinet so was excluded from the highest level of strategy and decision-making.

Sheffield commented that Churchill wanted to build up resources, wait for US help and win the war in 1919. However, the Germans took the offensive in March 1918. Ceserani noted that this converted the war into one of manoeuvre in which tanks, trucks and logistics were vital. Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions replaced the huge losses of tanks and guns in March 1918 and provided the enormous quantities of ammunition needed in 1918.

At Amiens in August 1918 the British Empire forces combined the use of tanks, artillery and aircraft to defeat the enemy. This led to the 100 days campaign that culminated in victory.

Lambert argued that the First World War convinced Churchill that he was a man of destiny because he could recover from anything.

The programme showed that Churchill made many mistakes during the First World War, losing office for a while and ending the war with a lesser political position than he had held at its start. However, its conclusion was that during the First World War:

‘No man learnt more of war command. It was a bitter but complete apprenticeship…First would come more wilderness years… But when summoned again, a greater warlord, steeled by the Great War, was ready and prepared to fulfil his destiny.’

For UK viewers, the programme is repeated on BBC4 at 2240 on Thursday 1 August, and is available on the I-Player until 6 August. It will probably be shown again on BBC4: such programmes tend to be shown a lot.

 

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The Battle of Sorauren, 28-30 July.

On 25 July 1813 French troops commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked the Allies at Maya and Roncesvalles with the intention of relieving the siege of San Sebastian and the blockade of Pamplona. The Allies, contrary to Wellington’s orders, gave ground.

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, rode towards the Allied army on 27 July. They reached the village of Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona, just ahead of the advancing French. The Allied army was drawn up along a ridge to the southeast, latter called Cole’s ridge after General Sir Lowry Cole. Wellington joined it to the cheers of the troops.

The French took up position along a ridge to the north of the one occupied by the Allied army, later called Clausel’s ridge after General Bertrand Clausel.  They were not ready to attack that day. A thunderstorm in the afternoon boosted Allied morale because there had been one before the battle of Salamanca. It delayed the arrival of reinforcements to both sides.

On 28 July Soult’s 30,000 men attacked Wellington’s 24,000 across the valley between the two ridges. Fighting was fierce, but the French assaults were beaten off. Allied casualties were 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spaniards dead or wounded. Around 4,000 French troops were killed or wounded.[1]

Soult’s offensive had failed, and his army was now in a position where it could not be supplied. His obvious course of action was to retreat the way that he had come. However, he was informed that the three divisions of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count D’Erlon, which had missed the battle, were now to his right and rear. Soult decided to join Drouet in an attempt to cut Wellington off from San Sebastian.

Soult’s attempt to disengage on the night of 29-30 July could have succeeded only if it was conducted in complete secrecy, but Allied pickets heard the sound of troops moving in the early hours of 30 July. At daybreak French troops could be seen withdrawing, and were bombarded by the Allied artillery.

Wellington then launched a series of co-ordinated attacks. The Allies were out-numbered, but French morale was very low and they were routed. The battle was over by noon.

Soult was able to withdraw the survivors of his army to France without another major battle, but his nine day offensive cost him 13,500 casualties out of 60,000. The Allies lost 7,100 out of 40,000 men actually engaged in combat.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that it is hard to see what Soult hoped his offensive would achieve. He could not have resupplied Pamplona even if he reached it, and it would have been difficult to keep his attacking force supplied.[3]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 296.

[2] Ibid., p. 300.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 460.

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The Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army pursued the retreating French towards the Franco-Spanish border. The French, however, still held the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Wellington’s siege train was too small to carry out two sieges simultaneously, so he surrounded Pamplona. The siege of San Sebastian began on 7 July.

Peter Snow and Jac Weller both note that some commentators have argued that Wellington should have ignored San Sebastian and pushed on into France. Snow and Weller both point out that if Napoleon had been able to come to terms with the Prussians and Russians he could have sent reinforcements to the Pyrenees. Wellington thought that capturing San Sebastian and Pamplona would allow his army to defeat any French counter offensive, even if reinforced by troops then in Germany.[1]

Wellington left Sir Thomas Graham in command at San Sebastian. There was a breach in its walls practicable for an assault by 22 July. However, Graham delayed until 24 July, then postponed for another day, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences.

The attack on 25 July failed, provoking Wellington to immediately ride the 25 miles from his headquarters to find out what was happening. He resolved to keep closer control on events at San Sebastian. A later post in this series will describe the outcome of the siege.

On the same day the French counter-attacked. Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He had rallied and reorganised the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, reinforcing it with troops from Bayonne.

There were, according to Wellington, at least 70 passes across the Pyrenees that could be crossed by bodies of a few hundred troops.[2] However, there were only four roads that a large army could use to cross them, three of which were in the western theatre of operations. The main one, which crossed the River Bidassoa, at Irun,  was the furthest to the west. There were two roads from Pamplona to France. The Roman road, which crossed the Pyrenees at the pass of Roncesvalles, was the most easterly one. The other crossed at the pass of Maya.

As San Sebastian was in danger of falling, but Pamplona was not being attacked, Wellington expected Soult todemonstrate towards Maya and Roncesvalles, but to make his main attack along the Roman road.

Soult, however, concentrated his efforts against Maya and Roncesvalles. On 25 July 20,000 troops under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, better known by his title of Count D’Erlon, attacked the 6,000 men at Maya . 40,000 men under Soult himself assaulted Sir Lowry Cole’s 13,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops at Roncevalles.[3]

Soult attacked with three divisions along the Roman road and another three along a mule track to the west, each facing only one brigade, though Cole had two more in reserve. Soult’s main problem was that the pass was too narrow for him to fully exploit his advantage in numbers.

The attack along the Roman road was initially was halted by no more than 500 British and Spanish skirmishers, who were defending a frontage of only 300 yards and had plenty of cover.

The French columns eventually forced the Allies back along the Roman road. They were able to retreat to a strong defensive position, but in doing so opened up the possibility of them being outflanked to the east.

The narrow mule track went through partially wooded terrain, with a frontage of only 60 yards, meaning that only one battalion could fight at a time.

However, a thick fog descended at 4 pm. Cole, fearing that his force would be outflanked, decided to retreat, disobeying Wellington’s clear orders to hold even if there was a risk to his eastern flank.

Sir Rowland Hill had put Sir William Stewart in command of the two brigades at Maya. They fought fiercely, but had been badly deployed and were eventually forced back. Weller says that ‘British troops have rarely fought so courageously, but have not often been worse commanded.’[4] The British suffered 1,500 casualties, but inflicted 2,000.

Hill arrived at Maya after the battle was over. He organised a successful retreat to a position that continued to block the road.

Wellington reached Hill’s position just before noon the next day, and was happy with Hill’s dispositions. No news was received from Cole until the evening. On hearing of the retreat from Roncevalles Wellington ordered Cole and Sir Thomas Picton to stand east of Zubiri. They had 19,000 men facing 40,000 French.

Early on 27 July Wellington learnt that Cole and Picton had continued to retreat. He described his generals as being:

‘really heroes when I am on the spot to direct them, but when I am obliged to quit them they are children.’[5]

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, then rode towards the Allied army. They found it and the advancing French at Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona. Wellington took command, and prepared to give battle the next day.


[1] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), pp. 205-6; J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 275.

[2] Quoted in Weller, Peninsula. Footnote 2, p. 278.

[3] Troop numbers and casualties are from Ibid., pp. 280-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 289.

[5] Quoted in Snow, Wellington. p. 211

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The Iraq War Part 3 – BBC2

The BBC broadcast the final episode of its three part series on The Iraq War on 12 June. I was away at the time, so have only just watched it. I previously blogged about the first episode, dealing with the build up to the war and the second, which covered its immediate aftermath.

The BBC’s website describes the final episode, titled It’s Hell, Mr President, as follows:

The last episode in this three-part series brings the Iraq story up to date. Tony Blair and Dick Cheney describe how they responded as horrific sectarian violence overtook Iraq. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tells how he and Condoleeza Rice compelled Iraq’s prime minister to resign. Other key insiders reveal how they selected and supported his replacement.

With an exclusive interview with controversial Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the programme tells how the war ended and why Iraq today faces the worst sectarian violence in five years.

There were still 130,000 US troops in Iraq three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush made a speech saying that US strategy was that ‘as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.’ By the summer of 2006 this plan looked hopeless.

Meghan O’Sullivan, Bush’s top adviser on Iraq, was told by an Iraqi friend that the US must stay, or else Iraq would descend into mass killings and violence. Bush called a meeting of his Iraq team, telling them that a new strategy was needed. Their hopes lay with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. However, the Americans would soon wonder whether he was the solution or part of the problem.

The majority of Iraqis are Shias, but the Sunni minority had dominated under Saddam. Al Qaeda set out to provoke Shias into attacking Sunnis. On 22 February 2006 a bomb destroyed the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites.

This led to attacks by Shias on Sunnis. Sunnis claimed that the Shia militias killing Sunnis were using government equipment and operating from government buildings. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaaaferi, the leader of a Shia religious party, was unwilling to take action against Shias, claiming that all the Shias were doing was ‘vent[ing] their feelings.’ Sunnis retaliated, and Jaaferi eventually declared a curfew, which General George Casey, the Coalition military commander in Iraq, had called for at the start of the violence.

The USA and UK decided that Jaaferi, who had been democratically elected, had to go. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad to persuaded him to grudgingly accept that he had to go.

The new PM had to be a Shia, but the US was concerned that many of the candidates might be pro-Iran, where most of them whilst in exile from Saddam’s government. They chose Maliki, a relative unknown who had spent his exile in Syria. Bush’s strategy was simply to back Maliki, who took power on 20 May 2006.

However, many other Shia leaders were more popular than Maliki. The strongest militia was the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who had great support amongst the 3 million Shias living in the slums of the Sadr City district of Baghdad. Its political wing had enough MPs to make or break Maliki’s coalition.

The US attacked the Sadr City militia soon after Maliki took power, but without consulting him. He asked Casey not to launch attacks against certain individuals and al-Sadr’s militia without his permission. He refused to allow an attack despite being shown a video of two innocent people being kidnapped and killed by the militia.

Soon afterwards, al-Qaeda set off a car bomb in Sadr City. A cycle of killing by one side followed by retaliation by the other ensued; 1,855 Baghdad residents had been killed by the end of July. Casey wanted the Iraqi government to restrain the Shia militias. However, Mowaffak Rubaie, Maliki’s National Security Adviser, argued that it was better to let the Shia militias and al-Qaeda fight it out, and then deal with the winner after it had been weakened by the sectarian conflict.

O’Sullivan, who had many contacts in Baghdad, then told Bush that Baghdad was ‘hell.’ Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Adviser, then suggested that the US send more troops, although the US public wanted US troops to be brought home. Bush hesitated because he was uncertain whether or not he could trust Maliki.

According to Hadley the question was whether Maliki was a sectarian or else somebody who wanted to act in the interests of all Iraqis, but lacked the means to do so. Bush flew to Iraq on 30 November 2006 to find out. He offered a ‘troop surge’, but on condition that there was no political interference with targeting of extremists. Maliki accepted this.

20,000 US troops were to be sent, along with a new commander, General David Petraeus. At the same time the 7,000 British troops in Basra were due to leave. Pertraeus flew to London to try and persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep the British troops in Basra. Blair argued that there was less need for troops in Basra, but Petraeus convinced him that British withdrawal would send the wrong message, so the British troops stayed.

Baghdad had been a city of mainly mixed neighbourhoods, but was becoming divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves. Petraeus  sent troops into the warring districts, but also needed a political solution. His British deputy, General Graeme Lamb, was ordered to find some warring leaders who might be prepared to stop fighting. Some US generals were reluctant to talk to those who had been fighting them, but agreed to try this strategy.

A local Sunni leader, Abu Abed, was unhappy at the way in which al Qaeda had imposed strict Islamic law in his neighbourhood. He approached the Americans to tell them that his men intended to attack al Qaeda. They succeeded in forcing al Qaeda to retreat on the first day, but were then forced back by a counter attack and surrounded. At this point the US (Fifth) Cavalry appeared and defeated the al Qaeda forces

Abu Abed and other Sunni leaders agreed to co-operate with the US. Petraeus wanted Maliki to include them in the Iraqi security forces, but Maliki was sceptical, wanting to know who the volunteers were. The Americans had taken DNA tests, finger prints and retina scans from the volunteers so that they would know who they were.

Those volunteers who had been al-Qaeda foot soldiers were able to provide intelligence on the leadership, allowing the US to target it hard core. Sectarian killing began to fall in September 2007, and Maliki agreed that 20% of the Sunni volunteers could join the Iraqi security forces. He also took control of senior appointments in the security forces, and had the special forces report directly to him.

In early 2008 al Sadr’s Mahdi Army took control of Basra after British troops left. On 22 March Maliki told Petraeus that he intended to take personal command of an attack on Basra. Petraeus said that it would take six months to organise the assault, but Maliki said that he would go ahead, and required only air transport from the Americans.

The Mahdi Army beat off the government forces. Petraeus said that there was some doubt as to whether Maliki should receive full US support since he had taken such a rash decision. However, Bush thought that this was the Iraqis stepping up, and ordered Petraeus to support him. The US sent attack helicopters and armed drones to support the Iraqis, who had no air power.

Maliki’s forces, with US air support, took Basra. He gave al-Sadr an ultimatum to either disband the Mahdi Army or else be banned from future elections. Al Sadr agreed to a ceasefire.

Maliki, having defeated both his Shia and the Sunni opponents, now asked Bush to set a date for US departure, which he agreed to do.

However, Maliki’s political opponents claimed that he was using his security services and the police against them in the to intimidate them ahead of the next election. Ayad Allawi, a former Prime Minister, formed al Iraqiya, a coalition of non-sectarian and Sunni parties, to oppose Maliki. In February 2010, weeks ahead of the election, 66 of its candidates were disqualified on the grounds that they had links to Saddam’s regime.

Despite the intimidation al Iraqiya won two seats more than Maliki’s supporters in the March 2010 election. Maliki demanded a recount, but it did not change the result. It was agreed that Maliki would remain Prime Minister, with Al Iraqiya receiving three senior cabinet posts, including Saleh Mutlaq as Deputy Prime Minister

However, Maliki did not implement the power sharing agreement, leading to street protests. 23 protestors were killed and more than 600 Sunnis were arrested, as was the head of the electoral commission. Maliki blamed continuing terrorism on Sunni leaders who, he alleged, wanted to bring back Saddam’s regime.

President Barack Obama’s new US administration backed Maliki, claiming that he headed a democratic Iraq, with its ‘most inclusive government yet.’ Saleh Mutlaq, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, told Obama that he was ‘dreaming.’ He also said that Iraq had a ‘one man, one party show’ and that Maliki was a dictator. Two days after making these comments his house and those of two other Iraqiya ministers were surrounded by troops commanded by Maliki’s son.

One of the three, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, was under suspicion of terrorism. Petraeus, now Director of the CIA, flew to Baghdad. He pointed out that only Sunnis, and not Shias, were being arrested. Hashimi fled the country, and was convicted of orchestrating murder and sentenced to death, five times, in his absence. The bodyguards of al Iraqiya leaders were arrested. Under interrogation they implicated their bosses in terrorism; one of the bodyguards died in custody.

Sunnis returned to the streets to protest. Maliki sent in troops, who fired on the protestors. Sunni extremists attacked police and soldiers. In April 2013, the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s fall, 700 Iraqis died in sectarian violence, the worst month for five years. Maliki banned journalists from 10 TV channels including al Jazeera.

The Iraq War and its aftermath have led to 170,000 deaths. The result seems to be the replacement of a Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, with a Shia one, Nouri Maliki.

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The Battle of Vitoria – map

I forgot to include a map in the previous post on the battle of Vitoria. This one should make it easier to understand the course of the battle

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Vitoria_map.jpg

Battle_of_Vitoria_map

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