Beware the Ides of August

World-altering events often happen in the middle of August. Is this a coincidence or is it something about the time of year?

Summer in Majorca, Balearic Islands, Spain.
Summer in Majorca, Balearic Islands, Spain. Credit: Paula Solloway / Alamy Stock Photo

Those of us born in the middle of August know it is the real focal point of the year, caught between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. It is the month when planting and tending switches to cutting and picking; things stop growing and start to die. The grass has gone over, sweet fruits in hedgerows buzz with butterflies, hoverflies, bluebottles, bees and wasps. Burdock and teasel set seed. On the Feast of the Assumption, on 15 August, herbs are blessed. It is a strange time, almost a fissure, and this appears to apply to geopolitics, too. For some reason – not every year, of course – three days in the middle of August became the chosen dates for final acts. The question is why: do things happen when we are not paying attention, or is it that somehow the season demands it?

At midnight between Thursday 14 and Friday 15 August 1947 India and Pakistan became independent in a brutal, horrifying way. More than a million people died with the partition of Bengal and the Punjab, and more than fifteen million were displaced. The rift is unhealed; the two countries celebrate independence on different days (Pakistan on 14 and India a day later). How and why this date precisely was chosen is one of the many points of acrimony around Britain’s hasty departure, but the fact is that it was chosen. In 1942 the British government promised to work towards a fully autonomous India as soon as the war was over. Five years of intense negotiations were unable to resolve the different agendas of Jinnah’s Muslim League and Nehru and Gandhi’s Indian National Congress. General Wavell, Viceroy from 1943 onwards, struggled for a breakthrough. On 10 February 1947 Prime Minister Clement Attlee made a statement in the House of Commons that: “The present state of uncertainty is fraught with danger and cannot be indefinitely prolonged. His Majesty’s Government wish to make it clear that it is their definite intention to take the necessary steps to effect the transference of power into responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June, 1948.”

Attlee also announced that Wavell would be replaced with Rear-Admiral the Viscount Mountbatten of Burma. Wavell had been concerned that announcing an end date would accelerate the violence that had already begun and worried that the British would be left with the responsibility for maintaining law and order without the power to do so. Mountbatten decided to bring the date forwards, probably in an attempt to forestall this. The British government produced a plan on 3 June 1947 (the “Mountbatten Plan”), which accepted the principle of partition, and the Indian Independence Act 1947 was given Royal Assent on 18 July 1947. Its provisions divided British India into the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan with effect from 15 August. The choice of date left little time for further planning, and uncertainty fed already-existing tensions. Opportunists seized opportunities, and the slide towards uncontrollable violence feared by Wavell began, with the British government in no position to respond or reassert control over events. Two things happened here: it was decided that a process which had begun years earlier would be ended in mid-August, and then when things started to slide towards that date they did so in the face of weakening government engagement or capability, by which time it was too late.

In seeming contrast, the erection of the Berlin Wall on the night between Saturday 12 August and Sunday 13 August 1961 was a surprise. On 12 August, the East German Volkskammer decreed that “in order to put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin.”  In the early hours of 13 August, East German soldiers laid down more than twenty seven miles of barbed wire through the centre of Berlin, and the asphalt and cobblestones on the connecting roads were ripped up. East German citizens awoke on the morning of 13 August to find themselves faced with an immediate decision – get out before the wall was finished or be walled in. When it became clear that the West was not likely to take decisive action (a trade embargo was threatened but countered by a Soviet threat of a new land blockade of West Berlin), the East German leadership were emboldened. On 15 August they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. Over the next few days East Berlin construction workers – often in tears and working under close scrutiny of GDR border guards – separated streets, squares, neighbourhoods from each other. In some places, such as Bernauer Strasse, the houses were integrated into the wall, with front entrances and ground floor windows blocked up as increasingly desperate people threw themselves from windows higher up.

But although the wall came suddenly, as with India, the lead-up to the partition was long. Between 1949 and 1961 an estimated 2.5 million East Germans had fled to the West and by August 1961, about 2,000 East Germans were crossing to the West every day. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and the East German Head of State Walter Ulbricht knew they had to do something. On 10 November 1958 Khrushchev had given an ultimatum to western powers, setting a six-month deadline for the signing of a peace treaty either with a united Germany or with the two existing Germanies, and transforming West Berlin into a demilitarised free city. His rationale was that a neutral ‘free city’ would not draw so many East Germans. Ulbricht wanted either to take over West Berlin, or close the “door to the West”. At a Warsaw Pact meeting in March 1961 Ulbricht asked Khrushchev for permission to close the border and was told to wait until after Khrushchev’s June 1961 meeting with President John F Kennedy in Vienna. Kennedy was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April, which Khrushchev interpreted as a sign of weakness. When the talks ended disappointingly, Khrushchev agreed to close the border.

It came during a summer of festivities in West Berlin. In June 1961 West Berlin hosted the first German-American festival amid rumours that Ulbricht was planning to close the border. At an international press conference on 15 June, Annemarie Doherr from the Frankfurter Runschau asked Ulbricht if he believed that creating a free city would involve building a state border at the Brandenburg Gate. He replied: “I understand your question in this way: that there are people in West Germany who want us to mobilise the construction workers of the GDR capital to build a wall. Am I right?  I am not aware of any such plans. Most of the capital’s construction workers are busy building flats and their manpower is being put to full use in these projects. Nobody has any intention of building a wall.” This was obviously untrue. The choice of a Sunday during the summer holiday season was probably not a coincidence – the western political machine was not ready to respond and its lack of immediate response was naturally an encouragement. To Kennedy the wall was “a hell of a lot better than a war”.

Another division became real on Thursday 14 August 1969, as the British Army was deployed in the culmination of three days of rioting in Derry/Londonderry in 1969, now known as the Battle of the Bogside. It started with the annual Apprentice Boys parade on 12 August, a commemoration of the Siege of Derry in 1689. As the march passed the perimeter of the Bogside (a catholic / Irish nationalist area) a disturbance broke out, with each side pelting the other with coins, marbles, stones and nails until it quickly escalated into clashes between the nationalists and loyalists, who were swiftly joined by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As the RUC pressed into the Bogside it was attacked with petrol bombs and returned fire with tear gas for the first time.  On 13 August the Irish Taoiseach made a televised speech calling for a UN peacekeeping force to be sent to Derry, and some in the north believed that the Irish army would be sent in. By 14 August the situation was critical – the RUC was beginning to use firearms and there was a fear that there might be mass casualties. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland asked Harold Wilson for help; British troops were deployed to Derry in “a limited operation” to restore law and order and the RUC were withdrawn. This was the first direct British military intervention in Ireland since partition and led to a wave of violence across Northern Ireland, which was the start of the Troubles. Operation Banner, as the Northern Ireland campaign was called, lasted 37 years.

As with the Berlin Wall and partition of India, the tensions that led to the Battle of the Bogside had been building for some time: a campaign of activism which had started the previous spring had mobilised the catholic community, calling for reform particularly of electoral and housing policy. There had already been violent clashes between demonstrators and the RUC. Already by the end of 1968, Wilson’s government was seriously concerned about the growing violence, and the fact that the RUC did not have sufficient officers, equipment or training to deal with the kind of situation they faced. Despite this, he was determined not to involve troops. By 14 August, however, it had become clear that the RUC were not prepared for the kind of riot they faced and were exhausted. Wilson was on holiday in the Scilly Isles, and Home Secretary James Callaghan boarded an RAF plane bound for Cornwall to discuss the crisis. But events moved too quickly, and instead an urgent radio link was created from Downing Street via Gibraltar to the RAF aircraft to enable Wilson and Callaghan to take the critical decision. Roy Hattersley, the junior Defence Minister, had just arrived for lunch in the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho, where he was told to ring his office. He heard the news from the phone booth below the stairs in the restaurant. Could it have turned out differently had it not been August, with the decision-makers dislocated in such a way?

Tuesday 14 / Wednesday 15 August 1945 was also VJ day – the day Imperial Japan announced its surrender and brought an end to the Second World War, following the droppings of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. In many ways this differs from the pattern of the earlier three examples – this was simply the date of an ending, and the course of the war which determined the date of the ending was not shaped by August timing. The Japanese made known their intention to surrender on 10 August under the terms of the Potsdam declaration, a statement issued on 26 July by the UK, US and China outlining the terms by which Japan would surrender ‘or face prompt and utter destruction’. The aim of the Potsdam Declaration had been to force a swift end to the war but – crucially – it did not make clear what form that utter destruction would take and – fatally – the Japanese response was slow. Although there were some in Japan who argued for acceptance of the terms, or at least delay while discussions were held with the Soviet Union about mediating peace on better terms, the US interpreted this delay as rejection.  And here the pattern does hold to a certain extent: there was a long run-up to the August action, and it could be argued that the need to get it over with drove decision-makers to force the situation to a crisis.

By Saturday 14 August 2021, the Taliban were surrounding Kabul. On Sunday 15, the Taliban entered the city, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the embassies of Western countries were abandoned in panic. A twenty-year mission to Afghanistan collapsed seemingly overnight – indeed the Taliban had advanced at lightning pace across Afghanistan. Between 14 and 31 August the US and its coalition partners evacuated more than 132,000 people from Kabul. As with the other examples, the conditions for this collapse were set at least a year earlier: on 29 February 2020 the US and the Taliban signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan; by giving Khalilzad the go-ahead to negotiate a withdrawal to zero, in effect President Trump had started the process which simply gathered momentum until it was unstoppable. A Taliban offensive begun in May 2021 led quickly to the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces and the rapid fall of Afghanistan’s towns and cities. Projections for the length of time the Afghan government could survive after the US left were optimistic but still estimated months not years. And yet on those critical days in August, both the US and UK governments appeared to have been surprised and caught out of position, scrambling to take decisions and evacuate having failed to anticipate and prepare properly, with the British Foreign Secretary and his senior team on holiday as it happened.

Is there anything other than coincidence in these examples? After all, 13-15 August are not the only days that decisive events happen. It is often thought that unrest is more likely in the summer months, that things boil over in the heat when people have too much time on their hands. But in each of these cases the circumstances were set in train a long time earlier, through decisions taken in order to bring an end. So why do those who bring the situation to a crisis do so on these days? Perhaps the calculation is – as with Ulbricht – that the other side may be paying less attention precisely because it is the holiday season. Decision-makers are out of position, except those who have spotted it as an opportunity for action. When heightened awareness lessens, it is more likely that things will go awry.

Perhaps, though, there is a subconscious desire on the part of the actor to bring to fruition enterprises begun earlier in the year, because to leave it any later would be to succumb to a dragging on into darkness. There is a lull, a suspension of what is to come in mid-August, and we first think of winter. It is a time for setting one’s house in order before September. The end of August would be too late; somewhere in the middle is just right for decisive action.  The significance of mid-August as a turning point of the year is ancient: 15 August is the Feast of the Assumption, a date seemingly agreed upon by all branches of the Christian church as the date of the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life and her assumption into heaven, still celebrated as a public holiday widely in Catholic and Orthodox countries. Even though there is no information about the end of Mary’s life in the Bible, by the fifth century the tradition had spread. As the earthly mother of Christ, the chapter of his assumed mortality ends when she joins him in heaven. As such, this date in August marks not just the end of Mary’s earthly life but of Christ’s mission on earth. Here’s hoping that this year it passes quietly.


Suzanne Raine