Memorial Day, 2016

For this Memorial Day, I reprise I piece I wrote two years ago. I still like it.


There are many of them; well over a million men and women have died in the service of this country, in wars big – the Civil War, World War 2 – and small (the Philippine Insurrection, Desert Storm).

And their memory – and the ones that lived, and are with us – deserve a world of thanks.

A friend of this blog – a Navy veteran, as it happens – posted this on Facebook late last week:

Good morning all! It’s Memorial day weekend again.

Instead of exhorting patriotism and thankfulness from folks who don’t want to hear it I’d like to remind you that our government is keeping tabs on all of us. They are flying drones over our homes and collecting our communications. There are cameras *everywhere* taking our pictures, recording our movements. Our local police are now a military force, equipped with heavy weapons and armor. If you have made any firearm related purchases, or frequent arms related websites, your name is on a list. If you happen to belong to a conservative political group, the IRS has your number, but don’t feel left out Lefties, sooner or later they’ll get around to you too. If this situation is not OK with you, what have you done about it? Written anyone? Called anyone? Shown up in person anywhere to get in your legislators grill?

If you don’t care enough to protect the freedoms so many have died for, please don’t post a bunch of smarmy pictures & canned slogans; I don’t want to hear it.

There’s a place for the simple and the sentimental, of course…

…but the writer is correct; the real challenge facing those of us who haven’t died in the service of this country is to make sure that this country is worthy of their sacrifice.  To make sure that those who died to preserve freedom didn’t die in vain.

Those who founded this country knew perfectly well that the greatest threats to this nation’s freedom weren’t from overseas.

The writer wrote the piece in honor of a comrade…:

CWO3 Mike Sheerin; missing you today brother. Not many left around to pick up the slack you left; nobody at all to fill the shoes.

We’ve been blessed with just the right people to pick up the slack when they’ve been needed.

And these days, we all have slack to pick up.


Not only has that message not changed in two years – it’s redoubled.

“Something’s Wrong With Our Bloody Ships Today”, Part I

The term “arms race” is almost – sort of – falling into disuse these days.

I’m sure it won’t last forever.

Those of us of a certain age well remember the ultimate arms race – the race to build nukes  between the US, the USSR, China, and their various proxies and allies in the Cold War.  The goal of that arms race – it almost seems counterintuitive – was to build weapons that’d deter their use by others.  So far so good.

It wasn’t the first arms race.  Far from it.

But 100 years ago today, one of the history’s biggest, most expensive arms races was coming to a violent, explosive, and yet fitful and indecisive conlusion in the chilly waters of the North Sea.

And along with the arms themselves, and the men who worked them, other things were being weighed and found wanting; grand strategies, and the the technocrats who conceived them.

Brittania Rules The Waves:  In 1588, an armada from Spain attempted an invasion of England; the fledgling Royal Navy defeated and scattered it.  It was the kind of victory that launches – and did, indeed, launch – myths and legends around which nations build themselves.

And indeed, that’s what happened; for the next 350 years, the Royal Navy thwarted every attempt to invade Britain, and eventually became the glue that held together the British Empire, the tarp that’d smother any brushfires that might break out, and the shield that kept it safe from any who’d dare try to bite off a chunk.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 set the pattern for the next century; the British Navy, with no rivals anywhere on the planet, was in effect the world’s beat cop; with it, the British Army – highly professional by the standards of the day, and extremely small for the world’s dominant superpower – could be carried to the scene of the Empire’s countless little brushfire wars in safety, to fight with the aid of colonists, mercenaries and proxies to put down the insurrection.

At the twilight of the Age of Sail, as the technology of the iron cannon and the sail-powered ship drew to a close, the Royal Navy dominated territory that made Alexander and Rome’s legions green with envy.

Disruption:  Marketing weasels today are fond of talking about “disruptive innovation”.   And 21st century westerners are often of the conceit that we, here and now, live in an era of unparalleled disruption.

But the world between 1815 and 1865 went through a spasm of technological, cultural and social revolutions that were in many ways the underpinning of our entire world today (and I strongly recommend Paul Johnson’s The Birth Of the Modern to go into them in wondrous depth); from trousers (yes, a revolutionary development) to the consumer piano to the steam and internal combustion engines to the notion of serious art to the idea of direct election of representatives to the asphalt road to the to the rise of Social government to Edinburgh Renaissance to the mechanical analog computer, the age was perhaps the most amazing in history.

Several of those disruptions brought changes that threatened to completely disrupt the world order – indeed, some of them led to the changes that brought about World War I in the first place.

  • The rise of the European nation-state, replacing the dog’s breakfast of duchies and kingdoms with large, centrally organized nation-states.  Joining France (regaining strength in the century after Napoleon) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a weak “empire” whose energy largely went to trying to keep its myriad ethnic factions playing nice) were Italy, in a position to dominate the Mediterranean, and most of all Germany – industrious, industrial, culturally homogenous, and governed by a militaristic semi-constitutional monarchy nominally under a Kaiser but governed mostly by an authoritarian, militaristic bureaucracy, the new Germany set about becoming an industrial and military power; in humblingFrance in 1871, they showed themselves a serious contender.
  • The Ironclad Warship:  Field-tested in the American Civil War, the armored warship instantly made the vast fleets of wooden ships – like the Royal Navy of the day – obsolete.  (Not so much the steam engine; the British adopted steam with uncharacteristic speed).   Suddenly, nations that had been second or third-rate powers were, for a brief moment, on an even keel with the mighty Royal Navy; for a moment in the 1860s, the Brits were genuinely worried about the fleets of France and Italy, which briefly led them in ironclad technology, a gap made up only at great expense and with immense pain.
  • The Torpedo:   Ultimately even more revolutionary – the effects of this invention are still with us today.  Also field-tested in the Civil War, the original “torpedo” was an explosive charge on a long spar carried at the front of a small boat (as well as in front of the first submarine, the Confederate Navy’s “Hunley”).   It broached the prospect that small boats could sink the mightiest battleships – a prospect made starker just after the war, when a Briton, Robert Whitehead, working in Italy and Croatian, replaced the boats that carried the spar torpedoes, putting an engine behind the explosive charge, allowing the boat to shoot the torpedo from hundreds of yards away.
  • Cheap Steel:  Steel had been considered an almost-exotic material through most of human history.  Occurring in tiny amounts in nature, manufactured only with extreme difficulty, it was a scientific oddity and technological dream.   And so through the American Civil War, most of the world’s metallurgy – especially cannon and armor – was in iron and bronze.    That changed in the mid-1800s, as changes in technology made steel passably affordable and usable in the market – first for building smaller objects, like cannon, and eventually as a structural material.    While the age of the wooden ship lasted from the dawn of navigation to the 1850s, the age of the iron ship was perhaps two generations.    And as the world’s cannon switched from relatively soft, brittle iron to hard, durable steel, the power and range of the cannon rose exponentially – driving the ranges of cannon from hundreds of yards to, by the turn of the 20th century, the limits of visual range, heaving payloads that rose from 24-48 pounds in the 1820s to nearly a ton a century later.  And to use this range and power, the final innovation became vital:
  • Computing:  In our 70-year-old digital age, it’s hard to remember that for over a century and a half, computers were analog; gear spins, cam rotations, and rack and pinion movements in elaborate mechanical assemblies did what 1s and 0s do in your smart phone do today.

For roughly forty years, the world’s maritime powers tinkered with each of these technologies, trying various takes on the formula for the perfect warship.

And just a little over 100 years ago, all of these innovations came together in the form of the ship that was the currency of record for naval warfare for two generations.

It Dreads Nought;  In 1906, the British launched HMS Dreadnought – the first ship launched that tied all of these technological advances into one package, which would define what a “battleship” actually was, for the next 3-4 generations.  Designed by Admiral “Jacky” Fisher – one of history’s great naval architects and thinkers, whose greatest contribution to life today may have been the invention of the term “OMG” Dreadnought was a large, fast (by the standards of the day – 20 knots/24 mph) all-steel warship armed with a uniform battery of 12-inch guns (supplemented by a small group of 3-inch guns, intended to swat away torpedo boats), armored to withstand hits from the same-sized weapons (with special arrangements to try to negate torpedo hits); the big guns were aimed by a central mechanical fire-control “computer” that calculated a firing solution based on the Dreadnought’s speed and course, and it’s targets range, course, bearing and speed, as well as the wind, the temperature and the type of ammunition being fired, electromechanically linked to the gun and turrets, allowing the entire battery to be aimed  as a single group (controlled by a fire-control crew atop the ship’s mast, with the best visibility on the entire ship), and fired by single electrical button.

HMS Dreadnought

Which leads us to one of the myths this series focuses on; while the world credits the British battleship HMS Dreadnought as the first ship to perfect the formula, the Japanese and Americans had similar ships on the ways; the Brits finished Dreadnought weeks before the US launched  the South Carolina, ensuring that two generations of all-big-gun, turbine-powered battleships with heavy armor and centralized fire control would be called “Dreadnoughts” rather than “Southcarolinas”.

The USS Texas, the world’s last surviving first-generation Dreadnought. Built six years after the British ship, it served in both World Wars; it was borderline obsolescent even in World War I, but served in WWII as mobile invasion-support artillery, including a stint bombarding the D-Day invasion beaches.

And so the technology was there.  What remained was that national will to do something with it.

The Great Race:  With the world’s naval calculus completely reset for the second time in fifty years, the playing field was at least briefly leveled.  The world’s second-tier naval powers – France, the US, the Austro-Hungarians, Russia, Italy, and especially Japan – jumped into Dreadnought construction with both feet.   Even third-tier powers – Brazil, Argentina and Chile – began acquiring “Dreadnoughts” (bought, generally, from British shipyards).

But most of all, there was Germany.

SMS Kaiser, one of Germany’s 17 dreadnoughts. Although the German ships were fewer in number, they had some technical advantages; German armor steel was better than the Brits. And German propellant powder was more stable, and its handling equipment and procedures were better – as the Brits found out 100 years ago today to their immense chagrin.

The German state, run by militarist oligarchy that co-opted a long series of historical myths to drive German expansionism, had designs on being the most powerful nation in Europe, and to building a world empire.  It had gotten a fair little start – with important colonies in the Pacific, along the Chinese coast, and especially Africa.

And to make the empire viable, Germany needed a navy to protect the lines of communication between Germany and the colonies.

And while many powers – France, Austria, Italy, Russia, Japan – might conceivably take a run at a German colony, and might logically start by cutting the colony off from the Fatherland by naval action, there was only one power that could interfere with a nascent German empire, decisively and completely, anywhere in the world; Britain.

And with the playing field leveled by technology, Germany made its move.  The German state embarked on a building spree unlike any other in Europe.

The British, who’d been building dreadnoughts at a brisk pace to stay ahead of similar building in Austria, Italy, France, Japan and the US, reacted by making a national priority of countering, and exceeding, German production.

And so in the 1900s and 1910s, both nations engaged in a building frenzy that strained both nations’ treasuries to the brink.  Indeed, as World War I loomed, the Germans – facing the combined might of the British Navy and French Army (the British Army was deemed fairly negligible, an error that’d cost the Germans dearly in August, 1914) in the west and the immense Russian Army in the east – tried to negotiate a treaty with the Brits, guaranteeing British neutrality in a coming war, enabling Germany to dial back the hideously expensive naval building program to concentrate on the Army.  The British rejected the offer – although the building program was taxing even their immense wealth.

HMS Warspite, one of the British “Queen Elizabeth” class of “Superdreadnoughts” – with 15 inch guns that fired 2000-pound shells, the five ships were far superior than any German ship commissioned during the war. It’s seen here in its World War II configuration; it served in both wars with distinction – and suffered near-fatal damage in both. The ridges around the waterline are anti-torpedo bulges – standoff spaces to theoretically allow torpedo and mine explosions to lose some energy before hitting the armor plate inside the ship’s hull.

And so by the beginning of the war, Britain had 29 dreadnought battleships (and 20 “pre-dreadnoughts”, obsolete ships from the “tinkering” era) to the Germans’ 17 (plus 12 pre-dreadnoughts).  France added 10 to the Allied side; Austria-Hungary, four to the Germans’, all in the Mediterranean.

And 100 years ago today, these fleets of ships would meet their first, and only, test.

More tomorrow.

A Slice of Turkey

The letter that sat on the desk of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had been eagerly awaited.

Addressed from France’s Ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, the contents of the letter were the result of nearly five months of negotiations between Britain and France to reshape the Middle East after the hoped-for fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Despite the failings of the Entente to make progress on the battlefield, diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of England and François Georges-Picot of France had sought out success at the negotiating table, slicing and dicing Turkish lands.

What would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement would first unite, and then embarrass the Entente, while setting the foundation for the next 100 years of engagement between the Middle East and the West.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement – the final map of the Middle East after World War I wouldn’t be much different


100 years earlier, Europe had seemingly settled most of the map of the world with the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna.  The result had ultimately satisfied no one, with most of the attendees echoing the parting words of Britain’s Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who regarded the final treaty as little more than “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.”  For Stewart’s heirs across the various powers, the Great War seemed a grand opportunity to re-draft the map of the world for another century.

From the war’s first shots, both the Entente and Central Powers had cast their eyes onto their rival’s territories with hopes of expansion.  Whether it was the British and French trying to digest German African colonies, or the Ottomans seeking to expand their Empire to Persia, millions were dying or being maimed for the right to claim sections of the globe most the warring power’s citizens didn’t even know existed.   Continue reading

The Strafexpedition

For an operation that the Dual Monarchy had hinged on careful coordination, seemingly nothing had gone according to plan.

The scale of the forces involved could hardly be concealed.  400,000 men, complete with nearly 2,000 pieces of heavy artillery, had sat nestled into the Austrian Alps for months on the Italian/Austro-Hungarian border.  Record snowfall had kept the men confined to their trenches as whatever element of surprise the Austro-Hungarians once held slowly melted as surely as the white powder around them.

Having been on the defensive in Italy for a year, the Austro-Hungarian troops were now fed promises of dealing their hated Italian enemies a crushing blow.  General Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Dual Monarchy’s Chief of Staff, had labeled the coming offensive a Strafexpedition or “punitive expedition” against Italy.  While the tactical goal was ideally to cut off the Italians from the majority of their armies to the south in the Isonzo river valley, the more honest strategic purpose was simply to raze as much of Italy as possible for having joined the Entente.  At last, the Dual Monarchy was finally prepared to have their revenge.

On May 15th, 1916 the Austro-Hungarian army wasn’t looking to beat Italy, but to punish her.

The ruins of Asiago. The city, deep in what is now northern Italy, then closer to the border, was devastated by the Austro-Hungarian offensive

Long before Italy had cast it’s lot with the Entente, the simmering hostilities between the Dual Monarchy and Rome were well known among the diplomats of Europe.  France’s ambassador to Italy, Camille Barrère, defined the relationship between the two nations as “enemy-allies.”  Despite each nation’s participation in the Triple Alliance with Germany, the Austrians resented their defeats within the Italian Risorgimento and the Italians longed to acquire territory at the Dual Monarchy’s expense.  As late as 1911, the Austro-Hungarians were contemplating a preemptive assault against their nominal Italian allies.   Continue reading

Journalism We Can Use

Journalist tries – and miserably fails – to keep up with Winston Churchill’s daily drinking pace

…and, in the process, indulges in some journalism, popping a few myths about Churchill’s drinking.  His celebrated whiskey-and-sodas before noon included just enough whiskey to wet the bottom of the tumbler; his two bottles of champagne a day were pint-sized, not the liter or larger sized bottles common today.

But still, the guy drank a lot.

Oh, just read it.

Éirí Amach na Cásca

The halls of the Irish General Post Office in Dublin, An Post, were quiet at noon on April 24th, 1916.  The day, Easter Monday, was a holiday in Ireland, leaving the gigantic Georgian building practically empty save perhaps for a few support staff who weren’t taking Easter Week off.

As such, there was no resistance as 400 armed men stormed past the An Post‘s pillars and burst through the front doors.  The men, members of the armed Socialist trade union the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), raised two Irish Republican flags and began reading from the prepared pamphlets they had printed in secret – a proclamation of an Irish Republic.

Across Dublin, 1,200 Irish volunteers representing a cross-section of the various rebellious groups constituting the Irish Resistance spread out, occupying most of the significant buildings of the city.  Despite ample intelligence forewarning of Irish intentions, the British were taken completely by surprise.  For the next week, one of the hottest battlefields in the Great War would be in the heart of the Entente.

“Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.”  Future Prime Minister William Grenville to the Duke of Rutland, December 3, 1784

 

Monday, Bloody Monday – a British barricade in Dublin during the Easter Rising

If one is to talk of the seeds of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, there are no shortage of dates that can be chosen from which to start.  Did it begin with the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century?  The Tudor conquest in the 16th?  The overthrow of the Catholic parliamentary majority in 1614?  The Acts of Union of 1800, which ended semi-Irish independence as the country was politically absorbed into the British Parliament?    Continue reading

I Love The Smell Of Napalmed Narratives In The Morning

You could practically sense the institutional left’s glee at the thought of conservatives’ reaction to Harriet Tubman being selected for the face of the new $20 bill.  Indeed, reading some of their pieces, I got the impression that the “reactions” were written not only well in advance, but written at some centralized content mill.

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Then, Thursday happened – and the vast majority of conservatives applauded the choice; a gun-toting Republican freedom fighter who not only led slaves on the Underground Railroad but led Union troops back the other way, replacing the slave-owning, genocide-mongering founder of the Democrat Party.

The standard-bearer of orthodox conservatism, the National Review, points out the facts that most Democrats don’t know:

In fact, Harriett Tubman was a gun-toting, Jesus-loving spy who blazed the way for women to play a significant role in military and political affairs.

Indeed, her work on the Underground Railroad was mostly a prelude to her real achievements. Born into slavery as Araminta Ross, Tubman knew the slave system’s inhumanity firsthand: She experienced the savage beatings and family destruction that were par for the course. She eventually escaped and, like most who fled, freed herself largely by her own wits.

 

Which is something the Democrats are doing their best to school out of black people.

Beyond that, though?

Tubman was one of the most valuable field-intelligence assets the Union Army had. She had hundreds of intelligence contacts and could establish new ones — particularly among African Americans — when nobody else could.

During one of her scouting missions along the Combahee River, she became the first woman and one of the first African Americans to command a significant number of U.S. troops in combat. The raid she organized and helped to command freed far more enslaved people than her decades of work on the Underground Railroad. She also was a strong advocate of allowing African Americans into the Union Army. She knew Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the almost entirely African-American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment — the unit at the center of the 1989 film Glory.

So go for it, Democrats.  Tell us something we don’t know.

Moscow on the Mediterranean

Marseilles was awash in pomp and circumstance on April 16th, 1916.  Military bands played marching songs and patriotic music, as throngs of French citizens flocked to the waterfront, eager to meet the arriving vessel the Himalaya.

Thousands of wide-eyed young men trampled off the causeway, many with musty uniforms and salt-corroded brass – remnants of the group’s more than two-month journey to the Western Front.  While all of these young men had been born and raised in an urban, industrialized environment, for most of them it was their first trip to a foreign country.  The experience was overwhelming for men who just months earlier hadn’t even been in military service, and were now showered with attention from local French dignitaries and beautiful French women.

Only these weren’t French soldiers.  Or British.  Or even colonial troops from one of the Western Allies.  The nearly 9,000 men marching through Marseilles were the soldiers of the Russian 1st Special Brigade – the first of nearly 50,000 Russian troops who would serve on the Western Front.

The Russians Are Coming! – the arrival in France.  They had gone East from St. Petersburg, making an arduous two-month journey out of the Pacific port of Vladivostok to France

The vast expanse of the Eurasian Steppe had long conjured the image that within the Russian Empire were multitudes of men ready, willing, and able to serve the Tsarist military machine.  The “limitless” manpower of Russia had been so ingrained in Western popular opinion, that it came to be believed as well by the country’s ruling elite.  Despite the monstrous losses incurred on the Eastern Front in just a year and a half, few in Moscow, London or Paris feared that Russia would – or could – reach a breaking point when it came to fielding an army.    Continue reading

Death by Committee

What had been a roar of artillery weeks earlier had quieted to a trickle of distant, infrequent thuds.  Where the men of the Russian Second Army had charged forward over snow-capped passes days earlier, on March 31st, 1916, survivors now limped back through a morass of mud and blood at Lake Naroch, in what is now modern Belarus.

It should have been a momentum-changing victory for Russia and the Entente.  Eager to recover from their rout in the summer of 1915, 373,000 Russian soldiers had attacked only 82,000 Germans holding one of the weakest portions of the Eastern Front.  887 pieces of field artillery had pounded the German line for two days – an eternity by Eastern Front standards – under a battle plan crafted by the Russian Imperial Army’s own Chief of Staff.  The Russians had optimistically believed they were about to achieve their breakthrough.

Instead, it was yet another major Russian defeat.  Only this time, it had the fingerprints of the rest of the Entente all over it.

Lake Naroch carried all the hallmarks of early Russian defeats – bad intelligence, terrible tactical execution, and overconfidence.  The difference was the Russians thought they had addressed these issues before the battle

The seeds of the Russian debacle at Lake Naroch had been planted months earlier in the French city of Chantilly.  Indeed, many of the Entente defeats of 1916 could trace their lineage to the Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly in December of 1915.    Continue reading

Knights of the Sky

The Great War had made unlikely alliances since the first shots had been fired.  And in the spring of 1916, there were few stranger alliances circulating through the Entente’s halls of power than the triumvirate of William Thaw, Norman Prince and Edmund L. Gros.

The trio of Americans had all arrived in France at the start of the conflict with the motivation of aiding a beleaguered Entente, albeit with vastly different strategies.  Thaw and Prince were military dilettantes; the children of some of the most wealthy individuals in the world.  Thaw had served with the French Foreign Legion while Prince was flying with the French Air Corps.  Gros had been interested in saving lives, working as a field director for the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort providing medical services to the French trenches.  Together, they had lobbied (thus far, unsuccessfully), to create an all-American volunteer air wing.

The group had much working against them.  While the Germans were pioneering airpower as a means of attack, the Entente still viewed the biplane’s principle role as observational.  And considering those lobbying for an expansion of France’s air force included one pilot, a soldier with terrible eyesight who wanted to fly, and a doctor with no military experience, the odds appeared long that the group’s proposed “Escadrille Américaine” would ever come to be.

But the French Air Department saw the propaganda value of American volunteers fighting against the Kaiser and renewing the spirit of the centuries’ old alliance between France and America.  On March 21st, 1916, what would become the Lafayette Escadrille was born.

The Lafayette Escadrille – yes, those are lions in the picture, the squadron’s mascots

The concept of aircraft influencing the outcome of wars was as revolutionary in 1914 as flight itself.  Orville and Wilbur Wright had only achieved heavier-than-air human flight nine years earlier.  The first commercial use of aircraft had only actually happened months before the Great War started – a brief 23 minute flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida.  And in terms of combat, the first bombs dropped by plane had no impact on the outcome of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 – why would they now?    Continue reading

Down Mexico Way

One would have to search hard to find the tiny village of Columbus, New Mexico on a map in the modern era.  It wouldn’t have been any easier on March 9th, 1916.

The quiet hamlet on the Mexican/American border had grown in recent years thanks to the train stop, adding a general store, a saloon and even a school, in addition to several hundred new residents.  Signs of the village’s growth were everywhere as four new hotels sprang up and even a local newspaper.  Guarded by a few hundred soldiers, Columbus probably felt as safe as any location in the United States.

The sounds of gunshots and battle cries surprised both civilian and soldier alike.  Cutting through the cold desert night, 500 Mexican guerrillas loyal to famed rebel Pancho Villa, (or Villistas, as they were known) had invaded the village, pillaging and shooting anything they could.  Desperate for supplies in their long-running war against Mexican authorities, Villa and his men had mistakenly been told the village was all but unprotected (rumors persist into the modern era that Villa had come to Columbus to buy guns from an American arms dealer).  Instead, 270 U.S. soldiers, and several Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine guns, lay just over the border.  By the time dawn broke, Columbus had been burnt to the ground, with at least 90 Villistas, 8 U.S. soldiers, and 10 U.S. civilians dead.  Elements of Columbus’ garrison defied orders and chased Villa 15 miles into Mexico, killing a few more of his men.

The United States had resisted entering Europe’s war, even amid hundreds of American casualties.  But blood had been spilled on American soil from across the Mexican border – and not for the first time.  America was going to war in Mexico.

Pancho Villa (middle) and Gen. John J. Pershing (right) in 1913.  A young George S. Patton looms over Pershing’s shoulder

The turbulent political background in Mexico had seen an ever-changing series of alliances, with the United States intermittently intervening and then withdrawing, unwilling and/or uninterested in creating permanent relationships with the variety of figures and governments in Mexico since 1910.  Despite a sizable American military presence on the border, rebels continued to cross into the U.S., trading fire and casualties.  Coupled with political paralysis from Washington, which dithered between antagonizing Mexico and trying to quell the violence, the situation on the border had significantly deteriorated by the beginning of 1916.    Continue reading

“Men are Mad!”

The citadel of Verdun had stood outside the city walls since the early 1600s – a relatively new addition in the Gallic city with a history reaching back to the 4th Century.  For nearly 300 years, Verdun had represented the strength of the French nation; it’s surrender to the Prussians in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War had symbolically (and somewhat practically) closed the chapter of French dominance over the continental affairs of Europe.

The French were determined to never let Verdun fall again.  A massive defensive redesign in the 1880s produced a bulwark without rival in Europe, or likely the world.  28 fortresses produced a double-ring of defense, each with 8-feet of steel-reinforced concrete, covered further in sand and earth.  1,000 pieces of artillery, with another 250 in reserve, were supported by a gigantic maze of trenches, bunkers and even an underground rail system.  Verdun had been deemed, before the war, “artillery-proof.”  If the famed citadel would ever fall again, it would be due to the weakness of the men inside, not the steel that protected them.

On the morning of February 21st, 1916, that theory would be put to the ultimate test.  808 German guns, firing for ten straight hours, lobbed over 1 million shells against the fortifications of Verdun.  The barrage could be heard 100 miles away.

For the next nearly 10 months, one of the worst battles in human history would slowly unfold, consuming lives on an industrial scale that exceeded anything the Great War had previously seen.  78% of the entire French army would eventually serve at Verdun.  The Germans would dub the battle the “blood-pump of the world.”  And anywhere from 973,000 to 1.25 million lives would be maimed or claimed before it was over.

French troops at Verdun.  Even today, the name “Verdun” conjures the worst images of the Great War

If there is a battle that encapsulates the entirety of the First World War, it might be Verdun.  The crushing weight of artillery; the human wave attacks; the obstinance of commanding generals – all were embraced at Verdun.  The scale of the battle can be seen even today.  Despite the Great War pounding the earth repeatedly at a number of locations, only in sections of Verdun does nothing grow 100 years later.   Continue reading

The African Lion in Winter

Dawn hadn’t even fully broken over the small town of Taveta in British East Africa (now Kenya) when the artillery barrage began on February 12th, 1916.

By the standards of the Great War, the two-hour shelling of German Schutztruppe holding the small strategic lookout (Taveta was near Mount Kilimanjaro and had been seized by Germany early in the war) was little more than a pleasant morning wake-up call.  But by the standards of the war in Africa, it was part of a full-blown massive offensive by a combination of Boers, Brits, Rhodesians, Indians and Africans – well over 73,000 men – to wrestle away East Africa from the Kaiser’s grip.

The 6,000 men of a South African brigade, supported by Indian-based artillery, charged at Taveta up Salaita Hill, where British intelligence had suggested that the artillery had been pounding the front-line of a few hundred black African German troops.  In reality, the artillery had landed behind the front-line and instead of a few hundred defenders, 2,300 men awaited the Entente attack.  Knowing discretion to be the better part of valor, the South Africans quickly retreated with minimal casualties.

Salaita Hill would be another reversal for the Entente in an endless campaign against the forces of German Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – a campaign that would last beyond the end of the First World War.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: The “Lion of Africa” – the picture is from his years after the war, but he’s still dressed in his distinctive uniform and slouch hat

The voracious appetite of the Entente for German colonies defined the earliest months of the war in Africa.  German possessions in central and southwest Africa fell with relative ease as trained British regulars were able to beat German Schutztruppe (protection forces); often little more than ill-equipped black volunteers or aging white settlers.  Coupled with the introduction of forces from South African Boers and British Indians, the conquest of German Africa appeared to be proceeding as a neat and orderly little war.    Continue reading

Doomed To Repeat It

Wanna feel depressed about society’s future?

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor interviews kids at a Louisiana vo-tech about the Holocaust:

Well, no.  The kids are at Drexel, and at Penn State – an “Ivy League” school that supposedly recruits the “best and brightest”.

“Highlights” – the Latina woman, Ivy Leaguer and future Leader Of Our Society at around 5:36 who lumped Jim Crow in with the Holocaust.

I’m afraid we’re one generation away from completely forgetting.

Happy Reagan’s Birthday!

It’s Ronald Reagan’s birthday.  He’d be 105 if he were alive today.

I’ve been writing about Reagan – who, along with PJ O’Rourke, Solzhenitzyn, Dostoevskii and Paul Johnson is the reason I’m a conservative today – as long as this blog has been in existence, and long before.   He was the first Republican I ever voted for – growing up in the left-leaning household I did, Reagan was utterly trayf.

His eight years in the Presidency, like his two terms in California, were not perfect, and I don’t beatify my presidents, even if they’ve been out of office for two and a half decades.  His last term wasn’t as stellar as his first, and his last two years were very difficult.

Still and all, he was the greatest president of the second half of the 20th Century.  All it takes is one great accomplishment; he had two.

He caused the implosion of Communism.  Let no liberal bobblehead tell you otherwise.  They’ll say the USSR fell because of Mikhail Gorbachev; they ignore (or, more likely, never dig beyond the left’s chanting points to learn) that Gorbachev only became Premier as a reaction to Reagan.

And he not only saved the economy (for a couple decades), but thanks to the end of the Cold War, he ushered in the greatest period of unmitigated prosperity in history; Bill Clinton cashed the “peace dividend” (and the Gingrich congress prevented him from squandering it), to the benefit of everyone in the world who wasn’t living in complete tyranny.

Some hamsters say “Reagan could never get nominated today!”    It’s possible.  I have a copy of a George Will book from the middle of Reagan’s second term that hammers the President’s departures from conservative orthodoxy; I can imagine what today’s Mark Levins and Laura Ingrahams would say and do.

But on the other hand, listen to “A Time For Choosing”, his 1964 speech supporting Barry Goldwater, where he “came out” as a conservative.  Tell me that wouldn’t fit in at a Tea party meeting:

Anyway – have a safe and blessed Reagan’s Birthday.

 

The Last Million Men

The debate in the House of Commons had raged for several weeks.  The failures of the coalition government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith – Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, the failure of the British offensives of the fall of 1915, and a shortage of munitions in the spring of the same year – had been thrown at the PM’s feet.  The conservatives in Asquith’s coalition had begun calling for his head, as men he had dismissed from the War Cabinet, like Churchill and Lord Kitchener, attempted to speak directly to the public about what they deemed the PM’s lapses in judgement.

The measure before the House of Commons had been intended to blunt such criticisms.  It was a measure Asquith had fought against, both publicly and privately within the War Cabinet.  Asquith had tried for months to stall such a vote, commissioning studies in the vain hope of proving it unnecessary.  Instead, Asquith’s commissions had proven the opposite.  Placed between his principles and his ability to prosecute the war, Asquith chose the war.

The vote wasn’t even close.  By a margin of 383 to 36, the Military Service Act of 1916 passed on January 27th.  The proud tradition of the small, professional British Army had vanished.  Britain had joined the rest of Europe in embracing conscription.

The Promise of a “New Army.”  Millions of Britons flocked to the call in 1914 and 1915

Since the Battle of the Marne in the fall of 1914, most British authorities – both civilian and military – had understood that the British system of volunteerism had reached its logical limitations in a modern war.  The only question was the best way forward.    Continue reading

Hard To Believe

…that this was already thirty years ago:

I remember I had been working at KSTP for about a month; I’d finagled my way into a couple extra hours a day working in the control room during a couple of syndicated talk shows before the Vogel show.  I was on the board during the “Michael Jackson” show – the talk host, not the singer or the beer expert – when network news alarms started going off in the studio, and ABC Radio’s anchor broke in to announce the explosion.

And over the next minute or two, everyone in the building piled into the control room, and I – the lowliest person in the building – had to tell everyone to shut up and get out so I could concentrate on all hell breaking loose.  And, since the board operator is the bottom line in the control room, everyone – the general manager, the news director, everyone – promptly did.

I spent a chunk of the rest of the day trying to track down an astronaut to comment on the air with Don Vogel – and i found one (a guy from my hometown, an old student of my dad’s who eventually did one or two Shuttle missions).

And it was one of those days I figured that broadcast news was what I really liked doing.

Without all the national tragedies, of course.

I think we carried Reagan’s speech live.

Thirty years? Yow.

“I Have Been To The Mountaintop”

My dad was a speech teacher.  I think I may have grown up around a record collection with more speeches than music, until I started buying records.

So a great speech is a wonderful thing.

And I lament the fact that great oratory is such a dying art – although the likes of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both practice it with great panache.

But Martin Luther King was one of the greats in the history of oratory, even if you don’t bother with his civil legacy.

And here – the day before his murder – was one of his great ones, submitted as I usually do on King’s birthday.

Erzurum Peace

Blanketed in snow, the fortress at Erzurum looked almost peaceful.  In reality, with 235 pieces of field artillery, and 11 different forts and gun batteries, after Constantinople, Erzurum was the most heavily defended city in the Ottoman Empire.  Indeed, it was one of the most heavily defended cities in all of the Great War.

Within the forts sat 40,000 Ottoman soldiers; a mix of veterans from the Caucasus campaigns of early 1915 and young recruits.  Behind them sat another nearly 90,000 Ottoman troops of the massive Third Army.  Nestled in the safety of one of the most complex defensive systems in the world, and surrounded by snow banks as high as four feet in some places, the last thing the Ottomans worried about on January 10th, 1916 was a Russian attack.

A month later, Erzurum would be in Russian hands and 15,000 Turks had been left behind.

Russian troops with captured Turkish guns at Erzurum

At the beginning of 1916, the confidence of the Ottoman army was high and growing higher.  After starting the Great War with a failed offensive against the Suez Canal, and a debacle against the Russians in the Caucasus, the fortunes of the 600-year old empire had markedly improved.  They had won tremendous victories against the British in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, and were in the process of capturing an entire British/Indian army at Kut.    Continue reading

Simson’s Circus

Sunday morning services had already concluded by the time the small British torpedo boats the HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou had left their port on the massive freshwater Lake Tanganyika in the Belgian Congo.  Having changed out of his Naval dress uniform and back into his usual garb of short-sleeves and a skirt (which he wrongly thought was a kilt), British Captain Geoffrey Spicer-Simson began hunting his intended prey – the German gunboat Kigani.

But the Kigani had been on its way to intercept them, and was surprised to see the small British “fleet” racing out to meet them.  In 11 quick minutes, the Kigani had been critically damaged; a shell having ripped through her deck, killing the gunboat’s captain and petty officers.  The Kigani withdrew her colors – a sign she intended to surrender.  Not content with his prey’s brief battle, Simson ordered the small wooden Mimi to ram the metal gunboat.  The Mimi‘s bow was significantly dented; Simson’s ego definitely was not.

Returning to shore, Simson, wearing a German officer’s ring he stole from one of the dead, proclaimed himself the “Horatio Nelson of Africa.”  The day after Christmas in 1915, the battle for Lake Tanganyika – the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume – was almost over.  The battle for historic acclaim from one of the most eccentric (and incompetent) British officers in the Great War had begun.

Graf von Gotzen’s crew loads her 4-inch deck gun.  The weapon dwarfed anything the British or Belgians could wield in East Africa

Despite some of the first shots in the Great War being fired in Africa, the Entente had made little progress in removing the German threat to their colonial possessions.  In German East Africa, Lt. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would soon become famous for his prolonged defense, had gone on the offensive, attacking and defeating the Indian Expeditionary Force sent to subdue him with an army eight times Lettow-Vorbeck’s size.   Continue reading

Anniversary

Want to show a kid today what a real leader is?  Because God knows our current President isn’t teaching them anything.

Tell them what happened in Poland in 1981.  Read this bit from a few years back, about the defection of the Polish ambassador to the US in protest against the Communist repression in his country).

(See around 4:10 as Reagan begins to speak about Poland.  Between there and the “yellow ribbon” moment, around 11:00)

Reagan did more than just have people light candles – read Jay Nordlinger’s excellent “Yellow Ribbon Culture” for all the reasons the “symbolic message” has become meaningless today – he followed up the symbolic message with a mountain of work in public and behind the scenes to undermine the Polish and Soviet regimes, and build up Solidarity and other resistance in the Eastern Bloc, work which eventually brought Communism crashing down.

This, children, is how leadership was done.

Compare that with the wan empty suit that is frittering away his last year in the White House today, and lament.

Greater Love Hath No Man

I had not heard this story – of a group of 1,000-odd American POWs who, at the behest of a quick-thinking master sergeant, all called themselves Jewish to protect the Jewish GIs among them.

The master sergeant – Roddie Edmonds, of Knoxville, who passed away thirty years ago – is now the fifth American to be inducted into the “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial:

At the time of Edmonds’s capture, the most infamous Nazi death camps were no longer fully operational, so Jewish American POWs were instead sent to slave labor camps where their chances of survival were low. US soldiers had been warned that Jewish fighters among them would be in danger if captured and were told to destroy dog tags or any other evidence identifying them as Jewish.

So when the German camp commander, speaking in English, ordered the Jews to identify themselves, Edmonds knew what was at stake.

Turning to the rest of the POWs, he said: “We are not doing that, we are all falling out,” recalled [MSGT Edmonds’ son] Chris Edmonds, who is currently in Israel participating in a seminar for Christian leaders at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.

With all the camp’s inmates defiantly standing in front of their barracks, the German commander turned to Edmonds and said: “They cannot all be Jews.” To which Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews here.”

Then the Nazi officer pressed his pistol to Edmonds head and offered him one last chance. Edmonds merely gave him his name, rank and serial number as required by the Geneva Conventions.

“And then my dad said: ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war,’” recalled Chris Edmonds, who estimates his father’s actions saved the lives of more than 200 Jewish-American soldiers.

Edmonds survived – although by the end of the war, with the food shortages in Germany, life in POW camps was better than concentration camps only by dint of the assurance that the Germans weren’t supposed to kill the inmates.

The Barren Crescent

The inhabitants of the sleepy Mesopotamian village of Kut al Amara (or Kut for short), might have felt like strangers in their own homes on December 7th, 1915.  Situated on the banks of the Tigris river 100 miles south of Baghdad, the 6,500 residents of Kut were certainly used to people passing through, albeit usually via the river.  But the latest visitors to Kut had mostly arrived by land – well over 13,000 of them – and were starting to make themselves at home.  Trenches and bulwarks were being created overnight; tents flooded the village and surrounding river banks.

The newest guests to Kut were a collection of British and Indian troops who had last passed through the village attempting to claim Baghdad, and all of Mesopotamia, for the Crown.  Now in headlong retreat, the British and Indians had chosen to dig in and allow themselves to be surrounded by their Ottoman pursuers.  It had been the the brainchild of an arrogant British Indian Army General who preferred taking his orders from New Delhi than London, and was being executed by a British General whose claim to fame had been enduring a similar siege in Pakistan years earlier.

The strategy to conquer Mesopotamia had been ill-conceived and hastily implemented.  Now it was about to become, in the words of one British military historian, “the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history.”

The Siege of Kut – many of the troops that held Kut for 147 days would never return home

Had the War Office in London gotten their way, Britain’s involvement in the so-called “Cradle of Civilization” would have ended in November of 1914.    Continue reading