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

The Western Frontier

The ships had arrived silently in the night at the small Egyptian port city of El Salloum (or Sollum), their cargo carefully unloaded by the few Bedouin residents who had abandoned their nomadic ways and settled the city.  Overseeing the Bedouin workers were thousands of Senussi men, a Sufi-Muslim order of tribesmen from Libya.  A largely nomadic people, like the Bedouin, the Senussi hadn’t come to El Salloum to trade or rest.  The Senussi had come to meet their shipment of thousands of rounds of ammunition, machine guns and even light artillery from Germany and the Ottoman Empire.  The Senussi had come to wage a jihad against the West.

On November 23rd, 1915, in the deserts of Egypt, the Great War had become a Holy War.

The Senussi on the march. Thousands of Senussi, aided by Bedouin allies, tried to force the British out of Egypt

Through the lens of the early 21st Century, the Senussi appear nearly pacifistic.  An off-shoot of the more mystical Sufi-Islamic faith, the Senussi had been founded in the mid-1800s in Mecca as a relative liberal interpretation of Islam.  The movement’s leader, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (or Grand Senussi; a title that survived him), had rebelled against what he perceived as the more conservative orthodoxies of the Ottoman officials in Mecca.  Senussi preached that his followers live lives of voluntary poverty and resist fanaticism in the name of the faith.  Branded by a fatwa condemning his teachings, Senussi moved from Mecca, eventually finding acceptance in the Bedouin communities of the desert.   Continue reading

The Black Soldier’s Lament

Amid the scores of concerns that clouded France’s Chamber of Deputies in the fall of 1915, the status of some of the empire’s colonial citizens would not have seemed a priority.  Despite decades of colonial demands to codify the citizenship status of France’s African subjects, in some cases stretching as far back as to the revolutions of 1848, the issue had been deflected by French government after government.  For the African subjects of the Fourth Republic, broadly known then as the Senegalese originaires (even though few of them were actually in French Senegal), their rights and ability to elect representation floated in a Schrödinger’s cat state of unrest – they were both citizens and not-citizens, sometimes the beneficiaries of French law, and sometimes bereft of it.

But for a war bleeding France white, black soldiers became one potential solution to the manpower shortage.  A mass conscription of Senegalese oringinaires could provide thousands of men at arms.  But conscription also conferred citizenship.  France could have her thousands of black soldiers, if colonial Africa could have a seat at the table in French political affairs.  The demands of the trenches outweighed the colonial fears of the French ruling class.  Black Africans were no longer broadly defined as Senegalese subjects – they were now French citizens.  Over 200,000 would fight for France; 30,000 would never return home.

The debate over the status of colonial subjects was occurring in all the capitals of the Entente.  The Great War was only just over a year old, but was already remaking European society.

French Senegalese troops – the term “Senegalese” was given to pretty much all central African French subjects, and the “oringinaires” only referred to the coastal population of those colonies

The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.

With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end…

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest

From trenches deep toward the sky.
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.

The Black Soldier’s Lament, George A. Borden

 

To the extent the Entente gave their colonies any considerations at the start of the Great War, it was in pursuit of German colonial possessions.  The rapid expansion of Europe’s colonial empires in the 19th century had left Britain and France in control of vast sections of the globe, with only a thin paste of shifting political allegiances and minimalist military power holding it all together.  Concerns over how the empires could consolidate their gains were secondary to the opportunity to once again enlarge their territories at Germany’s expense.    Continue reading

Veterans Day

Our country has chosen this, the anniversary of the end of World War I, to commemorate our veterans.

I’m terrible at finding words to express that kind of thanks, naturally; I took my best stab at it a couple of years ago, and I’m kind of proud of it – but seriously, how do you thank someone for spending the best years of their life fighting for this country?

It feels somehow mawkish and inadequate to say “thank you for your service”; while it’s sincere enough, it almost feels programmed.

But what else to say?  So thanks, veterans, for all you did; for spending the best years of your lives doing jobs daunting in their danger…

…and grindingly mundane…

…and for doing the impossible…

…and for making it impossible for the bad guys to wreak any of their havoc…

…thanks to you all.

(By the way – I suppose one way to observe Veterans Day is to politicize it, as my “representative”, Betty McCollum, does on her Facebook page.  I’ll demur, thanks).

Not Invented Here


While the “World War 2 – Fact and Myth” series of pieces tied to anniversaries of under-covered events of the war officially ended on VJ Day, First Ringer and I both found that the crush of events around actual life led to us missing deadlines to a few stories we really, really wanted to write.

So we’ll be filling in a few in coming months, on the way to a completely different project.  More on that, later. 


World War 2 was not only the greatest conflagration in human history – it also led to the greatest advance in industry since the Industrial Revolution, and some of the greatest relative leaps of science, and especially technology, ever.

And leading the way, naturally, were the major powers; the elitist craftsmanship and ingenuity of the British, the innovatory engineering prowess of the Germans, and the relatively nimble manufacturing brawn of the United States.

But along the way, a few other nations contributed lesser-known, but vital, advances to techology, on both sides of the war.

There were plenty of them, of course.  For all their ingenuity at building planes and tanks and submarines, the Germans never did design a workable aerial torpedo; they had to buy theirs from the Italians, and eventually pillage them from the Norwegians, who built an excellent aerial torpedo before the war:

A torpedo – a direct copy of the Norwegian “Horten” air-dropped torpedo – being loaded onto a German HE115 torpedo bomber.

And of course, the biggest, baddest example; the lowly Poles, whose intelligence service was credited since the sixties with doing the groundwork that led to the breaking of the German “Enigma” code – and, as we discovered since the Cold War, did more than that.

Here’s one of those stories.

Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t…Yet:  The fact that air power became a decisive arena of conflict surprised nobody at the beginning of the war; since the end of World War I, air power theorists like the American Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and the British Air Marshal “Boom” Trenchard, among many others, had grabbed their various nations’ high commands’ attention and held onto it during the years leading up to the war.  Even the most humble, minor nations invested heavily, albeit not always wisely, in air power.

And the world’s armies and navies in turn invested heavily in the means to attempt to defend against aircraft.

The anti-aircraft gun was invented during World War I.  Anti-Aircraft Artillery – henceforth “AAA” – followed two basic patterns:

  • “Heavy” AAA attempted to calculate where an enemy aircraft was going to be at the time it took to fire a cannon shell with a timer to somewhere close to that point, where it’d explode, hopefully riddling the target aircraft with enough holes to disable it or scare it off, if not destroy it outright.  Until the advent of radar, this involved complex listening and angle-measurement devices to calculate the target’s speed, altitude and heading, and a lot of complex math to try to make sure the planes, shells and explosions intersected.
  • “Light” AAA was basically skeet shooting with heavy – very, very heavy – machine guns.  The goal was to put up a lot of bullets or light cannon shells, and try to physically hit the target.  It sounds simpler – but it’s not; hitting a more or less fast-moving target whose distance, speed and course aren’t precisely known, and which is maneuvering in three dimensions, is a complex undertaking.

Now – both of those cases assume one constant; the location of the guns that are doing the shooting, as would be the case with anti-aircraft guns on land.  On land, AAA guns sit in one, known spot to do their shooting.  Which makes the complex math just a little simpler.

Now – put an AAA gun on a ship, with not only it’s own speed and bearing to track, but the roll and pitch and yaw of wave action and the other forces acting on the vessel to compensate for – and the job of making a bullet or shell intersect with a plane, with its own elevation, angle, range, speed, heading and altitude – and the job just got intellectually herculean.

Think about it:  try skeet-shooting at ac clay pigeon whose launcher you can’t see and whose path you don’t know in advance – from a moving vehicle.

The US created a system that addressed the first, “Heavy” shipboard AAA scenario most effectively; we deployed the “Mark 37 Fire Director”.

Mark 34 Fire Direction system concept drawing.

It linked optical sensers, and eventually radar, to an analog, electromechanical fire control computer that digested all the inputs – target elevation/bearing/altitude/heading/speed, ship speed/heading/roll/pitch/yaw, as well as temperature and humidity – and spit out the bearing and elevation for the guns, and settings for the guns’ fuses and precise firing cues for the guns, allowing the whole process to end in a plane-shattering kaboom somewhere close to the moving target.

It worked well; it’s was still in service, with updated radars and electronics, until very recently in the US Navy.

But for the problem of making light AAA – guns of 40mm or less, basically large machine guns – hit the target, the solution was more byzantine.

The first half came from Sweden.  Bofors Weapon Works invented a 40mm heavy machine gun that fired two two-pound shells a second to a range of about a mile.

A 40m Bofors gun – in this case, in Finland, although interchangeable with guns that served in the US, the UK, all of their allied powers, and even Germany.

It became the iconic anti-aircraft gun of the war; it’s still in service in some parts of the world; it’s immediate descendent is still one of the most popular guns of its type.   I its original, land-based form, it fired from a trailer that sat on jacks on the ground; its’ “fire control system” was a couple of optical sights and a pair of hand cranks to control vertical and horizontal training.

It’d take some work to make it a usable naval system.

It was a Dutch inventor, Walter Hazemeyer, who first developed a mounting that could fight effectively on shipboard.  He fitted a gyroscope and a set of servos to a twin-gun mounting, which effected “triaxial stabilization”; the gun would automatically be kept steady against side-to-side roll, lateral pitch, and horizontal yaw. And it was revolutionary; the Hazemeyer mountings serviced on Dutch naval vessels in the years before the war, and gave a fairly excellent account (which has been largely forgotten, given the speed with which the Dutch fleet collapsed).

A Hazemeyer mounting, with an early British radar, demonstrating stabilization with a pretty fair roll.

And the timing couldn’t have been better.  British ships – lacking the radar-guided heavy AAA of the American Mark 37 and a light AAA gun that had anything other than manual compensation to stabilize it – suffered terribly from close range air attack in the first year of the war.  The standard British light AAA gun, the “Pom-Pom”, had been invented nearly 40 years earlier, and was showing its age.  The alternative – the .50 caliber machine gun – was even worse; a lethal shredder in ground and air-to-air combat, it was useless as an anti-aircraft gun.

An octuple “pom-pom”, found on most British battleships and aircraft carriers, especially earlier in the war. The guns themselves dated from before 1910, and it was optically-trained, and threw itstwo-pound shell at relatively low velocity to a range of a little less than a mile. Still – this mounting would throw out sixteen shots a second, which was nothing to sneeze at in a torpedo bomber that was flying in a straight line at 150 knots…

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Holland, a Dutch minesweeper, the Willem Van Der Zaan, limped into a British port with one of the few Hazemeyer mounts to survive in the European theater.  British (and, shortly, American) engineers swarmed over the mounting, reverse-engineering it and getting it into mass-production in record time.  The Brits teamed the gun with a “Type 282” radar – one of the first attempts at a fire control radar for light AAA.

The results were astounding.  Stabilized Hazemeyer mounts were 2-3 times as effective as the British “Pom Pom”, and similarly superior to the American gun of the day.  And as air threats ramped up later in the war, culminating in the Japanese Kamikaze offensive later in the war, there’s a fair case to be made that the Hazemeyer (and the improvements made on it in the US later in the war), installed in numbers that would have made pre-war naval architects blanche, along with the Mark 37 Heavy AAA controller, allowed the US and British fleets to survive.

An American quadruple 40mm mount. The product of both endless American tinkering with the original Hazemeyer concept, and of the desperate need to increase the amount of light AAA against the rapidly expanding air threat by 1944, this gun mount survived in US service well into the 1980s.

Including, I’ll add, my ex-father-in-law, who was the gun captain of what was essentially a second-generation Hazemeyer mounted-twin Bofors gun in the Pacific – a Swedish gun with Dutch fire control system and British-designed radar – and who bagged a couple of Japanese planes himself.