A Flame Bright Beyond Common Understanding

Today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.

We focus – appropriately, in the great scheme of things – on the triumph that eventually followed the invasion of France; the liberation of Western Europe, the destruction of Naziism, the freeing of the surviving slaves in the labor, concentration and death camps.

We focus on the triumphs of American courage, labor and ingenuity; from victories of pure bravery, like Bastogne to exhibitions of American industry, like the building of enough tanks, ships and planes to equip not only our military but most of those of the Allies, to examples of American leadership, like Patton and Ridgeway and Gavin.

We see less of the sacrifice so many Americans made to buy us, and Europe, and the Western World, the opportunity we have today; the 50,000 Americans killed in the bombing campaign over Europe; the 50,000 more casualties in the largely fruitless campaign in Italy; the thousands who died just getting the US Army overseas against the Germans’ U-Boat offensive.

And, today, on the anniversary of D-Day, the sacrifice of so very many American (alongside British, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Czech, Danish and other) men, whose mission was – I’ll pause for emphasis – to sail in wooden boats through concentrated German artillery fire to the edge of a couple hundred yards of beach, run across the beach under constant machine-gun and mortar fire, and advance up a hill that, depending on where you landed, was either a steep, ravine-gouged bluff or a sheer cliff lined with concrete pillboxes full of Germans with machine guns.

The great historian SLA Marshall goes through the story – a few hours in the lives and mostly deaths – of two companies of the 116h Infantry Regiment; 14 boatloads carrying about 400 American soldiers (and 30-odd British sailors).   At the end of the day, scarcely twenty stood at the top of the cliff still fighting.  That’s 95% casualties – many of whom were never found again, washed out on the tide.

Read it – and whatever it is you do for your life’s calling, marinade yourself in thankful humility.

Extra credit assignment:  show it to an Evergreen State social justice warrior.  By force, if necessary.

The Ark

I saw this story a few years ago, and put it aside until today – the fortieth anniversary of the dedication of the more unusual Catholic churches in the world, Kosciol Arka Pana in Novy Huta, Poland.

Which is interesting in and of itself; Nowy Huta is a district in Krakow that was built as a “Socialist Realist” experiment, an entire community built from the ground up to reflect the ideals of Stalin-era communism.

Including absolute, suffocating atheism.

Poles are, of course, obstreperously Catholic – so the battle between Socialist Atheism and Faith seesawed across the city.  In 1960, a wooden cross was erected with aa permit, prompting police response; violent demonstrations ensued.  The future pope, then-bishop Karol Wojtyla, who began holding annual outdoor Christmas Eve Masses in Nowy Huta in 1959 – and saw to it that ever time the cops removed the cross, another one replaced it.

It took seven years to secure a permit – and, literally, nothing else.  In a society where all resources were officially allocated by the government – picture a government where everyone is Alondra Cano – they did it all with volunteer labor and scrounged material.

With no outside help it was down to the locals to mix cement with spades, and find the two million stones needed for the church’s facade. The first corner stone was laid in 1969 by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, who would later assume fame as Pope John Paul II, but the discovery of a WWII ammunition dump delayed work, as some 5,000 mines and shells had to be carefully removed. Finally, on May 15th 1977, the church was consecrated. Built to resemble Noah’s Ark, with a 70 metre mast-shaped crucifix rising from the middle, the church houses an array of curious treasures, including a stone from the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican, a tabernacle containing a fragment of rutile brought back from the moon by the crew of Apollo 11, and a controversial statue of Christ that shows him not on a cross, but about to fly to the heavens. If you think that’s odd, check out the statue dedicated to Our Lady the Armoured – a half metre sculpture made from ten kilograms of shrapnel removed from Polish soldiers wounded at the Battle of Monte Cassino. In the early 1980s, the church became a focal point during anti-communist protests, not least for the shelter it afforded the locals from the militia. Protesting during the period of Martial Law was dangerous business, as proven by the monument dedicated to Bogdan Włosik opposite the church. Włosik was shot in the chest by security services, and later died of his injuries. His death outraged the people, and his funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners. The monument commemorating the site of his death was erected in 1992 and is a tribute to all those who died during this period. As recently as September 2012, Kraków City Council awarded Arka Pana the ‘Cracoviae Merenti’ silver medallion for its significance to the city’s history.

Apropos not much, other than historical interest.

Memoryhole-o-matic!

A regular reader writes:

A year ago, Slate asked if the civil war could have been avoided and went back decades before the war to point to events leading up to and potentially giving rise to the civil war, as well as potential ways conflict might have been diverted.
Today, I’m told that it is a stupid, crazy thing to ponder and that the civil war happened in 1861, not decades earlier.
I’m not excited about Trump talking up a pro-slavery Democrat. But, I think the Left’s reaction is funny.

In the late thirties and early forties, after the USSR and Germany signed the Molotov/Von Ribbentrop Pact, folk singer and communist Pete Seeger wrote a series of songs castigating FDR for criticizing Stalin’s new bestie Hitler.    Then, when Hitler abrogated the pact by invading the USSR, Seeger withdrew the songs from circulation – literally, asking fans to return their copies to the store – and wrote music praising FDR and the war effort.

If Big Left couldn’t flush it’s own past down the memory hole on demand, the entire movement wouldn’t be intellectually sustainable.

Never Again?

Today is International Victims of Communism Day.

And we need to really push this one, because it’s direly needed.

In an infamouis 2016 survey of millennials:

  • 32% of Millennials thought George Bush killed more people than Stalin
  • 42% didn’t know who Mao Zedong was
  • 37% thought  Lenin was the good guy.

By all rational accounts, Communism has been the greatest human disaster ever to befall mankind.  Greater than Naziism, which is the only accessible yardstick.   Nothing else in human history is even close.

And yet at any gathering of Millennials, you’ll find a bobblehead in a Che t-shirt, and a few more parroting the Bernie-Bro platitudes that are Communism’s entry level drug.

Maybe it’s time to crowd-source a production of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Sunk

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was uneasy as he approached the podium in the Reichstag on January 31st, 1917.  Despite having done more than perhaps any other figure in Europe to ensure the Great War, Bethmann-Hollweg’s support for the conflict had slowly dissipated.  Only weeks earlier, the aging Chancellor had been forced to offer the outline of negotiations by rebellious German legislators eager to bring the bloodshed to an end.

Now, Bethmann-Hollweg was finding himself forced to announce a policy he had long fought against – the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.  While the policy had done more to turn the tables of war in favor of Germany than any other action of their armies, Bethmann-Hollweg feared a continued policy of sinking any and all ships would eventually bring the United States into the conflict.  Three weeks earlier, the leaders of Germany’s Navy had met with the Kaiser and implored Wilhelm II to restart submarine operations.  The nation was starving to death and Berlin’s U-boats were the other weapon that could return the devastation of the blockade in-kind.  The Kaiser agreed.

Bethmann-Hollweg told the assembled delegates that the U-boat campaign would renew the following day, February 1st, 1917.  “We have been challenged to fight to the end,” the Chancellor intoned.  “We accept the challenge. We stake everything, and we shall be victorious.”

A submarine’s view of the war – German U-boats would sink tremendous numbers of British commercial vessels during the Great War


For a weapon that nearly decided two World Wars, the Unterseeboot or U-boat was barely a consideration in Germany’s naval program.    Continue reading

Lost in Translation

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The cable handed to America’s ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, in early January of 1917 was an unusual request.

Since the start of the Great War, Germany’s telegraph lifelines to the rest of the world had been severed by the Royal Navy.  But the undersea cables connecting the United States to Europe had remained undisturbed, and in an effort to demonstrate the nation’s commitment to their stated policy of neutrality, the Wilson administration had allowed Germany use of their lines.

The terms of Germany’s use of America’s transatlantic cables were fairly simple – all messages had to be transmitted “in the clear” – uncoded – or they would not be relaid to other German embassies.  The message in Gerard’s office was coded, set to be delivered to the German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff, in Washington.  The cable was coming from the newly installed Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, who had won Wilson’s trust by positively responding to the American administration’s peace overtures.  Zimmermann was a career bureaucratic from a middle class family – not a member of the German royalty that Wilson privately blamed for the war.  In the interest in building trust with Zimmermann’s office, Gerard let the cable go through on January 16th, 1917.

The recipient may have been Ambassador Bernstorff, but Washington was not the message’s final destination.  Bernstorff relayed the contents to Germany’s Mexican ambassador – an offer of a German/Mexican/Japanese alliance against the United States.  In return for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Mexico would join the Central Powers in the event of America entering Europe’s war.

Arthur Zimmermann believed he was ensuring Germany’s defense.  Instead, he had poured the foundation of Germany’s eventual defeat.

The Zimmerman Telegram made headlines around the world and enraged the United States – leading to her entry into the Great War


The Mexico of 1917 was simmering with political mistrust and foreign intrigue.  And it had started – in small part – over an insufficient apology.    Continue reading

The Holy Alliance

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

It was well after midnight on December 29th, 1916, but the staff of the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg was preparing for a party.

The Palace’s wine cellar had been temporarily redecorated for their expectant visitor.  Furniture and carpets had been moved in, along with a gramophone playing “Yankee Doodle” on a continuous loop.  Several bottles of wine had been set aside for the occasion, in addition to a variety of sweet petit fours.  The number of attendees were unknown – only a few key members of Russia’s nobility and their assistants would later amid to being present.  The host, Prince Felix Yusupov, was attempting to entertain his guest of honor – Grigori Rasputin.  Yusupov had sought out the supposed “mad monk” weeks earlier to attempt to learn some of the controversial holy man’s healing techniques.

What followed was a mixture of partial facts blended with mysticism and politically-motivated exaggeration.  Popular legend states that Yusupov fed Rasputin treat after treat laced with potassium cyanide to no effect.  Re-interpretation suggests that one of the night’s conspirators, a doctor, couldn’t violate his Hippocratic Oath to poison the famed mystic.  Reality suggests the food was either never poisoned or was administered before being baked, evaporating the cyanide in the process.

After an hour, an exasperated Yusupov had tired of playing guitar and listening to an increasingly drunk Rasputin.  The Prince would retrieve his gun and, according to his testimony years later, “a shudder swept over me; my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger.”  Rasputin was seemingly dead – only to reanimate himself and stumble out the door where he kept moving despite four more shots.  Only a following head shot supposedly slayed the infamous corruptor of the House of Romanov.

In reality, Yusupov’s first shot had passed through Rasputin’s mid-section without major damage.  One of the Prince’s co-conspirators, politician Vladimir Purishkevich, had fired multiple times at Rasputin and connected only once – a bullet to his spine.  The body was dumped in the Malaya Nevka River with such haste that one of Rasputin’s galoshes was stuck in the bars of the bridge.  Unsure of how to react, the participants dismissed the police sent to investigate the gunshots heard at the Palace, only to re-invite them back to brag about killing Rasputin…all the while insisting the officers keep the incident quiet.

Grigori Rasputin had been an enigma in life – his role in Tsarist Russia a subject of heated debate then and now.  In death, the man from the Siberian Plain would become a legendary indictment of Russia’s nobility and government in the First World War.

The truth of Rasputin is difficult to uncover – many “facts” of his life have later been proven false.  Allegations abound as to his behavior and influence over the Romanovs


By the winter of 1916, St. Petersburg had become a national paradox – the seat of government for Tsarist Russia, yet a capitol increasingly void of political power.

Tsar Nicholas II had long since left the capitol for Moghilev, some 400 miles away, after appointing himself Commander-in-Chief following the Russian army’s rout in the summer of 1915.  Left behind in St. Petersburg to manage the domestic affairs of state were Nicholas’ wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, and a deeply divided State Duma with little actual authority.   Continue reading

White Friday

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The men of the Austro-Hungarian 1st Battalion of the Imperial Rifle Regiment Nr.III likely considered themselves fortunate.  Stationed at the summit of Mount Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites section of the Alps, the soldiers were on a fairly passive part of the Italian front.  Their barracks, build into the mountain side in the summer of 1916, was well protected by rock cliffs, which limited the effectiveness of Italian artillery.  Even the weather was reasonable.  Despite the massive snowfalls of that winter, the temperatures were warming.

The roar that the battalion heard at 5:30 in the morning on Friday, December 13th, 1916, didn’t sound like artillery.  It groaned and seemed to move closer towards them, shaking the very earth under their feet.  Most the men in the unit had been awakened by the sound, only moments before 200,000 tons of snow and ice collapsed on top of them.  In an instant, 270 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were killed by an avalanche – a part of 10,000 men killed by falling snow in December of 1916 alone.

The Italian front continued to find new ways to claim lives.

Austro-Hungarian troops survey their position – the Hapsburgs would suffer nearly 2.4 million casualties on the Italian front


It had taken multiple failed offensives, and a nearly successful Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive, but Italy’s fortunes in the Great War had finally improved.

The late summer of 1916 had presented Italy with an opportunity.  Between the Battle of Asiago and the Brusilov Offensive of that summer, the Dual Monarchy was on the verge of a military collapse.  Vienna had transferred hundreds of thousands of men from the Eastern front to the Italian front, and when that gambled failed, had been forced to do the same back to the East as the Romanians pressed into the underbelly of the Habsburg Empire.  Despite five different attempts at breaking the deadlock at Isonzo over the course of a year and a half, for the cost of over 175,000 casualties, Italy now held something it never had before – a numerical advantage.    Continue reading

The Knockout

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

It was 7pm on December 6, 1916, as several of the key members of Britain’s War Cabinet arrived at Buckingham Palace.  For the past 24 hours, Britain had been without a Prime Minister – and seemingly no one was willing to accept the position.

Herbert Henry (H.H.) Asquith had not been a particularly popular war-time Prime Minister, as he had been increasingly mistrusted by both the left and right in his coalition government.  Nevertheless, Asquith’s resignation the day before had come as a shock.  Even more surprising was that the office’s natural successor, the Conservative opposition leader Bonar Law, had declined George V’s offer to form a new coalition.  Law had insisted on Asquith’s continued presence in the War Cabinet; Asquith spoke of resigning from politics altogether and escaping to Hawaii.  Despite George V’s negotiations throughout the day of the 6th, the Monarch couldn’t bring together the disparate parties.

Now the torch of British leadership was being offered to a man who just two years earlier had been accused of being a pacifist, a political radical, and a “Little Englander” (a supporter of self-government for many of Britain’s colonies).  Instead, for the next two years, David Lloyd George would be one of the strongest proponents for continuing the Great War and expanding the British Empire.


David Lloyd George inspects the troops. He would go from war skeptic to hard-line war supporter within the course of the conflict

Britain and the Entente had seen many crises during the Great War, forcing out elected leadership in most of the democratic members of the alliance.  By the fall of 1916, the French were already on their third Prime Minister, with two more to follow before the fighting was done.  By comparison, the Italians, infamous for their dysfunctional governance, would have only three different PM’s throughout the entire conflict.   Continue reading

Happy Reagan’s Birthday

Today would be Ronald Reagan’s 106th birthday.

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.  His eight years were not perfect, and I don’t beatify my presidents, even if they’ve been out of office for almost thirty years.  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.

But in these difficult times, after two terms of a President who promoted  fear and malaise in the guise of “change” and “doing something”, it’s worth remembering Reagan’s example; when times seemed at their most dire, Reagan walked onto the scene with a smile and a vision, and a backbone of steel, and cleaned up the mess lefty by his failed predecessor – something our next president will need even more of in 2016.

And the most important part? He did it by unleashing something that many, then as now, thought was dead – the inner, optimistic, take-charge greatness of the American spirit.

The best we can hope for from our current president is that he approaches the job with the same tenacity to match his vision that Reagan had.

Oh, there are those who say “today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate Reagan!” – to which I respond with a contemptuous sign, before telling the critic to listen to “A Time for Choosing”, and tell me who is more resembles; Arne Carlson, or Scott Walker?

Reagan’s gone. But that spirit, the one he understood, almost alone among American politicans of his era, lives on in the American people. Most of it, anyway.

So Happy Reagan’s Birthday, everyone!

NOTE: While this blog encourages a raucous debate, this post is a hagiography zone. All comments deemed critical of Reagan will be expunged without ceremony. You’ve been warned.

You have the whole rest of the media to play about in; this post is gonna be gloriously one-note.

Follow the Leader

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The aging Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been confined to his bed for several days.  The 86 year-old monarch, who had reigned for nearly 68 years, had caught a cold that had developed into pneumonia.  While Joseph’s participation in the day-to-day affairs of state had been significantly curtailed for years, the Empire still waited nervously for updates on the monarch’s conditions.

Franz Joseph’s empire had been beset with ethnic divisions for decades – the Austrian monarchy had become the Dual Monarchy with Hungary under his watch.  Yet Joseph remained a popular, unifying figure for all the ethnicities under Habsburg rule.  Bismarck himself had noted many years earlier that despite the nationalist squabbles of the nation, “if Kaiser Franz Josef should mount his horse, all his people will follow him.”

On November 21st, 1916, Franz Joseph died.  The glue of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had faded away.


The outlines of the demographics of Austria-Hungary, circa 1910.  It’s easy to see the beginning traces of the states that would follow in the Dual Monarchy’s fall

The narrative of the final years of Austria-Hungary was of a rising tide of nationalist fervor overtaking a polyglot empire.  And most assuredly, the Habsburgs presided over one of the most diverse kingdoms of Europe.  Austrians, Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Muslims, Jews and others made the Dual Monarchy their home, with the empire recognizing 10 different ethnicities in their 1910 census.  With the rise of ethnic-based states like Serbia, observers from both outside and within the Empire wondered how unified Vienna could be in the event of war.   Continue reading

3,800 Votes

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

As the night of November 7th, 1916 became the early morning hours of November 8th, supporters of Charles Evans Hughes were becoming increasingly confident.

The former New York Governor, Supreme Court Justice and Republican nominee for President, Hughes had waged a brief campaign – he hadn’t sought the office but accepted the nomination in June – but looked as though he was on the verge of winning.  Hughes had all but swept the Eastern states, racking up victories in large electoral college states like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois.  By the time the reported results had turned to the Western states, Hughes already had nearly 249 electoral votes (New Hampshire was still too close to call) out of the 266 he needed to win.  The early numbers in the West had favored incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, but Hughes’ camp felt secure that he would obtain at least Oregon and California’s votes.  Together, they would deliver the Presidency to Hughes.

Despite Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and numerous acts of terrorism, America had remained neutral in Europe’s conflict.  Wilson had campaigned largely on his ability to keep America out of the war, while Hughes had spent the last five months questioning the nation’s preparations.  Despite Hughes wanting to side-step any mention of the war directly, the campaign’s final weeks had devolved into a pro-neutrality versus pro-Entente/pro-war election.

The results from Oregon and California, although not official, arrived early in the morning – Hughes looked likely to win them both.  As Hughes drifted off to sleep, it was as the President-elect of the United States.  America had taken one step closer to preparing for war.


It’s not quite “Dewey Defeats Truman” but the nation assumed they had narrowly elected Charles Hughes as President

The common historical refrain of America’s attitude about the Great War in 1914 was that the nation staunchly preferred peace.  In reality, the nation was strongly divided on a variety of issues surrounding Europe’s conflict.   Continue reading

Romania’s Day

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The Romanian ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was insistent on delivering his communique on August 27th, 1916.  Entrusted with a diplomatic message directly from Romania’s Prime Minister Ion Bratianu, the ambassador was rushing to made sure it reached the correct authorities within the Dual Monarchy.

In a verbose note that covered Romania’s relatively short diplomatic history with the Habsburgs – the nation had at one point been a part of the Triple Alliance along with the Austrians, Germans and Italians – Bratianu recited a long list of perceived slights and concerns for the young Romanian nation.  The Dual Monarchy had regarded the Romanians as “an inferior race” which had led to a “continual state of animosity,” at least according to Bratianu.  For these reasons, and many, many others, the note concluded: “Rumania considers herself, from this moment, in a state of war with Austria-Hungary.”

The Romanian ambassador had done his job.  Only the note was supposed to be delivered on August 28th, not the 27th – meant to arrive as Romanian troops were already crossing the Austro-Hungarian border.

Romania had surveyed the landscape of the Great War and decided to join the Entente in a grasp for territory and power.  Within two days of their premature declaration of war, they found themselves surrounded and in conflict with every nation of the Central Powers.


The Romanians weren’t exactly fighting for “freedom and justice.”  Romania’s Day would be extremely short

Romania’s choice to go to war in the late summer of 1916 may have been cynically opportunistic, but the nation’s optimism seemed firmly grounded by the war’s recent turn of events.   Continue reading

Does Harvard Give Refunds?

Rachel Maddow – not the most overrated “public intellectual” in the leftymedia, but pretty dang close – threw out some hilarioiusly historicalliy-ignorant red meat organic gruel for her audience of ill-informed wannabe intellects.

Over the past year I’ve been reading a lot about what it was like when Hitler first became chancellor. I am gravitating toward moments in history for subliminal reference in terms of cultures that have unexpectedly veered into dark places, because I think that’s possibly where we are

Well, there’s a “subliminal reference” there, but not the one Maddow is thinking of.

Let’s look back on when Hitler became Chancellor.

It was a decade when political parties kept private armies that roamed the streets beating, stabbing and sometimes shooting their opponents. There were more than a few massacres, of both commies and Nazis.   The left has some groups that might, with a little more derangement, become “private armies”, but I’ll be charitable and assume thats not where we’re going, at least on purpose.  

Germany had a parliamentary system that gave a president – superannuated General Von Hindenburg – the power to dissolve the government – something easily used by a crafty plurality to stage what amounted to a bloodless consensual coup.   That’d be hard to do, at least legally, within the US’s constitutional system.  Of course, the left has spent the past eight weeks floating ideas to circumvent or avoid the constitution – but again, let’s just chalk that up to the whining of spoiled, entitled children of all ages.

It was a place deeply fractured among extremist parties that hated each other and often acted on that hate. OK – the left might be giving us that equivalence.

Otherwise? Shut up, Rachel, and make me a f****ng sandwich.

Mirage

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The men of the British 2nd Light Horse Brigade welcomed the setting sun on the night of August 3rd, 1916.  Stationed at the small Egyptian town of Romani in the Sinai, the men had been forced to contend with the unforgiving elements of the desert more than their Ottoman opponents for months.  The few wells and vast distances between towns or outposts exacerbated the effects of the 120-degree temperatures, which took their toll on the Brigade’s men and horses.  Wrapping up their daily patrol in the cool desert night was a refreshing change of pace.

The night-time patrols had been deemed necessary as the Ottoman presence near Romani, only 23 miles from the Suez Canal, had slowly increased.  But since the Ottoman raid against the Suez in January of 1915, what little fighting had occurred in the Sinai had been done as minor raiding parties by either side.  Other than the disastrous Turkish invasion of Sarikamish early in the war, the Ottoman Empire had been almost exclusively on the defensive.  The threat of a large-scale Turkish offensive seemed little more than another desert-fueled illusion.

The sounds of gunfire and artillery as the night of August 3rd became the early morning of August 4th confirmed the fears of the Brigade’s commanders.  8,000 troops – the vanguard of a mixture of 16,000 Ottomans, Germans and Austro-Hungarians threw themselves against the light horsemen.  The strength of the Central Powers in the Middle East was about to reach its zenith.

Members of a captured Turkish ambulance at Romani. The battle would be the Central Powers’ attempt to gain the upper hand in the Sinai and Egypt


For all of the strategic importance of the Suez Canal – its construction had reduced the journey between Bombay and London by nearly half, facilitating trade that rapidly grown Britain’s economy – neither Britain nor the Ottoman Empire had prioritized efforts to defend or occupy the Sinai.  Instead, the significant battles for control of the Middle East had thus far occurred in the Bosphorus and Mesopotamia.   Continue reading

The Embers of Prometheus

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The town of Kostiuchnówka had already seen heavy fighting for nearly a year when the first hits of Russian artillery landed on July 4th, 1916.  The town, located in Austrian occupation Russian territory (now, modern Ukraine), had been part of the frontline that was the Eastern Front since the massive Central Powers’ victory in the summer of 1915.  Now, Kostiuchnówka was again an active battlefield as part of the Russian Brusilov Offensive.

The attack had unfolded as most of the attacks during the offensive – a brief artillery barrage followed by seasoned Russian troops putting pressure on the entire front, hoping to form a crack and exploit the advantage.  26,000 Russians were prepared to assault Kostiuchnówka.  Only their opponents weren’t the usual mixture of men from the Dual Monarchy.

Many of the 5,500-7,300 men facing the Russians had recently been Russian nationals themselves.  The men of the Polish Legion, led under Józef Piłsudski, weren’t merely fighting for Berlin or Vienna’s claims on Tsarist Russia, but for a renewed homeland for themselves.  As Pilsudski’s men fell, the seeds for the short-lived Kingdom of Poland were being planted.


Russian pro-Polish propaganda – the Russians tried to keep Poles from rebelling, as they had four other times since 1830

Despite the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth being one of the largest nation states in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, Poland had usually been at the mercy of their neighbors.  By the summer of 1916, Poland had ceased to exist for more than 120 years following the nation’s division between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.  Yet the potential future of a Polish state was very much on the minds of the country’s long-past conquerors.    Continue reading

Anniversary

I missed this one until I was reminded yesterday; 12/26 is the 26th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union.

It didn’t really get headlines, did it?   That’s because the American Media / Academic / Industrial Complex bet on the wrong side.

The media has spent most of this past generation – a generation – pretending they knew it was going to happen all along; that the Soviet Union was a top-heavy planned nightmare that was bound to collapse sooner than later.  Which may have been true – but absolutely nobody in the Media/Academic/Industrial Complex predicted it beforehand.  Through the eighties, the usual suspects contended the Second World was a viable system; “Soviet Expert” Strobe Talbot predicted the USSR was here to stay as late as 1991.   They’ve also spread the fiction that the USSR didn’t collapse; it came in for a planned, soft landing, courtesy of Mikhail Gorbachev.    It’s nonsense, of course; Gorbachev was a symptom; the Politburo’s reaction to the gathering realization that Reagan was a different breed of President.   While America’s idiot “elites” still chuckle over the invasion of Grenada, inside the Kremlin it was another matter; according to Anatolii Dobrynin (as related in Dinesh D’Souza’s wonderful bio of Reagan), the backing up of a “red line” with overwhelming force rocked the Soviet leadership on its heels, and prompted a reassessment of the USSR’s diminishing options against a re-arming, determined West and an Eastern Europe that was roiling with dissent (supported by coalition of Western Partners, including the unlikely but effective alliance of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, who helped funnel US aid to Eastern labor movements that led the battle against the communists).

How hard were the media pulling for the Communists?  In 1994 – barely two years after Russian troops departed Polish soil, when Poland had just spent all but 20 years of the previous several centuries occupied by Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Czars, Nazis and Communists – a short, sharp recession hit the emerging Polish market.  Tom Brokaw went on the NBC Evening News and said “Yut urpeers thut thuh Pawlish uhxpurruhmuhnt wuth thuh fruh markuht huhs FAYLed” (Translation:  It appears that the Polish experiment with the free market has failed”).    Love that double standard, doncha – Fidel Castro’s Cuba got a sixty year pass on the complete collapse of socialism, and Barack Obama is still blaming Bush for things – but Poland got a two year grace period from the media.  Fortunately, the Poles ignored Tom Brokaw, and built a solid, free economy.  (It was, however, the moment I declared personal war on the mainstream media).

Academia’s been worse.  American academia has been tending the collectivist, autocrat flame without a break since the fall of The Wall.

The Eastern Europeans – the hundreds of millions of people in the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Ukraine, Georgia, and others who started fumbling their imperfect way to freedom, sometimes haltingly, sometimes with detours, sometimes with roadblocks backed with Russian tanks, starting a generation ago yesterday?  They know better.

Reagan statue, unveiled in Budapest

They’ve dedicated monuments to Reagan all over Eastern Europe.

Reagan statue in Warsaw, redolent in the kind of symbolism Polish artists do best.

Statue of Reagan and Pope John Paul II at Ronald Reagan Park in Gdansk, Poland – which is on the short list of “fault lines that led to the collapse of the USSR”.

A Georgian man who used to sit next to me on the bus spelled it out to me; Ronald Reagan was, and is, revered in Georgia, for having “brought us freedom”.

Not Gorbachev.

Not Strobe Talbott.

Not random happenstance and a bad economy.

UPDATE:  When I say “the media”, I mean the mainstream one that’s still pining for those cool-lookig May Day parades.  Not the King Banaian Radio Show, which covered the collapse last Saturday.

The Arab Revolt

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The call to early morning prayers (the fajr) had reverberated throughout Mecca on June 10th, 1916.  The modestly-sized city of less than 80,000 was only just beginning their day as Hussein bin Ali, the Ottoman-appointed Sharif of Mecca, strode to the balcony of the Hashemite Palace.

Despite the conflicts to their East in the Sinai and Mesopotamia to their West, the holiest city in all of Islam, home to the Masjid al-Haram or “Sacred Mosque,” had been remarkably quiet.  Most of the Ottoman troops stationed in Mecca had been relocated, leaving only a skeleton force of a thousand men.  A large military presence in the holy city, the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s triumphant return following years of exile in nearby Medina, was otherwise considered unseemly.

From the balcony of the Hashemite Palace, a shot was fired into the air.  As the echo coasted down the city streets, 5,000 men began firing upon the Ottoman fortresses that dotted the town.  Peering out from behind one of the fortress walls, the Ottoman commander quickly telephoned Sharif Hussein bin Ali – who was attacking them?  Both the attackers and defenders were flying the same flag of the Kingdom of Hejaz, the regional authority of the Ottoman Empire.  Were these attackers Bedouin?  Ottoman deserters?  The British?  No, Sharif Hussein bin Ali replied – they were his troops.

What would become known as the “Arab Revolt” had begun.  And the era of Ottoman control of the desert was about to end.


Arab Revolt – the romanticized view.  In reality, it would become a brutal conflict and one heavily subsidized by the British

In the summer of 1916, the dichotomy of the politics of the Arabian Peninsula were profound.  Nowhere else in the Ottoman Empire was a region governed by men so willing to rebel, yet leading over a populace so apparently disinterested in doing so.   Continue reading

Here Be Dragons

It’s hard to think about warfare in the past century without conjuring up the image of the tank.

Today’s main battle tanks – nearly impregnable to any weapon that faces them on land – are like the land-battleships they were intended to be, 100 years ago.

British “Challenger II” main battle tanks. A Challenger scored the longest-ranged tank to tank kill in history – 5,000 yards. That’s three miles. With a first shot.

Some wars have involved vast fleets of tanks duking it out, in the desert…

Israeli “Patton” Tanks – US-built M-60s – maneuver across the Sinai in 1973.

…and the sub-arctic…

A British “Scorpion” “tank” (actually a light scout vehicle) in the Falklands in 1983.  Although mostly intended for covertly snooping around enemy positions in Europe, it was heavier than anything the Argentinians had brought to the Falklands, and so may as well have been the above-mentioned Challenger II.

…and on the steppe.

German “King Tiger” tanks – the most powerful tank of World War II – at the Battle for Berlin.

Of course, at times the legend of impregnability was an illusion; beneath the hide of hardened steel, they were vehicles full of fuel and explosives and far-from-impregnable men.

An American “Sherman” tank, blown literally to pieces by an internal ammunition explosion. Those sides that are peeled open are 1.5-1.75 inches thick. The turret weighs something like five tons.

Today’s main battle tank is like a formula 1 car compared even to tanks from the 1970s; todays’ American M1 Abrams…

A pair of M1 Abrams tanks.

…is powered by turbine engine, has a laser range-finder integrated into a digital fire control system that allows it to score first-round kills while moving, against moving targets, at ranges well over a mile, firing hypervelocity rounds with tungsten or depleted-uranium cores that can slice through armor like it’s cardboard at ranges well over a mile.

Soviet-built T-72 tank, destroyed by an American tank round that drilled through the sand berm, and then through the armor.

And the concept got its first shakedown 100 years ago today.

Continue reading

“Their Business Is War, And They Do Their Business”

John Noonan in the Weekly Standard does his bit to correct a bit of comic historical slander against the French military.

The stereotype exists in a realm of pop-history, where many believe that France’s past is littered with dropped rifles and abandoned posts. This stink has clung to the French military for decades now. It’s wrong, inaccurate, and undeserved.

While there is no definitive history of cruel japes, the idea of the surrendering French seems to have come from World War II and the Battle of France. There, Hitler’s army enveloped French, British, and Belgian forces in a brilliant flanking maneuver. The ensuing evacuation of 350,000 soldiers at Dunkirk is renowned as one of England’s finest hours. What fewer have heard of is the heroic stand of the French First Army at Lille, where 40,000 encircled French soldiers held out against 7 German divisions. While others fled, the outnumbered French bravely stood and fought—ensuring the successful evacuation of another 100,000 allied troops.

And history did not end 75 years ago:

After the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, the Spanish government withdrew its combat forces from Iraq. After the 2015 Paris attacks claimed the lives of 137, France responded by hammering ISIS positions in Syria. President Francois Hollande addressed his nation with resolve, saying “[terrorists] must be certain that they are facing a determined France, a united France, a France that is together and does not let itself be moved.”

Of course, if you read this blog, you had the whole story six years ago.  

Uncommon Valor

A company of 88 British paratroopers and Irish infantry, outnumbered six to one, hold out for two months without reinforcements

And their near miraculous survival has been described as a latter day Rorke’s Drift, evocative of the 1879 siege in which 140 British soldiers held off a Zulu force of 3,000, later immortalised in the blockbuster film starring Michael Caine.
For 56 days in the autumn of 2006, the men at Musa Qala faced constant fire from fixed machine gun posts and mortars.
Hungry and frequently at the point of exhaustion, they were forced to somehow fend off 360-degree attacks from the Taliban, with little protection beyond a series of low mud walls.
They used up a quarter of all the British Army’s Afghan ammunition for that entire year.

…and are barred from talking about it for ten years.  

Yet while Rorke’s Drift has been immortalised in film and resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses, Musa Qala has been reduced to a controversial footnote in the history of the Afghan conflict.
It does not serve Whitehall well for details of such a poorly resourced mission to be revealed.
Steve Humphries, the award-winning producer who has painstakingly put the jigsaw of pieces together for broadcast a decade later, says: ‘It’s a shocking account of what was supposed to be a peaceful mission to help bring security and stability to the region.

The whole thing is worth a read – and I may see if the BBC streams it next week.

The Somme, Part II: The First Day

It was well before dawn, on what promised to be a warm day in central France.

The 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – the “Accrington Pals”, who’d volunteered en masse for service in the war, in line with the great British tradition of turning out for King and Country – had had a busy year; after a stretch of duty guarding the Suez Canal in Egypt, they’d been recalled to France (along with their 94th Infantry Brigade, part of the 31st Infantry Division, a unit of about 15,000 men recruited in the north of England in the first autumn of the war.

The 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – the “Accrington Pals” – parading in Accrington in 1915.

Like the rest of the Brigade, they’d seen little to no action – Egypt worried the Imperial General Staff greatly, but the Ottoman Turks had never managed to make good on the potential threat they posed; indeed, they’d largely crumbled throughout the Middle East – partly as a result of post-dated self-determination checks written by the British and French that we’re still paying for today, especially in “Palestine”.

But as the war dragged on into its third bloody summer, the Accrington Pals became part of the General Staff’s plan to make a major difference in the war.

And they did – but not in the way that the Staff planned.

Continue reading

The Somme, Part I: The Accrington Pals

100 years ago tomorrow, the Battle of the Somme began.

We’ll come back to that tomorrow, on the anniversary of the battle’s launch.

First, we’re going to talk tradition.


Since 1588, when Queen Elizabeth I’s brand-new Royal Navy destroyed a Spanish invasion fleet, the United Kingdom had depended on the Royal Navy to be both the glue that held the Empire together, as well as the shield that kept the tiny, vulnerable island nation both safe and supplied.

The British Army, on the other hand, had always been the red-headed (not to mention red-coated) stepchild; existing as a creation of Parliament, cobbled together from centuries of expedience and accidents and the vicissitudes of nobility, subject to wild mood swings in terms of funding and staffing, and frequently serving more as a hard core for large armies of colonials, natives and mercenaries throughout the empire.  This had been especially true in the previous 100 years, when the end of the Napoleonic Wars ushered in the “Pax Brittania”, one of history’s longest eras of relative peace – ensured by British force of arms, meaning largely the Royal Navy.  During this time the Army had fought primarily as the empire’s policeman, fighting in large numbers only in the Crimea in the 1850s, and the “Boer War” in South Africa in 1899 and 1900 – wars that had led to little in the way of public relations, but much in the way of reform, after some disastrous early reverses.   The Army served mostly in obscurity, a closed-off warrior tribe.  The Army had wryly nicknamed itself “The Old Contemptibles” before the war, mirroring their view of their public image.

But the Army had had three things going for it.

All They Could Be:  in their isolation and obscurity, they – or at least the regulars – became very much a warrior elite.  At a time when ammunition was a downright cheap commodity, Army units would spend days at the range honing their marksmanship.  As noted earlier in the series, the firepower of the Contemptibles caught the advancing Germans by surprise in their first contact, at the first Battle of the Marne.  The Army had long been a force of long-serving career soldiers (the shortest hitch available to a full-time British soldier in the early 1900s was 12 years) backstopped with the “Territorial Army” and “Militia”, analogous to our National Guard, intended for home defense, who were trained to a much lower level.

For The Love Of The Game:  They were volunteers.  As, indeed, British soldiers had been throughout all of history; while the Royal Navy had long had a history of shanghaiing British citizens (and even foreigners) into service on their ships, the Army had been an all-volunteer force.  While conscription had been broached during the Napoleonic Wars, it was intended for home-defense forces – and even that proposal provoked a constitutional crisis in the UK.   At any rate – the British Army had always been primarily a volunteer force; as such, they had some huge advantages over largely draftee armies like Germany and France; the volunteers wanted to be there; when the chips were down and the stress of combat was at full blast, that fact was often the difference between carrying home an attack and taking cover and calling it off; between holding a beleaguered position and running away or surrendering.

Tradition:  The French have a term, “esprit de corps” – loosely, “Spirit of the Unit” – which means virtually nothing to civilians.  But in the extreme stress of battle, having that spirit, or esprit, is sometimes the difference between staying a difficult course and collapsing into a rabble.  That esprit is built from generations, even centuries, of tradition that imbue the soldier with the sense that they are part of a long-standing elite – and those traditions can not be let down.

The United States – being a country that was expressly founded out of a fear of standing militaries, and the long-standing traditions they accrete – was largely unfamilar with this idea for most of two centuries; its military units, almost entirely raised by the states for all major wars, from the Revolution through the Spanish-American War, tended to have no history to them at all; in each of these wars, the US really had two armies; the “US Army”, the tiny, professional force of long-serving regulars, and the various armies of state troops committed to federal service; that’s why most of the units of the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War had names like the “First Minnesota” and “23rd Virginia”; they were state units lent to the federal or confederate government, as the case may be.  Even with the sunset of the state militia system before World War I, American units in both World Wars and Korea tended to be created on the fly, given an anonymous, administrative numbers (the “175th Infantry Regiment”), and dissolved when the war ended.

And it makes a difference.  In the Battle of the Bulge, the US 106th Infantry Division – an anonymous unit with no history, no tradition (and very little training and no combat experience) folded like an Ikea end-table under the German attack, while the 101st Airborne – a unit with three years of tradition (and experience (and training as an “elite” paratroop division) held out while surrounded at Bastogne.

The exception?  The US Marines – who use their hundreds of years of tradition as a fundamental building block of their  esprit de corps.  A member of the First Marine Regiment (“The First Marines”), gets the Regiment’s history – Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue – drilled into his head; it makes the Marine part of a tradition that must be upheld.

It seems corny and overwrought to civilians – but it’s been the difference between standing and running, between victory and defeat, and ergo life and death, for countless servicemen.

And it’s been the status quo for Britain forever; even in 1914, there were British units with 250 years of tradition; units like the Grenadier Guards, the Black Watch, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Royal Scots each had centuries of battle honors, heroes, shared mythology, all of which – along with years of hard training – contributed to the units’ ethos, as elites who were just plain better than their conscripted German opponents.

And in the first weeks of the war, before constant combat against long odds, heavy artillery and machine guns ground the Contemptibles down to a shadow of their former strength, they were,  Much, much better.

The Reboot:  In September of 1914, Lord Kitchener – the legendary hero of the Boer War – broke from the majority of British policymakers’ opinion. While most sunnily held that the war would be over by Christmas, Kitchener believed, almost alone, that the war was going to be long and brutal, and that the Contemptibles (who had not quite yet gotten into the thick of the action) would need help.

With Kitchener’s leadership (and likeness), the Army launched one of history’s iconic ad campaigns:

Kitchener Wants You. Kitchener was a hero of the Boer War, and a popular figure in Britain in 1914; imagine if David Petraeus had become a media star after the Anbar Awakening, and then multiply it.  The US could only muster “Uncle Sam” for its parallel campaign in both World Wars.

The call went out for volunteers to staff an entire “New Army” – actually five “New Armies”, each a force of six infantry divisions plus support troops.

Among them were a large number – over 200 – “Service” or “Local Reserve” battalions, each affiliated with an existing regiment, each initiated by a sponsor – a town mayor, a member of parliament, a trade group, a school, a factory, even a club (there were three battalions formed from “football” associations, the “Football Battalions”).   These battalions, made up of men from the same town, trade or avocation, were called “Pals Battalions”.

In A Village In Lancashire:  On September 2, 1914, in rural Lancashire, the mayor and town council of the village of Accrington opened a recruiting station to begin assembling men for a new unit; officially, it was the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – a unit formed in 1881 from two earlier regiments with battle honors dating back to 1702, in India, Gibraltar and the Napoleonic Wars; as the “East Lancs”, they fought with distinction in the Boer War.  It was into this tradition that the men of the 11th Battalion were inducted.   It took precisely ten days to recruit the men for the entire Battalion.

Notwithstanding the fact that the roughly 1,000 men (in four rifle companies of around 220 men, plus a headquarters and service company) were from all sorts of villages in East Lancashire – Burnley, Blackburn, Chorley and others – the battalion was sponsored by the mayor of Accrington – so the 11th was nicknamed the “Accrington Pals”, a name that stuck with it throughout its service.

The 11th Battalion went through training near Accrington – the War Office and the Army didn’t have anyplace to barrack the men, in the confused early days of the war, so the men lived in tents, or at home.  There were also insufficient rifles, and even uniforms – so the Battalion’s NCO’s frequently wore the bright scarlet field uniforms left over from the early days of the Boer War (which were replaced with dull khaki when the scarlet proved to be a perfect target for Boer marksmen), while the enlisted men frequently drilled in civilian clothes with regimental badges pinned on, carrying wooden mockups of rifles until the real thing became available.

Eventually, uniforms, rifles, and a War Department directive arrived – and the Pals joined the 94th Infantry Brigade (with two “Pals” battalions from Barnsley and one from Sheffield) of the 31st Infantry Division – part of Kitchener’s Fourth Army, a division mostly built from other “Pals Battalions” from northern England.  After training and a period on Home Defense duty, the Accrington Pals initially deployed to Egypt with the 31st Division, to ward off a potential Turkish threat to the Suez Canal, before being recalled to France in the late spring as part of a buildup for an upcoming offensive in the region along the Somme River, in northern France.

We’ll come back to the battle – and the Accrington Pals – tomorrow.