Listening to Martin Luther King’s “I Have Been To The Mountaintop”, it’s glaring how far the art of oratory and rhetoric has sunk, even just in my own lifetime.
Martin Luther King was, of course, a tall yardstick to which to compare any orator.
Listening to Martin Luther King’s “I Have Been To The Mountaintop”, it’s glaring how far the art of oratory and rhetoric has sunk, even just in my own lifetime.
Martin Luther King was, of course, a tall yardstick to which to compare any orator.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
They’ve dedicated monuments to Reagan all over Eastern Europe.
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 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 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.
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
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.
Some wars have involved vast fleets of tanks duking it out, in the desert…
…and the sub-arctic…
…and on the steppe.
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.
Today’s main battle tank is like a formula 1 car compared even to tanks from the 1970s; todays’ American M1 Abrams…
…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.
And the concept got its first shakedown 100 years ago today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Reagan, speaking 32 years ago at Pointe Du Hoc, above Omaha Beach:
“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades.
And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing.
Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe.
Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.”
– Ronald Reagan, 1984
Despite rough seas, the HMS Hampshire was making good time on June 5th, 1916. Having left the main British naval base in Scapa Flow, Scotland, the cruiser was easily outrunning its destroyer escort.
With the wound of Jutland fresh in the minds of the admiralty, the HMS Hampshire had been assigned a circuitous route through the Orkney Islands to avoid German U-boats and yet another British naval casualty. Besides, the HMS Hampshire was carrying precious cargo – the Secretary of State for War, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener. The man whose image had called millions of Britons to service in the Great War, had seen his political star dim by 1916, as his support of tertiary British fronts and efforts just short of conscription hadn’t produced his promised results. Still, Kitchener maintained some of his pre-war aura as the heroic pragmatist with a golden touch. His dire warnings on British manpower – that the war would be won by the nation capable of finding the “last million men” – had echoed in the halls of power only months earlier.
Kitchener’s mission aboard the HMS Hampshire had him en route to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk, where the Secretary was charged with negotiating yet another agreement for supplies with the Tsar’s failing government. He would never arrive.
At 7pm, an explosion tore through the hull of the HMS Hampshire – the victim of a U-boat placed mine. The ship starting listing immediately, on it’s way to sinking within 15 minutes. As sailors scrambled towards the few lifeboats that were being lowered, a figure caught their eye. Standing calmly on the starboard side of the vessel, casually chatting with fellow officers was the War Secretary himself. It would be the last time anyone would see Lord Kitchener again.
“We hoped against hope, but no doubt now remains. A great figure gone. The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten…He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest.”
–Journalist Charles Repington upon Kitchener’s passing
With the passage of 100 years, the reputation and impact of Herbert Horatio Kitchener is difficult to relay without invoking the comparison to another titan of war-time Britain just a conflict later – Winston Churchill. Like Churchill in World War II, Kitchener was an aging war hero; a walking anachronism that nevertheless personified the English ethos of their eras and inspired a generation’s trust and admiration. Unlike Churchill, Kitchener would never live to see his legacy repaired by victory. Continue reading
The days might have been getting longer across Europe in June of 1916, but in the capitals of the Entente, the second summer of war only appeared to be getting darker.
France was bleeding to death in the trenches of Verdun. Italy was reeling from an Austro-Hungarian offensive that threatened their main army at Isonzo. Even the vaunted British Royal Navy had suffered a tactical defeat days earlier at Jutland.
Yet perhaps nowhere did the Entente’s fortunes look worse than in Tsarist Russia. Malnourished, under-trained, and overwhelmed with anti-Tsarist/anti-war propaganda, Nicholas II’s armies (now directly under his command) had suffered devastating blow after blow. After losing nearly five million soldiers by the fall of 1915, the Russians had failed to advance against the Central Powers just months earlier despite an overwhelming advantage in men and material. On June 4th, 1916, they were being asked to assume the offensive once more.
Near the Galician city of Lutsk (now in modern Ukraine), the Russians would yet again attack – only this time without a significant advantage in manpower. Nor would they be aided by a massive artillery barrage. In fact, their commander had specifically requested that artillery not pound the Austro-Hungarian line for days in advance. Even the Stavka, the Russian High Command, saw little chance of success. To them, the offensive was being conducted for political, not military, reasons, in order to shore up Russia’s support of the Chantilly Agreement of inter-Allied coordination.
Within 72 hours of the first shots being fired, the entire complexion of the Great War would change – and Russia would emerge victorious from one of the largest offensives in history.
After nearly two years of war, the recipe for offensive warfare could have easily been viewed as numbingly rote, if not for the horrible carnage. Lined in trenches, forces would advance in human-wave conditions after a sustained barrage of heavy artillery. Gaines and losses could be measured in meters, not miles, and even in victory, the cost in lives were high. Continue reading
Despite the vast expanse of the North Sea, on the afternoon of May 31st, 1916, British Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty had found his prey.
Commanding a squadron of six battlecruisers and four battleships, Beatty’s small fleet had encountered a German fleet of five warships. Both small contingents had spent most of the last two days seeking each other out. Now finally confronting one another, the battle was relatively short as the Germans quickly took out two of Beatty’s battlecruisers. With dry British wit, Beatty remarked “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Withdrawing from the battle, Beatty hoped to encourage the Germans to chase him. The Germans obliged, unwittingly following Beatty into a British trap where a large portion of the world’s foremost navy lay in wait.
As the small German fleet appeared on the horizon, with the early evening sun back-lighting the German ships, only then did the British realize both sides had intended to set a trap on this day – the pursuing German vessels numbered nearly 100, not single digits. Instead of a minor naval battle, both Germany and Britain had committed the majority of their surface forces to a battle that could decide the question of naval supremacy, and with it, potentially the outcome of the Great War.
Off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, 250 warships would spend the next several hours engaging in the largest naval battle in human history.*
The seeds of Jutland had been planted nearly 20 years earlier, thousands of miles away from Jutland, Germany or Britain. Continue reading
For this Memorial Day, I reprise I piece I wrote two years ago. I still like it.
There are many of them; well over a million men and women have died in the service of this country, in wars big – the Civil War, World War 2 – and small (the Philippine Insurrection, Desert Storm).
And their memory – and the ones that lived, and are with us – deserve a world of thanks.
A friend of this blog – a Navy veteran, as it happens – posted this on Facebook late last week:
Good morning all! It’s Memorial day weekend again.
Instead of exhorting patriotism and thankfulness from folks who don’t want to hear it I’d like to remind you that our government is keeping tabs on all of us. They are flying drones over our homes and collecting our communications. There are cameras *everywhere* taking our pictures, recording our movements. Our local police are now a military force, equipped with heavy weapons and armor. If you have made any firearm related purchases, or frequent arms related websites, your name is on a list. If you happen to belong to a conservative political group, the IRS has your number, but don’t feel left out Lefties, sooner or later they’ll get around to you too. If this situation is not OK with you, what have you done about it? Written anyone? Called anyone? Shown up in person anywhere to get in your legislators grill?
If you don’t care enough to protect the freedoms so many have died for, please don’t post a bunch of smarmy pictures & canned slogans; I don’t want to hear it.
There’s a place for the simple and the sentimental, of course…
…but the writer is correct; the real challenge facing those of us who haven’t died in the service of this country is to make sure that this country is worthy of their sacrifice. To make sure that those who died to preserve freedom didn’t die in vain.
Those who founded this country knew perfectly well that the greatest threats to this nation’s freedom weren’t from overseas.
The writer wrote the piece in honor of a comrade…:
CWO3 Mike Sheerin; missing you today brother. Not many left around to pick up the slack you left; nobody at all to fill the shoes.
We’ve been blessed with just the right people to pick up the slack when they’ve been needed.
And these days, we all have slack to pick up.
Not only has that message not changed in two years – it’s redoubled.
The term “arms race” is almost – sort of – falling into disuse these days.
I’m sure it won’t last forever.
Those of us of a certain age well remember the ultimate arms race – the race to build nukes between the US, the USSR, China, and their various proxies and allies in the Cold War. The goal of that arms race – it almost seems counterintuitive – was to build weapons that’d deter their use by others. So far so good.
It wasn’t the first arms race. Far from it.
But 100 years ago today, one of the history’s biggest, most expensive arms races was coming to a violent, explosive, and yet fitful and indecisive conlusion in the chilly waters of the North Sea.
And along with the arms themselves, and the men who worked them, other things were being weighed and found wanting; grand strategies, and the the technocrats who conceived them.
Brittania Rules The Waves: In 1588, an armada from Spain attempted an invasion of England; the fledgling Royal Navy defeated and scattered it. It was the kind of victory that launches – and did, indeed, launch – myths and legends around which nations build themselves.
And indeed, that’s what happened; for the next 350 years, the Royal Navy thwarted every attempt to invade Britain, and eventually became the glue that held together the British Empire, the tarp that’d smother any brushfires that might break out, and the shield that kept it safe from any who’d dare try to bite off a chunk.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 set the pattern for the next century; the British Navy, with no rivals anywhere on the planet, was in effect the world’s beat cop; with it, the British Army – highly professional by the standards of the day, and extremely small for the world’s dominant superpower – could be carried to the scene of the Empire’s countless little brushfire wars in safety, to fight with the aid of colonists, mercenaries and proxies to put down the insurrection.
At the twilight of the Age of Sail, as the technology of the iron cannon and the sail-powered ship drew to a close, the Royal Navy dominated territory that made Alexander and Rome’s legions green with envy.
Disruption: Marketing weasels today are fond of talking about “disruptive innovation”. And 21st century westerners are often of the conceit that we, here and now, live in an era of unparalleled disruption.
But the world between 1815 and 1865 went through a spasm of technological, cultural and social revolutions that were in many ways the underpinning of our entire world today (and I strongly recommend Paul Johnson’s The Birth Of the Modern to go into them in wondrous depth); from trousers (yes, a revolutionary development) to the consumer piano to the steam and internal combustion engines to the notion of serious art to the idea of direct election of representatives to the asphalt road to the to the rise of Social government to Edinburgh Renaissance to the mechanical analog computer, the age was perhaps the most amazing in history.
Several of those disruptions brought changes that threatened to completely disrupt the world order – indeed, some of them led to the changes that brought about World War I in the first place.
For roughly forty years, the world’s maritime powers tinkered with each of these technologies, trying various takes on the formula for the perfect warship.
And just a little over 100 years ago, all of these innovations came together in the form of the ship that was the currency of record for naval warfare for two generations.
It Dreads Nought; In 1906, the British launched HMS Dreadnought – the first ship launched that tied all of these technological advances into one package, which would define what a “battleship” actually was, for the next 3-4 generations. Designed by Admiral “Jacky” Fisher – one of history’s great naval architects and thinkers, whose greatest contribution to life today may have been the invention of the term “OMG” – Dreadnought was a large, fast (by the standards of the day – 20 knots/24 mph) all-steel warship armed with a uniform battery of 12-inch guns (supplemented by a small group of 3-inch guns, intended to swat away torpedo boats), armored to withstand hits from the same-sized weapons (with special arrangements to try to negate torpedo hits); the big guns were aimed by a central mechanical fire-control “computer” that calculated a firing solution based on the Dreadnought’s speed and course, and it’s targets range, course, bearing and speed, as well as the wind, the temperature and the type of ammunition being fired, electromechanically linked to the gun and turrets, allowing the entire battery to be aimed as a single group (controlled by a fire-control crew atop the ship’s mast, with the best visibility on the entire ship), and fired by single electrical button.
Which leads us to one of the myths this series focuses on; while the world credits the British battleship HMS Dreadnought as the first ship to perfect the formula, the Japanese and Americans had similar ships on the ways; the Brits finished Dreadnought weeks before the US launched the South Carolina, ensuring that two generations of all-big-gun, turbine-powered battleships with heavy armor and centralized fire control would be called “Dreadnoughts” rather than “Southcarolinas”.
And so the technology was there. What remained was that national will to do something with it.
The Great Race: With the world’s naval calculus completely reset for the second time in fifty years, the playing field was at least briefly leveled. The world’s second-tier naval powers – France, the US, the Austro-Hungarians, Russia, Italy, and especially Japan – jumped into Dreadnought construction with both feet. Even third-tier powers – Brazil, Argentina and Chile – began acquiring “Dreadnoughts” (bought, generally, from British shipyards).
But most of all, there was Germany.
The German state, run by militarist oligarchy that co-opted a long series of historical myths to drive German expansionism, had designs on being the most powerful nation in Europe, and to building a world empire. It had gotten a fair little start – with important colonies in the Pacific, along the Chinese coast, and especially Africa.
And to make the empire viable, Germany needed a navy to protect the lines of communication between Germany and the colonies.
And while many powers – France, Austria, Italy, Russia, Japan – might conceivably take a run at a German colony, and might logically start by cutting the colony off from the Fatherland by naval action, there was only one power that could interfere with a nascent German empire, decisively and completely, anywhere in the world; Britain.
And with the playing field leveled by technology, Germany made its move. The German state embarked on a building spree unlike any other in Europe.
The British, who’d been building dreadnoughts at a brisk pace to stay ahead of similar building in Austria, Italy, France, Japan and the US, reacted by making a national priority of countering, and exceeding, German production.
And so in the 1900s and 1910s, both nations engaged in a building frenzy that strained both nations’ treasuries to the brink. Indeed, as World War I loomed, the Germans – facing the combined might of the British Navy and French Army (the British Army was deemed fairly negligible, an error that’d cost the Germans dearly in August, 1914) in the west and the immense Russian Army in the east – tried to negotiate a treaty with the Brits, guaranteeing British neutrality in a coming war, enabling Germany to dial back the hideously expensive naval building program to concentrate on the Army. The British rejected the offer – although the building program was taxing even their immense wealth.
And so by the beginning of the war, Britain had 29 dreadnought battleships (and 20 “pre-dreadnoughts”, obsolete ships from the “tinkering” era) to the Germans’ 17 (plus 12 pre-dreadnoughts). France added 10 to the Allied side; Austria-Hungary, four to the Germans’, all in the Mediterranean.
And 100 years ago today, these fleets of ships would meet their first, and only, test.
The letter that sat on the desk of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had been eagerly awaited.
Addressed from France’s Ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, the contents of the letter were the result of nearly five months of negotiations between Britain and France to reshape the Middle East after the hoped-for fall of the Ottoman Empire. Despite the failings of the Entente to make progress on the battlefield, diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of England and François Georges-Picot of France had sought out success at the negotiating table, slicing and dicing Turkish lands.
What would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement would first unite, and then embarrass the Entente, while setting the foundation for the next 100 years of engagement between the Middle East and the West.
100 years earlier, Europe had seemingly settled most of the map of the world with the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna. The result had ultimately satisfied no one, with most of the attendees echoing the parting words of Britain’s Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who regarded the final treaty as little more than “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.” For Stewart’s heirs across the various powers, the Great War seemed a grand opportunity to re-draft the map of the world for another century.
From the war’s first shots, both the Entente and Central Powers had cast their eyes onto their rival’s territories with hopes of expansion. Whether it was the British and French trying to digest German African colonies, or the Ottomans seeking to expand their Empire to Persia, millions were dying or being maimed for the right to claim sections of the globe most the warring power’s citizens didn’t even know existed. Continue reading
For an operation that the Dual Monarchy had hinged on careful coordination, seemingly nothing had gone according to plan.
The scale of the forces involved could hardly be concealed. 400,000 men, complete with nearly 2,000 pieces of heavy artillery, had sat nestled into the Austrian Alps for months on the Italian/Austro-Hungarian border. Record snowfall had kept the men confined to their trenches as whatever element of surprise the Austro-Hungarians once held slowly melted as surely as the white powder around them.
Having been on the defensive in Italy for a year, the Austro-Hungarian troops were now fed promises of dealing their hated Italian enemies a crushing blow. General Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Dual Monarchy’s Chief of Staff, had labeled the coming offensive a Strafexpedition or “punitive expedition” against Italy. While the tactical goal was ideally to cut off the Italians from the majority of their armies to the south in the Isonzo river valley, the more honest strategic purpose was simply to raze as much of Italy as possible for having joined the Entente. At last, the Dual Monarchy was finally prepared to have their revenge.
On May 15th, 1916 the Austro-Hungarian army wasn’t looking to beat Italy, but to punish her.
Long before Italy had cast it’s lot with the Entente, the simmering hostilities between the Dual Monarchy and Rome were well known among the diplomats of Europe. France’s ambassador to Italy, Camille Barrère, defined the relationship between the two nations as “enemy-allies.” Despite each nation’s participation in the Triple Alliance with Germany, the Austrians resented their defeats within the Italian Risorgimento and the Italians longed to acquire territory at the Dual Monarchy’s expense. As late as 1911, the Austro-Hungarians were contemplating a preemptive assault against their nominal Italian allies. Continue reading
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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 St. Petersburg, London or Paris feared that Russia would – or could – reach a breaking point when it came to fielding an army. Continue reading