October 16, 1987 Everybody’s Baby

Television cameras were quick to arrive and covered the ordeal, live.  Those of us of a certain age remember it well. The rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil,  from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China.  Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union.  It seemed the whole world, stopped to watch.

Jessica McClure Morales is a West Texas Mother of two school-age children. Her life is normal in every way.  She’s a teacher’s aide.  Her husband Danny, works for a piping supply outfit.  Just a normal Texas Mom, with two kids and a puppy, playing in the yard.

hqdefault (6)On this day in 1987, Jessica McClure’s life was anything but normal.  Frightened and alone, “Baby Jessica” was stuck twenty-two feet down, at the bottom of a well.

Everything seemed so normal that Wednesday, October 14, just an eighteen-month-old baby girl, playing in the back yard of an Aunt. That old well pipe shouldn’t have been left open, but what harm could it do. The thing was only eight inches wide.

And then the baby disappeared.  Down the well.

The language does not contain a word adequate to describe the horror that young mother must have felt, looking down that pipe.

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Midland Fire and Police Departments devised the plan.  A second shaft would be dug, parallel to the well.  Then to bore a tunnel, until rescuers reached the baby.  The operation would be over, by dinnertime.

The rescue proved far more difficult than first imagined.  The first tools brought on-scene, were inadequate to get through the hard rock surrounding the well.  What should have taken minutes, was turning to hours.

Television cameras were quick to arrive and covered the ordeal, live.  Those of us of a certain age remember it well. The rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil,  from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China.  Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union.  It seemed the whole world, stopped to watch.

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Watching the evening news, it’s sometimes easy to believe that the world is going to hell.  It’s not.  What we saw for those fifty-eight hours was the True heroism and fundamental decency of every-day guys:  fathers, sons and brothers, doing what they needed to do.   We’d see it again in a New York Minute, should circumstances require.

You could watch it happen, around the clock.  Many of us did.  I remember it, each would dig until he’d drop, and then another man would take his place.  There were out-of-work oil field workers and everyday guys.   Mining engineers and paramedics.  The work was frenetic and distraught, and at the same time, agonizingly slow.

Anyone who’s used a jackhammer, knows it’s not a tool designed to be used, sideways.  Even so, they tried. A waterjet became a vital part of the rescue, a new and unproven technology, in 1987.

hqdefault (8)The sun went down that Wednesday and rose the following day and then it set, and still, the nightmare dragged on.

A microphone was lowered down, so doctors could hear her breathe.  She would cry, and sometimes she would sing.   A small voice drifting up from that hole in the ground, the words of “Winnie the Pooh”.

Both were good signs.  A baby could neither sing nor cry, if she could not breathe.

The final tunneling phase of the operation could only be described, as a claustrophobic nightmare.  An unimaginable ordeal.  Midland Fire Department paramedic Robert O’Donnell  was chosen, because of his small, wiry frame.  Slathered all over with K-Y jelly and jammed into a space so tight it was difficult to breathe, O’Donnell  inched his way through that black hole that Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning, until finally, he touched her leg.

The agony of those minutes that dragged on to hours can only be imagined.  What he was trying to do, could not be done.  In the end, O’Donnell was forced to back out of the hole, defeated. Empty handed.  As they went back to work enlarging the tunnel, the paramedic sat on a curb, and wept.

On the second attempt, O’Donnell was able wrestle the baby out of that tiny space, handing her to fellow paramedic Steve Forbes, who carried her to safety.

Baby Jessica came out of that well with her face deeply scarred, and toes turned to gangrene, for lack of blood flow.  She would require fifteen surgeries before it was over but, she was alive.

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Media saturation coverage led then-President Ronald Reagan to quip, that “everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” Baby Jessica appeared with her teenage parents on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, to talk about the incident. Scott Shaw of the Odessa American won the Pulitzer prize for the photograph, and ABC made a television movie: Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure. USA Today ranked her 22nd on a list of “25 lives of indelible impact.” Everyone in the story became famous. Until they weren’t.

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In time, the scars healed for Jessica McClure.  Today she has no recollection of those fifty-eight hours.  Not so much the hero from the bottom of that hole, Robert O’Donnell. Whatever personal hell the man went through that night, alone in that blackest of places, never left his mind.  And then there was the fame.  And the adulation. And then, nothing.

Even now, we struggle to understand Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), a condition which ends the lives of twenty-two of the best among us every day, and has killed more Vietnam combat veterans, than the war itself.  It was only 1987, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders dropped the requirement, that stressors be outside the range of normal human experience.

Robert O’Donnel took his own life on April 24, 1995.  The media declined to notice.  The stone above his grave bears the images of a cowboy hat and boots, and those of a fire hat, and the six-pointed Star of Life, symbol for emergency medical services, in nations the world over.  A “Loving Father,” who has earned the right to be remembered.

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October 15, 1917 Mata Hari

Historians differ whether she passed on intelligence or merely gossip, a courtesan and middle-aged debutante, and convenient excuse for French failures in the face of the German war machine. 

mata-daughterMargaretha Geertruida Zelle, “M’greet” to family and friends, was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876, the eldest of four children.

Adam Zelle, Margaretha’s father, was once a prosperous hat merchant.  By 1891, a series of bad investments had cost him his fortune.  He left the family, never to return.  Mother Antje Zelle, died.  Margaretha and her three brothers were broken up, and sent to live with relatives.  She was fifteen.

As a young woman, Margaretha answered a newspaper ad placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, then stationed in the Dutch East Indies, in modern day Indonesia.

Becoming a “mail order bride” must have seemed like the way to financial security.  Strikingly beautiful with raven hair and olive skin, she sent him a photograph, of herself.  Despite a twenty-one year age difference, the couple was wed on July 11, 1895.  She was not yet nineteen.

The marriage produced a daughter, and a son.  MacLeod was a drunk and frequently flew into rages, over the attentions his young wife received from other officers.  The boy was killed in 1899, poisoned by a household worker for reasons which remain unclear.  The marriage was dead by the early 1900s and MacLeod fled, taking the couple’s daughter with him.  The divorce became final, in 1905.

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Zelle-MacLeod moved to Paris becoming mistress to a French diplomat, who encouraged her to support herself, as an exotic dancer.  She took the name: “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”), in Sanskrit.

mata-hari2All things “Oriental” were all the rage in early 1900s Paris.  Mata Hari played the more exotic aspects of her background to the hilt, projecting a bold and in-your-face sexuality that was unique and provocative for her time.

She claimed to be a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, immersed since childhood in the sacred art of Indian dance.

One Vienna reporter described Mata Hari as “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” Her face, he wrote, “makes a strange foreign impression.” Another writer described her performance as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”

Carefree and thoroughly uninhibited, Mata Hari was photographed in the nude or the next thing to it on many occasions, becoming the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet.

Mata_Hari_postcardThe world stood still at the beginning of World War I, but not Mata Hari.  Her dancing days were over by 1914, but her neutral Dutch citizenship allowed her to move about without restriction.  But not without a price. Mata Hari’s sexual conquests knew no border, naively including officers and government officials of every nationality, and both sides of the Great War.

Rumors of espionage followed and she was taken to Scotland Yard for interrogation in 1916, but later released.

That year, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France, from army captain Georges Ladoux.

She would seduce her way into the German High Command but the Germans suspected as much and set her up, releasing a cable labeling Mata Hari, as a German double agent.

She was arrested again on February 13, 1917, in her room at the Hotel Elysee Palace, in what is now the banking giant HSBC’s French headquarters. She was kept in a rat infested prison as the case was prepared against her, all the while writing to the Dutch Consul in Paris, proclaiming her innocence. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else”, she wrote. “I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself”.

In a bombshell confession which probably sealed her fate, Mata Hari admitted during interrogations by Captain Pierre Bouchardon, that a German diplomat had paid her 20,000 francs.  She said the money meant nothing, that she saw it as compensation for furs and other clothing lost on a train, while she was being hassled by German border guards.  “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!” she insisted. “I have always lived for love and pleasure.”

matahariMata Hari’s elderly defense attorney and former lover Edouard Clunet, never really had a chance. He couldn’t cross examine the prosecution’s witnesses, or even directly question his own.

The trial took place during a string of French military defeats.  Spies both real and imagined, were convenient scapegoats.  By some accounts, Captain Ladoux even tampered with evidence, to put her case in the worst possible light.

The conviction was a foregone conclusion. The military tribunal took forty-five minutes to reach a verdict of guilty.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.  Legend has it, that she blew them a kiss.  She was 41.

British reporter Henry Wales described the execution, based on an eyewitness account:

“Unbound and refusing a blindfold, Mata Hari stood alone to face her firing squad.  After the shots rang out, Wales reported that “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” An NCO walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead”.

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German documents unsealed in the 1970s hint that Mata Hari may have been a German spy, but many disagree with that conclusion.  Historians differ whether she passed on intelligence or merely gossip, a courtesan and middle-aged debutante, and convenient excuse for French failures in the face of the German war machine.  The whole truth may never be known but, the real-life exotic dancer who later became a lethal double agent, is a story that’s hard to resist.

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October 14, 1939 Death of the Royal Oak

Captain Benn was almost alone in believing that his ship was attacked by torpedo.  The cause of the sinking was still being argued over the next day, when divers went down and found a German torpedo propeller. Only then was it understood, that the Kriegsmarine  had taken the war, into British home waters.  By that time, U-47 was gone.

In the early days of WWII, the British Royal Navy based the main part of the Grand fleet at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  Protected as it was by blocking ships and underwater cables, the anchorage considered impregnable to submarine attack.

f918c0672ea9cc256d0295ed46d0ca83The harbor at Scapa flow had been home to the British deep water fleet since 1904, a time when the place truly was, all but impregnable.  By 1939, anti-aircraft weaponry was all but obsolete, old block ships were disintegrating, and anti-submarine nets were inadequate to the needs of the new war.

The men of the German Unterseeboot U-47 commanded by officer Günther Prien, were not impressed. U-47 entered the Royal Navy base in the evening hours of the October 13, 1939. By 12:55am on the the 14th, they were within 3,500 yards of the unmistakable silhouette of the WWI era Revenge Class Battleship, HMS Royal Oak.

Believing he had a certain kill, Prien aimed two of his four torpedoes at the Battleship, and the other two at the 6,900 ton Pegasus, which he’d mistaken in the dark for the much larger HMS Repulse. Tubes one, two and three fired successfully, torpedoes away, but #4 jammed. Only one found its mark, blowing a hole in the starboard bow of the Royal Oak, near the anchor chains.

On the battleship, Captain William Benn was told the most likely cause was an internal explosion, either that or a high flying German aircraft had dropped a bomb. Damage control teams were assembled to assess the damage, while aboard U-47, Prien thought his one hit had been against Repulse (Pegasus). He was prepared to run, but saw no threat from oncoming surface vessels.  Coming about and firing the stern torpedo, the crew worked to free the jammed #4 torpedo tube, while reloading bow tubes 1-3. That one missed as well, and the Germans cursed their luck.

400px-U-47_raid.svgThe electric torpedoes of the era were highly unreliable, and this wasn’t shaping up to be their night.

Finally, tubes one and two were reloaded, and the jammed tube #4 was serviced and ready to go. U-47 crept closer and, at 1:25am, fired all three torpedoes at the Royal Oak. All three found their target within ten seconds of one other, blasting three holes amidships on the starboard side. The explosions set off a series of fires and ignited a cordite magazine and exploding with a fiery orange blast that went right through the decks.\

Royal Oak rolled over and sank in thirteen minutes. 833 sailors and officers were lost from ship’s company of 1,234, including Rear Admiral Henry Evelyn Blagrove, commander of the 2nd Battle Squadron.

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The Royal Navy considered the anchorage so secure that, even now, searchlights and anti-aircraft fire raked the sky, searching for the air attack that wasn’t there.  Captain Benn was almost alone in believing that his ship was attacked by torpedo.  The cause of the sinking was still being argued over the next day, when divers went down and found a German torpedo propeller. Only then was it understood that the Kriegsmarine had taken the war, into British home waters.

Royal Oak Wreck

The successful attack at Scapa Flow was a crushing defeat for the British, and payback for the Germans. The entire German High Seas Fleet had been interned there at the end of WWI. Admiral Ludwig von Reuter wasn’t about to let his fleet fall into allied hands, and ordered the lot of them, scuttled. British guard ships succeeded in beaching a few at the time, but 52 of 74 vessels had sunk to the bottom.

Many of those wrecks were salvaged in the interwar years, and towed away for scrap. Those which remain are popular sites for recreational divers, but not Royal Oak. As a designated war grave, Royal Oak is protected by the Military Remains Act of 1986.  Unauthorized divers are strictly, prohibited.

The wreck of the Royal Oak lies nearly upside down in 100′ of water, her hull just 16-feet beneath the surface. Each year, divers place the red St. George’s Cross with the Union Flag of the White Ensign at her stern, a solemn tribute to the honored dead of World War 2, and to the first Royal Navy battleship lost in the most destructive war in history.

Royal Oak Ensign

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October 13, 1914 Signalman Jack

One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks.

In the early days of the Great War, the formerly separate British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River were united in the Union of South Africa, in support of the Allied war effort.

Public opinion was by no means, unanimous.  “Afrikaners” were bitterly opposed to alliance with the British.  The Jameson Raid and two Boer Wars were hard pills to swallow, and life-long friendships were cast asunder.  As former Generals of the second Boer War, Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defense Minister Jan Smuts had once fought the British.  Now, that was in the past.  Like many, the two men dreamed of a unified South Africa.

Anti-British rebellion broke out on this day in 1914, but was quickly put down by loyalist South Africans.  Before the war was over, some 136,000 of their countrymen would serve in the African, Middle East and Western Fronts of the Great War.

The story of World War 1 is intertwined with the history of rail.  The mobilization of millions in a matter of weeks, would have been impossible without the railroads which moved them.   WW1 could not  have happened the way it did, without rail.

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South African recruits traveled rails begun in 1859, when early construction worked its way inland from deep-water ports and harbors. James Edwin Wide came to work for the South African railroad, about twenty years later.

Co-workers on the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway service called him “Jumper” for his fondness of jumping between railway cars.  It was a regrettable habit, which would one day, cost him his legs.

After the accident, Wide’s railroad days seemed to be over.  Then a signalman’s job opened up. Wide would work the Uitenhage train station twenty-three miles outside of Port Elizabeth, switching the tracks for oncoming trains.

Trains would toot their whistle a specified number of times, telling the signalman which tracks to change.  The job suited him, pulling the levers is easy enough for a man with no legs.  Not so much, the half-mile walk to work.

jack-the-signalman3One day at an open-air market, the peg-legged signalman saw something that changed all that. It was a monkey, a Chacma baboon.

One of the largest of the “Old World” monkeys, a Chacma or “Cape” baboon is an intelligent animal. “Corporal Jackie” proved as much, during the “War to end all Wars”. This one was exceptionally so. This one was driving an oxcart.

Wide bought the animal and called him”Jack”, and taught him to pull his small trolley, up and down the line.  Jack was a help around the house, sweeping the floors and taking out the trash. He figured out the train signal and the switch thing too.  Soon, Jack was pulling on the levers, himself.

William Luff writes in The Railway Signal, that Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.

One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks. (It must have been fun to be in the complaint department, when That one came in).  Railroad managers were furious and could have fired signalman Wide, but decided to test his baboon, instead.

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Railway superintendent George Howe came away, astounded. “Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers…It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”

Jack passed with flying colors.  Managers were so impressed they gave him the job, for real. “Signalman Jack” now had an employee number, and a salary of twenty cents per day, plus a half-bottle of beer, each week.  It isn’t clear what a baboon did with the money, though one suspects it may have purchased more than a few peanuts.

Signalman Jack worked the rail until the day he died of tuberculosis, in 1890.  A keyword search for railroad accidents between 1880 and ’89, the time-frame for this story, reveals a list of sixty-one serious incidents. In the nine years in which he was on the job, Signalman Jack made not one single mistake.

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October 12, 1994 Fort Mosé

Twenty years before the “Lost” English colonists first landed at Roanoke, Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, in the Spanish colony of Florida. Aviles’ colonial expedition included many black Africans, both free men and slaves, who remained a part of St. Augustine society, from that time forward. The first recorded birth in the New World of an American child of African descent took place in 1606, according to St. Augustine Catholic parish records.  A year before the English settlement, at Jamestown.

From the earliest period of the “new world”, every economy from Canada to Argentina was, to varying degrees, involved with slavery. Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the Americas in 1501, establishing the new world’s first international slave port in Santo Domingo, modern capital city of the Dominican Republic.

Hundreds of thousands of African slaves entered the Americas through the sister ports of Veracruz, Mexico, and Portobelo, Panama, “products” of the “Asiento” system, wherein the contractor (asientista) was awarded a monopoly in the slave trade to Spanish colonies, in exchange for royalties paid to the crown.

The first such contractor was a Genoese company which agreed to supply 1,000 slaves over an 8-year period, beginning in 1517. A German company entered into such a contract eight years later, with a pledge of 4,000.

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By 1590, as many as 1.1 million Africans had come through the port of Cartagena, Colombia, sorted and surnamed under the “casta de nación” classification system.

In the American colonies, 17th century attitudes toward race appear to have been more fluid than they would later become. The first black Africans, 19 of them, came to the Virginia Colony in 1619 not as slaves, but as indentured servants. Their passage, involuntary as it was, was paid for by a term of indenture, a sort of ‘temporary slavery’, usually lasting seven years.

John Punch ran away from his term of indenture along with two Europeans, in 1640. The trio was captured in Maryland and sentenced to extended terms of indenture. Alone among the three, Punch was punished with indenture for life, effectively making him the first African ‘slave’ in the American colonies.

Meanwhile, black Africans both enslaved and free, had arrived in the north American colonies, for nearly a hundred years.

ex black conquistadorsJuan Garrido moved from the west coast of Africa to Lisbon, Portugal, possibly as a slave, or perhaps the son of an African King, sent for a Christian education.  Be that as it may, Garrido came to the new world a free man in 1513, with Juan Ponce de León.  A black Conquistador who spent thirty years with the conquest, “pacifying” (fighting) indigenous peoples and searching for gold, and the mythical fountain of youth.

He was not alone. Other black Africans entered Spanish society as free men, and joining the conquest as soldiers. Some did so in exchange for freedom, some for land, official jobs, or public pensions.  Ponce was fatally injured by a native arrow in 1521.  Garrido went on to marry and settle in Mexico city, where he is credited with the first commercial cultivation of wheat, in the new world.

Twenty years before the “Lost” English colonists first landed at Roanoke, Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, in the Spanish colony of Florida. Aviles’ colonial expedition included many black Africans, both free men and slaves, who remained a part of St. Augustine society, from that time forward. The first recorded birth in the New World of an American child of African descent took place in 1606, according to St. Augustine Catholic parish records.  A year before the English settlement, at Jamestown.

fort_mose_soldierThe Spanish government in Florida began to offer asylum to slaves from British colonies as early as 1687, when eight men, two women and a three year old nursing child arrived there, seeking refuge.  It probably wasn’t as altruistic as it sounds, given the history.  The primary interest seems to have been disrupting the English agricultural economy, to the north.

The Florida governor required only that such runaways convert to Catholicism, and then he put the men to work for wages.

In 1693, King Charles of Spain officially proclaimed that runaways would find freedom in Florida, provided that they would convert to Catholicism and perform four years of service to the Crown. Spain had effectively created a maroon colony (from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning “fugitive, runaway”, literally “living on mountaintops”), forming a front-line defense against English attack, from the north.

Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (pronounced “Moh-say”), was a military fortification two miles north of St. Augustine, established by Colonial Governor Manuel de Montiano, in 1738. Spanish militia would place incoming freedom seekers into military service at the fort, under the leadership of an African Creole man known as Francisco Menendez.

Fort Mosé was the first legally sanctioned free black settlement, in what would become the United States.

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Long before the famous “underground railroad”, the first such track pointed not north, but south, to St. Augustine.  Word of the settlement reached into Georgia and South Carolina to the north, attracting escaping slaves. It was probably the “final straw” that set off the unsuccessful 1739 slave insurrection known as the Stono Rebellion, in which several dozen runaway slaves attempted to reach Spanish Florida.

In the early phase of the War of Jenkins Ear, Fort Mosé was abandoned and occupied by General James Oglethorpe, colonial governor of Georgia, along with a force of British colonial rangers, Scottish Highlanders, enslaved black auxiliaries and native Creek and Uchise allies.

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The British garrison was caught by surprise in the pre-dawn hours of June 16, 1740 and all but annihilated, by a force of Spanish soldiers, free black militia and native Yamasee allies.  The coquina fortification was destroyed in the process, and would not be rebuilt until 1752.

In June of this year, Florida Living History, Inc. and the Fort Mosé Historical Society presented the latest in a series of re-enactments, celebrating the 277th anniversary of the “Bloody Battle of Fort Mosé “.  The site has seen several archaeological excavations in recent years, and is considered the “premier site on the Florida Black Heritage Trail.”  Fort Mosé was officially designated an Historic State Park on October 12, 1994.

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“1st Saturday militia”, H/T Fort Mosé Historical Society
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 11, 1915 The Execution of Edith Cavell

“Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. – Edith Cavell, October 11, 1915

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The Cavell vicarage in Swardeston is now a private home

As a little girl growing up in Swardeston, Norfolk, Edith Cavell was no saint.  Nor was she a “bad girl “.  Just a normal kid, growing up in Victorian England.   The daughter of a Vicar of the Church of England, she thought her father’s sermons were ‘boring’. Even so, she would hold her Christian faith until the day she died.

Reverend Frederick Cavell was something of a Puritan and nearly ruined the family finances, building the vicarage with his own money.  Yet, this was no crabbed and dour man of the cloth.  He was easily tempted into roaring like a bear and chasing the three Cavell sisters and their brother about the house, to squeals of children’s laughter.

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Chalk drawing by Edith Cavell

A gifted artist, Edith loved to paint and draw, the birds, flowers and even fellow villagers, frequent subjects. She and her sister once painted and sold cards to finance a new room in their father’s Sunday school, raising the impressive sum of £300.

As a young woman, she once danced until her feet bled, and destroyed a new pair of shoes, in the process.

Edith worked a number of jobs as governess, including one in Brussels, Belgium.  The children under her care remembered her as wonderfully kind and always smiling, and great fun to be with.

On Summer breaks she’d return to Swardeston, where she loved to play tennis, and to paint.  It was there that she cared for her father in 1895, nursing the parson through a brief illness.  Reverend Cavell recovered, but the experience convinced Edith, she was cut out for a career in nursing.

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Edith Cavell with Dr. LePage at the Berkendael Institute

Following training at Royal London Hospital, Edith worked a number of positions, rising through the ranks and becoming matron of Queen’s District Nursing Homes, in 1906. The following year, Edith returned to Brussels at the request of Dr. Antoine Depage, to nurse a child patient under his care. That October, Depage opened the nursing school ‘L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées’ based in his Berkendael Institute, and asked Edith to run it.

In 1913, Cavell’s educational program was producing exceptionally qualified professional nurses, providing for the staffing needs of three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. When Queen Elizabeth of Belgium fell and broke her arm, one of Edith’s nurses was personally requested, to provide her care.

On top of it all. she was still giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses, and still finding time to care for a friend’s daughter who was addicted to morphine, providing for a runaway girl, and for her two dogs, Don and Jack.

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In June 1914, a tubercular nineteen-year-old named Gavrilo Princip murdered the heir-apparent to the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo. As diplomats bungled their way through the “July Crisis” of 1914, Edith returned to Norfolk, to visit with her now widowed mother. She was pulling weeds from the garden on August 1, when she learned that Austro-Hungarian troops had invaded Serbia.

Entangling alliances and mutual distrust drew a continent into war in the days that followed, as Edith returned to Brussels, feeling her nursing skills were now needed, more than ever.

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Edith Cavell with some of her nurses, in Belgium

German soldiers invaded and occupied Brussels later that August, and the wounded came pouring into Edith’s clinic.  The International Red Cross took over the hospital at this time, the neutral organization established to care for the wounded of all nationalities.  Medical personnel were strictly forbidden from taking sides.  Edith cared for all who needed her services, regardless of uniform or nationality.

The German violation of Belgian neutrality was an outrageous provocation, the single cause for which England entered the war.  German troops were afraid of Belgian guerrilla fighters, the francs-tireurs, believing them to be every bit as dangerous, as the French soldiers they were fighting. Allied propaganda magnified tales of German brutality into the “Rape of Belgium”, but such atrocities against civilians were very real, particularly in places like Liège, Andenne, Leuven and foremost, Dinant.

The Battle of Mons of August 23 was a crushing defeat for the badly outnumbered British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the first such confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Hundreds of British and allied soldiers were cut off and stranded, behind enemy lines. Word got back to the Red Cross hospital about allied soldiers being shot by German troops, while locals took others into their homes to hide them from harm.

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That September, Edith took in two British soldiers, hiding them for two weeks in her clinic.  She was later asked to join an underground organization, dedicated to hiding these stranded soldiers and spiriting them across borders into neutral territories.  Despite the danger to herself, she agreed.  She was now in violation of the law.

For the rest of 1914 until the following September, Edith hid 200 stranded soldiers at the Berkendael Institute, while architect Philippe Baucq secretly organized their evacuation to neutral Holland.

Edith Cavell

Now enters this story, a name which must be remembered with the likes of Judas Iscariot,  Ephialtes of Trachis and Vidkun Quisling, as Traitor.  Five years later, Georges Gaston Quien would be tried and convicted by Parisian authorities of collaborating with the enemy, and put to death.  Quien had betrayed Edith Cavell’s organization, to German secret police.

Baucq was arrested on July 31, 1915, with another member of the escape-route team.  Letters found in their possession incriminated Edith Cavell and she was arrested, on August 5.  German interrogators tricked her into confession, claiming that they knew everything, already.  The best thing she could do, was save her friends.  Confess.

She was placed in solitary confinement for the rest of that month, and tried for treason, in early October.  At trial, Edith freely confessed to helping allied soldiers escape German occupied territory.

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Edith Cavell’s Brussels cell

Edith Cavell was convicted of treason on October 11, 1915, along with Philippe Baucq, and three others. The sentence was death. Neutral governments in the United States and Spain protested, and attempted to get the sentence reduced. Such efforts came to nothing.

The English chaplain Stirling Gahan visited her cell on the last day of her life, and found her calm, as she received the Sacrament.  “I am thankful to have had these 10 weeks of quiet to get ready”.  she told him.  “Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. 

Her final words were as worthy, as those of that hero of the American Revolution, Nathan Hale, who regretted only that he had but one life to give for his country.  In the last moments of her life, she calmly spoke to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur.  “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”

Edith Louisa Cavell was executed by firing squad at 2:00am on October 12, at the Tir National shooting range, in Schaerbeek.  She was forty-nine.

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Hat tip to www.edithcavell.org.uk, from which I have learned much of this story, and drawn many of these images.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 10, 732 The Hammer

Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer”.

In the early middle ages, the Mayor of the Palace of the Frankish Kingdom was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead monarch.  In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish domain occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany.

Pepin kept a mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become Duke of Burgundy, best remembered for expelling the Saracens from France.  The latter went on become the founding father of the European Middle Ages.

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“St. Hubert of Liege offers his services to Pepin” – H/T Wikimedia

Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased his father in 714, and touched off a succession crisis when he his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald, his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison to nullify any threat, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.

Charles proved himself a brilliant Military tactician when he crushed a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve.  He returned victorious in 718, and then did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the woman responsible for his incarceration, and the boy for whom she had acted.

Charles-Martel-PicCharles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern day France with that of Austrasia in the east.

At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate gained control of most of Hispania (Spain) beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul. Umayyad forces suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.

The Emir responded with a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time, Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.

Odo fled to Charles asking for help.  The table was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated the two most powerful military forces of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.
Other than the Frankish Kingdom, no force existed, sufficient to stop the advance of the Caliphate. Historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.

Carolingian Empire Map

Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have had 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 infantry on the Frankish side, and no cavalry.

Each of Charles’ tough, battle hardened soldiers wore up to 75lbs of armor. They’d been with him for years, and every one of them believed in his leadership. Outnumbered two to one, Charles had one decisive advantage.  He was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.

The Frankish army took to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, and drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge. For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

History offers few instances when a medieval army was able to withstand the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men for years, and they were prepared. The Mozarabic Chronicle reports:

[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

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Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim army that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman tried to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.

Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks did not pursue, and resumed their phalanx. There they stood until the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.

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Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer“.

New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself.   Forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453.  Ottomans attempted the conquest of Europe near a place called Lepanto in 1571 and twice more in 1529 and 1683, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. The threat was far from over in 732, but Christian Europe in the west would never again be so grievously challenged.

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