December 31, 1695 A Tax on Windows

Tax revolts are nothing new. Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes

Somewhere in the English midlands, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, there lay the Kingdom of Mercia. It was 1054 or thereabouts, and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had a problem. Leofric was the kind of ruler who never saw a tax he didn’t like, his latest the “Heregeld”, a tax to pay for the King’s bodyguard. His wife was Godgyfu, in the Olde English, meaning “Gift of God”.  Today we call her “Godiva”. Take pity on the people of Coventry, she said, they are suffering under all this oppressive taxation.

A guy can only take so much, even if he is an Earl. Tired of her entreaties, Leofric agreed tolady-godiva-statue repeal the tax on one condition; that she ride a horse through the streets of town, dressed only in her birthday suit and her long hair. Lady Godiva took him at his word.  She issued a proclamation that all townspeople stay indoors and shut their windows, and then she took her famous naked ride through town.

The story probably isn’t true, any more than the one about Tom, the guy who drilled a hole in his door so he could watch and lost his sight at what he saw.  But a thousand years later, we still use the term “Peeping Tom”.

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes.

bricked-up-windowOn December 31, 1695, King William III decreed a 2 shilling tax on each house in the land. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to “stick-it-to-the-rich”, there was an extra tax on every window over ten, a tax that would last for another 156 years.

It must have been a money maker, because the governments of France, Spain and Scotland followed suit with similar taxes. To this day, you can see homes where owners have bricked up windows, preferring darkness to the payment of yet another tax.

In Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you

singel-7
Singel #7

paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself. Those are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house barely wider than its own front door.

You can find the same thing in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, where the “shotgun single”, a home so narrow you can fire a shotgun in the front door and pellets will go out the back, and the “Camelback” (second story out back) are the architectural results of tax policy.

 

shotgunsingle-camelback
Shotgun Single, Camelback

The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79AD, levied a tax on public toilets.

vespasiani
Vespasiani

When his son, the future Emperor Titus wrinkled his nose, Vespasian held a coin under the boy’s nose. “Pecunia non olet”, he said.  “Money does not stink”.  2,000 years later, his name is still attached to public urinals. In France, they’re called vespasiennes, in Italy vespasiani.  If you need to piss in Romania, you could go to the vespasiene.  History fails to record the inevitable push-back on Vespasian’s toilet tax, but I’m sure that ancient Romans had to look where they walked.

Environmentalists in Venice, Italy have been pushing a tax on tourism, claiming that the city’s facing “an irreversible environmental catastrophe as the subsequent increase in water transport has caused the level of the lagoon bed to drop over time”. Deputy mayor Sandro Simionato said that “This tax is a new and important opportunity for the city,” explaining that it will “help finance tourism”, among other things. So, the problem borne of too much tourism is going to be fixed by a tax to help finance tourism. I think. Or maybe it’s just another money grab.

As of December 2015, state and territory tax rates on cigarettes ranged from 17¢ per pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, on top of federal, local, county, municipal and local Boy Scout council taxes (kidding).  Philip Morris reports that taxes run 56.6% on average, per pack. Not surprisingly, tax rates make a vast difference in where and how people buy their cigarettes.  There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, measuring a few miles square and home to a few hundred people. Tax rates are close to zero there, on a pack of butts.  Until recent changes in the tax law, they were selling 100 million cartons per year.

If all those taxes are supposed to encourage people to quit smoking, I wonder what income taxes are supposed to do?

antarctica-icebound-ship-1Back in 2013, EU politicians were discussing a way of taxing livestock flatulence, as a means of curbing “Global Warming”. At that time there was an Australian ice breaker, making its way to Antarctica to free the Chinese ice breaker, that got stuck in the ice trying to free the Russian ship full of environmentalists.  They were there to view the effects of “Global Warming”, before they got stuck in the ice.

Honest, I wouldn’t make this stuff up.

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December 30, 1863 The Confederate States of…Bermuda

“There are a great many Southern people here”, wrote the American Consul in Bermuda, in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, it was the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. They needed manufactured goods as well, which could no longer be obtained from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.

For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne, said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.

President Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coastlines and up into the lower Mississippi River.

runnerbritanniawilm
Blockade runner Britannia in Wilmington harbor

Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds were successful. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.

Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston and Wilmington as well as other ports, while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage.  Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.  North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.1blockadeusnavyhandout

The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception is the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer that ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground on her maiden voyage, attempting to enter Bermuda to take on coal. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination to this day.

President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade, Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.

Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George and leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.

st-george-harbor
Confederate blockade runners at anchor in St George Harbor, Bermuda

Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, visiting the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island, as well. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten of the married women living in Bermuda at that time, were widows.

It occurred to me that all those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda, and the possibility that followed soon morphed into a probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace their paternity back to the Confederate States of America.

December 29, 1895, If

In a scheme which could only be described as hare-brained, he would send an armed raid into Johannesburg, inciting an uprising of Uitlanders, with the aim of stepping in to take control

It was the 9th of February, 1853, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Robert William Jameson went for a walk, while his wife and mother of his 11 children, a woman with the unlikely name of Christian Pringle, labored to deliver their 12th child. Jameson slipped on a grassy embankment and into a frigid canal, where he would have drowned if not for the kindly stranger who fished him out. The man said he was an American, named “Leander Starr”. Before the day was over, Starr would be godfather to a newborn Scottish baby boy. Leander Starr Jameson.

Forty years later and half a world away, what would one day become South Africa was divided into four entities: the two British possessions of Cape Colony and Natal, and the two Boer (Dutch) Republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, better known as Transvaal. Of the four states, Natal and the two Boer Republics were mainly agricultural, populated by subsistence farmers. The Cape Colony was by far the largest, dominating the other three economically, culturally, and socially.

There was considerable friction between Dutch and English settlers, stemming largely from differing attitudes toward slavery. British authorities passed legislation back in 1828, promising equal treatment for all under the law, regardless of race. Boer farmers argued that they needed slave labor to make their farms work, and that slaveholders were too little compensated on their emancipation.

The situation was exacerbated in 1867, with the discovery of vast diamond deposits near modern day Kimberly, in Orange Free State territory. The Cape soon annexed the territory as its own, which I think is a fancy term for “stole”. The Boers found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, pressed by the British from the south and west, and by the Zulu “Impi” (army) of King Cetshwayo to the north. War broke out between the two sides in 1880-81, called the “First Anglo-Boer War” by one side; the “First Freedom War” by the other.

Gold was discovered near Johannesburg in 1886, massive amounts of it, drawing tens of thousands of “Uitlanders”, English, American and Australian foreigners, in search of employment and fortune.

Governor of the Cape Colony Cecil Rhodes wanted to incorporate the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a single federation under British control, while the Transvaal government of Paul Kruger feared just that. Soon outnumbered by Uitlanders two to one, Transvaal limited the right to vote to those having many years’ residency, and imposing heavy taxes on gold mining profits.

By mid-1895, Rhodes had concocted a plan. In a scheme which could only be described as hare-brained, he would send an armed raid into Johannesburg, inciting an uprising of Uitlanders, with the aim of stepping in to take control. Back in London, the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, thought that was a swell idea, and did everything he could to encourage it.

On December 29, 1895, 400 Matabeleland Mounted Police and 200 assorted volunteers crossed from Rhodesia into Transvaal, with Leander Starr Jameson at their head.boer-war-lithograph

The raid was a humiliating failure. They cut a wire fence, thinking it was a telegraph wire. Transvaal authorities were tracking them from the moment they crossed the border. Meanwhile, Chamberlain got cold feet, saying that “if this succeeds it will ruin me. I’m going up to London to crush it”. He ordered Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor-General of the Cape Colony, to repudiate the raid, threatening Rhodes and calling on British settlers in the Transvaal not to lend any aid to the raiders.

After several sharp encounters with dug in and well prepared defenders, what remained ofleander_starr_jameson the raiders entered Pretoria on January 2, in chains. The Transvaal government received almost £1 million compensation from the British South Africa Company, turning their prisoners over to be tried by the British government. Jameson was convicted of leading the raid and sentenced to 15 months in prison. During the whole ordeal, he never revealed the degree to which British politicians supported the raid, or the way they betrayed him in the end.rudyard_kipling_by_elliott__fry

So impressed was the poet, Rudyard Kipling, with Jameson’s display of stoicism under adversity, that he wrote a poem about it in 1895, later giving it to his son, Lieutenant John Kipling. The younger Kipling would not survive his father. He entered the First World War, disappearing in the Battle of Loos in 1915. His body was never found.

The elder Kipling’s gift would live on, the words of fatherly advice to an only son, in a poem called “If”.

 

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

December 28, 1955 Juche

The nuclear relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother

We tend to look at WWII in a kind of historical box, with a beginning and an end.  In reality, we feel the effects of WWII to this day.  Just as the modern boundaries (and many of the problems) of the Middle East were shaped by WWI, the division of the Korean Peninsula was born of WWII.

Korea’s brief period of sovereignty ended in 1910, when the country was annexed by Imperial Japan. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea was divided into two occupied zones; the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States.

The Cairo Declaration of 1943 called for a unified Korea, but cold war tensions hardened the separation. By 1948, the two Koreas had separate governments, each with its own diametrically opposite governing philosophy.

Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land and other means of production. South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.

Both governments sought control of the Korean peninsula, but the 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts along the 38th parallel led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

koreanwar-fourmaps1200Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid, about 90% of them Americans.  The Soviets sent material aid to the North, while Communist China sent troops. The Korean War lasted three years, causing the death or disappearance of over 2,000,000, combining military and civilian.

The Korean War ended in July 1953, though the two sides technically remain at war to this day, staring each other down over millions of land mines in a fortified demilitarized zone spanning the width of the country.

The night-time satellite image of the two Koreas, tells the story of what happened next.kim_il-sung  South Korea went through a series of military dictatorships from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, since developing into a successful Republic.  In the North, Kim Il-sung built a communist hellhole, a cult of personality established under a North Korean ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay).

The term translates as “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance”, its first known reference in a speech given by Kim Il-sung on December 28, 1955.  Theoretically based on independent thought, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defense, “independence” applies to the collective, not to the individual, from whom absolute loyalty to the revolutionary party leader is required.  In practice, this principle puts one man at the center and above it all.  According to recent amendments to the North Korean constitution, that man will always be a well-fed member of the Kim family.

Son of the founder of the Juche Ideal, Kim Jung-il, was a well-known film buff. In a movepulgasari that would make Caligula blush, he had South Korean film maker Shin Sang-ok kidnapped along with his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. After four years spent starving in a North Korean gulag, the couple accepted Kim’s “suggestion” that they re-marry and go to work for him, producing the less-than-box-office-smash “Pulgasari”, a kind of North Korean Godzilla film.

The couple escaped, unlike dozens of South Korean and Japanese unfortunates “recruited” with the help of a chloroform soaked rag.

ryugyong-hotelNorth Korea broke ground on what foreign media called “the worst building in the world” in 1987, just in time for the Seoul Olympics the following year. With 105 stories and eight revolving floors, the Ryugyong would have been the tallest hotel in the world, if it ever opened.  Construction shut down in 1992, partly because Soviet funding dried up, and partly because construction was so bad that it’s unsafe to stand within 10 blocks of the thing.  In 2008, Orascom Telecom of Egypt agreed to spend $180 million to put glass on the outside, in exchange for a $400 million contract to build the nation’s first 3G cellular network.  Whether there will ever be more than one customer, is unclear.   Perhaps 2017 will be the year that the Ryugyong becomes more than the world’s largest telecommunications antenna, but so far the place remains “too popular to take reservations”.

north-korean-prison-concentration-camp-life-04Anywhere from 1 to 3 million North Koreans starved to death during the ‘90s, while it’s estimated that one in every hundred North Korean citizens are incarcerated in a system of gulags, torture chambers and concentration camps.

As of 2010, the North Korean Military had 7,679,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, in a nation of 25,000,000. Over 30% of the nation’s population, and absorbing almost 21% of GDP. Today, that military is under the personal control of a 32 year old who had his own uncle Jang Song-thaek executed, presumably by anti-aircraft machine gun fire, before being incinerated by flame thrower. The same method used to kill two of Mr. Jang’s associates, a week earlier. The New York Times reports that the execution was for a coup plot, but others say he didn’t clap his hands long enough and with the right amount of enthusiasm, over some pronouncement of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jung-un. The same Dear Leader who controls the nuclear arsenal.kim-jong-un

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea have had more or less “normal” relations, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  The relationship isn’t all moonbeams and lollipops, the DPRK sought relations with Baghdad throughout the Iran-Iraq War.  The IRI maintains relations with South Korea as well, but a cordial hatred for the United States has always kept the two united.

Authorities warned the nation of yet another impending famine in March 2016, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorializing that “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”

The Obama administration recently concluded a nuclear “deal” with Iran, secretly sealed with pallet loads of taxpayer cash.  CIA Director John Brennan conceded in September that his agency is “monitoring” whether North Korea is providing Iran with clandestine nuclear assistance.  It doesn’t seem a stretch, there have been arms sales and “peaceful nuclear cooperation” between the two since the 1980s. The nuclear relationship between the two is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother.   I cannot imagine what could go wrong.

December 27, 1913 My Favorite Curmudgeon

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’s number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun.

bierceAmbrose Bierce was born in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce, the 10th of 13 children, all with names beginning with the letter “A”.

Marcus and Laura never had much money, but they were inveterate readers and imparted a love of books that would last young Ambrose all his life. At 15, Bierce left home to become a “printer’s devil”, fetching type and mixing ink, following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his contemporary, Mark Twain.

He enlisted with the 9th Indiana Regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War, where he developed map making skills.  Bierce would frequently find himself in the hottest part of the front lines, while he drew out and mapped some difficult terrain feature.  He would later say of the experience that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”.

For Ambrose Bierce, the Civil War ended at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, when a severe head wound took him out of the war for good. He later headed west, making the first usable maps of the Black Hills, before winding up in San Francisco.

Long hours spent in a boring job at the San Francisco mint, gave him plenty of time to read the classics and brush up on his writing skills. He soon found himself in the newspaper business, one of the top columnists in the city.

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’sambrosebierceoncabbage number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun. Ambrose Bierce didn’t shy away from politics, he jumped right in, frequently using a mock dictionary definition to lampoon his targets. One example and my personal favorite, is “Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

Bierce worked for the Hearst Newspaper The San Francisco Examiner in 1896, when he was sent to Washington to cover a railroad bill that was working its way through Congress. The Union and Pacific Railroad received $130 million taxpayer dollars (about $3 billion in today’s money) laundered through the Federal Government and lent to them on extremely favorable terms. One of the railroad’s builders, Collis P. Huntington, had persuaded a malleable congressman to forgive the loan altogether, if only they could keep the measure quiet.ambrosebierceonego

Bierce lampooned the crony capitalist and the politician alike.  The offending bill was anything but quiet when an infuriated Huntington confronted Bierce on the Capital steps. When asked his “price”, Bierce answered “My price is $130 million dollars.  If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States”. The bill went on to defeat.  We can only wonder how things would be today, if such a man were to replace the partisan lapdogs who pass themselves off as the national press corps.

Bierce’s biting satire would often get Hearst and his newspaper in trouble.  Nothing wasambrosebierceonphilosophy off limits. Politics was a favorite target of his columns, such as: “CONSERVATIVE, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others”, or “POLITICIAN, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive”.

These mocking definitions became so numerous that they were published in 1906 as “The Cynic’s Word Book”.  It is still in print today as the “Devil’s Dictionary”. The topics are seemingly endless. On Motherhood: “SWEATER, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly”. On the Arts: PAINTING, n.: The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic”. Or “MARRIAGE, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two”. And then there’s education, “ACADEME, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught”.

Bierce left San Francisco in October 1913 at the age of 71, to revisit some of his Civil War battlefields. He then headed south into Mexico, which was at that time a whirlpool of revolution. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in Ciudad Juárez, arriving in Chihuahua some time in December. Bierce’ last letter was written to a close friend, Blanche Partington, on December 26, 1913. He closed the letter saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

And then, he vanished.

If you visit Sierra Mojada, in Coahuila, Mexico, they’ll tell you that Ambrose biercemarkerGwinnett Bierce was executed by firing squad in the town cemetery. It’s as good an ending to this story as any, as one hundred and three years ago today is as good a day as any on which to end it. The fact is that in that 103 years, there’s never been a trace of what became of him, and probably never will be.

He would have had a good laugh, reading the monument that Meigs County, Ohio erected in his honor in 2003. So many words to commemorate a life, when his own words would have done so well. “MONUMENT, n:  A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated.”ambrosebierceonplan

December 26, 1776 Trenton

Washington himself, who had become Commander-in-Chief of an Army with an average of nine rounds’ powder per man, feared they may have reached the end, writing to his cousin in Virginia “I think the game is pretty near up”.

1776 started out well for the Patriot cause, with the British evacuating Boston in March, the June defeat of the British Navy at Fort Moultrie South Carolina, and the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4.

Things took a turn for the worse in August, with General George Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, and the loss of the strategically important port of New York that September. It wasn’t all bad, Benedict Arnold’s October defeat at Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British dearly enough that they had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By the end of November, General Howe pushed the last American troops out of New York, chasing Washington’s shrinking army through New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

Washington’s men gathered up or destroyed every boat they could find for miles, while across the Delaware, British General Lord Cornwallis established outposts from New Brunswick to Burlington, including one at Trenton, New Jersey.

Camping on the western banks of the Delaware, Washington was in desperate straits. Food, ammunition and equipment were in short supply, men were deserting as the string of defeats brought morale to a new low.  Most of his troops were about to end their enlistments, effective at the end of the year. Washington himself, who had become Commander-in-Chief of an Army with an average of nine rounds’ powder per man, feared they may have reached the end, writing to his cousin in Virginia “I think the game is pretty near up”.

The Americans needed a decisive victory, and quickly, if their cause was to survive. Washington planned a three-pronged attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, himself at the head of a 2,400 man army, flanked by a 1,900 man diversionary force under Colonel John Cadwalader and a blocking move by 700 men under General James Ewing.

march-on-trenton-webAs the army began the famous crossing of the Delaware that Christmas night, the
password was “Victory”. There was only one recognized response:  “Or Death”.

Washington’s three-pronged assault soon dissolved into one, as Cadwalader and Ewing both turned back. The weather that night was dreadful.  A howling ‘nor-easter’ came up at 11:00, hampering the crossing as freezing rain changed to sleet and sleet to snow. Horses balked at being led onto flat-bottom barges, while cannon had to be tied down to prevent capsize. With visibility near zero, several men fell overboard during the crossing.  One soldier said “it blew a perfect hurricane”.

Two froze to death on the overnight march to Trenton. Men were so poorly equipped that washington-delaware-lmany of them lacked boots, the soaked and freezing rags wrapped around their feet not enough to keep them from leaving bloody footprints in the snow.

Loyalists had warned the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rall, that American forces were planning an action. As late as December 22, a spy had warned British General James Grant that Washington was holding a war council.  His warning to the Hessian commander was “Be on your guard”.

Approaching Trenton along parallel roads, General John Sullivan sent word to Washington that the weather was wetting his men’s gunpowder. Washington responded, “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”

trentonThe Patriot force arrived at Trenton at 8am December 26, completely surprising the Hessian garrison. There is a story about the Hessians being drunk or hungover after Christmas celebrations, but the story is almost certainly untrue. Unaware of Washington’s march on Trenton, 50 Americans had attacked a Hessian outpost earlier that morning. While Washington worried that his surprise was blown, Colonel Rall apparently believed that this was the attack he’d been warned about. He expected no further action that day.

The tactical surprise was complete for the American side. Hessian soldiers spilled out of their quarters and tried to form up, but most were shot down or dispersed. A few American civilians, residents of Trenton, even joined in the fight. All told, Hessian losses were 22 killed, 92 wounded, 918 captured and 400 escaped. Four Hessian colonels were killed, including Rall himself. The Americans suffered the two who had frozen to death, and five wounded. They had won the first major victory of the Revolution.

On December 30, the Americans once again crossed the Delaware, eluding a main forcetrenton-1 under Generals Cornwallis and Grant, proving on January 3rd at a place called Princeton, that they could defeat a regular British army in the field.

Encouraged by these victories, many of Washington’s men extended their terms of enlistment, and new enlistments flooded in. The American Revolution would slog on for almost six more years, but for today, it had lived to fight another day.

 

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything”.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

It was different 25 years earlier, at the outbreak of “The Great War”. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.  France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.  The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.  In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing Christmas carols.  They saw lanterns and small fir trees, and messages were shouted along the trenches.  In places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs.

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

christmastruce2Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang
syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire ofChristmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News. December 24-25, 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but they were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

ronald-mckinnon
Private Ronald MacKinnon

Even so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.