October 31, 1897 The Real Dracula

In the end, we are left with the tale of a warlord.  A prince.  A sadist.  An impaler.  A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.

In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “The Devil”.  In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”. Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.

Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”.  He nearly kept one of them too, until reading about Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and 15th century warrior, who fought on the front lines of the Jihad of his day.  

Stoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL“.  In a time and place remembered for its brutality, Vlad Țepeș stands out as extraordinarily cruel.  There are stories that Țepeș disemboweled his own pregnant mistress.  That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries, some 24,000 of them.  That he dined among forests of victims, impaled on spikes.  That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.   

Founded in 1330, the Principality of Wallachia is a region in modern-day Romania, situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains.  A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back.

Order of the DragonIn 1436, Vlad II became voivode, (prince), of Wallachia.  The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

Shifting loyalties put the Wallachian prince in a weakened position, forcing him to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, including participation in the Ottoman invasion of the nearby Romanian principality of Transylvania.

Transylvanian voivode John Hunyadi persuaded Vlad to fight with him against the Ottomans.  Vlad was summoned to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Sultan Murad II, and brought his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu, along.  The meeting was a trap.  Vlad was thrown in prison but later released in exchange for a pledge to pay annual tribute, and the promise of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as janissaries in the Ottoman army.  Vlad III, age 12, and his younger brother were left behind as hostages, to ensure the loyalty of their father.

The timeline is unclear, but Vlad Dracul appears to have been convinced that his sons were “butchered for the sake of Christian peace”, sometime around 1444.   Byzantine historian Michael Critobulus writes that Vlad and Radu fled to the Ottoman Empire in 1447 following the murder of their father and older brother Mircea, suggesting that the two were released, most likely following Vlad’s pledge of homage to the Sultan.

The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time, and Vlad became a skilled horseman and warrior.  Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing a deep enmity for his captors that would last all his life.

Vlad_Tepes_002
Vlad III Țepeș

With the death of his father and older brother, Vlad III became a potential claimant for the throne in Wallachia.  Vlad won back his father’s seat in 1448 with Ottoman support, only to be deposed after only two months.  Sometime later, he switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire stood ready to invade all of Europe.  

Vlad III regained the Wallachian throne in 1456 with military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary.  The new prince made it his first order of business to cut ties with the Ottoman Empire, terminating the annual tribute which had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Caliphate. 

A group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, citing religious custom.  The prince commended them for their religious devotion and ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls, assuring them that now, they would never be removed.

According to stories circulated after his death, Vlad III needed to consolidate power, against his fractious nobles (boyars).  Hundreds of them were invited to a banquet, only to be stabbed, their still twitching bodies then impaled on spikes.

Vlad Dracul statue5Ethnic Germans had long since emigrated to these parts, forming a distinct merchant class in Wallachian society.  These Saxon merchants were allied with the boyars.  It was not long before they too, found themselves impaled on spikes.

Vlad invaded the Ottoman Empire in 1461, by his own count killing “23,884 Turks and Bulgarians”.

Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, invaded Wallachia at the head of an army 150,000 strong in 1462, only to find the roads lined with a “forest of the impaled”, and the capital city of Târgoviște, deserted.

The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen stades long and seven stades wide. There were large stakes there on which, as it was said, about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted, quite a sight for the Turks and the sultan himself. The sultan was seized with amazement and said that it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and its people. And he said that a man who had done such things was worth much. The rest of the Turks were dumbfounded when they saw the multitude of men on the stakes. There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails”.

To give a sense of scale to this horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena. 

In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire.  Vlad III Țepeș would be twice deposed only to regain power.  Unable to defeat his more powerful adversary, Vlad was exiled for several years in Hungary, spending much of that time in prison.  Heaven help the poor rodent who fell into his hands, in that wretched cell.

Bran-Castle-count-dracula.jpg3_
Bran Castle

Vlad successfully stole back the throne following the death of his brother Radu at the head of an Ottoman column in 1475, but this last reign would be brief.  The prince of Wallachia was marching to yet another battle with the Ottomans in 1477, when he and his small vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and Vlad was killed.

Today, the mountaintop Castle in Bran, Romania is celebrated as the “home” of Count Dracula.  Ironically, neither Bram Stoker nor Vlad Țepeș ever set foot in the place.  There is some debate as to the veracity of these tales, and whether they were significantly embellished. Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern movable type printing press in 1439 when Vlad III was about 8, so his contemporaries had ample opportunity to tell their stories. Many were written by his detractors, of which a guy like Vlad “the Impaler”, had many.  Yet the details of these stories are virtually identical, suggesting they contain significantly more than a grain of truth. 

Statues of Vlad Țepeș dot the Romanian countryside, though his burial place is unknown.  In the end, we are left only with the tale of a warlord.  A prince.  A sadist.  An impaler.  A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.

Tara_Rumaneasca_map
Territories held by Wallachian prince Mircea the Elder, father of Vlad II “Dracul”, c. 1390

October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds

Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town of Grover’s Mill, NJ, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what Martians looked like.

34.6 million miles distant, the Red Planet is our nearest neighbor in the solar system. It was the God of Death to the Babylonians of 3000BC, lending its name to the war gods of Greek and Roman antiquity alike.

In the 19th century, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that he saw canals on Mars, evidence of some great civilization. In 1898, H.G. Wells published a book about a Martian invasion of earth, beginning with a landing in England. On this day in 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air brought that story to life.

1920s-radioThe radio drama began with a statement that what followed was fictional.  The warning was repeated at the 40 and 55-minute mark, and again at the end of the broadcast. It began with a weather report, and then went to a dance band remote, featuring “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. The music was periodically interrupted by live “news” flashes, beginning with strange explosions on Mars. Producer Orson Welles made his first radio appearance as the “famous” (but non-existent) Princeton Professor Dr. Richard Pierson, who dismissed speculation about life on Mars.

A short time later, another “news flash” reported that there had been a fiery crash in Grovers Mill, NJ. What was originally thought to be a meteorite was revealed to be a rocket machine as a tentacled, pulsating Martian unscrewed the hatch and incinerated the crowd with a death ray.

mars1The dramatic technique was brilliant. Welles had his cast listen to the Hindenburg tape, explaining that was the “feel” that he wanted in his broadcast. Fictional on-the-spot reporter Carl Phillips describes the death ray in the same rising crescendo, only to be cut off in mid-sentence as it’s turned on him.

The 60-minute play unfolds with Martians wiping out a militia unit sent against them, and finally attacking New York City with poison gas.

Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news was real. According to Grovers Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what a Martian looked like.

images (5) The New York Times reported on Oct. 31, “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture”.

The USA Today newspaper, reporting on the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, reported “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems,”

Then as today, supposed “victims” of the broadcast and their lawyers lined up to get paid for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9B, by a Massachusetts man who had spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles thought the man should be paid.

In the end, the War of the Worlds was what the broadcast described itself to be. A Halloween concoction. The equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’.

October 29,  1921  Bill Mauldin’s Army

A talented artist, Bill Mauldin’s medium was the cartoon.  Through them, he told the story of the common soldier, usually at a rate of six per week.

Bill Mauldin's Army 5Born on October 29, 1921 in New Mexico and brought up in Arizona, William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was part of what Tom Brokaw called, the “Greatest Generation”.

Mauldin enlisted in the 45th Infantry Division when the United States entered WWII.  He was a talented artist, trained at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and volunteered to work for the unit’s newspaper, as a cartoonist.

As a sergeant of the 45th Division’s press corps and later for Stars & Stripes, Mauldin was part of the invasion of Sicily and the later Italian campaign.  He was given his own jeep and allowed to go wherever he pleased, which was usually out in front.  His medium was the cartoon.  He told the story of the common soldier, usually at the rate of six per week.

Bill Mauldin's Army 2Mauldin developed two cartoon infantrymen, calling them “Willie and Joe”.  He told the story of the war through their eyes.  He became extremely popular within the enlisted ranks, while his humor tended to poke fun at the “spit & polish” of the officer corps.  He even lampooned General George Patton one time, for insisting that his men to be clean shaven all the time.  Even in combat.

Patton summoned the cartoonist to his office, threatening to “throw his ass in jail” for “spreading dissent”, until Dwight Eisenhower told Patton to leave him alone.  According to the Supreme Allied Commander, Mauldin’s cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations.

Bill Mauldin's Army 3Mauldin later told an interviewer, “I always admired Patton. Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy. He was insane. He thought he was living in the Dark Ages. Soldiers were peasants to him. I didn’t like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes”.

His was no rear echelon assignment.  Mauldin’s fellow soldier-cartoonist, Gregor Duncan, was killed in Anzio in May 1944.  Mauldin himself was wounded in a German mortar attack near Monte Cassino.  By the end of the war, he had received the Army’s Legion of Merit for his drawings.

Mauldin tried to revive Willy & Joe after the war, but found they didn’t assimilate well into civilian life.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz was himself a veteran of World War II. Schulz paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle in his strip, but more than any other, he paid tribute to Willy & Joe. Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times over the years.  Always on Veterans Day.

Bill Mauldin passed away on January 22, 2003, from a bathtub scalding exacerbated by complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

PeanutsBill Mauldin drew Willie & Joe for last time in 1998, for inclusion in Schulz’ Veteran’s Day Peanuts strip.  Schulz had long described Mauldin as his hero. He signed that final strip Schulz, as always, and added “and my Hero“.  Bill Mauldin’s signature, appears underneath.

Bill Mauldin's Army 6

 

October 28, 1945  The Last Rebel

South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and the world waited to see who’d follow.  New York City became the next to call for secession on January 6, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the city’s governing body. 

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the nation, a Chicago Daily Times editorial warned that if the South left “in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one half of what it is now”.

South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and the world waited to see who’d follow.  New York City became the next to call for secession on January 6, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the city’s governing body.  “When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, he said, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master…and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

townline4In New York city and “upstate” alike, economic ties with the south ran deep.  40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York, in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

30 minutes’ east of Buffalo, the village of Lancaster contemplated staying with the Union.  500 miles from the nearest Confederate state, George Huber remembered the time.  “When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news, and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out.  I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation…Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.”

town line courthouse“Town Line”, a hamlet on the village’s eastern boundary, put it to a vote.  In the fall of 1861, residents gathered in the old schoolhouse-turned blacksmith’s shop.  By a margin of 85 to 40, Town Line, New York voted to secede from the Union.

At first there was angry talk of arresting “Copperheads” for sedition, but “seceders” soon became quiet, as casualty reports came back from the front.  Most became afraid to meet in public, amidst angry talk of lynching.  A half-dozen or so more ardent secessionists went south to fight for the Confederacy.  Others quietly moved north, to Canada.   Outside of Lancaster, no one seemed to notice.  Taxes continued to be paid. No federal force ever arrived to enforce the loyalty of the small village.

Town Line MarkerA rumor went around in 1864, that a large Confederate army was building in Canada, poised to invade from the north.

Town Line became a dangerous place for the few southern sympathizers left.  Most of those remaining moved to Canada and, once again, Lancaster became the quiet little village in upstate New York, that nobody ever heard of.

Impatient to get on with it, Dade County “symbolically” seceded both from Georgia and from the Union, back in 1860.  Officially, Dade County seceded with Georgia in 1861, and rejoined with the rest of the state in 1870.  The deal was sealed on July 4, 1945, when a telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at a celebration marking Dade County’s “rejoining” the Union.

The “Confederate Gibraltar”, Vicksburg Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863.  The city wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.

By October 1945, there was legally only one remaining part of the Confederate States of America. The hamlet of Town Line, New York.

greensboro-daily-news-newspaper-0125-1946-town-line-rejoins-unionEven Georgians couldn’t help themselves from commenting. 97-year-old Confederate General T.W. Dowling said: “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try“. Judge A.L. Townsend of Trenton Georgia commented “Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance“.

A courier express note arrived on October 7, 1945.  “There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution” read the note, “if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace.  Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixins in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”  The note was signed “Very Sincerely Yours, Harry Truman”.

last-of-the-rebels-1Fireman’s Hall became the site of the barbecue, “The old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started” being too small for the assembled crowd.  On October 28, 1945, residents adopted a resolution suspending its 1861 ordinance of secession, by a vote of 90-23. The Stars and Bars of the Lost Cause was lowered for the last time, outside the old blacksmith shop.

Alabama member of the United States House of Representatives, John Jackson Sparkman, may have had the last word on the sunject.  “As one reconstructed rebel to another, let me say that I find much comfort in the fact that you good people so far up in Yankee land have held out during the years. However, I suppose we grow soft as we grow older.”

October 27, 1871 The Original Lone Star Republic

The taking stood on questionable legal grounds, but it was complete on December 10, when the legislature voted to accept annexation and dissolve the Republic. Twenty-Six years later to the day, the Republic of Texas adopted the “Burnet” or “Bonnie Blue” Flag, all but indistinguishable from that of the original Lone Star Republic.

Bonnie Blue Flag hatThis is a story of Independence, of Revolution. Of overthrowing a Spanish-speaking government, and creating an Independent Republic in the American South. Its banner was a single, five-pointed white star on a blue field.  It was the original Lone Star Republic. The Republic of West Florida.

Wait. What?

Spanish colonization of the Americas began when the Crown of Castille, Ferdinand and Isabella, sent an Italian explorer this way in 1492.

Motivated by the promotion of trade and of the Catholic faith throughout indigenous populations, the Spanish Empire expanded across South and Central America and much of North America, including the Caribbean, Florida, and a strip running through modern day Mexico to the Pacific Southwest.

imageThe French first came to America in 1524, colonizing vast expanses from Quebec to Green Bay in the north, Baton Rouge to Biloxi in the south. They sought wealth, territory and a route to the Pacific Ocean. What they got was endless conflict.

Following the French and Indian War in 1762, Louis XV signed the secret Treaty of Fountainebleu with King Carlos III, ceding “la Louisiane” to Spain.

The Treaty of Paris was signed the following year, ending the Seven Years War in Europe. There lies the crux of the problem. French colonists poured into Louisiana, wanting no part of British rule. They wouldn’t learn until 1764 that the place was under Spanish rule.

Rebellion was immediate and ongoing. Colonists expelled their first Spanish governor Alejandro O’Reilly (I love that name) in the Rebellion of 1768, and had to be put down by force.

The American colonies were soon convulsed in Revolution, after which both East and West Florida reverted to Spanish control. European Colonial Powers would have their turn ten years later, with the French Revolution and the rise of the Napoleonic Empire. Spain would cede much of the Louisiana Territory back to France during this period, but not all of it.

spnflaPresident Jefferson bought 828,000 square miles from the French in 1803, doubling the size of the United States, but the exact borders were unclear.

Spain claimed title to what they called “West Florida, a territory bounded by the Perdido River in the east, the modern border of Florida and Alabama, south of the 31st parallel, and running west to the Mississippi River.

What followed may have been the shortest Revolution in history. Revolutionary War veteran Philemon Thomas led fifty “Americanos” through the early morning darkness of September 23, 1810. They passed through the open gate of Fort San Carlos in Baton Rouge, while another 25 men on horseback rode through a hole in the fort’s wall. Soldados fired their muskets, and Thomas’ men responded with a single volley, killing or wounding five Spaniards.

Bonnie Blue FlagThat was about it. Surviving soldados fled, as the flag of the new Republic was unfurled over the fort: a dark blue field with a single white star. The whole thing had taken about a minute.

Americanos had revolted back in 1804 without success. This time they would make it stick. Sort of.

The constitution of the Republic of West Florida was patterned on that of the United States, with government divided into three branches, Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.

The first and only Governor was Fulwar Skipwith, whose inaugural address seemed to make room for Union with the United States. “[T] he blood which flows in our veins”, he said, “like the tributary streams which form and sustain the father of rivers, encircling our delightful country, will return if not impeded, to the heart of our parent country”.

Skipwith’s overtures seemed to have been met with a yawn by the Madison administration, soon the new Republic was launching a raid, unsuccessfully, against the Spanish garrison at Mobile.

The Republic was becoming quite accustomed to its newfound independence, a state of affairs which President James Madison had no intention of recognizing.

President Madison proclaimed the territory annexed on October 27, 1810, and made part of the Territory of Orleans. William Claiborne, military governor of the Orleans Territory, was sent to take possession.

FloridaParishes
Florida Parishes of East Louisiana

Governor Skipwith proclaimed himself ready to “die in defense of the Lone Star flag,” though his stance softened considerably when military forces entered the capital of St. Francisville on December 6, and Baton Rouge four days later.

Florida itself, along with the eastern expanses of West Florida, reverted to United States control with the Onís-Adams Treaty of 1819.

To this day, eight parishes in East Louisiana (“Counties” to the rest of us), are called the “Florida Parishes”.

The taking stood on questionable legal grounds, but it was complete on December 10, when the legislature voted to accept annexation and dissolve the Republic. Twenty-Six years later to the day, the Republic of Texas adopted the “Burnet” or “Bonnie Blue” Flag, all but indistinguishable from that of the original Lone Star Republic.

Bonnie Blue, Stars and Stripes

October 26, 1918  Choctaw Code Talkers

The history of the Navajo code talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  Less well known is the history of code talking in WWI, based on the language of the Choctaw.
The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Navajo Code Talkers were part of all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater of WWII.  Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima:  Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted from 1942 to ‘45.

Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker.  The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII.  Japanese code breakers never got close.

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the history of code talking in WWI, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Choctaw code talkersLate in 1917, Colonel A. W. Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment.  They were a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

The Allies had already learned the hard way, that many of their German adversaries spoke excellent English.  They had already intercepted and broken several English based codes.  Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying.  If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector.  A captured German officer later confirmed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success.  We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry.  Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and by runner, many of whom were themselves Native Americans.

The Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase.  When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”.  Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII.  At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, described what they did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma.  The last was a native Chickasaw.  The youngest was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War.  Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was 16 on the day he enlisted.

Joseph Oklahombi
Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, tells the story:  “Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades“.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender.  Some guys are not to be trifled with.

choctawwarmemorial

October 25, 1854   Charge of the Light Brigade

Shattered remnants of the Light Brigade actually managed to overrun the Russian guns, but had no means of holding them. They milled about for a time, and then back they came, blown and bleeding horses carrying mangled men back through another gauntlet of fire.

1854 was the second year of the Crimean war, pitting an alliance including Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against the Russian armies of Czar Nicholas I.

The Battle of Balaclava opened shortly after 5:00am on this day in 1854, when a squadron of Russian Cossack Cavalry advanced under cover of darkness. The Cossacks were followed by a host of Uhlans, their Polish light cavalry allies, against several dug-in positions occupied by Ottoman Turks. The Turks fought stubbornly, sustaining 25% casualties before finally being forced to withdraw.

George_Bingham,_3rd_Earl_of_Lucan
Lucan

For a time, the Russian advance was held only by the red coated 93rd Highland Regiment, a desperate defense recorded in history as the Thin Red Line. Finally, the Russians were driven back by the British Heavy Brigade, led by George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, a man otherwise known to history for the brutality inflicted on tenants in Mayo, during the Irish potato famine.

The light cavalry of the age consisted of lightly armed and armored troops mounted on small, fast horses, usually wielding cutlass or spear. They’re a raiding force, good at reconnaissance, screening, and skirmishing. The “Heavies”, on the other hand, are mounted on huge, powerful chargers, both rider and horse heavily armored. They are the shock force of the army.

Cardigan
Cardigan

Lucan’s subordinate was James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, in command of the Light Brigade.  There could not have been two worse field commanders. Though possessed of physical courage, both were prideful, mean spirited and petty men. What’s more, they were brothers-in-law, and thoroughly hated one another.

Field Marshal Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was in overall command of the allied armies.  Raglan occupied a high spot where he could see the battle unfold before him, but didn’t seem to realize that his subordinates below couldn’t see what he could see. Spotting a small Russian detachment trying to get away with captured cannon, Raglan issued an order to Lucan, in overall command of his Cavalry. “Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.” As Staff Officer Louis Nolan left to deliver the message, Raglan shouted “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately“.

raglan
Raglan

The Light Brigade was well suited to such a task, but the men below had no idea what Raglan meant by such a poorly worded order. The only guns they could see were dug in Russian artillery a mile away, at the other end of the valley. When Nolan brought the order, Lucan demanded to know what guns. With a contemptuous sweep of his arm, Nolan pointed down the valley.   “There, sir, are your guns“.

The order which then came down from Lucan to Cardigan called for a suicide mission, even for heavy cavalry. The “Lights” were being ordered to ride a mile down an open valley, with enemy cannon and riflemen lining both sides, into the muzzles of dug in, well sighted, heavy artillery.

Nose to nose and glaring, neither man blinked in the contest of wills. In the end, Cardigan did as ordered.  674 horsemen of the Light Brigade mounted up, drew their swords, and rode into the valley of death.

Louis Nolan should have gone back to Raglan, but rode out instead, in front of the Light Brigade.  He was almost certainly trying to redirect the charge and could have saved the day, but it wasn’t meant to be.  Louis Nolan, the only man in position to change history that day, was the first casualty of the raid.

Private James Wightman of the 17th Lancers, describes Nolan’s last moments.  “I saw the shell explode of which a fragment struck him. From his raised sword-hand dropped the sword. The arm remained upraised and rigid, but all the other limbs so curled in on the contorted trunk as by a spasm, that we wondered how for the moment the huddled form kept the saddle. The weird shriek and the awful face haunt me now to this day, the first horror of that ride of horrors“.

Crimean-War-Russian-Artillery-Battery
Russian Artillery Battery of the Crimean War

Raglan must have looked on in horror at the scene unfolding below.   Instead of turning right and climbing the Causeway slopes, almost 700 horsemen first walked, then trotted and finally charged, straight down the valley, into the Russian guns.  Captain Thomas Hutton of the 4th Light Dragoons said “A child might have seen the trap that was laid for us.  Every private dragoon did“.

Charge, Russian Perspective
Charge of the Light Brigade, from the Russian perspective.

It took the Lights a full seven minutes to get to the Russian guns.  Cannon fire tore great gaps out of their lines the whole time, first from the sides and then from the front.   Shattered remnants of the Light Brigade actually managed to overrun the Russian guns, but had no means of holding them. They milled about for a time, and then back they came, blown and bleeding horses carrying mangled men back through another gauntlet of fire.

Louis Nolan
Captain Nolan’s horse carried his dead body all the way down, and all the way back.

When it was over, 110 were dead, 130 wounded, and 58 missing or captured. 40% losses in an action which had lasted 20 minutes.  Captain Nolan’s horse carried his dead body all the way down, and all the way back.

Cardigan and Lucan pointed the finger of blame at each other, for the rest of their lives.  Both laid blame for the disaster on Nolan, but he wasn’t there to defend himself.

Today, the Battle of Balaclava is mostly forgotten, but for a stanza in the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

“‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldiers knew

Some one had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred”.

Aftermath-of-the-Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade
Aftermath

The Crimean War itself may be remembered as a waste of blood and treasure, for all it accomplished. But for the efforts of one woman, who all-but invented the modern profession of nursing. The soldiers knew her as “The Lady with the Lamp”, for her late night rounds, taking care of the wounded.

History remembers this “Ministering Angel”, as Florence Nightingale.

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