July 9, 1943 The Most Decorated K-9 of WW2

The machine gun episode ended with a final score of Chips 4, Italian machine-gun team 0, but he wasn’t done. Before the day was over, Chips had helped to bag ten more.

By the end of the “Great War”, France, Great Britain and Belgium had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, Imperial Germany as many as 30,000. Some sources report that over a million dogs served over the course of the war.

Dogs performed a variety of roles in WWI, from ratters in the trenches, to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on battlefields, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves. Sometimes, these dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul, so that the gravely wounded should not die alone.

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French propaganda postcard of WW1

The famous Rin Tin Tin canine movie star of the 1920s was rescued as a puppy, from the bombed out remains of a German Army kennel, in 1917.

Leaders of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) discussed the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals, but the war was over before US forces put together any kind of a War Dog program.  America’s first war dog, “Sgt. Stubby”, went “over there” by accident, serving 18 months on the Western Front before coming home to a well-earned retirement.

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Sergeant Stubby

In March 1942, the US Army Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for an American “K-9 Corps.” In the beginning, the owners of healthy animals were encouraged to “loan” their dogs to the Quartermaster Corps, where they were trained for service with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Chips.jpgOne such dog was “Chips”, the German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who would become the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to the Wren family of Pleasantville New York, who “enlisted” their dog in the “Dogs for Defense (DfD) program in 1942. He was trained at the War Dog Training Center in Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division of Patton’s 7th Army, along with with his handler, Private John Rowell.

Tip of the hat to my son-in-law Nate who also served in the 3rd ID in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan, partnered as handler and “battle buddy” with a four-year-old German Shepard and Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD) named “Zino”.

Back to WW2.  Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Casablanca Conference of 1943, where he met the American President Franklin Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  The Rowell/Chips team was part of the landings, beginning six weeks of land combat in an action code named “Operation Husky”.

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Chips

During the night landing phase on July 10, Private Rowell and Chips were pinned down in the darkness by an Italian machine gun team, operating out of a nearby hut. The dog broke free from his handler as the platoon dived for shelter, covering the beach in a flash and jumping into the building.

Private Rowell described the scene.  “There was an awful lot of noise and the firing stopped. Then I saw one soldier come out of the door with Chips at his throat. I called him off before he could kill the man.”

Three others were quick to follow, hands up.  Chips had grabbed the Italian’s machine gun by the barrel, knocking the gun off its mount before turning his attentions on the team. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns, demonstrating that someone had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  How many lives were spared by the actions of a single dog, is anyone’s guess.

That episode ended with a final score of Chips 4, Italian machine-gun team 0, but he wasn’t done. Before the day was over, Chips had helped to bag ten more.

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“Chips” goes to war, 1942

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart, but those awards were later revoked. At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars. One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out the rest of his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville, New York.  In 1990, Disney produced a made-for-TV movie based on the life of the most highly decorated K-9 of WW2, calling it “Chips, the War Dog”.

Afterward

In 1917, the British animal welfare pioneer Maria Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), to “provide care for sick and injured animals of the poor”. Today, the PDSA is the largest veterinary charity in England, carrying out a million or more free veterinary visits every year and employing the largest number of veterinary surgeons and nurses in the United Kingdom.

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Dickin_Medal

The Dickin Medal was established in 1943, to recognize animals displaying “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units“.  Sometimes referred to as “the animals’ Victoria Cross”, the Dickin medal has been awarded only 75 times as of November 2017, plus an honorary Dickin Medal for all animals who served during WW1.

On January 15, 2018, seventy-five years to the day following the Casablanca Conference, Chips was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal.  John Wren, who was only four when Chips went to war, accepted the award in Chips’ honor.  United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Alan Throop and Military Working Dog (MWD) Handler Staff Sergeant Jeremy Mayerhoffer of the United States Air Force were also there, along with MWD Ayron, who stood in for Chips to wear his Dickin Medal.

The medal reads “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve.” Previous recipients include 33 dogs, 32 messenger pigeons, four horses and a ship’s cat.

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“John Wren (left), who was four years old when Chips the family pet returned from the war effort, with military working dog Ayron and his handler Staff Sergeant Jeremy Mayerhoffer (centre) and US Lieutenant Colonel Alan Throop (right) in London today”  H/T Daily Mail
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July 2, 1776 Independence Day

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

The first Virginia Convention organized in 1774, when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the colony’s House of Burgesses. The colonial governing body had called for a day of prayer, a show of solidarity with her sister colony in Boston, after the British government closed the harbor in retaliation for the “Boston Tea Party“.

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Three additional such meetings would take place in the following year-and-one-half, to discuss increasingly fractious relations with the British Empire. No expression emerged from these conventions, in favor of independence.

That would change on May 15, 1776, when the fifth Virginia Convention declared that the colonial government as “formerly exercised” by King George III in Parliament, was “totally dissolved”. Three resolutions emerged from this body:  one calling for a declaration of rights in Virginia, another calling for the establishment of a republican constitution, and a third instructing its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to declare independence from Great Britain.

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Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention. As presented to the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution read:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation”.

At the time, several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence.

Representatives agreed to delay the vote until July 1, appointing a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Members of the committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The committee selected Jefferson to write the document, the draft presented to the Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates expressing favor for Lee’s resolution.

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The final vote was taken on July 2, when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor. Delegates from New York abstained, having as yet received no clear instructions from their constituents.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on July 2nd that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States”.

The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit on the third with “Yesterday, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES”.

John Adams believed that July 2 would go down as Independence Day, for the young nation.

Declaration of Independence

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

That line was drawn in the sand, two hundred and forty two years ago, today.  As Caesar had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ nearly two thousand years earlier, a decision had been taken from which there would be no turning back.  Fifty-six men affixed their signatures to that document, affirming that to this “… we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

These were no empty words.  One of those signers, Benjamin Franklin, stated in all candor, that now “We must all hang together or, assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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On this day in 1984, exactly 208 years after a young nation declared its independence, a memorial was dedicated in the Constitution Gardens, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The monument consists of fifty-six stone blocks, each bearing the inscribed likeness of the actual signature, of every man who so pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor.

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Today, this day is mostly forgotten in favor of July 4, when the final edits of Jefferson’s Declaration were adopted, the final document engrossed (handwritten onto parchment), and sent off to the printer.

Happy Independence Day.

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June 22, 1807 Impressed

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment, amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships. In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

The Napoleonic Wars took place between 1799 and 1815, pitting a series of seven international coalitions against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée.  The former American colonies benefited from the European conflict, remaining on the sidelines and doing business with both sides.  Within a ten-year period, the fledgling United States had become one of the world’s largest neutral shippers.

In 1807, two third-rate French warships were penned up in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, blockaded by a number of English warships outside of the harbor.

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The American frigate, USS Chesapeake

London born Jenkin Ratford was an English sailor who deserted the British Navy and defected to the neutral United States.  This story might have ended better for him had he not run his mouth, but that wasn’t this guy.  Ratford couldn’t resist taunting British officers, boasting of his escape to the “land of liberty”

The USS Chesapeake was preparing for a Mediterranean cruise with Ratford aboard, when she emerged from Norfolk, Virginia.  Her decks were laden with supplies and stores of every kind, and her guns unwisely stored.  Chesapeake was nowhere near combat ready when she was approached by the HMS Leopard on June 22.

The Chesapeake’s commander, Commodore James Barron, was unconcerned when the Leopard, under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, asked permission to board.  Lieutenant John Meade of Her Majesty’s Navy presented Barron with a search warrant.  Barron declined to submit, and the officer returned to the Leopard.

Chesapeake_LeopardHumphreys then used a hailing trumpet and ordered the American ship to comply, to which Barron responded “I don’t hear what you say”. Humphreys fired two rounds across Chesapeake’s bow, followed immediately by four broadsides.

Chesapeake fired a single shot before striking colors and surrendering.  Humphreys refused the surrender and boarded, taking Ratford and three American born sailors with them when they left.

There was little resistance, yet the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” had left three American crewmembers dead, and 18 wounded.

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

The English court found all four guilty of desertion and hanged Ratford by the fore yardarm of his former vessel, HMS Halifax.  The three Americans, David Martin, John Strachan, and William Ware, were sentenced to 500 lashes.

With the puny American navy deployed to the Mediterranean to check the Barbary pirates, President Jefferson’s options were limited to economic retaliation.  The Embargo Act of 1807 intended to extract concessions from France and Great Britain, instead had the effect of imposing crippling setbacks on some industries, while others railed against government interference in the private economy.  Many came to the conclusion that the only solution, lay in violence.

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Political cartoon depicting merchants harassed cursing the “Ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment,  amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships.  In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

Despite being wounded, Barron was blamed for the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair”.  A court-martial suspended him from service for five years, without pay.   Commodore Stephen Decatur was one of the presiding officers at the court-martial. In 1820, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, killing his fellow Commodore over comments concerning the 1807 incident.

Undergoing a refit in Boston Harbor in 1813, USS Chesapeake was challenged to single combat by Captain Philip Broke, commanding the British frigate HMS Shannon.

Chesapeake_MillUnited States Naval Captain James Lawrence was eager to comply, confident in the wake of a number of American victories in single-ship actions.

It was a Big mistake.

All of Boston turned out that June day, to watch the fight.  Cheers went out across the docks and from scores of private vessels across Boston Harbor, as Chesapeake slipped her moorings and glided out of the harbor.

Boston authorities reserved dock space in expectation of a guest.  The arrival of a captured British frigate, so it was thought, was a foregone conclusion. Rooftops, hills and trees from Lynn to Malden and Cohasset to Scituate were crowded with spectators, come to watch the show.

The tale of the Battle of Boston Harbor must be a story for another day.  Suffice it to say that USS Chesapeake ended her career as the British frigate HMS Chesapeake, before being sold for scrap, in 1819.  Two-hundred years later, the ship’s timbers live on.  Part of the Chesapeake Mill in the historic village of Wickham, in Hampshire, England.

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June 18, 1815 A Handful of Nails

For want of a nail the battle was lost…

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting the Grand Armée of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.

The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but made the same mistake which Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset – General Winter.

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The Night Bivouac of the Great Army, by Vasily Vereshchagin

For months, Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered the Russian capital of Moscow that September, with expectations of capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

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French invasion of Russia

 

With the dread Russian winter coming fast, there was no choice but to turn about. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman river on June 24. By mid-December, barely 27,000 straggled home from Russian soil.

The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King Louis VXIII. The Emperor returned at the head of another army, in 111 days.

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The Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815, when Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingsom bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his reign.

Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.

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It rained all day and night, that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon.  Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of the Grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge. French infantry swarmed the stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haye Sainte on his left.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most French infantry reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. Colonel Cornelius Frazer watched the mass of riders  and thought to himself: “They are going to roll over us.” In a flash, Frazer ordered: “Form squares!”  9,000 cuirassiers charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.

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It was common practice of the time to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole and disabling the weapon. Marshal Ney’s aide Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymès, frantically cried out “Les clous!” “Nails! Spike the guns!”

Not one rider had thought to bring them.

Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with spears. Eleven times they returned to their pieces, to fire into French cavalry as it withdrew.

Waterloo_Cavalry

Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000 man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.

The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver, and then retreat. Someone shouted “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannon balls fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the limb. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”

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As night fell, hundreds of locals emerged with hammers, pliers and chisels, combing the battlefield to remove the teeth of tens of thousands of dead and dying soldiers. Demand for human teeth was high and looters sold them by the tens of thousands, to dentists, who formed them into dentures. According to England’s National Army Museum, British dentists did nothing to conceal where they came from, advertising their appliances as “Waterloo teeth.” As late as the American Civil War, English dentists continued to do a brisk trade in “Waterloo ivory.”

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

51FJajZqFIL._SL300_Austrian military history professor Erik Durschmied wrote in his excellent book`The Hinge Factor‘, of the times when serendipity,  ‘chance and stupidity have changed history.’  According to Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was comprehensive.  Bonaparte was captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  All, for a handful of nails.

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.

June 16, 1775 Act Worthy of Yourselves

“You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn.  Act worthy of yourselves.”

The city of Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

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Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, blocking British forces in control of Boston and its surrounding waterways.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on June 13 that a massive assault was planned for the 18th, intending to take the high ground at Dorchester Heights to the south, and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of Charlestown.

Col. William Prescott led 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th, with orders to construct fortifications on Bunker Hill.  Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land 1/3rd of a mile closer to Boston, which offered the more tenable hill from which to defend the peninsula.

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on the morning of June 17 to reveal a six-foot-high defensive earthwork running the length of Breed’s hill.  Peering through the early morning fog, General Howe was astonished at what he saw. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect, as Prescott’s men continued work on the entrenchment. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot, setting fire to the town.

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Ten miles to the south, a 7-year-old future President of the United States stood atop a hill with his mother Abigail, listening to the thunder of the guns and watching the smoke rise above Charlestown. John Quincy Adams would later write that he “witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.”

Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by Major General William Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

Battle_of_Bunker_HillThe British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving the survivors back down the hill to reform and try again.

Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the Redcoats advanced up the hill for the third assault. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

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Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  In desperate hand to hand fighting, the Militia was forced to retreat.

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but declined command, believing Putnam and Prescott to be more experienced soldiers.  On this day, Dr. Warren fought as a private soldier.

Two months before the battle, Joseph Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn.  Act worthy of yourselves.”

That they did. The Americans had gone toe-to-toe with the most powerful military of its time, suffering 452 killed and wounded.  Lieutenant Lord Rawdon recognized Dr. Warren on the third assault, and killed him with a musket ball to the head.  Warren’s body was bayoneted beyond recognition and thrown into a ditch.

Dr. Warren’s body was exhumed some ten months later after the British evacuation of Boston, and identified by a false tooth made for him by the amateur dentist, Paul Revere.  It may be the first instance of forensic dentistry, in American history.

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The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull

The Battle of Bunker Hill was a military victory for the British side, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.  Howe lost 226 men killed and 828 wounded, over a third of his number and over twice that of the Militia. One-eighth of all the British officers killed and one-sixth of those injured during the entire Revolution, occurred on Breed’s Hill.

General Thomas Gage wrote after battle, “The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.”  Private Nathanael Greene, destined to become one of the Continental Army’s most important Generals, quipped “I wish [we] could sell them another hill at the same price.”

 

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.

May 27, 1940 The Miracle of Dunkirk

By day 9 of the evacuation, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  For those, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” ended on June 4.  For approximately 40,000 British and another 40,000 French soldiers left behind in the confusion, a special kind of hell had just begun. 

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

319154The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but British armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.

In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24.  Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, and let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of the adversary. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard for miles, for boats to ferry its people off of the beach.

dunkirk1Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume the advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.

The Evacuation of DunkirkLarger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.

dunkirk2A thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent strandings. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

dunkirkevacuation7,669 were evacuated on the first full day of the evacuation, May 27, and none too soon.  The following day, members of the SS Totenkopf Division marched 100 captured members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment off to a pit, and machine gunned the lot of them.  A group of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were captured that same day, herded into a barn and murdered with grenades.

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Troops wait in the rubble of Dunkirk, for rescue

By day 9 of the evacuation, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  For those, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” ended on June 4.  For approximately 40,000 British and another 40,000 French soldiers left behind in the confusion, a special kind of hell had just begun.

dunkirk troops, 1940Most light equipment and virtually all heavy equipment had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a military fighting force that would live to fight on.

Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.

On the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for the “stay behind” mission, expected to follow. With German invasion all but imminent, their mission was to go underground and disrupt and destabilize the invaders, in any way they could. These were to be the British Resistance, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret that, the man was to be garroted in case of invasion, to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.  Many were issued suicide pills in case of capture yet, thanks to these men and women, Great Britain was the only nation of the WW2 era to have a fully operational resistance, BEFORE occupation.

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Participants in these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families what they were doing, or where they were.  They generally passed themselves off as Home Guard, a home defense organisation operated by the British Army.  Bob Millard, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 91, said they were given 3 weeks’ rations.  Even Josephine, Millard’s wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about the auxiliaries until their reunion, in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.

Another under-recognized group from the period are the young men conscripted to serve in the coal mines of the United Kingdom.  One in ten conscripts of the time received not a uniform, but the hard hat and steel-toed boot of the coal miner.  Often maligned as “Conchies” (conscientious objectors) or worse, these were held in service for as long as two years after the war, condemned to live the life of the Troglodyte with no expectation of peacetime jobs being held for them, as for those who served in uniform.

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“Bevin Boys” of WW2

These “Bevin Boys”, so-called after Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin, would wait decades for recognition of their contribution to the war effort, full acceptance coming only as the result of a speech given by Queen Elizabeth II, fifty years after VE Day.

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the conflicts of the 20th century. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes an ever-decreasing number of Home Guard and the Bevin Boys, without whom the war effort would have ground to a halt.

In 2013, five short years ago, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.  Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving“.

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Memorial to wartime ‘Bevin Boys’ unveiled in Staffordshire

March 28, 1918 A White Feather

Gangs of “feather girls” took to the streets, looking for military-age men out of uniform. Frederick Broome was fifteen years old, when “accosted by four girls who gave me three white feathers.”

At different times and places, a white feather has carried different meanings.  For those inclined toward New-Age, the presence of a white feather is proof that Guardian Angels are near.  For the Viet Cong and NVA Regulars who were his prey, the “Lông Trắng” (“White Feather”) symbolized the deadliest menace of the American war effort in Vietnam, USMC Scout Sniper Carlos Hathcock, who wore one in his bush hat.  Following the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, plucked three white ostrich feathers from the dead body of the blind King John of Bohemia. To this day, those feathers appear in the coat of arms, of the prince of Wales.

The Edward and John who faced one another over the field at Crécy, could be described in many ways.  Cowardice is not one of them.  For the men of the WW1 generation, a white feather represented precisely that.

In August 1914, seventy-three year old British Admiral Charles Cooper Penrose-Fitzgerald organized a group of thirty women, to give out white feathers to men not in uniform.  The point was clear enough. To gin up enough manpower, to feed the needs of a war so large as to gobble up a generation, and spit out the pieces.

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Lord Horatio Kitchener supported the measure, saying  “The women could play a great part in the emergency by using their influence with their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country’s defence, and every girl who had a sweetheart should tell men that she would not walk out with him again until he had done his part in licking the Germans.”

The Guardian newspaper chimed in, breathlessly reporting on the activities of the “Order of the White Feather“, hoping that the gesture “would shame every young slacker” into enlisting.

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“The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting”, Collier’s Weekly (1914)

In theory, such an “award” was intended to inspire the dilatory to fulfill his duty to King and country.   In practice, such presentations were often mean-spirited and out of line.  Sometimes, grotesquely so.

The movement spread across Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations and across Europe, encouraged by suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, and feminist writers Mary Augusta Ward, founding President of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, and British-Hungarian novelist and playwright, Emma Orczy.

Distributors of the white feather were almost exclusively female, who frequently misjudged their targets. Stories abound of men on leave, wounded, or in reserved occupations being handed one of the odious symbols.

MvicSeaman George Samson received a white feather on the same day he was awarded the British Commonwealth’s highest military award for gallantry in combat, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor:  the Victoria Cross.

Gangs of “feather girls” took to the streets, looking for military-age men out of uniform.  Frederick Broome was  fifteen years old, when “accosted by four girls who gave me three white feathers.”

The writer Compton Mackenzie, himself a serving soldier, complained that these “idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired“.

389px-1915_Women_of_Britain,_say_Go!James Lovegrove was sixteen when he received his first white feather:  “On my way to work one morning a group of women surrounded me. They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did?  They struck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed.” Lovegrove went straight to the recruiting office, who tried to send him home for being too young and too small: “You see, I was five foot six inches and only about eight and a half stone. This time he made me out to be about six feet tall and twelve stone, at least, that is what he wrote down. All lies of course – but I was in!”.

James Cutmore attempted to volunteer for the British Army in 1914, but was rejected for being near-sighted. By 1916, the war in Europe was consuming men at a rate unprecedented in history. Governments weren’t nearly so picky. A woman gave Cutmore a white feather as he walked home from work. Humiliated, he enlisted the following day. In the 1980s, Cutmore’s grandchild wrote “By that time, they cared nothing for [near-sightedness]. They just wanted a body to stop a shell, which Rifleman James Cutmore duly did in February 1918, dying of his wounds on March 28. My mother was nine, and never got over it. In her last years, in the 1980s, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember the names of her children, she could still remember his dreadful, lingering, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and my grandmother ironed his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice.”

figure-1Some of these people were not to be put off. One man was confronted by an angry woman in a London park, who demanded to know why he wasn’t in uniform. “Because I’m German“, he said. She gave him a feather anyway.

Some men had no patience for such nonsense. Private Ernest Atkins was one. Atkins was riding in a train car, when the woman seated behind him presented him with a white feather. Striking her across the face with his pay book, Atkins promised “Certainly I’ll take your feather back to the boys at Passchendaele. I’m in civvies because people think my uniform might be lousy, but if I had it on I wouldn’t be half as lousy as you.”

white-feather-3Private Norman Demuth was discharged from the British Army, after being wounded in 1916. A woman on a bus handed Demuth a feather, saying “Here’s a gift for a brave soldier.” Demuth was cooler than I might have been, under the circumstances: “Thank you very much – I wanted one of those.” He used the feather to clean his pipe, handing it back to her with the comment, “You know we didn’t get these in the trenches.”

Inevitably, the white feather became a problem, when civilian government employees began to receive the hated symbol.  Home Secretary Reginald McKenna issued lapel badges to employees in state industries, reading “King and Country”, proving that they too, were serving the war effort. Veterans who’d been discharged for wounds or illness were likewise issued such a badge, that they not be accosted in the street.

So it was that the laborer from the small town in Germany was sent to kill the greengrocer from St. Albans, spurred on by their women and the whole sorry mess driven by the politicians who would make war. The white feather campaign was briefly revived during WW2, but never caught on to anything approaching the same degree as the first.

The English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC, was decorated for bravery on the Western Front.  Sassoon would become one of the leading poets of WW1.  Let him have the final word.

“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death…
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.”

Siegfried Sassoon