June 9, 1772 The Gaspée Affair

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground in shallow water, near the town of Warwick at what is now Gaspée Point.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering, and Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit, after all, had it not?

intolerable-actsSeveral measures were taken in the 1760’s to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  They had been left to run their own affairs for decades.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures being taken by revenue and customs agents. Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John in 1764.  In 1769 they burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold only a few miles to the north.

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground in shallow water, near the town of Warwick at what is now Gaspée Point.GaspeePtaerial

A number of local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern, opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There they formed a plan to burn the Gaspée, and spent their evening hours casting bullets in the tavern.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle when they boarded, in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station. Treason charges were prepared, planning to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

Lexington ReenactorsA few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the Battles of Lexington & Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill later in 1775.

The fuse to Revolution had been lit.  It was not going to be put out, easily.

June 8, 793 The Viking Age

The Viking age lasted for almost 500 years, beginning in the late 8th century and ending only with the advent of the “Little Ice Age” in 1250.  In the end, the Vikings left their mark from Newfoundland, to Baghdad.

Lindisfarne Castle as seen from Harbour
Lindisfarne Castle as seen from Harbour

Two miles off the Northeast coast of Great Britain is the island of Lindisfarne, just south of the Scottish border.  Once, there was a monastery there.

The island’s monastic cathedral was founded a 150 years earlier by the Irish monk, Aidan of Lindisfarne. Known as the Apostle of Northumbria and spreading the gospel to Anglo-Saxon nobility and slaves alike, the monk was later canonized to become Saint Aidan.

Lindisfarne island had gifts of silver and gold, given to the monastery in hopes that such gifts would find peace for the immortal soul of the giver. There were golden crucifixes and coiled shepherd’s staves, silver plates for Mass, and ivory chests containing the relics of saints.  Shimmering tapestries hung from the walls.  The writing room contained some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts ever made.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island
Lindisfarne

1,224 years ago today, you could have looked to sea.  You would have seen a strange sight that morning.  Long ships with high prow and stern were lowering square sail as oarsmen rowed these ships directly onto the beach.

Viking Long ShipAny question you had as to their purpose would have been immediately answered, as these strangers sprinted up the beach and chased down everyone in sight.  These they murdered with axe or spear, or dragged them down to the ocean and drowned them. Most of the island’s inhabitants were dead when it was over, or taken off to the ships to be sold into slavery.  All of those precious objects were bagged, and tossed into the boats.

The raid on Lindisfarne abbey gave rise to what would become a traditional prayer:  A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, Lord”.  The Viking Age had arrived.

These Viking invasions were repeated for over a century, until England was eventually bled of its wealth, and the Vikings began to take the land, as well.viking-ship

It wasn’t just England either. The King of Francia was tormented by Viking raids in what would one day become western France. King Charles “the Simple”, so-called due to his plain, straightforward ways, offered choice lands along the western coast to these men of the north, if they would leave him alone.  In 911 the Viking chieftan Rollo accepted Charles’ offer, and so created the kingdom of Normandy.  They called him “Rollo the Walker”, so-called because he was so huge that no horse to carry him, but that’s a story for another day.  (Like, August)

A period of Global Warming (yes, they had it then too), during the 10th and 11th centuries created ideal conditions for the Norse raiders, with a prevailing westerly wind direction in the spring reversing direction in the fall to become west to east.

Viking Axe ManViking travel was not all done with murderous intent; they are well known for colonizing westward as they farmed Iceland and possibly North America.

Many of their eastward excursions were more about trade than plunder.  Middle Eastern sources mention Vikings as mercenary soldiers and caravan guards.

Viking warriors called “Varangian Guard” hired on as elite mercenary bodyguard/warriors with the eastern Roman Empire.  Farther east, the “Rus” tribe lent their name to what would later be called Russia and Belarus.

The 10th-century Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan described the Rus as “perfect physical specimens”, writing at the same time that “They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures”.   Tattooed from neck to fingernails, the men were never without an axe, a sword and a long knife. The Viking woman “wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife”.

Stamford Bridge
Battle of Stamford Bridge

The classical Viking age ended gradually, and for a number of reasons. Christianity took hold, as the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia in 1103.

Political considerations were becoming national in scope in the newly formed countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

King Cnut “The Great”, the last King of the North Sea Empire of Denmark, Norway and England, together also described as the Anglo-Scandinavian Empire, died in 1035, to be replaced in England by Edward the Confessor.  Edward’s successor Harold would fend off the Viking challenge of Harald Hardrada in September 1066 at a place called Stamford Bridge, only to be toppled in the Norman invasion, two weeks later.

The Viking age lasted for almost 500 years, beginning in the late 8th century and ending only with the advent of the “Little Ice Age” in 1250.  In the end, the Vikings left their mark from Newfoundland, to Baghdad.

May 26, 1940 Dunkirk

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but its armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.

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.

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

Dunkirk4In May of 1940 the British Expeditionary Force 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, while Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of Allied forces. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard they could find for boats to ferry their people off of the beach.

Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume their 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.Dunkirk6

Larger 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.

A 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.

7,669 were evacuated on May 27, the first full day of the evacuation. By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until September 11, 2001.

It all came to an end on June 4. Most of the light equipment and virtually all the heavy stuff 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 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”.dunkirk2

On the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for a “stay behind” mission in the weeks that followed. With German invasion all but imminent, their mission was to go underground and to disrupt and destabilize the invaders in any way they could. They were to be the British Resistance, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret, that he was to be assassinated in case of invasion to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.

Participants of these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families, what they were doing or where they were. Bob Millard, who passed in 2014 at the age of 91, said that they were given 3 weeks’ rations, and that many were issued suicide pills in case of capture. Even Josephine, his wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about it until the auxiliaries’ 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”.dunkirk troops, 1940

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 20th century conflicts. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes members of the Home Guard and the “Bevin Boys”, the 18-25 year old males conscripted to serve in England’s coal mines. In 2013, 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”.

May 11, 1969  And Now for something Completely Different

The British comedy troupe that formed this day in 1969 was amused at the idea of a haughty Lord Montgomery, patterned after Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL, etc.  “Python” seemed just slippery enough to make the whole thing work.

Graham Chapman was trained and educated to be a physician, but that career trajectory was never meant to be.  John Cleese was writing for TV personality David Frost and actor/comedian Marty Feldman at the time, when he recruited Chapman as a writing partner and “sounding board”.  BBC offered the pair a show of their own in 1969, when Cleese reached out to former How To Irritate People writing partner Michael Palin, to join the team.  Palin invited his own writing partner Terry Jones and colleague Eric Idle over from rival ITV, who in turn wanted American-born Terry Gilliam for his animations.

The British comedy troupe that formed this day in 1969 was amused at the idea of a haughty Lord Montgomery, patterned after Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL, etc.  “Python” seemed just slippery enough to make the whole thing work.

The Pythons considered several names for their new program, including “Owl Stretching Time”, “The Toad Elevating Moment”, “Vaseline Review” and “A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket”. “Flying Circus” had come up as well.  The name stuck when BBC revealed that they had already printed flyers, and weren’t about to go back to the printer.

Silly-Walk-monty-python-13514283-1280-800

The show was a collaborative process, beginning with the first broadcast on October 5, 1969. With no writers of their own, the six would divide into groups and write their own material.  Whether any given sketch would make it into the program, was always a democratic process.

Different Python factions were responsible for different elements of the team’s humor. The work of the Oxford educated Terry Jones and Michael Palin was more visual, and a little more off the wall. The Spanish Inquisition arriving in a suburban apartment is a prime example, while the Cambridge educated John Cleese and Graham Chapman were more confrontational – “This is abuse. I came here for an argument”. Cleese said “anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s”, like the Man who Spoke in Anagrams.  Terry Gilliam was the guy behind the animation.Spanish Inquisition

The Flying Circus broke new ground with techniques like the “cold open”. With no titles, credits, or opening theme, Michael Palin would crawl across the tundra a la Robinson Crusoe, looking into the camera and saying “It’s“…  And off they went. The cold open sometimes lasted until the middle of the show. Occasionally, the Pythons fooled viewers by rolling closing credits halfway through, usually continuing the gag by fading to the BBC logo while Cleese parodied the tones of a BBC announcer. On one occasion the closing credits ran directly after the opening titles.

I personally learned to never leave a Python film during closing credits, finding my reward for sticking around at the end of the Life of Brian was to learn who wiped the moose’s noses. (As I recall, it was John J. Llama).

The “Iron Lady”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself, seems to have been a fan, doing a more than passable version of the Dead Parrot sketch at a Conservative Party Conference in 1990.


The Pythons shared a dislike for “capping” bits with punchlines, and experimented with ending sketches by cutting abruptly to another scene, or breaking the rules altogether by addressing the camera directly. Two examples were the knight in armor, played by Terry Gilliam, who would wander onto the set and whack people over the head with a rubber chicken.  Or Chapman’s “Colonel” character, who would walk into sketches and order them stopped because things were becoming “far too silly.”

Gilliam’s animations were a favorite technique, when a 16 ton weight would drop from the sky, or else it was Cupid’s foot – yes, that’s Cupid’s foot – cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” by Il Bronzino.Cupids Foot

John Cleese left the Flying Circus at the end of the third season. He had considered doing so at the end of the second, feeling that he had little original material to offer the show. He found Chapman difficult to work with, who was at this time a full tilt alcoholic.  Cleese could be difficult himself. Eric Idle once said of John Cleese. “He’s so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom”.

Monty Python - The Black Knight RisesThe group reunited in 1974 to do the Holy Grail, which was filmed on location in Scotland, on a budget of £229,000. The money was raised in part by investments from musical figures like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin backer Tony Stratton-Smith. Investors in the film wanted to cut the famous Black Knight scene, (“None shall pass”), but were eventually persuaded to keep it in the film. Good thing, the scene became second only to the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and the Killer Rabbit. “What’s he going to do, nibble my bum?”

Graham Chapman is best remembered as King Arthur in the Holy Grail, and Brian Cohen in the Life of Brian.  He died of spinal and throat cancer on the 20th anniversary of their first broadcast.  John Cleese delivered a uniquely Pythonesque eulogy, which sounded a lot like the Dead Parrot sketch.  “”Graham Chapman, co-author of the Parrot sketch, is no more,” he began. “He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky…”

I don’t believe he’d have had it any other way.  Silly bunt.

 April 30, 1943 The Man Who Never Was

The idea was a head fake, disinformation planted into the hands of Nazi Germany, to make them believe the allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943

The idea was a head fake, disinformation planted into the hands of Nazi Germany, making them believe the allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943, rather than the real targets of North Africa and Sicily. British Military Intelligence called it “Operation Mincemeat”.

The London coroner obtained the body of a 34-year-old homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, on condition that his real identity never be revealed. The Welshman had died of rat poison, though it’s uncertain whether the death was accidental or suicide.  This particular poison came in a paste, and was spread on bread crusts to attract rats.  Michael may have died, merely because he was hungry.

glyndwr-martinBe that as it may, the cause of death was difficult to detect, the condition of the corpse close to that of someone who had died at sea, of hypothermia and drowning. The dead man’s parents were both deceased, there were no known relatives and the man died friendless.  So it was that Glyndwr Michael became the Man who Never Was.

The next step was to create a “past” for the dead man. Michael became “(Acting) Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines”, born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, “Martin” could wear battle dress rather than a naval uniform. This was important, because Naval uniforms at the time were tailor-made by Gieves & Hawkes of Saville Row.  Authorities could hardly ask Gieves’ tailors to measure a corpse, without raising eyebrows.

The rank of acting major made him senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name “Martin” was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank, already serving in the Royal Marines.

A “fiancé” was furnished for Major Martin, in the form of an MI5 clerk named “Pam”. “Major Martin” carried her snapshot, along with two love letters, and a jeweler’s bill for a diamond engagement ring.

In keeping with his rank, Martin was given some good quality underwear, to increase his authenticity. Extremely difficult to obtain due to rationing, the underwear was purloined from the Master of the New College Oxford, who’d been run over and killed by a truck.

The Man Who Never Was Year 1956 Director Ronald Neame
Scene from “The Man Who Never Was”, 1956, Directed by Ronald Neame

Made to look like the victim of a plane crash, the plan was to drop the body at sea, at a place where the tide would bring it ashore and into German Hands.

On April 30, 1943, Lt. Norman Jewell, commander of the submarine Seraph, read the 39th Psalm.  The body of the man who never was, complete with briefcase padlocked to his wrist containing “secret” documents, was gently pushed into the ocean off the Spanish Atlantic coast.

The hoax worked out, nicely.  A Spanish fisherman recovered the body and a Nazi agent intercepted the papers, as intended.  Mussolini insisted correctly that the allied attack would come through Sicily, but Hitler wasn’t buying it.  He had swallowed the Mincemeat scam whole, insisting that the Sicilian attack was nothing but a diversion from the real objective.

When the Allies invaded Sicily on the 9th of July, the Germans were so convinced it was a feint that they kept forces out of action for two full weeks.  After that, it was far too late to effect the outcome.

Glyndwr-Michael-memorialThe non-existent Major William Martin was buried with full military honors in the Huelva cemetery of Nuestra Señora. The headstone reads:

“William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, R.I.P.”  The Latin phrase means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

In 1998, the British Government revealed Martin’s true identity, and “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”, was added to the gravestone.

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. A plaque is inscribed with the Welsh phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed“.  It means “The Man Who Never Was”.

April 29, 1915 The Wipers Times

My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” – Flame Thrower. “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.” “Instructive – Amusing”.

Second YpresAs chief of the Imperial German general staff from 1891-1905, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised the strategic roadmap by which Germany prosecuted the first world war. The “Schlieffen Plan” could be likened to a bar fight, where a fighter (Germany) had to take out one guy fast (France), before turning and facing his buddy (Imperial Russia). Of infinite importance to Schlieffen’s plan was the westward sweep through France, rolling the country into a ball on a timetable before his armies could turn east to face the “Russian Steamroller”. “When you march into France”, Schlieffen had said, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”Ypres

Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke once said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So it was in the tiny Belgian city where German plans were broken, on the road to Dunkirk. Native Dutch speakers called it Leper, today we know it as Ypres (Ee-press), since the battle maps of the time were drawn up in French. The Tommys of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), called the place “Wipers”.

What had hitherto been a war of movement ground to a halt in the apocalyptic fighting around Ypres, in October-November, 1914. 104,920 on all sides were killed, wounded or missing, around a city roughly the size of my little town of Falmouth, on Cape Cod.

The-Wipers-Times-300x400The second Battle of Ypres began with a new and terrifying weapon, on April 22, 1915. German troops placed 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90 pounds apiece, along a four mile front. Allied troops must have looked on in wonder, as that vast yellow-green carpet crept toward their lines. Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying the moist tissues of the lungs and eyes. Heavier than air, the stuff crept along the ground and poured into the trenches, forcing troops out into heavy German fire. 6,000 casualties were sustained in the gas attack alone, opening a four mile gap in the allied line. Thousands retched and coughed out their last breath, as others tossed their equipment and ran in terror.

After the war, German losses were estimated at 34,933 between April 21 and May 30, BEF casualties numbered 59,275. The French recorded about 18,000 on April 22 alone, with another 3,973 by the 29th of April. All told, 2nd Ypres cost allied forces 87,223 killed, wounded or missing.

The third Battle of Ypres would begin in July of 1917, lasting almost until the end of the war. 3rd Ypres would result in 570,000 losses on all sides, but in early 1916, that was all part of some unknown and terrible future.Offensive as I might be

It’s hard to imagine anything remotely humorous coming out of the horrors of Ypres, but such a thing became possible in the early months of 1916.

The “Sherwood Foresters” were line infantry Regiments of the British Army, stationed at the front lines of the Ypres salient. Coming across a printing press, a sergeant who had been a printer in peacetime got the thing going. They began to print a trench magazine, the first published on February 12. The paper included poems and reflections, “adverts” and plenty of dark humor.  Written for fellow soldiers, not civilians, some in-jokes are so obscure that their meaning is lost to the modern reader. Others are clearly understandable, even 101 years into their future.

OptimismRichly typeset advertisements for “Music Hall Extravaganzas” include “Tickling Fritz” by the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) Film Co. of the United Kingdom and Canada, advising the enthusiast to “Book Early”. There were Real Estate ads for property in no-man’s land. “BUILD THAT HOUSE ON HILL 60. BRIGHT-BREEZY-&-INVIGORATING. COMMANDS AN EXCELLENT VIEW OF HISTORIC TOWN OF YPRES”. Another one read “FOR SALE, THE SALIENT ESTATE – COMPLETE IN EVERY DETAIL! UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES READY FOR HABITATION. Splendid Motoring Estate! Shooting Perfect !! Fishing Good!!!”

There were news features, this one of a bungled trench raid: “”…They climbed into the trench and surprised the sentry, but unfortunately the revolver which was held to his head missed fire. Attempts were made to throttle him quietly, but he succeeded in raising the alarm, and had to be killed.” editor’s note, “This we consider real bad luck for the sentry after the previous heroic efforts to keep him alive””.Flammenwerfer

There were weather reports, laying odds on the forecast. “5 to 1 Mist, 11 to 2 East Wind or Frost, 8 to 1 Chlorine”. My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” – Flame Thrower. “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

It turns out that units of all sizes, from individual companies to army corps, lightened their load with some kind of unit journal in WWI.

The Wipers Times ran through the end of the war, with the exception of the “Operation Michael” period, the last gasp German Western Front offensive of 1918. The final edition, titled “The Better Times”, was published in December 1918, just short of two months after the armistice.   The banner read “Xmas, Peace and Final Number.”

Better Times

 

April 19, 1775  Shot Heard ‘Round the World

Taking positions across the village green to block the soldiers’ line of march, 80 “minutemen” turned and faced 700 of the most powerful military, on the planet.

The column of British soldiers moved out from Boston late on the 18th, their mission to confiscate the American arsenal at Concord and to capture the Patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, known to be hiding in Lexington.

Midnight RideBoston Patriots had been preparing for such an event.  Sexton Robert John Newman and Captain John Pulling carried two lanterns to the steeple of the Old North church, signaling that the Regulars were crossing the Charles River to Cambridge. Dr. Joseph Warren ordered Paul Revere and Samuel Dawes to ride out and warn surrounding villages and towns, the two soon joined by a third rider, Samuel Prescott. It was Prescott alone who would make it as far as Concord, though hundreds of riders would fan out across the countryside before the night was through.

The column entered Lexington at sunrise on April 19, bayonets gleaming in the early morning light.  Armed with a sorry assortment of weapons, colonial militia poured out of Buckman Tavern, and fanned out across the town square.   Some weapons were hand made by village gunsmiths and blacksmiths, some decades old, but all were in good working order.   Taking positions across the village green to block the soldiers’ line of march, 80 “minutemen” turned and faced 700 of the most powerful military, on the planet.Lexington Green

Words were exchanged and no one knows who fired the first shot.  When it was over, eight Lexington men lay dead or dying, another ten wounded. One British soldier was wounded.

Vastly outnumbered, the militia soon gave way, as word spread and militia gathered from Concord to Cambridge.   The King’s Regulars never did find the weapons for which they had come, nor did they find Adams or Hancock.  There had been too much warning for that.

Regulars would clash with colonial subjects two more times that day, first at Concord Bridge and then in a running fight at a point in the road called “The Bloody Angle”.  Finally, hearing that militia was coming from as far away as Worcester, the column turned to the east and began their return march to Boston.

Concord BridgeSome British soldiers marched 35 miles over those two days, their final retreat coming under increasing attack from militia members firing from behind stone walls, buildings and trees. One taking up such a firing position was Samuel Whittemore of Menotomy Village, now Arlington Massachusetts. At 80 he was the oldest known combatant of the Revolution.

Whittemore took his position by the road, armed with his ancient musket, two dueling pistols and the old French cutlass captured years earlier from a French officer whom he explained had “died suddenly”.

three-men-from-action-header

Waiting until the last possible moment, Whittemore rose and fired his musket at the oncoming Redcoats, one shot, one kill. Several charged him from only feet away as he drew his pistols.  Two more shots, one dead and one mortally wounded. He had barely drawn his sword when they were on him, a .69 caliber ball fired almost point blank tearing part of his face off, as the butt of a rifle smashed into his head. Whittemore tried to fend off the bayonet strokes with his sword but he didn’t have a chance.  He was run through thirteen times before he lay still, one for each colony.

The people who came out of their homes to clean up the mess afterward found Whittemore, up on one knee and trying to reload his old musket.

Doctor Nathaniel Tufts treated the old man’s wounds as best he could, but felt that there was nothing anyone could do. Sam Whittemore was taken home to die in the company of his loved ones, which he did. Eighteen years later, at the age of ninety-eight.samuel_whittemore