February 12, 1355 Of Towns and Gowns

2,000 men flooded in from the countryside, howling as they advanced “Slea, Slea…. Havock, Havock…. Smyte fast, give gode knocks.”

If you’re ever in Oxford, England, stop and see the four-way road junction called  “Carfax”.  The name derives from the Latin “quadrifurcus” via the French “carrefour”, meaning, “crossroads”.  Here at the center of the oldest college town in the English-speaking world, you’ll find a branch of the Santander Bank. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect a bar fight, leading to a riot.

Except, yeah. It is. Or at least it was.

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Oxford Carfax, NW

In the year 1355, the future bank branch was home to the Swindlestock Tavern, built in 1250. Tuesday, February 10 was a day of celebration, a remembrance of Saint Scholastica, the Roman Catholic Saint and twin sister to Saint Benedict, leader of monks.

A group of priests and students were drinking that night, when someone complained about the wine. Two students, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield had words with the tavern keeper, John Croidon.  John responded to their complaints with “stubborn and saucy language” (I love that), whereupon someone hurled a quart pot of the stuff, at his head.  Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield then proceeded to beat up the bartender.

To talk to the locals in any modern college town, is to hear the story of a mixed blessing. Sure there are jobs, and the business is good, just as sure as there is traffic, congestion and the annual invasion, of the Other. The once quiet town becomes the over-crowded scene of rowdy weekends, beer cans and thumping bass. Plato probably experienced the same adversarial relationship or something like it (presumably minus the bass) in 387BC, with the first Academy outside the walls of Athens.

Seems like some things don’t change, all that much.

Back to the Swindlestock Tavern. The riot about to happen, was far from the first.  The thirteenth century had seen a number contretemps between “Towns and Gowns”, in which ninety people were killed.

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The landlord at the Swindlestock was John de Bereford, who just happened to be the Mayor of Oxford.  On the following day, Mayor de Bereford asked University Chancellor Humphrey de Cherlton, to arrest the two students.   Some two hundred undergraduates rushed to Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield’s defense, allegedly assaulting the Mayor, and several others.

The Church bells rang out at St Martin’s, calling the townspeople to arms. The University Church bells at rang in response at St. Mary’s, summoning hordes of students.  What started out with a bar fight the night before, was about to become an all-out riot.

2,000 men flooded in from the countryside, howling as they advanced “Slea, Slea…. Havock, Havock…. Smyte fast, give gode knocks.”

Swindlestock_tavern_plaque.jpegThe Mayor rode to Woodstock to enlist the help of the King.  Back in Oxford, the violence went on for two days, coming to an end on Thursday, February 12.

Townspeople broke into academic halls, beating students and faculty, alike.  By the time it was over, Sixty-three academics and thirty locals, were dead.

The dispute leading to the St. Scholasta’s day riot of 1355 was eventually settled in favor of the University.  The Mayor and the Bailiffs of Oxford were ordered to do penance along with a number of townsfolk, one for each of the slain.  The procession would march bare-headed through the streets of Oxford before attending Mass in memory of the slain.  Then on to the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, where the Vice-Chancellor awaited with the Vicar, University Proctors, and the Registrar.  The University delegation was then paid a fine of 5 shillings, three-pence, usually in small coin. A penny for every scholar killed.

This act of contrition continued every February 10 for 470 years until 1825, when the mayor refused to participate.

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Carfax, as seen from St. Martin’s tower

The proverbial hatchet was finally buried on February 10, 1955. A ceremony was held in which the Mayor received an honorary degree, in exchange for which the Vice-Chancellor was made an Honorary Freeman.

It was six-hundred years, to the day. Talk about remembering your history.

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.
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February 2, 1709 A Real Life Robinson Crusoe

“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was”.

The Royal House of Habsburg takes the name from Habsburg Castle, built in the 1020s in modern-day Switzerland. It was Otto II who died somewhere around 1111AD who first added the name to his titles, calling himself Graf (Count) of Habsburg. The Habsburg line would grow into a dynasty, one family producing Kings and Emperors ruling over dominions from Bohemia to England and Ireland, to the Second Mexican Empire.

The Habsburg Royal Line ruled from the Kingdom of Portugal in the West to Germany, Hungary, Croatia and several Dutch and Italian principalities.  The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was continuously occupied by a member of this one family from 1438 until the extinction of the male line, in 1740.

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King Charles II of Spain

Political alliances were often sealed during this period, by marriage. The family sought to consolidate power through a number of political unions, such marriages being by definition, consanguineous. Inside the family. Marriages between first cousins or uncles and nieces, were commonplace. Such inbreeding produced any number of genetic disorders and almost certainly brought about the extinction of the line.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the Spanish Habsburgs. A study by the University of Santiago de Compostela examined some 3,000 family members over 16 generations and concluded the end of the Spanish line, Charles II, possessed a genome not dissimilar to that of the offspring of a brother and sister.

King Charles II of Spain was weak and sickly from birth. Known as El Hechizado (the Bewitched), Charles was the recipient of any number of deleterious but recessive alleles, made dominant through generations of inbreeding.

The “Habsburg jaw” was so pronounced, Charles spoke and ate, only with difficulty.  He couldn’t talk until age four.  The man was eight before he learned to walk.  He was “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.

777px-carlos_segundo801The male line of the Spanish Habsburgs came to an end on November 1, 1700, when Charles II died without heir, five days before his 39th birthday. The will named 16-year-old Philip of Anjou successor, grandson of the Bourbon King Louis XIV of France and Charles’ half-sister, Maria Theresa.

Such an ascension would have consolidated the Spanish and French crowns and disrupted the balance of power, in Europe. The Grand Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold preferred Leopold’s younger son Archduke Charles.  The War of Spanish Succession, was on.

The English dispensed “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”, authorizing private persons to conduct acts of war against French and Spanish interests. Similar to mercenary soldiers, except “Privateers” were not paid, directly. They were in it for plunder.

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East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray

The sixteen-gun Cinque Ports was one such privateer, the English vessel departing in 1703 accompanied by the 26-gun St. George under overall command of William Dampier, the first man to thrice, circumnavigate the globe.

Intending to attack Spanish shipping, the pair rounded the horn and cruised the South American coast as far as Panama, capturing several enemy vessels along the way. The two privateers separated in 1704, when 21-year-old Captain Thomas Stradling put ashore at Más a Tierra island in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago for fresh water, and meat.  They were 420 miles off the Chilean coast.

Juan Fernandez Archipelago, off the coast of Chile

An 18th century Sailing Master was not so much a military title as a professional seaman, and navigator.  Cinque Ports’ Sailing Master Alexander Selkirk was gravely concerned about the vessel’s seaworthiness.  The hull was deeply worm eaten and Selkirk wanted to stay for repairs.  Stradling would have none of it.  The argument became heated, and Selkirk stated that he’d rather be put ashore, than continue on.

Selkirk would come to regret the comment but that was it for the hot tempered Captain.  He was mocked as a mutineer, put ashore with a musket, a hatchet, knife, some oats, tobacco and a cooking pot, a Bible, bedding and some clothes.  It was October, 1704.

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Selkirk was right.  Cinque Ports would founder, her shipwrecked survivors picked up by their enemy and entering a brutal period of captivity.

Marooned and alone, Selkirk subsisted for a time on spiny lobster.  He spent his days on the shoreline, hoping and praying for a sail.  None came.  He’d shoot the occasional sea lion, but powder and shot soon gave out.  Hordes of these raucous creatures gathered for mating season soon drove him inland, where Selkirk discovered wild turnips, cabbage leaves and pepper berries.  Feral goats left behind by earlier sailors provided milk and meat while he learned to fashion tools out of old barrel hoops, found on the beach.

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Selkirk reads his Bible in one of two huts he built on a mountainside. Drawing by anonymous

Rats attacked him by night, until Selkirk found common cause with feral cats.  They would receive their morsels and he, a sound night’s sleep.

Selkirk built two huts out of pepper trees.  One for sleeping, the other for cooking.  When his clothes wore out he’d fashion replacements from goat skins, sewn together using an old nail.  His old shoes wore out but those needed no replacement.  The man’s feet were as tough as that old nail.

alexander-selkirk-robinson-crusoeVessels came twice to the island, but both proved to be Spanish.  A Scottish privateer could count on torture and worse at the hands of his enemy, and so he hid.  Selkirk was spotted one time and chased by a Spanish search party.  Several stopped for a leak under a tree in which he was hiding, but they never knew.  In time they became bored, and sailed away.

On February 2, 1709, the English privateer Duke spotted a fire where there should be none, and stopped to investigate.  After 52 months alone, Selkirk was incoherent with joy.  Though his language skills were all but gone, Captain Woodes Rogers was impressed with his demeanor.

“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was”.

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Selkirk, Seated right, is brought aboard the Duke

William Dampier was pilot aboard Duke and vouched for Selkirk’s seamanship.  The agile castaway even ran down several goats, restoring health to a crew then in the grips of scurvy.

Alexander Selkirk was made second mate aboard Duke and returned to a life at sea.  He died on December 13, 1721 off the coast of Africa, a victim of yellow fever.  When Daniel Defoe published his famous novel in 1719, few could miss the resemblance to Alexander Selkirk.

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In the 1960s, Chile changed the name of Más a Tierra, to Robinson Crusoe Island.   National Geographic writes that Defoe’s character was more an amalgamation of shipwreck stories, than one based solely on Selkirk.  The idea makes sense.  The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was based not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but on a Caribbean island, some 2,700 miles distant. Crusoe’s goatskin attire seems ill suited to the heat of the Spanish Main but, no matter. It makes for one hell of a story.

Feature image, top of page: Alexander Selkirk, inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, sculpture by Scottish artist Thomas Stuart Burnett. Located at Selkirk’s birthplace of Lower Largo in Fife.

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January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast. The table was set, for disaster.

ww1navybritish-shipbuildingmapbritishisles2Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

Forty vessels of the British Royal Navy departed Rosyth in the Scottish fjord at the Firth of Forth on January 31, bound for Scapa flow. They were the 5th Battle squadron with destroyer escort, the 2nd Battlecruiser squadron and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines, each led by a light cruiser.

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast.

While only an exercise, strict radio silence was observed, lest there be any Germans in the vicinity. Each vessel displayed a faint blue stern light, travelling 400-yards ahead of the next-in-line. Black-out shields restricted the lights’ visibility to one compass point left or right of the boats’ center line.   The table was set for disaster.

Though large for WW1-vintage submarines at over 300-feet, K-class subs were low to the water and slow, compared with the much larger surface vessels.  Compounding the problem, the unfortunately nicknamed”Kalamity Klass” was powered by steam, meaning that stacks had to be folded and closed, before the thing was ready to dive.  Only eighteen K-class submarines were ever built, one of which caused damage to a German U-boat, in a ramming attack.

Seems the K-class was more dangerous to its own people, than anyone else.

A half-hour into the cruise, the flagship HMS Courageous passed a tiny speck on the map called May Island and picked up speed. A pair of lights appeared in the darkness as the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed, possibly a pair of mine sweeping trawlers. The flotilla turned hard to port to avoid collision when the helm of the third-in-line K-14 jammed, and veered out of line. Both K-14 and the boat behind her, K-12 turned on their navigation lights as K-22, the next submarine in line, lost sight of the flotilla and collided with K-14, severing the bow and killing two men. Two stricken submarines now struggled to pull themselves apart while an entire fleet sped through the darkness, unaware of what was about to happen.

The destroyer HMS Ithuriel received a coded signal and turned to lend aid, doubling back and followed by the remainder of the 13th submarine flotilla and thus putting themselves on collision course with the outgoing 12th flotilla.

Unaware of the mess lying in her path, 12th flotilla escort HMS Fearless was traveling way too fast to change the outcome. Fearless went “hard astern” on sighting K-17 but too late, her bow knifing through the smaller vessel, sinking the sub within minutes with the loss of 47 men. Meanwhile, outgoing submarine K-4 heard the siren and came to a stop but not the trailing K-3 which hit her sister sub broadside, nearly cutting the vessel in half.

K-4 sank in minutes, with the loss of 55 crew.

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HMS Fearless

The number of near misses that night, can never be known. 104 men were dead before it was over, with the total loss of two K-class submarines. Four more sustained severe damage, along with the Scout Cruiser HMS Fearless.

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February five and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

The whole disaster and subsequent inquiry was kept quiet to avoid embarrassment, and deprive the German side of the propaganda bonanza. Full details were released only in 1994, long after the participants in this story, had passed away.

On January 31, 2002, a memorial cairn was erected in memory of the slain.  As it had been eighty four years earlier, there wasn’t a German to be found.  The “Battle of May Island” was no battle at all.  Only the black forlorn humor, of men at war.

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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.

January 29, 1820  An Ass for a Lion

“One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.  – Thomas Paine, Common Sense

The Declaration of Independence, the birth certificate of the nation, begins with this preamble: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...”.

The next paragraph leads with the phrase most commonly cited:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. 

The paragraph ends with a personal indictment of one man, followed by a 27-item Bill of Particulars against him.  “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world“.

The word “He” appears 19 times in the document.  “Tyrant” is used twice and “ruler”, only once:  “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people”.

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King George III of England, by Johann Zoffany

The overall tenor of the document is a personal indictment of one man, George III, King of England.  Thomas Paine wrote of the King in “Common Sense”, the pamphlet which inspired a people to rise up in the summer of 1776:  “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.

George III became something of a lighting rod for colonial discontent, held personally responsible for policies brought forth by the British legislative body. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend duties on tea, paper and other products in 1767;  these came from Parliament, as did the “Coercive Acts” of 1774, referred to by the Patriots of Massachusetts and others as “The Intolerable Acts”.

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The “Intolerable Acts” were a series of bills passed by Parliament, to punish American colonists for The Boston Tea Party.

These policies were a result of the financial burdens of garrisoning and administering the huge territories of the American colonies, the never-ending wars with France and Spain, and the loans given to the East India Company, then responsible for administering India.

The third King of the House of Hanover was himself a creature of Parliament, his lineage having been invited to rule over Great Britain in 1714, after the fall of the House of Stuart.  What Parliament gives, Parliament may take away.

George III is the longest reigning of any English King, ruling from 1760 until his death on January 29, 1820.  He is exceeded in office only by his Granddaughter Victoria, the last monarch of the House of the Hanoverian Dynasty and Elizabeth II, reigning Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

Medical historians have long believed that George III suffered from a genetic blood disorder called Porphyria, a term from the Greek meaning “purple pigment”.  This refers to a blue discoloration in the urine of those suffering from the condition, along with symptoms primarily involving the central nervous system, and accompanied by severe abdominal pain, vomiting and mental disturbances.

king-george-iii_1_The illness seems to have afflicted George III alone however, casting doubt on an hereditary condition.  George III’s medical records cast further doubt on the porphyria diagnosis, showing that he was prescribed medicine based on gentian, a plant with deep blue flowers which may turn the urine blue. He seems to have been afflicted with some kind of mental illness, suffering bouts which occurred with increasing severity and for increasing periods of time.  At times he would talk until he foamed at the mouth or go into convulsions where pages had to sit on him to keep the King from injuring himself.

An ongoing research project at St George’s, University of London, has looked at thousands of King George III’s handwritten letters, and concluded that the King suffered from mental illness.  His writing was erratic at times coinciding with his “spells”, with run-on sentences of 400 words or more and as many as 8 verbs with no punctuation.  These are features seen today in the writing and speech of patients as they experience the manic phase of bipolar disorder.  This manic phase stands at one end of a spectrum of mood disorders, with an overwhelming sadness or depression at the other.  Research is ongoing, but these types of mood swings are consistent with contemporary witnesses to George’s behavior, as well as the written record.

All but blind from cataracts and suffering a painful rheumatic disorder, George’s final descent was triggered by the death of his youngest and favorite daughter Princess Amelia, at age 27.  In November 1810, the Princess’s nurse reported “scenes of distress and crying every day …  melancholy beyond description.”

George himself accepted the Regent Act of 1811, appointing his eldest son the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, Prince Regent.  Britannica.com describes the last ten years as a “living death”, a period of violent insanity interspersed with “intervals of senile lucidity”.

The King neither knew nor would he have understood when he was appointed King of Hanover in 1814, nor when his wife died in 1818. On Christmas 1819, George spoke for fifty-eight hours straight, all of it, gibberish.

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Engraving of George III in later life, by Henry Meyer

Today, George III is remembered for two things:  losing the American colonies, and going mad.

There is an historic lesson in this story.  If the country ruled by a King (or Queen) wins the lottery and gets a good and fair monarch, then that country may experience a period of peace and prosperity.  If that nation draws the cosmic short straw and gets a bad one, the results can be catastrophic.  In the end, it’s the most powerful argument I can think of for a governmental system of specified authority, diffuse power, and checks & balances.

January 6, 1842 I Am the Army

That afternoon, a single mangled soldier rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. He was Dr. William Brydon. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied “I am the Army”.

The British East India Company was a British joint stock company, chartered by Queen Elizabeth in 1600 with a trade monopoly in Southeast Asia and India. It was the first of several such companies established by European powers, followed closely by the East India Companies of the Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, French and Swedish, and associated with the valuable trade in such commodities as cotton, silk, indigo, salt, saltpeter, tea and opium.

India means British troops on the Kabul Plain

These organizations were much more than what we associate with the word “company”. In their day they could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrong doers, and largely functioned outside the control of the governments that formed them. By the early 19th century, the British East India Company ruled over large areas of India with its own private armies.

Firmly entrenched by the 1830s and wary of Russian encroachment south through Afghanistan, the British tried without success to form an alliance with the Emir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan.

Lord Auckland’s “Simla Manifesto” of October 1838 laid out a justification for British intervention in Afghanistan, based on the need for a trustworthy ally on India’s western frontier. The pro-British, Shuja Shah Durrani was installed as ruler, backed up by an army of 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of Lieutenant General John Keane, 1st Baron Keane, veteran of the Peninsular War, and the battle of New Orleans.

Afghan Tribesmen

Most of these troops returned to India the following year, as Dost Mohammad unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé, only to be defeated and exiled to India in late 1840.

By 1841, disaffected Afghan tribesmen were flocking to support Dost Mohammad’s son, Akbar Khan, against what they saw as an occupying force. There were warning signs of the deteriorating situation as the spring of 1841 turned to summer, and British freedom of movement around Kabul became increasingly restricted. The British government in India was dismayed at the cost of keeping the Kabul Garrison, when they cut off funds, ending the stream of bribes that all but kept the tribes in check.

It was around this time that Sir William Elphinstone stepped in as commander of the Kabul Garrison. Described by fellow General William Nott as “the most incompetent soldier who ever became General”, Elphinstone found himself in charge of 4,800 Indian and British troops, along with 16,000 camp followers: families, servants and civilian workers.

Akbar Khan

On November 2 1841, Akbar Khan proclaimed a general revolt. Several British officers were murdered along with their families, servants and staff. Afghan leaders invited Civil servant Sir William Hay MacNaghten for tea in December to discuss the situation; only to seize and murder them as the delegation dismounted their horses.

On January 1, Elphinstone agreed to hand over all powder, his newest muskets and most of his cannon, in exchange for “safe passage” out of Kabul, guaranteed by Akbar Khan along with the protection of the sick, wounded and infirm left behind. 16,000 soldiers and civilians moved out on January 6, heading for Jalalabad, 90 miles away.

Akbar Khan’s “safe passage” lasted about as long as it took the column to get out in the open, when Afghans moved in firing at retreating troops while setting fire to garrison buildings containing those left behind.

At one point Akbar Khan met with Elphinstone, claiming ignorance of any betrayal. He claimed that he had been unable to provide the promised escort because they had left earlier than expected, and then asked Elphinstone to wait while he went ahead and negotiated safe passage with local tribesmen.

The delay accomplished nothing more than to allow Akbar Khan time to set up the next ambush. By the evening of the 9th, the column was only 25 miles outside of Kabul. 3,000 people were dead, mostly killed while fighting or frozen to death, while a few had taken their own lives. By January 12, the column was reduced to only 200 soldiers and 2,000 camp followers

Last stand

The last stand took place on a snow-covered hill near the village of Gandamak, on the morning of January 13, 1842. 20 officers and 45 British soldiers were surrounded, with an average of two rounds apiece. That afternoon, one mangled soldier rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. He was Dr. William Brydon. Brydon had part of his skull sheared off by an Afghan sword. He was only alive because of a Blackwood’s Magazine, stuffed into his hat to fight off the cold of the Hindu Kush. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied “I am the Army”.

In the end, 115 captured officers, soldiers, wives and children lived long enough to be released. Around 2,000 Sepoys and Indian camp followers eventually made their way back to India, while others were sold into slavery, or abandoned to a life of beggary.

The 1842 Kabul expedition was the most egregious loss to British arms in history, eclipsed only by the fall of Singapore 100 years later, nearly to the day.

According to legend, Brydon’s horse lay down on arrival in Jalalabad, and never got up again.

December 29, 1778 The Siege of Savannah

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

As 1778 drew to a close, British military planners could look back on five years of trying to suppress rebellion in the American colonies, with little to show for it.   In March of that year, the British defeat at Saratoga had brought France into the war, on the side of the Rebels.

Two years of open warfare had centered mostly on the north.   Now, a “southern strategy” was devised to conquer rebellious colonies in the south, while isolating those to the north. Key to the Southern Strategy was Georgia and the colonial capital at Savannah, the southernmost commercial port of the thirteen Colonies.

General sir Henry Clinton dispatched a force of some 3,100 from New York under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, along with an unknown quantity of artillery. Campbell arrived outside Tybee Island on December 23.

Georgia was defended by two separate forces at this time, units of the Continental Army under the command of General Robert Howe, and state militia under the command of Governor John Houstoun.  The two men had a history of squabbling for control and most of their troops, had yet to be tried.

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Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, British commander at the capture of Savannah in December 1778

The 850 under General Howe never really had a chance, against the battle hardened Regulars, Hessian auxiliaries and Loyalist militia, coming ashore on December 29.  Defeat turned to rout when Howe’s forces threw down their weapons and ran.  Campbell reported that “It was scarcely possible to come up with them, their retreat was rapid beyond conception.

Patriot forces suffered 83 killed, 11 wounded and 453 captured. Campbell suffered 7 killed and 17 wounded.

Howe was court-marshaled for the disaster, while Campbell bragged about being “the first British officer to [rend] a star and stripe from the flag of Congress

Brigadier General Augustine Prevost arrived from St. Augustine Florida two weeks later, with a mixed force of Regulars and Creek and Cherokee allies.   Campbell and a force of 1,000 would take the provisional capital at Augusta that February but soon retreated to Savannah, citing insufficient support among Loyalist and Native American populations.

American hopes soon fell back on their new-found alliance with France. During the following summer, French Admiral Count Charles-Hector Theodat d’Estaing captured St. Vincent and Grenada in the British West Indies, clearing the way to the Georgia coast. The powerful 47-ship French fleet arrived with 4,000 troops on September 1, surprising and capturing several British ships outside the mouth of the Savannah River.

french-shipsD’Estaing sent an ultimatum to British Commander Augustine Prevost on September 16, 1779. He was to surrender the city “To the arms of his Majesty the King of France”, or he would be personally answerable for what was about to happen. It could not have pleased General Benjamin Lincoln or his Patriot allies when d’Estaing added “I have not been able to refuse the army of the United States uniting itself with that of the King. The junction will probably be effected this day. If I have not an answer therefore immediately, you must confer with General Lincoln and me”.

“Bullet Head Prevost”, so called because of a circular scar on his temple, stalled for 24 hours, using the time in furiously building up his defenses and calling up 800 reinforcements from South Carolina.

Lincoln joined d’Estaing on September 23 with an army of 3,000 militia and Continental soldiers, laying siege to Savannah and the 2,500 British and Loyalist troops in occupation.

On October 1, a British relief column under one Captain French was coming to the city’s aid, camped on the banks of the Ogeechee River. Georgia Continental Colonel John White had two officers, a sergeant and three privates with him, when he tricked French into surrendering. These guys ran through the woods lighting so many fires that the British thought the entire continental Army was bivouacked around them. Captain French was unavailable for comment but, it must be a special feeling, knowing that you just surrendered 111 guys to six, without firing a shot.

Scene-of-Savannah
View of the siege works against the town at the Siege of Savannah September and October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: contemporary picture by a French officer

Lack of horses and artillery carriages delayed the allies’ moving their cannon ashore, so French warships bombarded the city from the sea. At one point shortly after Midnight on October 3, with rum rations flowing far too freely, fire from French gunners became more dangerous to themselves than to the city itself.

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

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Franklin Square Monument remembers the contributions of the Haitian militia, in the Siege of Savannah

 The siege of Savannah inflicted untold misery among the population, but Patriot forces and their French allies, never did break the city’s defenses. The siege broke a short time later, amidst recriminations on both sides.   D’Estaing returned to France, where he lost his head to the guillotine in 1794.

Savannah would remain in British hands until the end of the war, finally evacuated on July 11, 1782. A coquina marker in a small Savannah park; that soft, seashell limestone common throughout the Caribbean basin to Florida and beyond, bears a small brass plaque, darkened with the patina of age.

COMMEMORATIVE OF THE BRITISH EVACUATION OF SAVANNAH 1782
PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF SAVANNAH
BY THE
LACHLAN McINTOSH CHAPTER
DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
1904

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Attack of 2nd South Carolina Continentals on the Spring Hill Redoubt at the Siege of Savannah on 9th October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by A.I. Keller

December 25, 1914 A Truce to end all Wars

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

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

The start of the “Great War” twenty-five years earlier, was different.  Had you been alive in August 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi. The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

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First Battle of the Marne, September 1914 H/T Britannica

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

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Russian soldiers, WW1, H/T BBC

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

775px-Stabilization_of_Western_Front_WWIOn the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…Silent Night.

The Tommies saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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Christmas day truce of 1914 published 1915 London illustrated news

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

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

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

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

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

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Ypres, Christmas Truce, Hat tip http://www.Bitaboutbritain.com. Thanks, Mike.

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

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

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

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Pvt. Ronald MacKinnon, H/T National Post

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

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

The Man He Killed 
by Thomas Hardy

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

The Duke Of Cambridge Visits Staffordshire & Birmingham
Christmas truce memorial, National Arboretum, Staffordshire, England
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