October 25, 1854 Into the Valley of Death, Rode the 600

A child might have seen the trap that was laid for us. Every private dragoon did

Abdul Hamid
1896 Punch cartoon lampoons a hapless Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in front of a poster announcing the reorganization of the Ottoman Empire

At the height of its power during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world, ruling over 39 million subjects and controlling a territory spanning three continents: over two million square miles.

By the mid-19th century, the once-great Empire was the “sick man of Europe”, destined to be broken apart by its adversaries, in the wake of World War 1.

For a hundred years or more, the Russian Empire had seen itself as protector of Orthodox Church co-religionists, in the biblical land of Israel and historical Palestine. The Greek clergy in the Christian Holy Land already enjoyed warm relations with their Ottoman overlords, and controlled most of the Christian holy sites.

This state of affairs was challenged in the mid-19th century by the French Empire of Emperor Napoleon III, who was trying to extend Latin (Catholic) influence over the region.

Things came to a head in 1852 with, among other disputes, an argument over a key. No kidding. The key to the main door, of the Church of the Nativity.

Great Britain attempted to mediate the growing Franco-Russian dispute, but neither Nicholas I nor Napoleon III, would back down. War broke out in the Crimea in October 1853, between an allied coalition of forces including the Ottoman Empire, France, Great Britain and Sardinia, against the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas I.

The loss of life in the Crimean War (October 1853 to February 1856) was prodigious, resulting in the death of some 750,000 military service personnel on all sides, and unknown numbers of civilians. Russian diplomat Pyotr Petrovich Troubetzkoy would write: “Few wars in history reveal greater confusion of purpose or richer unintended consequences than the Crimean War.

805d18a9cf90232024554f10657afd0cThe Battle of Balaclava opened shortly after 5:00am on this day in 1854, when a squadron of Russian Cossack Cavalry advanced under cover of darkness. The Cossacks were followed by a host of Uhlans, their Polish light cavalry allies, against several dug-in positions occupied by Ottoman Turks. The Turks fought stubbornly, sustaining 25% casualties before finally being forced to withdraw.

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The Thin Red Line

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

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Charge of the Heavies, Balaclava, 1854

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

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

Left to right:  Lucan, Cardigan and Raglan

Field Marshal Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was in overall command of the allied armies. Raglan occupied a high spot where he could see the battle unfold before him, but didn’t seem to realize that his subordinates below couldn’t see what he could see.

Spotting a small Russian detachment trying to get away with captured cannon, Raglan issued an order to Lucan, in overall command of his Cavalry. “Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.” As Staff Officer Louis Nolan left to deliver the message, Raglan shouted “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately“.

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

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

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

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

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

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Russian artillery battery, Balaclava, 1854

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

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

Louis Nolan

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

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

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

Forward, the Light Brigade!

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldiers knew,

Some one had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

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“…in coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them…” Photographer Roger Fenton (“Valley of the Shadow of Death”)

The Crimean War itself may be remembered as a hideous waste of blood and treasure, for all it accomplished.  Today if remembered at all, the conflict recalls the first modern war correspondent, photographer Roger Fenton.  And of course the needless carnage, which could have been so much worse but for the efforts of one woman, who all-but invented the modern profession of nursing. The soldiers knew her as “The Lady with the Lamp”, for her late night rounds, taking care of the wounded.

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

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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October 22, 1914 Massacre of the Innocents

A million men had been brought to this place, for the purpose of killing each other.     The first Battle for Ypres, (there would be others), was the greatest clash in history, or one of them, bringing together more manpower and more firepower than entire wars of the previous century.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September 1939 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become World War 2, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

The outbreak of “The Great War” twenty-five years earlier, was a different story. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you could 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.

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Battle of the Frontiers, 1914

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.  In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  This would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres.

When governments make war, It’s the everyday John and the Nigel down the street, the Fritz, the Ivan and the Pierre next door, who must do the fighting, and the bleeding, and the dying.

The battle for the medieval textile town of Leper, most of the battle maps were drawn in French and so we know the place as “Ypres”, began on October 20 and lasted about three weeks, pitting a massive German force of some 600,000 against a quarter-million French, 100,000 British, and 65,000 Belgians.

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A million men had been brought to this place, for the purpose of killing each other.     The first Battle for Ypres, (there would be others), was the greatest clash in history, or one of them, bringing together more manpower and more firepower than entire wars of the previous century. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties, including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.

The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. Assuming the same percentage distribution of killed, wounded and missing, the three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece.

A story comes down from the fighting of October 22, destined to become German and later Nazi, mythology.  French, British and Belgian troops were by this time, digging into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.   German Generals, desperate to break through the Allied line and capture Calais and the other French ports on the English Channel, attacked.

German reserve divisions comprised of student volunteers:  inexperienced, untrained college students fired with patriotic zeal and singing songs of the Fatherland, marched to the attack against a puny British force, dug into shallow holes around the village of Langemarck.  What the BEF lacked this day in numbers, were more than made up, in firepower. Let William Robinson, a volunteer dispatch driver with the British Army, describe what came to be known as the “Kindermord bei Ypern”  The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.

“The enemy seemed to rise out of the ground and sweep towards us like a great tidal wave, but our machine guns poured steel into them at the rate of six hundred shots per minute, and they’d go down like grass before the scythe… The Germans were climbing over heaps of their own dead, only to meet the same fate themselves.”

Overwhelming German numbers succeeded in forcing the British back and capturing Langemarck on October 22, but the cost was appalling.  Some regiments lost 70% of their strength.

5393774889_6b9037d2a6_bDoubt has been cast on the “Myth of Langemarck”, and the tragic bravery of idealistic German boys, happily defending the Fatherland.  The numbers of dead and maimed are real enough, but most reservists were in fact comprised of older working class men, not the fresh-faced youth, of the Kindermord.  Be that as it may, a story must be told.  Excuses must be made to the home team, for the crushing failure of the War of Movement, and the four-year war of attrition, to follow.

Two short months later, some of these same men would step out of their trenches and across the frozen fields of Flanders, to shake the hand of the man he’d been sent there, to kill.  The unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 would last a day or two in some sectors and a week or two in others.  And then it was back, to the business at hand.  For Four. More. Years.

Christmas Truce

The Man He Killed
BY THOMAS HARDY

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat 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.”

October 29, 202 B.C., The Great Anxiety of the Romans

Hannibal met the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio on October 19, 202 B.C. near the town of Zama, in modern-day Tunisia.  Scipio had barely escaped Cannae with his life, but he had learned his lessons, well.  On this day at Zama, Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics. 

In 814 B.C., Phoenician settlers left their homeland on the coast of modern Lebanon, establishing colonial port cities along the Mediterranean coast. They built safe harbors for their merchant fleets in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Spain and Libya, among others. The largest such port city they built on the North African Gulf coast of Tunis, calling the place “Carthage”, meaning “New City”.

According to legend, the orphaned twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, the god of war, were suckled by a she-wolf on the Italian Peninsula, 61 years later. Their names were Romulus and Remus. They would found a city on the site of their salvation, a city which would come to be called Rome.

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Phoenician alphabet

Carthage and Rome coexisted for hundreds of years, forming a relationship mostly based on trade. Carthaginian traders were famed in Classical Greece and Rome as ‘traders in purple’, referring to the near-monopoly in the precious Royal Purple dye derived from the Murex snail.

They’re known for the first “abjad”, (consonant based writing system) to gain widespread usage, the first fully developed Phoenician script dating back to the mid-11th century, BC.  The Phoenician alphabet, conventionally known as the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, is antecedent to nearly all modern phonetic alphabets in use today.

As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash. Carthage held undisputed mastery of the seas in the third century BC, while the rapid expansion of the Roman Republic brought them into conflict in Sicily, at that time partly under Carthaginian control.

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Roman Corvus

The first of three Punic Wars, from Punicus (latin: of or relating to Carthage), began in 264BC. At the time, the Roman Legions were the most powerful land army in the region, while having little to oppose Carthage, at sea.

The Roman introduction of the Corvus, a gangway with heavy spike mounted to the underside, allowed the Romans to convert sea battles onto their own “turf”, as Roman soldiers boarded enemy ships and defeated crews in hand to hand combat. The first Punic war was over by 241 B.C., with Carthage paying heavy indemnities and ceding much of its western Mediterranean territory.

Carthage rebuilt its finances in the following years, expanding its colonial empire in Spain under the warlike Barcid family. There were several trade agreements between Rome and Carthage, even a mutual alliance against King Pyrrhus of Epirus, while Hamilcar Barca, Strategus (Military governor) of Iberia, expanded influence on the southeastern Iberian Peninsula, near what is now Cartagena (“New Carthage”), Spain.

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Roman-era Carthage

Eight years earlier, Hamilcar Barca made his then 12-year-old son Hannibal swear undying hatred of the Romans. In 219 B.C., Rome and Carthage found themselves in conflict over the Roman protectorate of Saguntum, in modern Spain. The Roman senate demanded that Carthage hand over Hannibal.  The Carthaginian oligarchy refused. In 218 B.C., Rome declared war.

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Young Hannibal swearing revenge against Rome, by Giovanni Battista Pittoni

No longer a maritime power, Hannibal set out in the spring of 218 B.C., crossing into hostile Gaul (France) and arriving at the Rhône River in September with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, and cost him nearly half of his force before entering Italy, that December.

The first of several major battles took place on December 18, 218 B.C. on the banks of the Trebia River. The Roman General, consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus allowed himself to be drawn into a trap and crushed. Two legions were victorious on their part of the battlefield and retreated with honor to the Province of Piacenza but, overall, Trebia was a resounding defeat for the Roman military.

The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major engagement after another.  Trebia, Lake Trasimene:  for sixteen years it was virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another, only to be crushed, yet again.  The annihilation of Roman forces at Cannae of August 2, 216, is studied by military tacticians, to this day.

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Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided. Hannibal never did receive significant support from home, save for his own brother Hasdrubal, whom he summoned to join him Italy, in 209 B.C.  Hasdrubal repeated Hannibal’s feat of ten years earlier, crossing the Alps with war elephants and all, but the brothers’ reunification was never meant to be.  Hasdrubal Barca was defeated and slain in 207 B.C. near the River Metaurus, his dismembered head thrown in a sack and tossed into the camp of his brother.

It was the decisive turning point, in the second Punic War.

In the end, the General who had laid waste to the Italian peninsula was summoned to defend his homeland in North Africa.  Hannibal met the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio on October 19, 202 B.C. near the town of Zama, in modern-day Tunisia.  Scipio had barely escaped Cannae with his life, but he had learned his lessons, well.  On this day at Zama, Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics.  The Roman victory was decisive, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.  Scipio returned to Rome triumphant, henceforward and forever to be known by the honorific, “Africanus”.

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The third Punic War saw the Romans besiege Carthage itself. The city didn’t have a chance. Thousands of Carthaginians were slaughtered as the city fell in 146 B.C. The rest, as many as 70,000, were sold into slavery.  Legend has it that the ground was sewn with salt, that nothing would grow there, ever again.

Hannibal went into Carthaginian politics in the wake of the second Roman war, instituting elections for military judges and changing terms of office from life, to two years. Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power at this time, but Hannibal remained the bogey man, whom the Roman psyche could not let go.  Roman mothers told misbehaving children that Hannibal would come and get them, if they didn’t behave.  Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, would end his every speech with the words “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (“Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed”). The sentiment is often abbreviated to “Carthago delenda est” . “Carthage must be destroyed”.

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Carthago Delenda Est

Hannibal retired from politics in 195 B.C., in response to Roman concerns of his growing influence.  He journeyed first to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage, before traveling on to Antioch and later Ephesus, in modern day Turkey.  There he became military adviser and continued to clash with Roman allies, but would never threaten the Republic, as once he had done.

The Romans demanded that their old nemesis be turned over somewhere around 183 B.C., as Hannibal fled from one city to another, to escape his pursuers. Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, he poisoned himself and died sometime around 181 B.C. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

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.

October 10, 732 The Hammer

Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer”.

In the early middle ages, the Mayor of the Palace of the Frankish Kingdom was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead monarch.  In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish domain occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany.

Pepin kept a mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become Duke of Burgundy, best remembered for expelling the Saracens from France.  The latter went on become the founding father of the European Middle Ages.

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“St. Hubert of Liege offers his services to Pepin” – H/T Wikimedia

Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased his father in 714, and touched off a succession crisis when he his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald, his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison to nullify any threat, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.

Charles proved himself a brilliant Military tactician when he crushed a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve.  He returned victorious in 718, and then did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the woman responsible for his incarceration, and the boy for whom she had acted.

Charles-Martel-PicCharles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern day France with that of Austrasia in the east.

At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate gained control of most of Hispania (Spain) beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul. Umayyad forces suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.

The Emir responded with a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time, Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.

Odo fled to Charles asking for help.  The table was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated the two most powerful military forces of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.
Other than the Frankish Kingdom, no force existed, sufficient to stop the advance of the Caliphate. Historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.

Carolingian Empire Map

Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have had 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 infantry on the Frankish side, and no cavalry.

Each of Charles’ tough, battle hardened soldiers wore up to 75lbs of armor. They’d been with him for years, and every one of them believed in his leadership. Outnumbered two to one, Charles had one decisive advantage.  He was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.

The Frankish army took to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, and drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge. For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

History offers few instances when a medieval army was able to withstand the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men for years, and they were prepared. The Mozarabic Chronicle reports:

[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

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Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim army that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman tried to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.

Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks did not pursue, and resumed their phalanx. There they stood until the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.

standoff

Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer“.

New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself.   Forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453.  Ottomans attempted the conquest of Europe near a place called Lepanto in 1571 and twice more in 1529 and 1683, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. The threat was far from over in 732, but Christian Europe in the west would never again be so grievously challenged.

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.

October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.

Following the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was massively expanded under Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”. 1516 – ’17 saw a 70% expansion of Ottoman landmass, with the subjugation of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Suleiman_featuredSelim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, a man who, at his height, ruled over some fifteen to twenty million, at a time when the entire world contained fewer than 500 million

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony, over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula. The “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation to the Sultan.

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Roxelana, the harem slave who rose to be “Queen” of the Ottoman Empire

This, the second such conflict between Venice and the Ottomans, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian possessions of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.  Roxelana is unique in Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over affairs of Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of her son Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and his brother Bayezid, engineered between himself and his father.

The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic and, surrounded by Ottoman territory, had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying between 80,000 – 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force marched inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace, in the city.

map (1)

By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

At this point, Famagusta’s defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with 1,500 cannon. The defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, begged him to surrender.

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Walled citadel of Famagusta, in North Cypress

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas all lives and property were forfeit, in a city taken by storm. Terms of safe passage were agreed upon, yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell. A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was killed.  Bragadin was skinned alive in the public square and the stuffed with straw, reinvested with his military insignia, and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion.   Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed in the end and put to death.  Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571, bought a coalition of Catholic maritime states, time in which to defend themselves.

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.  The Europeans were outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, compared with a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels, and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

Fernando_Bertelli,_Die_Seeschlacht_von_Lepanto,_Venedig_1572,_Museo_Storico_Navale_(550x500).jpg

What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience.  The Christians possessed 1,815 guns, to fewer than half than number for the Ottoman fleet.

Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  the Ottoman fleet was crushed over five hours of combat, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

The Spanish novel Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than any book in western history, save for the holy bible.  Author Miguel de Cervantes participated in the battle at the age of 23, receiving three gunshot wounds and losing his left hand.

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Cervantes

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion in the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph amounted to little:

“You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

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September 8, 1504 David

Michelangelo was that insufferably cocky kid who wasn’t bragging. He could deliver.

The Renaissance has been variously described as an advance beyond the dark ages, and a nostalgic period looking back to the Classical age. Whatever it was, the 15th and 16th centuries produced some of the most spectacularly gifted artists, in history.

None more so, than the Italian Masters.

There was Leonardo and Donatello, Raphael, Brunelleschi and Botticelli. Yet, only one among them would have his biography written, while he was still alive. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, had two. Only one of these men would have his home town renamed, after himself. Today, the Tuscan village of Caprese is known as Caprese Michelangelo.

Sistine Chapel

To look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is to disbelieve that the artist who could produce such a work, didn’t care for painting.  In his heart and soul, Michelangelo was a sculptor. “Along with the milk of my nurse,” he would say, “I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures”.

BM49891He was “Il Divino”, “The Divine One”, literally growing up with the hammer and chisel. He had a “Terribilità” about him, an awe-inspiring sense of grandeur which made him difficult to work with, but for which he was at the same time, widely admired and imitated. Michelangelo was that insufferably cocky kid who wasn’t bragging.  He could deliver.

The massive block of Carrara marble was quarried in 1466, nine years before Michelangelo was born. The “David” commission was given to artist Agostino di Duccio that same year. So difficult was this particular stone that Duccio never got beyond roughing out the legs and draperies. Antonio Rossellino took a shot at it 10 years later, but didn’t get much farther.

25 years later, the Guild of Wool Merchants wanted to revive the abandoned project, and went looking for an artist. The now infamously difficult marble slab had deteriorated for years in the elements, when Michelangelo stepped forward at the age of 26. The prevailing attitude seems to have been yeah, give it to the kid. That will take him down a  peg or two.

Michelangelo began work on September 13th, 1501. His master work would take him three years to complete, nearly to the day.

Michelangelo's David - Accademia, FlorenceThe 17′, six-ton David was originally intended for the roof of the Florence Cathedral, but it wasn’t feasible to raise such an object that high. A committee including Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli was formed to decide on an appropriate site for the statue. The committee chose the Piazza della Signoria outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.

It took four days on a specially constructed cart to move the David statue into position.  The unveiling took place on September 8, 1504. Among the dignitaries gathered for the occasion was the Mayor of Florence, Vasari Pier Soderini, who complained that David’s nose was “too thick”.

On some other day and time, a man such as Michelangelo may have invited the Lord Mayor, to perform an anatomically improbable act.  On this occasion, the artist climbed the statue with a handful of marble dust, sending down a shower of the stuff as he pretended to work on the nose. After several minutes, he stepped back and asked Soderini if the work was improved. “Yes”, replied the Mayor, now satisfied. “I like it better. You have given it life”.

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September 1, 911 We Are Not Amused

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

VictoriaA story comes down to us from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, when the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland turned and said: “We are not amused“.

The story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub…”  Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster. At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” was never given to public displays of mirth. Her lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, some of the Royals of history have been very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula (“Little Boots“), so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae, the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father,  famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm…well, never mind that.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

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Caligae

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage, was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

Some contend that the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island
Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, or “Normans” attacked Paris in early 911. By July they were holding the nearby town of Chartres, under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

Rollo the Walker
Rollo “The Walker”

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

Mitochondrial_DNA
Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match the living descendants of the King. The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.  Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.

Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was, along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father, may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but if I were, my money’s on those old guys, staying in the ground.

Feature image, top of page:  King Charles VI of France, “the Beloved and the Mad”, by Gillot Saint-Evre

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.