October 19, 1778 The Road to Independence

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress declared a break from Great Britain. The former colonies were to be a free and independent nation. That same day and an ocean away, a business was formed to aid in the pursuit. An enterprise formed between the French House of Bourbon, and Spain.

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The Rodrigue Hortalez Trading Company was a ruse, a fictitious outfit organized by the French playwright, politician and spy, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

In May of 1776, Beaumarchais obtained one million livres from France and the same amount from Spain, weeks before the committee of five put pen to paper, to compose the Declaration of Independence. In addition to all that money there were muskets, cannon, gunpowder, bombs, mortars, tents and enough clothing for 30,000 men, traveling from French ports to the “neutral” Netherlands Antilles island of St. Eustatius.

The delivery could not have been more timely. When General Washington took command on July 3, 1775 the Continental Army faced the most formidable military on the planet with enough powder for something like nine rounds per man.

Here’s a great trivia question for you…what foreign government first openly recognized the fledgling nation? It was little St. Eustatius who first acknowledged American Independence, firing the traditional “First Salute” on November 16 of that year, an overt recognition that an independent nation state in the form of the brig Andrew Doria, had entered its harbor.

Hortalez & Co. was one of four channels of Spanish aid. New Orleans Governor Luis de Unzaga began providing covert aid to the American rebels in 1776, expanding the following year under his successor, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez.  

It is he for whom Galveston Texas, bears that name.

saratoga-reenactment

Meanwhile, the Spanish port at Havana was opened to the Americans under Most Favored Nation status, and further Spanish aid flowed in from the Gardoqui family trading company in Bilbao whose Patriarch, Don Diego de Gardoqui, would become Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States. According to the Ambassador, the House of Gardoqui alone supplied the American patriots with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca wrote in March 1777, “the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit”.

The American Victory at Saratoga in October 1777 opened the door to more overt aid from the French, thanks largely to the tireless diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis du Lafayette. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.

The “Southern Strategy” of 1778-80 cost the British army and its Hessian allies more casualties from disease, than from Patriot bullets. About 1,200 Hessian soldiers were killed in combat over the course of the war. By contrast, 6,354 more died of disease and 5,500 deserted, later settling in the fledgling United States.

In February 1781, General Washington sent Lafayette south at the head of a handpicked force of 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops, and 1,200 French allies.  Washington himself lead an army he himself described as “not strong enough even to be beaten”.

5,500 French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island that summer, linking up with General Washington’s Patriot army. Meanwhile, Lafayette harassed and shadowed Cornwallis’ much larger force as it moved north through North Carolina and east toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Cornwallis was looking for a deep water port from which to link up with his ships. It was at this time that Lafayette received help from a slave named James, on the New Kent Armistead Farm. James pretended to serve Cornwallis in Yorktown while sending valuable military information to Lafayette and Washington, who was now moving south through New Jersey with Rochambeau. The man would later legally change his name to James Lafayette.

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“To the generous help of your Nation and to the bravery of its troops must be attributed in a great degree to that independence for which we have fought, and which after a severe conflict of more than five years have been obtained”.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, was in Santo Domingo, meeting with the representative of Spain’s King Carlos III, Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis. De Grasse had planned to leave several warships in Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic, to protect the French merchant fleet. Saavedra promised assistance from the Spanish navy, enabling de Grasse to sail north with all of his warships. He needed those ships.  The crucial Naval battle of the Revolution took place on September 5 when de Grasse defeated the British fleet of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves cutting Cornwallis off, from the sea.

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French Admiral de Barras arrived from Newport a few days later, carrying vital siege equipment, while de Grasse himself carried 500,000 silver pesos from Havana to help with the payroll and siege costs at the final Battle of Yorktown.

If there was ever a “window of opportunity”, the siege of Yorktown was it. Fully ½ of Cornwallis’ troops were sick with Malaria during the siege, a disease to which the Americans had built some degree of immunity. Most of the French were newly arrived, and thus had yet to encounter the disease’ one-month gestation.

Now out of options, General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, the day his relief force finally sailed out of New York Harbor.

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential. Ben Franklin, John Jay and John Adams would negotiate through two more years and four British governments before it was done. The Treaty of Paris was at last signed on September 3, 1783. The American war for Independence, had come to an end.

October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, called the “Mayor of the Palace”. This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King. By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States. In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs. It was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

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Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue. For the third time in a half-century, a Pope had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what now remained of the Roman Empire, was in Constantinople. Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe. German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire from that day, to this.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy. The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor. Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as the founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

HRE 1500

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

August 25, 1212 A People’s Crusade

The first to respond was not the elite force of avenging knights envisioned by the pope but a “peasant’s crusade” led by the charismatic monk Peter the Hermit, and an impoverished knight known as Walter sans Avoir. Walter the penniless.

In the 100 years following the death of the Prophet Muhamad, Islamic conquests established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time stretching from China in the east to the Iberian Peninsula, in the west.

The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran ceased to exist under the Muslim conquest as did much of Byzantium, seat of the Roman Empire in the east. Europe itself narrowly escaped subjugation when Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the army of Abdul Rahman al Qafiqi at Poitiers (Tours) in October, 732.

islam-territoryEstimates suggest the Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern state with the solitary exception of the Russian Federation.

The Council of Clermont was a mixed synod comprised of laymen and clergy, of the Catholic Church. The meeting convened for ten days beginning November 18, 1095, to discuss the threat. No contemporary transcription survives from the speech delivered, by Pope Urban II. Those in attendance took the pontiff’s remarks, as a call to arms.

Urban was responding to an urgent request for assistance by Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenus, against the Seljuk Turk. Now the pope urged all Christendom to lay down doctrinal difference between east and west and come to the aid of their fellow Christians, in Byzantium.

The first to respond was not the elite force of avenging knights envisioned by the pope but a “peasant’s crusade” led by the charismatic monk Peter the Hermit, and an impoverished knight known as Walter sans Avoir. Walter the penniless.

It was the first of five such ‘popular crusades’ over the following centuries and not to be confused with the major ‘Prince’s Crusades’ we’ve all heard about. The latter were well trained and well armed forces of knights and warrior monks who fought with the sanction of the Church and left us with names like the Knights Templar, Hospitaller and others.

Untrained, unsanctioned and poorly armed the ‘popular crusades’ were nothing of the sort. More like a pickup basketball game, compared with an NBA season.

Millenarianism was a powerful force at that time, a belief in the imminent End of Days spurred on by years of drought-caused crop failures and signs of divine blessing including meteor showers, aurorae and a lunar eclipse.

As 100,000 peasants including women and children took up farm implements and set out to reconquer the Holy Lands in this first and best documented, of the popular crusades.

A map of the peasant’s crusade, of 1096

The abuse of European Jewry was nothing new in 1096, but now began a new phase to set the tone for the next thousand years and culminate, in the Nazi holocaust. One non-believer was as good as another it would seem, and the Saracen was so far away.

Massacre of the Jews of Metz during the First Crusade, by Auguste Migette

Anti-Jewish violence committed by this crowd throughout parts of modern France and Germany ranged from pillage, to the massacre of thousands. The population was so terrorized by the mere appearance of Peter the Hermit on his donkey they readily agreed to give him and his followers, most anything they asked for. In Regensburg, virtually the entire Jewish population was herded into the Danube and forced to undergo “baptism”.

Once in the Serbian city of Zemun, a dispute broke out over the price of a pair of shoes resulting in a riot and the murder, of 4,000 Hungarians. Seven days later at the city of Niš, the military commander promised food, and military escort. Peter agreed but a group of Germans got into an argument with some locals and set fire, to a mill. The entire garrison at Niš responded and routed the mob. 10,000 were killed by the time it was over, nearly a quarter of their entire number.

Once in Constantinople, Alexios had not the slightest idea what to do with this ragtag bunch and quickly ferried them across the Bosporus with instruction to wait for the main Crusader force, then on the way.

These people were having none of that.

An argument broke out between French and Italians on one side and the Germans, on the other. Each elected their own leader and the former set to pillaging the suburbs, all the way to the Turkish stronghold of Nicomedia.

Not to be outdone, 6,000 Germans marched on the fortress at Xerigordos where they quickly subdued the garrison and prepared to use the fort as a base, for further raids. Within days Xerigordos was itself surrounded by a Turkish force loyal to Kilij Arslan, the Seljuk Sultan of Rûm. With no provisions and no water the besieged crusaders took to drinking their own urine and the blood, of their animals. The siege was over in eight days. Some Crusaders converted to Islam, on the spot. The rest were put to the sword.

Back at the main camp, two Turkish spies spread rumors the Germans had taken Xerigordos and defeated, Nicaea. Eager to join in the plunder some 20,ooo set out leaving women and children, back at camp. The rowdy procession entered the narrow road three miles outside of camp, when the trap was sprung. The waiting Seljuk force unleashed a torrent of arrows at a disorganized and undisciplined rabble, quickly put to flight. Most were slaughtered. A few thousand took refuge in an abandoned castle itself, then taken under siege.

Sometime later, a Byzantine force under Constantine Katakalon sailed across the narrow channel and lifted the siege, returning the survivors to Constantinople. This small remnant was all that remained, of the Peasant’s Crusade.

Church sanctioned Crusades took and then lost the ancient city of Jerusalem over the next 100 years. A “Lion-hearted” King would fight to a draw and return home to protect his kingdom from an ambitious little brother leaving Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub in possession of the city. A man we know today, as Saladin.

A fourth crusade set out in 1202 to retake the holy city and inexplicably ended up sacking…Constantinople. Ten years later it was time for civilians to try, once again.

In the Spring of 1212 a French youth called Stephen of Cloyes began to attract, a following. At the same time a German boy, Nicholas of Cologne, was preaching the same message. It’s hard to know if the two ever heard of each other but the message, was the same. Talk would succeed where weapons had failed. They would discuss it all with the Muslims who would then convert, peaceably.

Together, Stephen and Nicholas attracted some 20,000 children with a few adolescents and some adults and set out across Germany, and France.

Many starved to death with no money and yet they came, a Children’s Crusade destined to succeed where professional Crusader armies, had failed.

That’s not the way things worked out.

On August 25, 1212, the rabble appeared outside of Genoa. Whether they expected some kindly Genoese ship’s captains to take them on board or the Red Seat to part as for Moses, remains unclear.

A hoard of young beggars with no training and no weapons were of no use, save to be sold, for slaves. So it went, according to most accounts. In some versions of this story the children made it to Rome where the Pope told them all, to go home. Some simply turned and trudged, back where they came from.

There would be three more popular crusades each following the same path, as the first. Violence against the Jews and squabble with the locals. None ever made it, outside European shores.

August 17, 1661 Party Like it’s 1661

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Having once been rolled by two officers of the “law” in a certain neighbor to our south (it was a very polite mugging), government graft is near and dear to my heart. History is replete with official avarice on levels great and small, far more than a couple meagerly compensated cops, looking for a “gratuity”.

New York’s own Boss Tweed elevated graft to heights previously unknown in American politics, to where construction of a single courthouse cost taxpayers more than the entire Alaska purchase. Nearly twice as much.

Tammany Hall’s kickbacks were so lavish a single carpenter billed the city $360,751, for a month’s work. One plasterer billed $133,187 for two days’ work.

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Rodrigo de Borja served as Pope Alexander VI, at a time when the job of Bishop of Rome was not always that of a pious man. Rodrigo bribed his way to the top and used the papacy to benefit family and friends making the name Borja synonymous, with licentiousness and greed. A man utterly devoid of morals the man sold his beautiful and fair-haired daughter Lucrezia no fewer than three times, to cement alliances. He openly fathered seven children by two married mistresses appointing one of their brothers Cardinal, who then went on to be known as “Cardinal of the Skirts”. Alexander’s October 30, 1501 “Banquet of Chestnuts” was an all-night feast and orgy featuring no fewer than fifty prostitutes Italian officialdom remains happy to sweep under the rug, to this day.

When the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola chided Alexander for his behavior the Pope is said to have laughed, out loud.

And yet, these are all as amateurs compared with French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, a man who made King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” himself, blush.

Europe’s longest reigning monarch once commented “l’état, c’est moi”. I Am the state. Such arrogance is hard to understand for the political descendants of the generation, who threw King George’s tea over the side. It wasn’t at all difficult for the hoi polloi of Louis’ France who were expected to pay up, and shut up. Such was the world of Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux and Louis’ minister, of finance.

In 1651 Fouquet married his not inconsiderable wealth to that of Marie de Castille, herself the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. The interminable wars of the age and the greed of courtiers frequently caused the new minister to borrow, against his own credit. Public and private accounts soon became so intertwined as to become indistinguishable from one another. Fouqet came to wield even greater wealth than his own chief benefactor Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Kings Louis XIII and XIV.

The minister completed construction in 1661 of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, his own personal palace of Versailles before there was, a palace of Versailles. That’s him and his modest little three room bungalow, at the top of this page. The man even used three of the same artists for the Château’s lavish appointments, as Louis himself would later use for that most famous, of royal shanties.

Worried that he might have gone a little too far, Fouquet bought himself and fortified a place off the west coast of France, a modest little island some 5 by 15 miles across called Belle-Île-en-Mer. You know, just in case of…disgrace.

But none of it stopped the party of parties, a celebration for the ages held on August 17, 1661, at Fouquet’s petit Château .

There were 6,ooo guests including the Sun King himself. Gifts were given to party goers, a diamond brooch for the ladies and a thoroughbred horse, for the gents. A performance was presented specifically written for the occasion by none other than the playwright, Molière.

A spectacular fireworks display lit the skies above lavish gardens and splendid paths. Fouquet’s little soirée was supposed to impress the King but instead turned him into, a party pooper. Apparently, such “unashamed and audacious luxury,” is what it takes to embarrass, a Sun King. Louis ordered his finance minister, arrested.

The trial stretched on for three years. The judges found the defendant guilty and ordered banishment but, Louis would have none of that. For the first and last time in French history a King overruled the verdict and ordered, imprisonment for life. The Mrs. was exiled and Fouquet’s crib snatched up, by the state.

EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1661, ARRIVAL OF LOUIS XIV ACCOMPANIED BY THE COURT, hat tip Daniel Druet, sculptor

Fouquet spent the rest of his life in prison and died in his cell at Pignerol on March 23, 1680. His remains weren’t removed for another year. Just in case…I guess.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Since that time the American taxpayer has plunked down $22 Trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Even with Social Security and Medicare excluded that’s still three times the cost of every military war from the Revolution to the unfolding collapse of Afghanistan, combined.

Rates of poverty as measured by the United States Census Bureau remain basically, unchanged.

So hey, never you mind a conga line of public “servants” leaving offices of trust wealthier, than when they went in. You don’t need to worry about who’s paying the kid $500,000 for those finger paintings either, or government debt your grandbabies’ grandbabies will never pay back. Just pull out the credit card & have a party. Like it’s 1661.

August 15, 1057 The Real Macbeth

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but one thing is certain. Shakespeare’s Macbeth bears little resemblance to the man, for whom the story is named.

Them that strut and fret their hours upon the stage are a superstitious lot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to the Bard for that bit of word butchery).

In the world of theater it is high praise to present the performer with flowers, in token of appreciation for a fine performance. Be warned though, never give a performer flowers, before the play. That would bring bad luck. Never bringing a mirror on stage may be more practical than superstitious as you can never account for the reflection of set lighting, but then there’s the tradition, of the graveyard bouquet. Yeah. When a production closes, it is considered good luck to steal flowers from a graveyard and present them, to the director. Go figure. And whatever you do you are never to utter the name, Macbeth. Trust me. It’s “ the Scottish play”.

Act I. General Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, chances upon three witches who prophecy that he, Macbeth, is to be Thane of Cawdor and even more, King of Scotland.

Spurred on by his wife the ruthless and ambitious Lady Macbeth, he slips into the bedchamber of the good King Duncan and plunges the dagger, then frames the King’s bodyguards, for his murder. Now himself King in fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth and his Lady descend into a world of guilt and madness, duplicity and murder in the fruitless attempt to cover for his crime.

So sayeth William Shakespeare but what of the real Mac Bethad mac Findlaích?

11th century Alba

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but some things are certain. 11th century Scotland was not the nation we know today, but a collection of warring kingdoms. Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (Malcolm II) came to power after defeating and killing his cousin King Kenneth III in 1005 at the battle of Monzievaird, near Crieff.

Malcolm was a fearsome ruler who immediately set about eliminating (read…killing), potential claimants to the throne. Information is scant but Malcolm appears to have fathered, three daughters. All three married well giving rise to yet more rivals but it was Duncan, Malcolm‘s grandson who would rise to power after his grandfather was killed in battle, in 1034.

Macbeth’s cousin murdered his father Findlaích and took for himself the title of Mormaer (Earl), when the boy was barely in his teens. Macbeth had his revenge in 1045 when found his cousin in a hall, with fifty of his warriors. Macbeth burnt the place to the ground, took the title for himself and, astonishingly, married his cousin’s widow, Gruoch.

The first Scottish Queen whose name we actually know, the real Lady Macbeth turns out to be hardly the avaricious harpy of the Bard’s portrayal but a saintly woman, best known for funding the production of illustrated manuscripts by the monks of a tiny friary, in Loch Leven.

Now himself Mormaer of Moray Macbeth proved a powerful fighter against the Vikings coming down from the north and a key ally, of King Duncan.

Duncan I ruled for five years and was indeed killed by Macbeth, but there the similarity ends. Duncan’s peaceful accession to the crown was the exception to the rule in 11th century Scotland. His death in battle was not, the killing blow delivered on August 14, 1040 at the battle of Pitgaveny, at the hands of Macbeth’s forces if not Macbeth, himself.

Victorious, Macbeth had a strong claim to the crown. According to modern descendants of clan Duncan stronger than Duncan, himself. The real lady Macbeth was the granddaughter, of Kenneth III. Macbeth was a direct relation to Malcolm himself, through his mother’s line. So it is the powerful Mormaer of Moray himself became King, ruling over Scotland, for the next seventeen years.

Scottish coronations were different at this time, than you might think. There was no physical crown, that wouldn’t come about, for another 200 years. Macbeth would have sat upon the 236-pound “Stone of Destiny” as the list of Scottish Kings, was read aloud. He was then given a sword with which to defend his kingdom and proclaimed King, by the assembled nobles.

While Shakespeare’s Macbeth was steeped in blood and treachery, the real King Macbeth seems to have been, well liked. There was blood, yes, Macbeth lived in a time of savagery when scores were settled with edged weapons but, much of his reign, was enjoyed in peace. Like the Bard’s Macbeth whose past would come back to haunt him, Duncan I’s father, Crinán, abbot of Dunkeld challenged the peace, in 1045. This was a brief but bloody struggle much smaller than the epoch-changing battle of Hastings, ten years after the death of Macbeth. When it was over Crinán lay dead along with 180 of his followers.

Macbeth was the first of the Scottish Kings to take a pilgrimage to Rome, to meet with Pope Leo IX. This demonstrates not only a sense of security against usurpers at home but the wealth, to scatter “money like seed to the poor”. For the first time a United Scotland, stood before the world.

Macbeth was the first to bring Normans into his service in 1052 indicating a new openness, to international trade.

Trouble came from the south in the form of Siward, the powerful Earl of Northumbria, a Danish chieftain who rose to power under the Viking King of England , Cnut the Great. The year was 1054, the battle taking place north of the Firth of Forth near a place called Dunsinane. When it was over 3,000 of Macbeth’s forces were dead. Siward lost 1,500 and his own son, Osbjorn.

Early 19th-century depiction by John Martin of Mac Bethad (centre-right) watching Siward’s Northumbrian army approaching (right)

His Norman mercenaries now eliminated Macbeth was forced to give up, much of his southern Kingdom. Macbeth retained his kingship for now his reign came to an end a year later near Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire. The son of the man Macbeth had killed some seventeen years earlier came for his father’s killer on August 15, 1057.

Macbeth, King of Alba, was dead. Malcolm III Canmore would rule through the Norman Conquests until he himself was ambushed and killed, in 1093.

August 12, 1865 The Shoulders of Giants

Today, the idea that microorganisms such as fungi, viruses and other pathogens cause infectious disease is common knowledge, but such ideas were held in disdain among scientists and doctors, well into the 19th century.

In the 12th century, French philosopher Bernard of Chartres talked about the concept of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. The idea is familiar to the reader of English as expressed by the mathematician and astronomer Isaac Newton, who observed that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

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Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Nowhere is there more truth to the old adage, than in the world of medicine. In 1841, the child who survived to celebrate a fifth birthday could look forward to a life of some 55 years. Today, a five-year-old can expect to live to eighty-two, fully half again that of the earlier date.

Yet, there are times when the giants who brought us here are unknown to us, as if they had never been. One such is Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, one of the earliest pioneers in anti-septic medicine.

Semmelweis  studied law at the University of Vienna in the fall of 1837, but switched to medicine the following year. He received his MD in 1844 and, failing to gain a clinical appointment in internal medicine, decided to specialize in obstetrics.

In the third century AD, the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon first described the “miasma” theory of illness, holding that infectious diseases such as cholera, chlamydia and the Black Death were caused by noxious clouds of “bad air”.  The theory is discredited today, but such ideas die hard.

miasma-theory

The germ theory of disease was first proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546 and expanded by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762. Single-cell organisms – bacteria – were known to exist in human dental plaque as early as 1683, yet their functions were imperfectly understood. Today, the idea that microorganisms such as fungi, viruses and other pathogens cause infectious disease is common knowledge, but such ideas were held in disdain among scientists and doctors, well into the 19th century.

InfectiousDisease16_9

In the mid-19th century, birthing centers were set up all over Europe, for the care of poor and underprivileged mothers and their illegitimate infants. Care was provided free of charge, in exchange for which young mothers agreed to become training subjects for doctors and midwives.

In 1846, Semmelweis was appointed assistant to Professor Johann Klein in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, a position similar to a “chief resident,” of today.

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At the time, Vienna General Hospital ran two such clinics, the 1st a “teaching hospital” for undergraduate medical students, the 2nd for student midwives.

Semmelweis quickly noticed that one in ten women and sometimes one in five, were dying in the First Clinic of postpartum infection known as “childbed fever”, compared with less than 4% that of the Second Clinic.

The difference was well known, even outside of the hospital. Expectant mothers were admitted on alternate days into the First or Second Clinic. Desperate women begged on their knees not to be admitted into the First, some preferring even to give birth in the streets, over delivery in that place. The disparity between the two clinics “made me so miserable”, Semmelweis said, “that life seemed worthless”.

He had to know why this was happening.

Puerperal Peritonitis 1912 MA

Childbed or “puerperal” fever was rare among these “street births”, and far more prevalent in the First Clinic, than the Second. Semmelweis carefully eliminated every difference between the two, even including religious practices. In the end, the only difference was the people who worked there.

The breakthrough came in 1847, following the death of Semmelweis’ friend and colleague, Dr. Jakob Kolletschka. Kolletschka was accidentally cut by a student’s scalpel, during a post-mortem examination. The doctor’s own autopsy showed a pathology very similar to those women, dying of childbed fever. Medical students were going from post-mortem examinations of the dead to obstetrical examinations of the living, without washing their hands.

Midwife students had no such contact with the dead. This had to be it. Some unknown “cadaverous material” had to be responsible for the difference.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

Semmelweis instituted a mandatory handwashing policy, using a chlorinated lime solution between autopsies and live patient examinations.

Mortality rates in the First Clinic dropped by 90 percent, to rates comparable with the Second. In April 1847, First Clinic mortality rates were 18.3% – nearly one in five. Hand washing was instituted in mid-May, and June rates dropped to 2.2%.  July was 1.2%. For two months, the rate actually stood at zero.

The European medical establishment celebrated the doctor’s findings. Semmelweis was feted as the Savior of Mothers, a giant of modern medicine. 

No, just kidding.  He wasn’t.

The imbecility of the response to Semmelweis’ findings is hard to get your head around and the doctor’s own personality, didn’t help.  The medical establishment took offense at the idea that they themselves were the cause of the mortality problem, and that the answer lay in personal hygiene.

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Semmelweis himself was anything but tactful, publicly berating those who disagreed with his hypothesis and gaining powerful enemies.   For many, the doctor’s ideas were extreme and offensive, ignored or rejected and even ridiculed.  Are we not Gentlemen!?  Semmelweis was fired from his hospital position and harassed by the Vienna medical establishment, finally forced to move to Budapest.

Dr. Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical community, and began to write open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians.  He went so far as to denounce such people as “irresponsible murderers”, leading contemporaries and even his wife, to question his mental stability.

Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum on July 31, 1865, twenty-three years before Dr. Louis Pasteur opened his institute for the study of microbiology.

Semmelweis bust, University of Tehran

Barely two weeks later, August 12, 1865, British surgeon and scientist Dr. Joseph Lister performed the first anti-septic surgery, in medical history. Dr. Semmelweis died the following day at the age of 47, the victim of a blood infection resulting from a gangrenous wound sustained in a severe beating, by asylum guards.

July 14, 1790 It’s Bastille Day

Today the French nation celebrates its own independence. A day to remember the storming of the Bastille and the Fête de la Fédération held a year later, to the day.


In medieval France, the constituent parts of French society comprised the “Three Estates”:  the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.

In the late 18th century, all France was in a state of economic chaos. The Nobility refused the tax demands of King Louis XVI. The Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” in June 1789, demanding an audience with the King for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was either hysterical or duplicitous, because the King and his family were still mourning the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent.  It was customary at that time to hold political matters, until the King came out of mourning.

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Be that as it may, the entire National Assembly, all 577 members, converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn vow, “The Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

The oath itself was a revolutionary act, asserting that political authority came from the people through their representatives, and not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as the left and reformist factions moved from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French right.

Built in 1309, the fortress and medieval prison of the Bastille had long been a focal point of the insurrection, representing royal authority in the center of the city. Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was one of the few remaining prisoners in the Bastille by this time. He was transferred to an insane asylum after attempting to incite a crowd outside his window, yelling: “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”

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Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when French revolutionaries converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. The fortress was guarded by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, the son of the previous governor and a man literally born, in the Bastille.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain holding the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting.  The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

The mob who stormed the Bastille to free the prisoners found only seven: four counterfeiters, two mentally ill and a man sent by his own family for acts of perversion now, lost to history.

Fun fact: Little remains of the Bastille, only a few stones on the Boulevard Henri IV, in Paris. Back in 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille “across the pond” to his close personal friend, George Washington. Today that key may be found at the home of the first American President – Mount Vernon.

A year later many considered to the Revolution, to be over. All France it seemed gathered on July 14, 1790 to celebrate, the Fête de la Fédération. A new Republic was born. The Marquis de Lafayette led the President of the National Assemblies and all the deputies in an oath of fealty to a constitution, as yet unwritten:

We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.

Oath of Loyalty to a Constitution, never meant to be. July 14, 1790

“Citizen King” Louis XVI proclaimed his own loyalty to the would-be liberal constitutional monarchy. Queen Marie Antoinette then rose and presented the 5-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France Louis XVII saying “This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments.”

It was a bright and shining future, never meant to be.

The successful insurrection at Paris had infected all of France as a “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over, in three years. Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine, in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine during a period of national self-immolation known as the “Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre.

Among the slain was Queen Marie Antoinette who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The woman’s last words on accidentally stepping on her executioner’s toes were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.

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Execution of Marie Antoinette

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial, before the hysteria died down.  Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of this whole sorry story may be that of the son of Louis and Antoinette. He was Louis-Charles, the pre-adolescent Duke of Normandy. The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison at the age of 8. He would die in that cell two years later, miserable, sick, tormented and alone.  It all seems so pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within two decades.

June 10, 1944 Village of the Damned

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It was D+4 following the invasion of Normandy, when the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS passed through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” carried orders to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance fighters in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off nearby Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly oblivious to their own confusion between two different villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population was there plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up.

SS soldiers aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before Nazis lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they fled for their lives.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some bushes where she managed to hide, until the next morning.

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642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in just a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby. The child had been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the old village remain as it stood,  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malign influence of collectivist thinking.

Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but it didn’t matter.  Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre were themselves dead within the next few days, killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

And on.  And on.  And on.

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The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War” narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: 

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Sir Laurence Olivier

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

April 24, 1915 Armenian Genocide

“The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.” – Enver Pasha

In the waning years of the 13th century, Osman Gazi led a relentless conflict against the Byzantine empire centered in Constantinople, for control of western Anatolia in modern day Turkey.

In 1453 the empire founded by Osman I captured Constantinople itself, seat of the Byzantine Empire and now known as Istanbul.

At the height of its power in 1683, the Ottoman Empire under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent ruled over an area spanning three continents. From the shores of north Africa to the gates of Vienna, east to the modern Russian Federation state, of Georgia. Nearly 4% the landmass of the entire planet, was under Ottoman rule.

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman empire entered a period of decline. Serbia went to war for independence from the Sultan in 1804, followed closely by Greece, Crete, Bulgaria and others.

As yet one of the Great Powers of the Eurasian landmass, the Ottoman Empire was now “the Sick Man of Europe”. By mid-century, many minority populations were pushing for independence.

Punch cartoon dated November 28, 1896, caricatures the weakend state of the Ottomans, under Sultan Abdul Hamid II

One such were the Armenians, an ancient people living in the region for some 2,000 years. Mostly Christian, Armenians were among the earliest to adopt the new faith as their own having done so, even before Rome itself.

Mid-19th century reforms such the repeal of the “Jizya”, the tax on “unbelievers,” brought about a measure of equality. Even so, non-Muslims remained second-class citizens. Without the right to testify at trial, for all intents and purposes it was open season on Armenian Christians and other religious minorities. In some locales, such treatment rose to the level of officially sanctioned public policy. By 1860, Armenians began to push for greater rights.

Where his subjects saw the righteous quest for equal rights the Sultan saw, insurrection.

Obsessed with personal loyalty to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II once told a reporter that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear” for their impudence. The Hamidian massacres begun in 1894 and lasting until 1897 killed between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians, leaving in their wake, 50,000 orphaned children.

It was but a prelude of what was to come.

“An Armenian woman and her children who were refugees of the massacres and sought help from missionaries by walking great distances.” H/T Wikipedia

In military planning, a “decapitation strike” is an action, designed to remove the leadership of an opposing government or group. The Ottoman pogrom began with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians of the Empire, of leadership.

The order came down from Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha on April 24, 1915. “Red Sunday”. By the end of the day an estimated 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals were arrested, in Istanbul. By the end of May, their number reached 2,345. Most, were eventually murdered.

“Some of the Armenian intellectuals who were detained, deported, and killed in 1915:
1st row: Krikor Zohrab, Daniel Varoujan, Rupen Zartarian, Ardashes Harutiunian, Siamanto
2nd row: Ruben Sevak, Dikran Chökürian, Diran Kelekian, Tlgadintsi, and Erukhan” – H/T Wikipedia

The “Tehcir” Law of May 29, a term derived from an Ottoman Turkish word signifying “deportation” or “forced displacement”, authorized the forced removal within the empire, of such detainees.

When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. . . . I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.

US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.

Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert. Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and summary execution. By the early 1920s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Turkish historian Taner Akçam has examined military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness reports to write what may be The definitive history of the whole episode entitled, A Shameful Act, The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. In it, Akçam writes of:

“…the looting and murder in Armenian towns by Kurds and Circassians, improprieties during tax collection, criminal behavior by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial.”

Taner Akçam

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler

To this day it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times declined to use the term, until 2004.

In April 2019, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

Sven Somme, tree
Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

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German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.