January 14, 1699 Witchcraft Hysteria

The witchcraft hysteria launched by the Spanish Inquisition would dwarf what was to come in the English colony.

Four years before the Salem witch trials of 1692, Goodwife Ann “Goody” Glover and her young daughter worked as housekeepers, for the Goodwin family of Boston.   13-year-old Martha, one of the Goodwin girls, accused the younger Glover of stealing fabric. Ann’s daughter ran out in tears, which earned Martha a rebuke from Ann Glover. Four of the five Goodwin children soon began to writhe and carry on in a manner destined to become familiar, four years later. Their doctor concluded “nothing but a hellish Witchcraft could be the origin of these maladies.”

The following trial, contained no small amount of anti-Catholic bigotry. Cotton Mather, the socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister called Glover “a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholick and obstinate in idolatry.”

Glover’s Gaelic was far better than her English, and the two “Irish speakers” hired to translate, probably made some of it up as they went along.  For Ann Glover, the final straw was her inability to complete the Lord’s Prayer. What may seem to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences were at one time matters of life-and-death. As a Catholic, she was either unable or unwilling to complete the prayer with the Protestant doxology, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever, Amen”. It doesn’t exist in the Catholic recitation.

Ann Glover was hanged as a witch on November 16, 1688.

The Great Elm of Boston Common, toppled in a storm in 1876, once served as the city’s hanging tree.

The witchcraft hysteria to strike Massachusetts’ North Shore communities of Danvers, Ipswich, Andover and Salem four years later ended the lives of five men and fourteen women at the end of a rope, on Gallows Hill. As many as 17 more died in the tiny, freezing stone compartments that passed for jail cells. 81-year-old Giles Cory was “pressed” to death over two days and nights, as rocks were piled on his chest to extract his confession. Knowing that his possessions were forfeit to his tormentor should he confess; Cory’s only response was “more weight”.

A persistent myth holds that victims of the Salem witchcraft hysteria were burned at the stake, but English law in the North American colonies, forbade it. All the convicted witches of 1692, died by hanging.

Not so one hundred years earlier, across the Atlantic. The witchcraft hysteria launched by the Spanish Inquisition would dwarf what was to come in the English colony.

The Spanish Inquisition was one of several such inquisitions, launched to root out “heretics” between the 12th and 19th centuries. The Inquisitional system was based on ancient Roman law and carried out by the Latin church from Mexico to Peru to the Portuguese colony of Goa, in India. The overwhelming majority of sentences handed down by the inquisition, demanded penances such as wearing a cross sewn into the clothing, scourging, or going on pilgrimage. When a suspect was convicted of unrepentant heresy, the inquisitional tribunal was required by law to hand the condemned over to secular authorities for execution of sentence, which may include imprisonment, banishment, or burning at the stake.


The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilee was tried by the Roman inquisition in 1633 and held under house arrest until his death in 1642, for the heretical belief that the earth revolved around the sun. The last victim of the Inquisition was in Spain in 1826, when schoolteacher Cayetano Ripoll was executed by garrote, for teaching Deism in his school.

Interestingly, there seems zero evidence that either the Greek or the Russian Orthodox Church, ever conducted an inquisition.

Belief in witches was widespread in pre-Christian Europe but largely absent from the first thirteen hundred years of Christian thought. The medieval Church distinguished between “white” and “black” magic, and local folk practice mixed with appeals to patron saints to ward off disease, protect livestock and ensure a bountiful harvest. The vehement denunciation of witches was more a product of the late medieval and early renaissance periods, due to plague outbreaks and changes in weather brought about by the Little Ice Age.

The Malleus Maleficarum or “Hammer of the Witches” written in 1486 by Dominican priest Heinrich Kramer, elevated witchcraft to criminal status and advocated for its extermination. Kramer himself was expelled from Innsbruck for his beliefs and described as “senile”, but the work would have lasting effect.

zugarramurdi-4_grandeEducated Spaniards of the era considered witchcraft to be a Protestant superstition. The Spanish Inquisition, launched in 1478 to protect Catholicism as the One True Faith, went first after forced converts from Islam (Moriscos) and Judaism (Marranos) suspected of lapsing into their prior faith.

In 1609, the French judge Pierre de l’Ancre conducted a massive witch hunt in Labourd, a formerly French territory in the Basque Provinces of Spain. De l’Ancre has been described as “ridiculous”, an “obsessed fanatic”. In the year of his judgeship, seventy people were burned at the stake including several priests. Even then he wasn’t satisfied, believing as many as 3,000 witches had escaped his grasp;  10% of the entire population of Labourd, at that time.

The following year, witch trials began in the northern Spanish cities of Logroño, and Navarre. In Salem, Puritans investigated only a few hundred suspected witches, resulting in the death of 20. During the Basque witch trials of 1610-’14, some 7,000 would be examined by the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft and sentenced to auto-da-fé, a ritualized, public penance after the performance of which, the condemned would learn their fate.


Of 44,674 cases tried by the Spanish inquisition, 826 resulted in burning at the stake. Another 778 died by torture and were burned, in effigy.

In August 1614, the central office of the Inquisition ordered that all witch trials be dismissed in Logroño, and introduced new and more rigorous standards of evidence.  Back in Massachusetts, the state declared a day of fasting on January 14, 1699, in memory of the wrongful persecutions from 1688-’92.

Sometime in the 1830s, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “W” his name, distancing himself from his twice-great grandfather and Salem witch trial judge, John Hathorne.  None of it did a lick of good for the poor collection of oddballs and outcasts, done to death in the earlier period.


December 17, 1865 Horrors of the Congo

Rubber plantations took space and clear-cutting old-growth rain forest took time, so the king’s agents drove villagers from their homes, to fend for themselves. Problem solved, instant space for the most important cash crop, of the era.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive a single vote. Josef Stalin deliberately starved as many as ten million Ukrainians to death, in a political “terror famine” known as the Holodomor. Pol Pot and a revolutionary socialist cadre of nine – the Ang-Ka – killed between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow citizens of late 1970s Cambodia: about 1/5th of the entire population. Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million of his own citizens, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues, when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest thirty million.

From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls. We remember the names of these people, or most of them, as some of the great monsters of history.

December 10 1892 satirical cartoon depicts Cecil Rhodes as the New Colossus bestriding the continent, from Cape Town to Cairo. Hat tip, Punch

Yet, one man escapes notice, though his crimes rival and even exceed the worst atrocities carried out by twentieth century dictators. He is King Leopold II of Belgium.  For nearly thirty years, the undisputed slave master of a personal plantation some 76-times the size of Belgium itself, and run for the personal enrichment of this one man.

As late as 1870, the European powers controlled barely ten percent of the African continent, with most of those holdings, along the coast.  By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent of European control.

From German East Africa to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers, administered by governments in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Leopold II ascended to the throne to become King of the Belgians on this day in 1865. Like most of the statesmen of the era, Leopold was convinced that a nation’s greatness, lay in proportion to its overseas empire. He first cast his gaze on the Philippines, then a Spanish possession, but negotiations broke down when Queen Isabella II was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1868.

Leopold next set his sights on Africa.  Henry Morton Stanley may never have ‘presumed’ to meet up with Dr. Livingstone in “Darkest Africa”, had it not been for the personal assistance of one Tippu Tip, the most powerful of Zanzibar’s Arab slave traders. This was an execrable lot, Stanley himself once lamented the lack of a heavy machine gun, on witnessing the abject misery of 2,300 unfortunates, held captive by these people: “Would to God I could see my way to set them all free and massacre the fiends guilty of the indescribable inhumanity I have seen today.

His Majesty, King Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold buttressed what was at fist a weak position with an alliance with the Arab slave trader, and later raised an army of Congolese mercenaries, to wrest control. The two year Congo-Arab war was a proxy war, fought mostly by native Congolese aligned with one side or the other, and sometimes switching sides.

Leopold emerged victorious from this Imperial double-cross, and set about reorganizing his mercenaries into a Force Publique, charged with enforcing his will across a region three-times the size of Texas and cynically called, “The Congo Free State”.

Portrait of Tippu Tip, House of Wonders Museum, Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Leopold’s Congo was divided into districts for the purpose of extracting all the region could produce, in ivory, gold, diamonds, rubber, and more.   Provincial governors were paid by commission, and press-ganged enormous numbers of Congolese into agricultural labor, or worked them to death in the mines.

Entire ecosystems were denuded of large animals, as beaters in the hundreds or thousands drove ivory-bearing elephants by raised shooting platforms, where European “hunters” awaited, armed with a dozen rifles apiece.

Rubber plantations took space and clear-cutting old-growth rain forest took time, so the King’s agents drove villagers from their homes, to fend for themselves. Problem solved, instant space for the most important cash crop, of the era.

The greed of these overseers is hard to get one’s head around. Failure to meet quotas for gold or ivory would be met with mutilation, most often taking the form of amputation of a foot, or a hand. If a man needed both hands to work or if he couldn’t be caught, hands and feet would be cut from his wife, or his children.

While the King never personally set foot on African soil, the savagery inflicted on the Congolese by Leopold’s agents has been compared with the Mongol rampage across Asia, of a thousand years prior.  It’s impossible to know how many died of overwork, starvation or disease, or the infection caused by mass amputations.  An estimated twenty million populated the Congo Free State in 1885. By the time of the 1924 census, that number had fallen to ten million, with no corresponding influx into neighboring regions.


The Belgian government reluctantly took over administration in 1908, but the whippings and mutilations continued in Leopold’s Congo, long past the time of Leopold himself.  The wealth of the region continued to be siphoned off until Congolese independence, in 1971.

Today, the “Democratic Republic of Congo”, sometimes referred to by a former name of “Zaire”, has yet to recover.  The “Great African War” swept over the region in the 1990s, killing some six million and overturning one dictator in Kinshasa, for yet another.  The Tutsi genocide led by Hutu-militia in 1990s Rwanda, is familiar to the modern reader.

“Nsala of Wala contemplates the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter in 1904” – H/T Allthatsinteresting.com

Today, one of the most resource-rich regions in the world remains in abject poverty, with infant mortality twelve times higher and life expectancy 23 years shorter, than that in the United States.

Leopold II, King of the Belgians and at one time the largest landowner on the planet, died peacefully on December 17, 1909, forty four years to the day, from his coronation.

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.


December 1, 2013 The Sacred Soil of Flanders Fields

I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the end of World War One.  Before they had numbers, this was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all Wars”.

Passchendaele (1)

There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history, which cannot be traced back to it.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.


The current proportions of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife is nothing new, those conditions would have taken a different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

World War II, an apocalypse which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history, was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on reading the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.  He was off, by about 36 days.


I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme. This was a singular event.  Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted the excavation of these battlefields.

All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

The soil from those battlefields was placed in 70 WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  Those sandbags began their journey with a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate of Ypres, that memorial to the 56,395 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died on the Ypres salient of the Great War, and whose bodies were never found or identified.

The sacred soil of Flanders Fields transported to London aboard the Belgian Navy frigate Louisa Marie, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War would nourish and support a garden, inscribed with the words of Doctor John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”.  Ready for the following year, a solemn remembrance of the centenary of the War to end all Wars.


That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.  I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it in that garden.

It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and never to let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.


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.

November 18, 1944 The Cages of Münster

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. This was a list of topics, an academic work.  Ninety-five propositions framed and submitted for scholarly debate.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such theological issues were matters of life and death.  The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast on the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.


Alarmed at Rothmann’s growing influence, church authorities banned him from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February of 1532, and installed Rothmann as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Von Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time, would be different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist he could get hold of “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20% of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, and the “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warning those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!


Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in an attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534, but Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.


Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

200px-MuensterHinrichtungTaeuferThe prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster for hours, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, his “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square and physically torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers. Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

The bones were removed some fifty years later, but not those cages.  The old steeple was torn down and a new one built around 1880, and those three cages, reinstalled.

British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church on November 18, 1944, knocking the highest, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third, hanging only by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Thirty years ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.




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.


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.

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“.


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“.

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“.

Charge, Russian Perspective.jpg
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.

“…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.

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.

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.


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

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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”.


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”.

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.