May 13, 1916 Lafayette Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.

Sous-Lieutenant_Norman_Prince_summer1916
Norman Prince

Knowing that his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.  A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight in the war against the Axis Powers, joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

Lafayette_Escadrille_Pin
Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin, would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons, though he would not live to see the article.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

LtCol_William_Thaw_with_lion_cub_mascots_of_Lafayette_Escradrille_c1916
Lt. Col. William Thaw II with_lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.  Explanations that this was an “African dog” were less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

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French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault & Fram, 1917

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo, but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit, and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

Kiffin Rockwell "In American Escadrille "movie" picture May 1916"
Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916. Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918, when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916, when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

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Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

Escadrille_Lafayette_in_July_1917
Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917. Standing (left to right) Soubiron, Doolittle, Campbell, Persons, Bridgman, Dugan, MacMonagle, Lowell, Willis, Jones, Peterson and de Maison-Rouge. Seated (left to right) Hill, Masson with “Soda,” Thaw, Thénault, Lufbery with “Whiskey,” Johnson, Bigelow and Rockwell. Georges Thenault’s dog “Fram” sits in the foreground.

May 7, 1945 Victory in Europe

The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that there was still a lot of fighting to do in the Pacific

Reporters from AP, Life magazine, and others began sleeping on the floor of Eisenhower’s red brick schoolhouse headquarters on the 5th, for fear of stepping out and missing the surrender of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had taken his own life on April 30, so it was General Alfred Jodl who came to Reims, France to sign the document, which included the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“. The signing of the instruments of surrender ending WWII in Europe took place on Monday, May 7, at 2:41am, local time.  The war in Europe, was over.

German surrender

The German government announced the end of hostilities to its people right away, but most of the Allied governments, remained silent.   Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel would not repeat the signing in Soviet General Georgy Zhukov’s Berlin headquarters until nearly midnight of the following day. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle the matter, and so the rest of the world, waited.

In England, the 7th dragged on with no public statement.  Large crowds gathered outside of Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King”. Bell ringers throughout the British Isles remained on silent standby, waiting for the announcement.  The British Home Office issued a circular, instructing Britons how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.”  Still, the world waited.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally lost patience in the early evening, saying he wasn’t going to give Stalin the satisfaction of holding up what everyone already knew. The Ministry of Information made this short announcement at 7:40pm: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday”.VE Day

The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that there was still a lot of fighting to do in the Pacific. President Harry Truman broadcast an address to the nation at 9:00am on May 8th, thanking President Roosevelt and wishing he’d been there to share the moment. Roosevelt had died on April 12, in Warm Springs, Georgia.

President Truman’s speech begins: “This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity”.

TapsVE Day wasn’t the end of WWII, only the end of the war in Europe. Fighting in the Pacific would continue until the Japanese surrender on the 15 August 1945, the date celebrated as VJ Day.

Today we don’t hear much about the Eastern Front, though it was the largest military confrontation in history.  Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII. Nearly every extermination camp, death march, ghetto and pogrom which formed the Holocaust, occurred on the Eastern Front.

The loss of life was prodigious, through atrocity, massacre, disease, starvation and exposure. Civilians resorted to cannibalism, during the 900-day siege of Leningrad.  Entire landscapes were destroyed while populations fled, never to return.  Rape became a weapon of war.

An estimated 70 million people were killed all over the world, as the result of World War II.  Over 30 million of them, many of those civilians, died on the Eastern Front.  Pockets of fighting would continue through the surrender in Europe. Soviet forces lost over 600 in Silesia alone, on May 9. The day after their own signing.  Moscow celebrated VE Day on the 9th, with a radio broadcast from Josef Stalin himself: “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations…has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”

Ticker Tape Parade
7th May 1945: A wounded American serviceman during a ticker tape parade in New York following press reports of the unconditional surrender of Germany. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

May 4, 1945 The Strangest Battle of WWII

72 years ago today, Wehrmacht infantry fought side by side with American soldiers and French civilians, against Nazi SS.

Itter CastleItter Castle appeared in the land records of the Austrian Tyrol as early as 1240.  When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Schloss Itter was first leased and later requisitioned outright by the German government, for unspecified “Official use”.

Fun Fact:  Most WWII-era Nazis didn’t merely abstain from tobacco use.  Nazis were rabid anti-smokers.  Adolf Hitler himself once smoked two packs a day.  By the start of WWII he had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone among his inner circle who quit the habit.  In 1942, Castle Itter became home to the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”.

Nazi anti-smoking Propaganda
Nazi anti-tobacco propaganda

By April 1943, Itter had become a prison for individuals of value to the Reich.  Among them were tennis player Jean Borotra and former French Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud.  Former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were interned there, as was Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the older sister of Charles de Gaulle.  A number of Eastern Europeans were also interned at Itter, mostly employed in maintenance and other menial work around the castle.

In the early weeks of 1945, the 23rd Tank Battalion of the American 12th Armored Division fought its way across France, through Germany and into the Austrian Tyrol.  27 year-old 1st Lt. John “Jack” Lee Jr. was leading the three tank “Company B’, spearheading the drive into Kufstein and on to Munich.  The unit had just fought a pitched battle at a German roadblock before clearing the town.  With lead elements of the 36th Infantry moving in to take possession on May 4, Lee’s unit could finally take a rest.

By this time, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangel and a few of his soldiers had changed sides, joining the Austrian resistance in Wörgl against roving bands of SS then in possession of the town.

Back at Itter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, Eduard Weiter, had fled his command and made his way to the safety of Itter Castle.  He was murdered by an unnamed SS officer on May 2, for insufficient devotion to the cause.  Fearing for his own life, Itter commanding officer Sebastian Wimmer fled the Castle on May 4, followed by his guards.  The now-former prisoners of Schloss Itter were alone for now, but the presence of SS units in the area made it imperative – they had to do something.  While breaking into the weapons room and arming themselves with pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, Zoonimir Cuckovic, AKA “André”, purloined a bicycle and went looking for help.

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Schloss Itter (Itter Castle) in July 1979. Photo by S.J. Morgan.

André’s mad bicycle ride resulted in the one of the strangest rescues in military history. Lt. Lee tapped eight volunteers and two tanks, his own “Besotten Jenny” and Lt. Wallace Holbrook’s “Boche Buster.”  Riding atop the two Shermans were six members of the all–black Company D, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, a couple of crews from the 142nd Infantry Regiment, and the Wehrmacht’s own Josef Gangel with a Kübelwagen full of German soldiers bringing up the rear.

KübelwagenIt was late afternoon as the convoy left for Castle Itter.  Leaving Boche Buster and a few Infantry to guard the largest bridge into town.  What remained of the convoy fought its way through its last SS roadblock in the early evening, roaring across the last bridge and lurching to a stop in front of Itter’s gate as night began to fall.  Itter’s prisoners looked on in dismay.  They had expected a column of American tanks and a heavily armed infantry force.  What they had here, was a single tank with seven Americans, and a truckload of armed Germans.

The castle’s defenders came under attack almost at once, by harrying forces sent to assess their strength and to probe the fortress for weakness.  Lee ordered French prisoners to hide inside, but they refused, remaining outside and fighting alongside American and German soldiers.  Frantic calls for reinforcements resulted in two more German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance member arriving overnight, but that would be all.

The Totenkopf, or “Death’s head” units was the SS organization responsible for ittercdamageconcentration camp administration for the Third Reich and some of the most fanatical soldiers of WWII.  Even at this late date SS units were putting up fierce resistance across northern Austria.  100-150 of them attacked on the morning of May 5.   Fighting was furious around Castle Itter, the one Sherman providing machine-gun fire support until it was destroyed by a German 88mm gun.  By early afternoon Lee was able to get a desperate plea for reinforcements through to the 142nd Infantry, before being cut off.  Aware that he’d been unable to give complete information on the enemy’s troop strength and disposition, Lee accepted Jean Borotra’s gallant offer of assistance.

Jean_BorotraLiterally vaulting over the castle wall, the tennis star ran through a gauntlet of SS strongpoints and ambushes to deliver his message, before donning an American uniform to help fight through to the castle’s defenders.  The relief force arrived at around 4pm, as defenders were firing their last ammunition.

100 SS were captured.  Lee later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.  Josef Gangel was killed by a sniper while trying to move Prime Minister Reynaud out of harm’s way.  Today, there is a street in Wörgl which bears his name.  Germany signed the unconditional surrender two days later.  So ended the first and only battle in which Americans and Germans fought side by side.

Paul Reynaud didn’t like Jack Lee, remembering the American Lieutenant as “crude in both looks and manners”.  “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies”, he sniffed, “Europe is in for a hard time”.  How very French of him.  All that, before he got to learn the lyrics of the Horst Wessel song.

March 30, 1282 War of Sicilian Vespers

It was Easter Monday, March 30, 1282. The Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Since the early 12th century, the southern Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily had been united as the Kingdom of Sicily. Until the invasion of the French King Charles I of Anjou, who ousted Sicilian King Manfred in 1266.

The Anjou King’s rule in Sicily was vicious and repressive, with the French King himself absent for long periods. Charles’ Sicilian subjects could not have hated him more.

The Wonderful Story of France: Massacre of the Sicilian VespersIt was Easter Monday, March 30, 1282. The Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Accounts vary as to what happened, but there’s a good chance he was just looking for a feel, and that’s what he got. The lady’s modesty thusly offended, someone in the crowd avenged her honor, knifing the French guard.

At first merely agitated, this first taste of blood drove the mob to a frenzy. Spreading across the Capital and into the countryside, Sicilians killed every Frenchman they could get their hands on.

Revolutionaries devised a linguistic test, to see who was authentically Sicilian. Native French speakers can’t pronounce the word “ciciri”, even to save themselves. And that’s the way it worked out.  God help you if you couldn’t say that word. Over four thousand Frenchmen would die over the next six weeks.

Meanwhile in Spain, Peter III King of Aragon, Peter I King of Valencia, and Peter II Count of Barcelona (these three are all the same guy), had a claim to the Sicilian throne through his wife, Constance.

The Italian physician John of Procida had been a loyal subject of Manfred’s, fleeing to Aragon after the Anjou invasion. John proceeded directly to Sicily where he spent several weeks stirring up Sicilian resentment against the French King. Sicily then appealed to the Spanish King to intervene, while John sailed for Constantinople to procure the help of Michael VIII Palaeologus.war_of_the_vespers

History records what followed as the War of Sicilian Vespers. The Angevins were supported by the Papacy and his Italian supporters (Guelphs), while the Aragonese received help from Sicily itself, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Ghibellines, Italian supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Several players changed sides over the course of the next twenty years. In the end, the son of the Spanish King took the Sicilian crown in 1302, becoming King Frederick II, beginning near 400 years of Spanish rule over the island.

And so it was that a French soldier molested an Italian woman, and lost the kingdom of Sicily, to Spain.

March 20 1870 Der Löwe von Afrika

When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, von Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k himself.” Describing the interview afterward, his nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by the time of WWI.

lettowvorbeckportraitStationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force which never exceeded 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), the “Lion of Africa” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the much better known Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with battle casualties.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, in order to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

At one point in the battle of Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about one British radioman who held to his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.
Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari im Kampf

Of all German commanders in WWI, “der Löwe von Afrika” – the Lion of Africa alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k himself.” Describing the interview afterward, his nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

After such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His sons both killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

ReminiscencesIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

March 17, 432 Saint Patrick’s Day

Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints, although it seems he was never actually canonized by a pope.

Born Patricius (Latin) or Pádraig (Modern Irish Gaelic), “Patrick” was a late fifth century Roman subject living in Great Britain. Kidnapped at the age of 16 and brought to Ireland, he was enslaved for 6 years before escaping.  He later returned to Ireland as an ordained priest, to minister to Irish Christians, and to convert others to Christianity.  Patrick would go on to become Bishop of all Ireland, and one of their primary Patron Saints.

Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints, although it seems he was never actually canonized by a pope.

Saint PatrickSaint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date generally agreed to correspond with the date of his enslavement in 432, and with his death in 460. The date is celebrated in Ireland as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday, where in some diocese it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Outside of Ireland, the day has become a general celebration of all things Irish.

The legend that St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland likely springs from his work in converting the pagans of his day, many of whom wore snake tattoos on their arms. This idea is supported by a Gallic coin of the time, which carries on its face the Druidic snake.

Be that as it may, today Ireland has no snakes, a trait that it has in common with Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greenland.

Another legend involves a walking stick of ash, which Patrick carried with him wherever he went. He would thrust this stick into the ground wherever he was evangelizing. At the place now known as Aspatria, (ash of Patrick), the message took so long to get through to the people there that the stick took root.

The shamrock which came to symbolize the day was seen as sacred by many in pre-MedievalMonkChristian Ireland, with its green color evoking rebirth and eternal life. The three leaves symbolize the “triple goddess” of ancient Ireland. Patrick is said to have taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Most of the rest of Europe would suffer barbarian invasion from the fifth century onward, plunging into what are known today as “The Dark Ages”.  Almost alone, cloistered monks in the monasteries of Ireland, spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, acted as repository for Christian civilization, at a time when such advancement was almost extinguished elsewhere. It’s been said of this period that the Irish saved civilization. Who knows, they may have done just that. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

March 16, 1914 The Caillaux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We heard a lot this past election year, about “Left” and “Right”, “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By this time, it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

200 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’ 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time. Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.  Though no one realized it at the time, Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs.affairecaillaux_thumb Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines that would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which they sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75 year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation that German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July of 1914, would not live to see November 11, 1918.