January 23, 1795 Cavalry 1, Navy 0

The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for mirth, yet there are times when the irony has risen to the level of the sublime

War and warfare has never been the source of a great deal of humor.  The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for mirth, yet there are times when the irony has risen from the ridiculous to the sublime.

In 585BC, the battle between the Medes and the Lydians was stopped in its tracks, on account of a solar eclipse.  In the 3rd Mithradatic War of 76-63BC, a meteor was enough to do the trick.

In the middle ages, a handful of French soldiers once saw fit to mouth off to an Italian woman on her way home from church, and France ended up losing Sicily, to Spain.

At least one WWI battle was called, on account of an amphibious landing force being attacked, by bees.

120,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea between November 27 and December 13 1950, overwhelming 20,000 American and United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  Desperately low on ammunition, one Marine Corps mortar division called in re-supply, by parachute.  The battle of the “Frozen Chosin” might have ended differently, had some supply clerk understood that the code-name for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls”, and not sent candy into the combat zone.  At least those guys had something to eat, as they broke through their encirclement and retreated south.

zuiderzeeIn all the annals of warfare, there may be nothing more ironic, than the time a naval force was defeated by men mounted on horseback.

In early 1793, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic formed the first of seven coalitions, that would oppose the French Republic over the next 23 years.  France declared war on its neighbor to the north.  By the end of the following year, many of Holland’s provinces as well as those of the Austrian Netherlands, had been overrun.

The winter of 1794-95 was particularly severe.  A number of Dutch ships sought shelter near the North Sea village of den Helder, becoming icebound near the mouth of a shallow bay called the Zuiderzee.capture

General Johan Willem de Winter, a former Dutch naval officer, had been in service to the French since 1787.  On the night of January 23, de Winter arrived at the head of a regiment of French light cavalry.  The following morning, a number of these “hussars” rode out over the ice, to the Dutch ship-of-the-line “Admiraal Piet Heyn”, demanding its surrender.   The surgeon aboard another ship, the “Snelheid”, later wrote “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar.”

This was a significant part of the Dutch fleet, 15 ships, 11 of which were manned and seaworthy, and it was now in the hands of French horsemen.

capture-of-the-dutch-fleet-frozen-in-at-den-helder-by-the-french-hussarsAt least one source will tell you that this event never occurred, or at least it’s an embellished version, as retold by the hussars themselves.   I guess you can take your pick.  A number of 19th century authors have portrayed the episode as unvarnished history, as have a number of paintings and sketches.

In February 1846, French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper “Echo de la Frontière”, describing the event.  “I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board… This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion”.

Archibald Gordon Macdonell included the episode in his 1934 “Napoleon and his Marshals”.  It’s one of those stories that I Want to be true, even if it isn’t.  “(when) the ragged men” Macdonell  wrote, “thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battlefleet of Holland”.  The only time in recorded history, when a naval fleet was captured, by a cavalry charge.

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December 31, 1695 A Tax on Windows

Tax revolts are nothing new. Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes

Somewhere in the English midlands, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, there lay the Kingdom of Mercia. It was 1054 or thereabouts, and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had a problem. Leofric was the kind of ruler who never saw a tax he didn’t like, his latest the “Heregeld”, a tax to pay for the King’s bodyguard. His wife was Godgyfu, in the Olde English, meaning “Gift of God”.  Today we call her “Godiva”. Take pity on the people of Coventry, she said, they are suffering under all this oppressive taxation.

A guy can only take so much, even if he is an Earl. Tired of her entreaties, Leofric agreed tolady-godiva-statue repeal the tax on one condition; that she ride a horse through the streets of town, dressed only in her birthday suit and her long hair. Lady Godiva took him at his word.  She issued a proclamation that all townspeople stay indoors and shut their windows, and then she took her famous naked ride through town.

The story probably isn’t true, any more than the one about Tom, the guy who drilled a hole in his door so he could watch and lost his sight at what he saw.  But a thousand years later, we still use the term “Peeping Tom”.

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes.

bricked-up-windowOn December 31, 1695, King William III decreed a 2 shilling tax on each house in the land. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to “stick-it-to-the-rich”, there was an extra tax on every window over ten, a tax that would last for another 156 years.

It must have been a money maker, because the governments of France, Spain and Scotland followed suit with similar taxes. To this day, you can see homes where owners have bricked up windows, preferring darkness to the payment of yet another tax.

In Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you

singel-7
Singel #7

paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself. Those are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house barely wider than its own front door.

You can find the same thing in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, where the “shotgun single”, a home so narrow you can fire a shotgun in the front door and pellets will go out the back, and the “Camelback” (second story out back) are the architectural results of tax policy.

 

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Shotgun Single, Camelback

The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79AD, levied a tax on public toilets.

vespasiani
Vespasiani

When his son, the future Emperor Titus wrinkled his nose, Vespasian held a coin under the boy’s nose. “Pecunia non olet”, he said.  “Money does not stink”.  2,000 years later, his name is still attached to public urinals. In France, they’re called vespasiennes, in Italy vespasiani.  If you need to piss in Romania, you could go to the vespasiene.  History fails to record the inevitable push-back on Vespasian’s toilet tax, but I’m sure that ancient Romans had to look where they walked.

Environmentalists in Venice, Italy have been pushing a tax on tourism, claiming that the city’s facing “an irreversible environmental catastrophe as the subsequent increase in water transport has caused the level of the lagoon bed to drop over time”. Deputy mayor Sandro Simionato said that “This tax is a new and important opportunity for the city,” explaining that it will “help finance tourism”, among other things. So, the problem borne of too much tourism is going to be fixed by a tax to help finance tourism. I think. Or maybe it’s just another money grab.

As of December 2015, state and territory tax rates on cigarettes ranged from 17¢ per pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, on top of federal, local, county, municipal and local Boy Scout council taxes (kidding).  Philip Morris reports that taxes run 56.6% on average, per pack. Not surprisingly, tax rates make a vast difference in where and how people buy their cigarettes.  There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, measuring a few miles square and home to a few hundred people. Tax rates are close to zero there, on a pack of butts.  Until recent changes in the tax law, they were selling 100 million cartons per year.

If all those taxes are supposed to encourage people to quit smoking, I wonder what income taxes are supposed to do?

antarctica-icebound-ship-1Back in 2013, EU politicians were discussing a way of taxing livestock flatulence, as a means of curbing “Global Warming”. At that time there was an Australian ice breaker, making its way to Antarctica to free the Chinese ice breaker, that got stuck in the ice trying to free the Russian ship full of environmentalists.  They were there to view the effects of “Global Warming”, before they got stuck in the ice.

Honest, I wouldn’t make this stuff up.

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything”.

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

It was different 25 years earlier, at the outbreak of “The Great War”. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.  France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.  The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.  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.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing Christmas carols.  They saw lanterns and small fir trees, and messages were shouted along the trenches.  In places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs.

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

christmastruce2Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

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

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire ofChristmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News. December 24-25, 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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Private Ronald MacKinnon

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

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

December 22, 1944 Battered Bastards of Bastogne

The American medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell.

The largest German offensive of the western front burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming to drive a wedge between British and American forces, and to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to the German’s ability to re-supply. It was called “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein”, “Operation Watch on the Rhine”.

The tactical surprise was complete, allied forces driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US in WWII, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving 610,000+ Americans.WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE LOW COUNTRIES

The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well as the Germans, and General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to hold the town at all costs.

bastogne_resupply1944_smFor two days, a desperate defense of the nearby villages of Noville and Foy held back the 2nd Panzerdivision, as 11,000 men and 800 officers of the 101st joined a combined force of 11,000 converging on Bastogne. By the 21st, Bastogne’s field hospital was overrun, they were surrounded by forces outnumbering them 2½ to one. Poorly supplied for the cold winter conditions with air supply made all but impossible by weather conditions, the citizens of Bastogne gave their blankets to the American soldiers, along with white linens which they used for camouflage.

On the morning of December 22, 1944, two German officers appeared at the American perimeter along with two enlisted men, carrying a white flag. They were a Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps, and Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section. They carried a note from German General Luttwitz, 165 words in all, and reading in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note”.

The note worked its way up the chain of command to the acting Division Commander, General Tony McAuliffe. Told that there was a surrender ultimatum, McAuliffe first thought that it was the Germans who wanted to surrender. Soon disabused of that notion, he laughed and said: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

Knowing that he had to reply, McAuliffe said “Well I don’t know what to tell them.” Lt. General Harry Kinnard spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”. McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” They all agreed, and McAuliffe wrote his reply. “To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”

Joseph H. “Bud” Harper was the American army officer who delivered the reply, with medic Ernie Premetz acting as translator.

Confused by the American slang, Henke asked “What does that mean?” Harper said to Premetz “You can tell them to take a flying shit.” The medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell. Harper then said, “If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.” Henke replied, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” Harper then said, “On your way Bud, and good luck to you.”

Years later, Harper would say that he always regretted wishing them luck.

Elements of George Patton’s 3rd Army would break through from the southwest four days bastognelater, ending the German encirclement.

By the end of January, the last great effort of German armed forces had been spent and driven back beyond their original lines. An official report by the US Army on the Battle of the Bulge lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,612 captured and missing. Those numbers could have been far worse, if not for what newspapers would soon call the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.

Afterward

Augusta Marie Chiwy (“Shee-wee”) was the bi-racial daughter of a Belgian veterinarian and a Congolese mother she never knew.  Thinking it safe to visit her father in Bastogne that Christmas, Chiwy found herself, like everyone else in that place, surrounded.  A trained nurse, Chiwy spent the augusta-chiwy-at-workentire siege tending to the wounded, along with Dr. Jack Prior.  Once, she even ran through enemy fire to collect the wounded from the field.  On Christmas eve, she was blown off her feet and through a wall. She got up and went back to it, despite the direct hit that killed 30 American wounded, along with the only other nurse at the Rue Neufchatel aid station, Renée Lemaire. 

A Black nurse called “Anna” briefly appeared in Historian Stephen Ambrose’ ‘A Band of Brothers’, and on the HBO series based on the book.  But who was Anna?  Was she a myth?  British military historian Martin King discovered her in a nursing home, 61 years after the encirclement ataugusta-chiwy-in-old-age Bastogne.  Chiwy married after the war, and rarely talked about her experience in Bastogne.  It took King a full 18 months to coax the story out of her.  The result was the 2015 Emmy award winning historical documentary, “Searching for Augusta, The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne”.

In 2011, she was awarded a Knighthood in the Order of the Crown in the name of King Albert II of Belgium.  The United States Army awarded her the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service, presented by the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium.  Augusta Chiwy died on August 23, 2015, near Brussels.

December 13, 1577 El Draque

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye

The “Pelican” left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577, with four other ships and 164 men.  The weather was so rotten that they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, before finally returning to Plymouth, where they started.  The flotilla set out again on December 13 after making repairs, soon to be joined by a sixth ship, the captured Portuguese merchant ship Santa Maria, renamed “Mary”.

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye.  Before it was over, Sir Francis Drake would be the first to circumnavigate the globe in continuous command of the expedition.

He was the third, actually, depending on how you count them.  Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out with 5 ships and 250 men back in 1519, becoming the first about 58 years earlier.  Magellan himself didn’t make it though, he died in the Battle of Mactan on a Philippine beach, in 1521.  19 men and a single ship under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano, was all that remained on the expedition’s return in 1522.

The Spanish explorer García Jofre de Loaísa was the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men on seven ships.  None of his ships ever made it back.  25 of his men would return in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

Drake had crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his captains got on his last nerve.  Thomas Doughty had been in command of the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo.  One thing led to another and Doughty found himself accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”.   He was brought before a shipboard trial for treason and witchcraft, establishing the idea that lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain is its absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of that ship’s passengers.

Doughty lost his head, in the end, in the shadow of the weathered and sun bleached skeletons and the bleak, Spanish gibbets where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.

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Golden Hind Replica

It may have been to smooth over the Doughty episode, that Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind”, (a female deer of 3 years or more), after the coat of arms of Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the expedition’s prime sponsors. Soon reduced to three ships, Drake made the straits of Magellan by August of 1578, emerging alone into the Pacific in September.

Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold near Lima, when he heard about the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, sailing west toward Manila.  Nicknamed “Cacafuego”, translating as “Fireshitter” (I wouldn’t make that up), the ship carried 80 pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins) and 26 tons of silver.  It was the richest prize of the voyage.

After a fine dinner with Cacafuego’s captured officers and gentlemen passengers, Drakedrake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

Drake landed near Alta, California in June 1579, where he repaired and restocked his vessel.  He claimed the land for the English Crown, calling it Nova Albion:  “New Britain”.   The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish, who by this time had a bounty of 20,000 ducats ($6.5 million in today’s money) on the head of “El Draque”.

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew onboard, on September 26, 1580.  The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s income for the entire year.  Drake himself was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth.drake_1577-1580

Drake’s seafaring career ended in January 1596, when he died of dysentery, anchored off the central American coast.  There he was dressed in his armor and buried at sea in a lead coffin, off the Portobelo District of Panama.  Divers search for his coffin, to this day.

December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along the 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years

Politicians love nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own benefit, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi had advised him to build his city “opposite the land of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros”, Greek for cow-ford), the narrow channel which divides Europe from Asia, they judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to recognize the advantages two miles away on the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today the second largest city on the planet, based on population living within city limits.

Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade.at the crossroads of east and west,

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma” – New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.byzantine_constantinople

The Roman empires of the east and west would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be too little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last almost until the age of Columbus and the discovery of the New World.  Most of that time it remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces in all of Europe.

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after reigning Emperor Theodosius II, they were built on the orders of the Roman Prefect of the East, Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by the Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of anitiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell after a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.

It was May 29, 1453.  Constantinople, now Istanbul, remains under Muslim rule to this day.

December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, almost to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.
The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by interference from foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties to the south.
Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that he was destined to become a great leader. By 1197 the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.
natgeo-cover-afghan-girl  The Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.
The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.
The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”. Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. They have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses apiece, and are able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep their horses fresh. In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including backward. The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with stretching animal sinews glued to the exterior. The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field. Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw of an English longbow is 70-80 lbs. The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs.
After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Chief of state (Khan) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.
13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one they fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.     Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde. It was this day, December 6, 1240, when Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev after several days’ struggle.
The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter from the battlefields to the death camps. WWII ended the lives of roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth, 40 to 72 million souls dead in a few short years. By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one by one by edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.
By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of mongolsHungary, to parts of Austria, to Eastern Persia.   Plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy in December, 1241, when news arrived informing them of the death of the Great Khan. Ögedei and Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.
The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000 mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, entirely under Mongol control. The “Black Death” of the 14th century would begin to change that. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of   Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.
The Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as they fell to squabbling over bloodlines. Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan. Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day. Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more, have never entirely recovered. Best known for the pyramids of skulls left behind, as many as 19 million fell to Tamerlane’s murderous regime.
The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible) in the 1550s.
The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about .5% of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby holding the blood clot, Genghis Khan.