November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

The French staff formulated their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

When we think of the French Republic, most of us envision a five-sided nation between Spain and Germany, located between the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. That would be right, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only about 82% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray, in 1949.

9c1634a5854f89961f7694c088f61f84What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

The war went poorly for the French government.  By 1952 it was looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

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In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended base from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified installation.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, when three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

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Vo believed he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien-bien-phu-may-7-1954The French staff formulated their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time when patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Slag-van-Dien-Bien-Phu“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

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The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and the south.

dien-bien-phu-battle-pictures-images-photos-009American support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 1950s, the United States were sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  President John Fitzgerald Kennedy responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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September 22, 1663 The King’s Daughters

In the following ten years, 800 young French women immigrated to New France under the filles du roi program, sponsored by King Louis XIV and his colonial advisors. 

Around 1523, the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano convinced the French King Francis I to fund an expedition to find a western water route to “Cathay” (China).  Some of the earliest French presence in the New World began ten years later, with Jacques Cartier’s exploration of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in present-day Canada. In 1534, Cartier planted his flag on the Gaspé Peninsula in present-day Quebec City, claiming the territory in the name of Francis I.

The first French settlement was attempted in 1541 when some 400 individuals put down in Fort Charlesbourg-Royal. That effort would come to an end two years later but, there would be others.

As early English colonists to North America struggled to put down roots in places like Roanoke and Jamestown, the Spanish developed toeholds in Florida and the American southwest. To the north, French fishing fleets sailed the Atlantic coast and into the St. Lawrence waterways, making alliances with Canadian First Nations and developing a rich trade in furs, particularly beaver, which were at that time becoming rare in Europe.

By its peak in 1712, the territory of Nouvelle-France (New France) consisted of five colonies, stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Newfoundland to the Great Lakes.

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English settlers developed a farming economy, and men brought wives and families along, from the earliest days. Not so French settlers.  New France was a man’s world, a world of soldiers and fur traders, of missionaries, sailors and fishermen. A world with little to offer women.

Well into the 17th century, a great number of marriageable males would return to France following three-year terms of service.  If there was to be permanent French settlement in the New World, that would have to change.

In the thirty years beginning in 1634, private individuals and religious groups recruited a mere 262 filles à marier (marriageable girls) between Québec and Montréal, an area with some 2,500 men.

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Marguerite Bourgeoy set sail for the New World in 1653 aboard the Saint-Nicholas, along with another hundred or so colonists. There Bourgeoys lived in Fort Ville-Marie (now Montreal) where she educated young girls, the poor, and the native population.  Bourgeoys developed one of the first uncloistered religious communities in the Catholic Church and went on to found the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal.

Today, Bourgeoy  is a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church. It was she who first used the term filles du roi (King’s Daughters).

The term “King’s Daughters” referred not to parentage, but to sponsorship. In 1663, King Louis XIV took over direct control of governing New France, and initiated a system for recruiting and transporting marriageable women into the colony.

Recruiting took place in the northern cities, carried out by merchants and ship’s outfitters. Each girl was expected to be of appropriate age for giving birth, and to present a birth certificate and recommendation from her parish priest or local magistrate, stating that she was free to marry.

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The majority of the filles du roi were aged 16 to 25

Each girl was equipped with an assortment of practical items: a coiffe, bonnet, taffeta handkerchief, pair of stockings, pair of gloves, ribbon, four shoelaces, white thread, 100 needles, 1,000 pins, a comb, pair of scissors, two knives and two livres in cash along with suitable clothing and a few provisions.  The cost including passage came to 100 livres, equivalent to $1,425 in the year 2000, a cost which was paid by the French state.

On September 22, the first thirty-six Filles du Roi arrived in Québec.

While awaiting proposals of marriage, women were lodged in dormitory-style houses, under the supervision of a female chaperone or directress. Suitors would come to the house to make their selection, under the supervision of the Directress. Outward appearance was less important in this world, than that these women be equipped for the hardships of the New World.

It quickly emerged that city girls were too “lightheaded and lazy”. Good, strong peasant stock was needed. Marie de l’Incarnation, mother superior of the Ursuline convent at Québec City requested in 1668: “From now on, we only want to ask for village girls who are as fit for work as men, experience having shown that those who are not raised [in the country] are not fit for this country.”

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In the following ten years, 800 young French women immigrated to New France under the filles du roi program, sponsored by King Louis XIV and his colonial advisors.  Unsurprisingly, Canada experienced a baby boom, such as never seen before, or since.  The average family had five children during this period, about twice as many as the “Baby Boom”, following WW2.   Families with more than 10 children got a bonus from the Crown:  an additional annual pension of 300 livres ($6,000).

According the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), two-thirds of modern French Canadians can trace their lineage back to one of those 800 women, including Hillary Clinton, Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

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September 21, 1765 The Beast of Gévaudan

Precise identification of the Beast of Gévaudan has baffled cryptozoologists, from that day to this. 

In the summer of 1764, a young woman was tending cattle near the Mercoire forest in the Gévaudan region of south-central France, when a large animal emerged from the forest.    She later described the creature as wolf-like in appearance, but much larger.  The size of a calf, or a donkey.

Twice the animal attacked, only to be driven off by the bulls in the herd.  Twenty-nine days later, Janne Boule was not so lucky. The 14-year-old is officially recorded as the first victim of La Bête du Gévaudan.  The “Beast of Gévaudan”. Over the following three years, there would be many more.

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Contemporary illustration depicts the Beast as a large wolf, or wolf hybrid.

A 1987 study of contemporary sources estimates 210 such attacks over the three-year period, resulting in 113 fatalities and another 49 injuries. Victims were most often killed, by having their throats ripped out. Ninety-eight of those, were partially eaten.

Precise identification of the Beast of Gévaudan has baffled cryptozoologists, from that day to this.  Eyewitness accounts describe a large animal with a long tail, about the size of a calf, or a donkey. With reddish fur and a flat head, the Beast was said to be exceptionally powerful, able to leap distances of 30-feet and more, and capable of carrying off a grown adult, in its jaws.

gevaudan-660x357Terror gripped the region in the later months of 1764, as the Beast attacked women, men and children.  Usually while alone, and often while tending livestock.

Suspicion centered on an unusually large wolf, dog, or some hybrid combination of the two.   Stories went to the supernatural, laying bare our most primordial fear, that of a shape shifter. A Werewolf.

The Epic of Gilgamesh comes to us from the second millennium BC, telling the tale of such creatures. The 1st-century BC Roman poet Ovid, was the first to write of shape-shifting as a conscious act of will.

Beast of Gevaudan, 1700s

In January 1765, the Beast came to the attention of King Louis XV, who decreed that the French state would help to find and destroy the Beast. First captain Duhamel of the Clermont-Ferrand dragoons was brought out with his troops, and sent to Le Gévaudan. The professional wolf-hunters Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, arrived with eight bloodhounds, trained in wolf-hunting.

“Officer of the Royal Bedchamber” Antoine De Beauterne Marques Argents, Knight Equerry of the Royal Military Order of Saint Louis and Gun-Bearer to Louis XV of France (now, there’s a title) announced on this day in 1765 that he had killed the Beast of Gévaudan, to great rejoicing.

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The animal was a large grey wolf measuring 5-feet, 7-inches and weighing 130-pounds. Eyewitnesses claimed to have recognized scars on the animal’s body and Beauterne himself swore that this was the Beast. “We declare by the present report signed from our hand”, he said, “we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Hence, we believe this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.”

The animal was stuffed and brought to Versailles, but the joy was short-lived.

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Two boys were attacked on December 2 but managed to fight off the Beast.  A dozen more fatal attacks were reported to have followed, near La Besseyre-Saint-Mary.

The animal disappeared around the middle of 1767.  It is believed to have been shot a dozen or more times by this time, and poison baits were widespread.  A local farmer and inn-keeper named Jean Chastel is credited with killing the Beast of Gévaudan on June 19, 1767, with a bullet which he himself had cast, in silver.

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Jean Chastel

The silver bullet meme did much to feed into werewolf mythology. Chastel himself is depicted as a werewolf in Patricia Briggs’ novel, Hunting Ground.  Here, the hunter and the hunted are one and the same, and some random wolf was shot, to throw everyone off the scent.

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National Geographic posits that the Beast of Gévaudan was in fact, a subadult male lion. African lions were by no means unknown at this place and time, though images of the era were usually quite stylized, depicting the full mane of the adult male.

Exotic animal menageries were common among the upper classes. It is quite possible that such an animal could’ve been on the loose.  Physical descriptions of the Beast including it’s reddish hair, flat head and furry ridge-line, match up with those of such an animal.  This combined with descriptions of the hunting and killing methods of the animal, make the lion theory quite plausible.

The Beast of Gévaudan may have been a wolf, or maybe a lion.  Perhaps it was several animals.  Or maybe Jean Chastel is a werewolf, after all.  A clever one who threw half a nation off his scent, and now only does his killing, in the dark.  Just another thing that goes BUMP, in the night.

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A monument was erected in the village of Auvers to honour those who fought against the beast.

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.

August 11, 1885 Liberty Enlightening the World

Even the inebriates stepped up, when a Brooklyn home for alcoholics donated fifteen dollars. Not to be outdone, collection boxes were put out in bars and saloons all over New York City.

In the late 1860s, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi conceived a great work of neoclassical sculpture. An enormous statue depicting a female figure in robes, this latter-day colossus holding high her Torch of Progress and standing by the water’s edge to greet the weary traveler – to Egypt.

Today, the 120-mile Suez canal connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea handles nearly fifty ships per day. Around Bartholdi’s time, Ottoman authorities were just getting around to digging the thing. Bartholdi had visited Egypt as a young man, and came away captivated by the Sphinxes, the Great Pyramids, and now this.

Bartholdi pitched his idea to the Khedive of Egypt in 1867, while attending the World’s Fair, in Paris. An enormous lighthouse in the form of a woman, holding high the lamp of welcome and dressed in the flowing cotton robe of the fellah, the “True Egyptian”, the peasant farmer and agricultural laborer of Egypt and North Africa.

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The Egypt deal fell through, when Bartholdi came to a land where he’d never been before, to sell his colossus.

The idea was originally that of French attorney Édouard René de Laboulaye. An observer of American civic culture and passionate supporter for the Union side of the Civil War, Laboulaye wrote a three-volume work on the political history of the United States and considered the gift of “Liberty Enlightening the World” to be symbolic of values repressed at that time, by the 2nd Republique of Napoleon III.

Bartholdi pitched the idea from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C., from Chicago to Los Angeles, but Americans were slow to appreciate the idea of a lighthouse, in the shape of a woman. Back in Paris, the sculptor put on spectacles of every kind to raise money, charging visitors admission to the dusty workshop to watch the torch’s construction, and selling souvenirs.  At one point, Bartholdi even petitioned the French government, to let him hold a national lottery.

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U.S. Patent D11023

The torch arrived late for the centennial festivities of 1876, celebrating the 100th birthday of the young nation. Nevertheless, the “colossal arm” proved popular with Philadelphia fairgoers, where visitors paid admission to climb up into the arm and take in the view from the balcony. The sculptor was so pleased that, for a time, he considered installing the finished statue in Philadelphia.

Fundraising committees were formed in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, to raise money for the foundation and pedestal. On his last full day in office, March 3, 1877, President Ulysses S Grant signed a joint resolution authorizing the President to accept the statue when presented by France, and to select a site for it. President Rutherford B. Hayes accepted Bartholdi’s suggestion and selected Bedloe’s Island, in New York Harbor.

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Stereoscopic Image from the Centennial Exposition of 1876

Even then, fundraising went slowly for the New York committee.

With the full statue under construction in Paris, Boston made a play for the statue in 1882, offering to pay the full cost of installation provided that the statue was installed in Boston Harbor.  The New York Times was miffed as only the “Newspaper of Record” can be.  One editorial sniffed:

“[Boston] proposes to take our neglected statue of Liberty and warm it over for her own use and glory. Boston has probably again overestimated her powers. This statue is dear to us, though we have never looked upon it, and no third rate town is going to step in and take it from us. Philadelphia tried to do that in 1876, and failed. Let Boston be warned . . . that she can’t have our Liberty … that great light-house statue will be smashed into … fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor”.

And here I thought that New York/Boston thing started with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Fundraising toward the $100,000 required to complete the project was a constant and seemingly insurmountable challenge. New York Governor Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill in 1884, providing $50,000 for the effort. A bill to have the United States Congress pick the full tab the following year, was likewise defeated.

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Head on display at the p 1878

With only $3,000 in the bank, the American committee organized a number of fund drives. Poet Emma Lazarus was asked to donate an original work for auction, but declined the request. At the time, Lazarus was involved in aiding Jewish refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe. In time, Lazarus came to see the request as a way to help the cause. The resulting sonnet, The New Colossus, included the iconic lines “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer pushed the project over the top, offering to print names and brief notes from contributors of every size down to a single penny. It was a brilliant marketing scheme. Newspaper circulation went through the ceiling, as readers scooped up papers to see their names in print.

One kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa raised $1.35. A group of children sent a dollar as “the money we saved to go to the circus with.” Another dollar was sent by a “lonely and very aged woman.” Even the Big Apple’s inebriates stepped up, when a Brooklyn home for alcoholics donated fifteen dollars. Not to be outdone, collection boxes were put out in bars and saloons all over New York City. (The two cities wouldn’t be merged until 1898).

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Unpacking the face, 1885

Hundreds of crates containing the disassembled Liberty Enlightening the World arrived in New York on June 17, 1885, aboard the French steamer Isère.  Two months later, the final piece fell into place.  On August 11, the World announced that $102,000 had been raised from 120,000 donors.  80% of the total arrived in sums of a dollar or less.

Despite the fundraising success, the pedestal wasn’t complete until April of the following year. With no room to erect scaffolding, workers descended down ropes to install skin sections to an iron armature designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel.

The formal dedication was held on the afternoon of October 28, 1886, with former New York Governor and now-President of the United States Grover Cleveland, presiding. As many as a million turned out for the parade held that morning through the streets of the city.  At the New York Stock Exchange, traders showered marchers with paper strips containing stock quotes, beginning an American tradition called the ticker-tape parade.

Festivities on the future Liberty Island were for dignitaries only that day, no member of the public was allowed.  Ironically, no women were permitted at all for the dedication of the world’s tallest female, save for the Sculptor’s wife, and the granddaughter of French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps.  It was believed that women might be injured, in all that crush of humanity.

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That didn’t keep a group of offended suffragists from chartering a boat, and getting as close to the island as possible.  I wonder what that sounded like.

Liberty Enlightening the World has opened and closed to the public, since that time. She has turned from a dull copper red to the rich green patina you see today. She was injured in a World War, in the Black Tom explosion of 1916. She was there to witness Annie Moore’s arrival at Ellis Island, that 15-year-old “rosy-cheeked Irish girl” from County Cork, the first of some twenty-five million immigrants who arrived at that place legally between 1892 and 1924, helping to transform this nation into the international all-star team, of the world.  She witnessed that Kiss on Times Square, ending another World War in Europe.  Built in the wake of the Civil War, she has watched over a nation sometimes torn along lines of race and color, as her people learned to get along with others, unlike themselves.

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She has witnessed the worst terror attack of modern history and that brief, shining moment where we all seemed to be “One Nation, Under God”.  Throughout it all she has remained iconic.  Torch held high, the chain at her feet lying broken as she walks forward.  The stone tablet in her hand is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI”.  July 4, 1776.

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.

July 31, 1917  Did we really send men to fight in That?

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?! 

The “War to end all Wars” exploded across the European continent in the summer of 1914, devolving into the stalemate of trench warfare, by October.

The ‘Great War’ became Total War, the following year.  1915 saw the first use of asphyxiating gas, first at Bolimow in Poland, and later (and more famously) near the Belgian village of Ypres.  Ottoman deportation of its Armenian minority led to the systematic extermination of an ethnic minority, resulting in the death of ¾ of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Empire at that time, and coining the term ‘genocide‘.

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Battle of Passchendaele

Kaiser Wilhelm responded to the Royal Navy’s near-stranglehold of surface shipping with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the first zeppelin raids were carried out against the British mainland.  German forces adopted a defensive strategy on the western front, developing the most sophisticated defensive capabilities of the war and determined to “bleed France white”, while concentrating on the defeat of Czarist Russia.

Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command that September, following catastrophic losses in Galicia and Poland.  Austro-German offensives resulted in 1.4 million Russian casualties by September with another 750,000 captured, spurring a “Great Retreat” of Russian forces in the east, and resulting in political and social unrest which would topple the Imperial government, fewer than two years later.   In December, British and ANZAC forces broke off a meaningless stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning the evacuation of some 83,000 survivors.  The disastrous offensive had produced some 250,000 casualties.  The Gallipoli campaign was remembered as a great Ottoman victory, a defining moment in Turkish history.  For now, Turkish troops held their fire in the face of the allied withdrawal, happy to see them leave.

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Passchendaele, 1917

A single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 could produce more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined. Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the Western European countryside were literally torn apart.

1917 saw the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and a German invitation to bring Mexico into the war, against the United States.  As expected, these policies brought America into the war on the allied side.  The President who won re-election for being ‘too proud to fight’ asked for a congressional declaration of war, that April.

Sealed TrainMassive French losses stemming from the failed Nivelle offensive of that same month (French casualties were fully ten times what was expected) combined with irrational expectations that American forces would materialize on the western front led to massive unrest in the French lines.  Fully one-half of all French forces on the western front mutinied.  It’s one of the great miracles of WW1 that the German side never knew, else the conflict may have ended, very differently.

The sealed train carrying the plague bacillus of communism had already entered the Russian body politic.  Nicholas II, Emperor of all Russia, was overthrown and murdered that July, along with his wife, children, servants and a few loyal friends, and their dogs.

This was the situation in July 1917.

third-battle-of-ypres-passchendaele-ww1-007For eighteen months, British miners worked to dig tunnels under Messines Ridge, the German defensive works laid out around the Belgian town of Ypres.  Nearly a million pounds of high explosive were placed in some 2,000′ of tunnels, dug 100′ deep.  10,000 German soldiers ceased to exist at 3:10am local time on June 7, in a blast that could be heard as far away, as London.

Buoyed by this success and eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, General Sir Douglas Haig planned an assault from the British-held Ypres salient, near the village of Passchendaele.

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British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, as did the French Chief of the General Staff, General Ferdinand Foch, both preferring to await the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Historians have argued the wisdom of the move, ever since.

The third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The next 105 days would be fought under some of the most hideous conditions, of the entire war.

In the ten days leading up to the attack, some 3,000 guns fired an estimated 4½ million shells into German lines, pulverizing whole forests and smashing water control structures in the lowland plains.  Several days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall, in thirty years.

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German pillbox, following capture by Canadian soldiers.

Conditions defy description. Time and again the clay soil, the water, the shattered remnants of once-great forests and the bodies of the slain were churned up and pulverized, by shellfire.  You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived and fought in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze, capable of claiming grown men, even horses and mules.  Most of the offensive took place across a broad plain formerly crisscrossed with canals, but now a great, sucking mire in which the only solid ground seemed to be German positions, from which machine guns cut down sodden commonwealth soldiers, as with a scythe.

Soldiers begged for their friends to shoot them, rather than being left to sink in that muck. One sank up to his neck and slowly went stark raving mad, as he died of thirst. British soldier Charles Miles wrote “It was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on.”

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Passchendaele, before and after the offensive. H/T Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

In 105 days of this hell, Commonwealth forces lost 275,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The German side another 200,000.  90,000 bodies were never identified.  42,000 were never recovered and remain there, to this day.  All for five miles of mud, and a village barely recognizable, after its capture.

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?!  The soldier turned war poet Siegfried Sassoon reveals the bitterness of the average “Joe Squaddy” whom his government had sent sent to fight and die, at Passchendaele.  The story is told in the first person by a dead man, in all the bitterness of which the poet is capable.  It’s called:

Memorial Tablet – by Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon“Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell (They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’…that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?”

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July 7, 1798  The X-Y-Z Affair

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat. 

Imagine that you’ve always considered your own beliefs to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “Reactionary Right”, on the way to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror” (la Terreur) alone, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves at war.

the-reign-of-terror-french-revolution-17931794-1-638

France had been the strongest ally the Americans had during the late revolution, yet the United States remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed the money to “l’ancien régime”, and not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it, and executed its King.

Lafayette_Prison_reunion
The Marquis de Lafayette was shocked on October 15, 1795, when his cell door opened and in walked his wife and three daughters. The four women would remain with him in his prison cell, for another two years

By this time, Revolution-era America’s most important French allies were off the stage, the Comte de Grasse dead, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau languishing, in prison.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, ratified in 1795 and better known as the “Jay Treaty”, put an end for now to such conflict with Great Britain, but destroyed relations with the French Republic.

French privateers cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard preying on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

At this point, the United States had virtually no means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 had established a standing Navy for the first time in American history and begun construction on six heavy frigates, the first three of which would launch in 1797:  the USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States by rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative, Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two, with instructions to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, on terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

These were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, a man who later became the 5th Vice President and lent his name to the term “Gerrymander”.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded bribes before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans refused.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a $12 million “loan” to the French government, and a personal bribe of some $250,000 to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the American delegation, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a personal bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the liberté, égalité and fraternité espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on in amusement from a nearby hilltop.

XYZ cartoon

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date now regarded as the beginning of the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

quasi-war-1798-1801

Talleyrand himself raised the stakes, saying that attacks on American shipping would cease if the United States paid him $250,000 and gave France 50,000 pounds sterling and a loan for $100 million. At a 1798 Philadelphia dinner in honor of John Marshall, South Carolina Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper’s toast, spoke for the American side: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat.  The undeclared war would be fought across the world’s oceans, from the Atlantic to the Caribbean, to the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.

United_States_Marine_escorting_French_prisoners
20th century illustration depicts American Marines escorting French prisoners

The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War on September 30, nullifying the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and ensuring American neutrality in the Napoleonic wars. $20,000,000 in American “Spoliation Claims” would remain, unpaid.

For the United States, military escalation proved decisive.  Before naval intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, and an unknown number of French.  Only a single ship was lost, the aptly named USS Retaliation, and that one was later recaptured.

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.

June 18, 1815 A Handful of Nails

For want of a nail the battle was lost…

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting the Grand Armée of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.

The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but made the same mistake which Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset – General Winter.

Night_Bivouac_of_Great_Army
The Night Bivouac of the Great Army, by Vasily Vereshchagin

For months, Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered the Russian capital of Moscow that September, with expectations of capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

French_invasion_of_Russia_collage
French invasion of Russia

 

With the dread Russian winter coming fast, there was no choice but to turn about. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman river on June 24. By mid-December, barely 27,000 straggled home from Russian soil.

The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King Louis VXIII. The Emperor returned at the head of another army, in 111 days.

Tuscan_archipelago

The Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815, when Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingsom bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his reign.

Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.

waterloo_battle

It rained all day and night, that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon.  Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of the Grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge. French infantry swarmed the stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haye Sainte on his left.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most French infantry reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. Colonel Cornelius Frazer watched the mass of riders  and thought to himself: “They are going to roll over us.” In a flash, Frazer ordered: “Form squares!”  9,000 cuirassiers charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.

waterloo-cavalry-charge

It was common practice of the time to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole and disabling the weapon. Marshal Ney’s aide Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymès, frantically cried out “Les clous!” “Nails! Spike the guns!”

Not one rider had thought to bring them.

Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with spears. Eleven times they returned to their pieces, to fire into French cavalry as it withdrew.

Waterloo_Cavalry

Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000 man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.

The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver, and then retreat. Someone shouted “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannon balls fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the limb. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”

waterloo

As night fell, hundreds of locals emerged with hammers, pliers and chisels, combing the battlefield to remove the teeth of tens of thousands of dead and dying soldiers. Demand for human teeth was high and looters sold them by the tens of thousands, to dentists, who formed them into dentures. According to England’s National Army Museum, British dentists did nothing to conceal where they came from, advertising their appliances as “Waterloo teeth.” As late as the American Civil War, English dentists continued to do a brisk trade in “Waterloo ivory.”

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

51FJajZqFIL._SL300_Austrian military history professor Erik Durschmied wrote in his excellent book`The Hinge Factor‘, of the times when serendipity,  ‘chance and stupidity have changed history.’  According to Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was comprehensive.  Bonaparte was captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  All, for a handful of nails.

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.