September 19, 1862 Old Douglas, the Confederate Camel

The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project. The animal’s unpleasant personality traits didn’t help.

The Cedar Hill Cemetery, established by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, contains the final resting place of some 5,000 Confederate Soldiers who died in the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Each one stands in memory of a soldier killed in the line of duty.

Even the one with the camel on it.

The story begins with Jefferson Davis, in the 1840s. We remember him today as the President of the Confederate States of America. Then, he was a United States Senator from Mississippi, with a pet project of introducing camels into the United States.

Re-introducing them might be more like it.  Today, the distribution of these animals is almost the inverse of their area of origin.  According to the fossil record, the earliest camelids first appeared on the North American continent, these even-toed ungulates ancestor to the Alpaca, Llama, Guanaco and Vicuña of today.

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Jefferson Davis’ experiment was to be the first large-scale re-introduction of these animals on the North American continent, in geologic history.

Davis envisioned the day when every southern planter would have a stable full of camels. In the kind of pork barrel tit-for-tat spending deal beloved of Congressmen to this day, the senator bslid $30,000 into a highway appropriations bill, to get the support of a fellow senator from Illinois.

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The measure failed, but in the 1850s, then-Secretary of War Davis persuaded President Franklin Pierce that camels were the military super weapons of the future. Able to carry greater loads over longer distances than any other pack animal, Davis saw camels as the high tech weapon of the age. Horses and mules were dying by the hundreds in the hot, dry conditions of Southwestern Cavalry outposts when the government purchased 75 camels from Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Several camel handlers came along in the bargain, one of them a Syrian named Haji Ali, who successfully implemented a camel breeding program. Haji Ali was a character and became quite the celebrity in the West Texas outpost. The soldiers called the man “Hi Jolly”.

When the Civil War broke out, Camp Verde, Texas had about 60 camels. The King of Siam, (now Thailand), saw the military advantage to the Confederacy and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln. “Here”, he wrote, “we use elephants”. The King went on to propose bringing elephants into the Northwest, to help the Union war effort. This “animal arms race” appears to have gotten no further than that one letter to the President, but the imagination does run wild, doesn’t it. The idea of War Elephants, at Gettysburg….

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The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project. The animal’s unpleasant personality traits didn’t help. A camel will not passively accept a riding crop or a whip. They are vengeful, and can spit stinking wads of phlegm with great accuracy over considerable distances. If they’re close enough, they will rake the skin off your face with their front teeth. Camels have even been known to trample people to death.

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Douglas, the Confederate Camel

Cut loose, one of those Texas camels somehow made its way to Mississippi, where he was taken into service with the 43rd Infantry Regiment, who named him “Douglas”.

Douglas wouldn’t permit himself to be tethered, but he always stuck around so he was allowed to graze on his own. Southern soldiers became accustomed to the sight of “Old Douglas”. The 43rd Mississippi became known as the “Camel Regiment,” but the horses never did get used to their new companion. On this day in 1862, Major General Sterling Price was preparing to face two Union armies at Iuka, when the sight of Old Douglas spooked the regimental horses. One horse’s panic turned into a stampede, injuring several and possibly killing one or two.

The 43rd Infantry was ordered to Vicksburg during General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of the city, when Douglas was shot and killed by a Union sharpshooter. Enraged by the murder of their prized camel, the 5th Missouri’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Bevier enlisted six of his best snipers, who stalked the killer until one of them had his revenge. Bevier later said of Douglas’ killer, “I refused to hear his name, and was rejoiced to learn that he had been severely wounded.”

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So it is that there is a camel at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  He is not forgotten. Douglas and other camels of the era are remembered by the Texas Camel Corps, a cross between a zoo and a living history exhibit.

The organizations website begins with: “Texas Camel Corps was established to educate the public about the historic use of camels in America in the 19th century”. I might just have to check those guys out.

Tip of the hat to www.texascamelcorps.com for the sunset image, above.

September 18, 1931 An Incident at Mukden

The “Mukden incident” was entirely staged, a “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors some eight years later, nearly to the day.

As Japan emerged from the medieval period into the early modern age, the future Nippon Empire transformed from a period characterized by warring states, to the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shōgunate.  Here, a feudal military government ruled from the Edo castle in the Chiyoda district of modern-day Tokyo, over some 250 provincial domains called han.  The military and governing structure of the time was based on a rigid and inflexible caste system, placing the feudal lords or daimyō at the top, followed by a warrior-caste of samurai, and a lower caste of merchants and artisans.  At the bottom of it all stood some 80% of the population, the peasant farmer forbidden to engage in non-agricultural activities, and expected to provide the income that made the whole system work.

Into this world stepped the “gunboat diplomats” of President Millard Filmore in the person of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, determined to open the ports of Japan to trade with the west.  By force, if necessary.

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Gunboat Diplomacy, Commodore Perry

The system led to a series of peasant uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme dislocation within the warrior caste. In time, these internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment led to the end of the Tokugawa period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, in 1868.

Many concluded as did feudal Lord (daimyō) Shimazu Nariakira, that “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated”.  In the following decades, Japanese delegations and students traveled around the world to learn and assimilate Western arts, sciences and technologies. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Japan was transform from a feudal society into a modern industrial state.

The Korean peninsula remained backward and “uncivilized” during this period, little more than a tributary state to China, and easy prey for foreign domination.  A strong and independent Korea would have represented little threat to Japanese security but, as it was, Korea was a “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan” in the words of German military adviser to the Meiji government, Major Jacob Meckel.

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The first Sino-Japanese war of July 1894 – April 1895, was primarily fought over control of the Korean peninsula.  The outcome was never in doubt, with the Japanese army and navy by this time patterned after those of the strongest military forces of the day.

The Japanese 1st Army Corps was fully in possession of the Korean peninsula by October, and of the greater part of Manchuria, in the following weeks.  The sight of the mutilated remains of Japanese soldiers in the port city of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) drove their comrades to a frenzy of shooting and slashing.  When it was over, numbers estimated from 1,000 to 20,000 were murdered in the Port Arthur Massacre.  It was a sign of things to come.

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An illustration of Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others by Utagawa Kokunimasa.

Russian desire for a warm-water port to the east brought the two into conflict in 1904 – ’05, the Russo Japanese War a virtual dress rehearsal for the “Great War” ten years later, complete with trench lines and fruitless infantry charges into interlocking fields of machine gun fire.

Subsequent treaties left Japanese forces in nominal control of Manchurian railroads when, on September 18, 1931, a minuscule dynamite charge was detonated by Japanese Lt. Kawamoto Suemori, near a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden, in modern Shenyang, China. The explosion was so weak that it barely disturbed the tracks. A train passed harmlessly over the site just minutes later, yet, the script was already written.

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The Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese dissidents of the incident, launching a full scale invasion and installing the puppet emperor Puyi as Emporer Kangde of the occupied state of “Manchukuo”, one of the most brutal and genocidal occupations of the 20th century.

The “Mukden incident” was entirely staged, a “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors some eight years later, nearly to the day.

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As Western historians tell the tale of WW2, the deadliest conflict in history began in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The United States joined the conflagration two years later, following the sneak attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Eastern historians are more likely to point to a day eight years earlier, when this and subsequent invasions and the famine and civil wars which ensued, killed more people than the modern populations of Canada and Australia, combined.

September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

From the Catania (Sicily) to the Salerno landings of 1943, Mad Jack could be seen stepping onto the beach, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

On this day in 1906 a child was born .  John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British civil servants in the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time, returning to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving with the Manchester Regiment in Burma where he rode the length and breadth of the nation, on a motorcycle.

It was around this time Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era. Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.

He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, and became quite good at it. Good enough to represent his nation in the 1939 world archery championship in Oslo scoring #26, in the men’s recurve. A remarkable feat considering his weapon of choice, was the longbow.

Churchill left the military ten years later and worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with the occasional stint as male model and even appeared in two motion pictures, The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank At Oxford. From there he may have faded into obscurity unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation, with the same last name. Except, then came World War II and that transformation into the truly one-of-a-kind, “Mad Jack”.

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland. Part of the British Expeditionary force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out the Feldwebel (staff sergeant) with a broadhead arrow. No one could have been more surprised than that German NCO who surely died wondering, “How the hell did I get an arrow in my chest?”

That one unfortunate German is, to my knowledge, the only combatant in all WWII to be felled by an English longbow.

Not long after, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe. The only way back in, was via those same beaches. We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault: invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches. Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy. In all those landings, there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, with a bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, a Scottish broadsword at his belt.

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“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore. He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” From the Catania (Sicily) to the Salerno landings of 1943, Mad Jack could be seen stepping onto the beach, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword in confused, hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order. Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad. “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained. “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…” It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

Churchill later trudged back to town, to collect his sword. He encountered an American squad along the way, who seemed to have lost themselves and were headed toward German lines. When the NCO refused to turn around, Churchill informed him he was going to be on his way, and he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar, pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German-held, Yugoslavian island of Brac. He was leading a Commando raid at the time, in coordination with the partisans of Josip Broz Tito. Only Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622, when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself. He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, and Churchill and his surviving men escaped immediate execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks to the decency of one Wehrmacht Captain Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.” Churchill was able to pay Thuener back for his kindness after the war, keeping the man out of the merciless hands of the Red Army.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, before being sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped that September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain and walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

Mad Jack was sent off to Burma, following the defeat of Nazi Germany. He was disappointed by the swift end to the war brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he’d say, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

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No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of some 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing. Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

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Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Once and always the eccentric, Mad Jack Churchill loved sailing radio-controlled model warships on the Thames. Little seemed to bring him more joy than the horror on the face of fellow train passengers, when he opened the window and hurled his briefcase into the darkness.

Not one of them suspected he was throwing the thing into his own back yard. It saved him the trouble of carrying it home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard, and mailed it to a friend.  The face of the card bore the regimental colors.

On the back, Mad Jack Churchill had written these words.

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

August 31, 1959 Sergeant Reckless

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations both from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

A Recoilless Rifle is a type of lightweight tube artillery. Think of a portable cannon. Kind of a bazooka, really, only the Recoilless fires modified shells rather than rockets. The back blast of the shell compensates for the mule’s kick which would otherwise be expected from such a weapon, making the rifle “recoilless”.

While it reduces projectile range, reduced gas pressures permit a thinner-walled barrel, resulting in a weapon light enough to be served by a 2 to 3-man crew and shoulder fired by a single infantryman.

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The “RCLR” weapon system has provided the punch of artillery to mobile troop formations since the early days of WWII including Airborne, Special Forces and Mountain units.

The problem arises when combat operations consume ammunition faster than the supply chain can replace it. Mountainous terrain makes the situation worse. Over the last 20 years in the more mountainous regions of Afghanistan, there were times when the best solution for the problem, is horsepower.

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Ah Chim-hai was a chestnut mare of mixed Mongolian and Thoroughbred lineage, a race horse at the track in Seoul, South Korea. Her name translated as “Flame of the Morning”.

Lieutenant Eric Pedersen of the recoilless rifle platoon, anti-tank company of the 5th Marine Regiment, needed a pack animal to carry the weapon’s 24-pound shells up Korean mountain passes. In October 1952, Pederson received permission from regimental commander Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, to buy a horse for his platoon.

Lt. Pederson and stable boy Kim Huk-moon agreed on a price of $250, and Pederson paid with his own money. Kim cried on watching his “Flame” leave the stable, but the sale had a higher purpose.  The boy’s sister had stepped on a land mine, and badly needed a prosthetic leg.

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The Marines called the new recruit “Reckless” – a nod to the weapon system she was meant to serve, and to the fighting spirit of the 5th Marines.

Pederson wrote to his wife in California to send a pack saddle, while Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham and Private First Class Monroe Coleman provided for her care and training.

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Navy Hospitalman First Class George “Doc” Mitchell provided most of Reckless’ medical care, Latham taught her battlefield skills: how to step over communication wires, when to lie down under fire, how to avoid becoming entangled in barbed wire. She learned to run for cover at the cry “Incoming!”

The platoon built her a bunker and fenced off a pasture, but soon Reckless was allowed to roam freely throughout the camp. She’d enter tents at will, sometimes spending the night if it was cold.

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She’d eat anything: bacon, mashed potatoes, shredded wheat. She loved scrambled eggs and just about anything else a Marine wasn’t watching closely enough. Reckless even ate her own horse blanket once, and she loved a to have a beer. Mitchell had to warn his fellow Marines against giving her more than two Cokes a day, which she’d drink out of a helmet. One time, Reckless ate $30 worth of winning poker chips.

General Randolph McCall Pate, a veteran of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Korea, served as the 21st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1956 – ’59.  Pate wrote: “I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her.”  Reckless was a Marine.

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Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard an RCLR go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t do much as bother to look up, happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

Recoilless rifle tactics call for fire teams to expend four or five rounds, and then relocate before the enemy can shoot back. Reckless usually learned the route after one or two trips, often traveling alone to deliver supplies on the way up, and evacuate wounded on the way down.

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In February 1953, Captain Dick Kurth and his Fox Company were fighting for a hill called “Detroit”. Reckless made 24 trips by herself, carrying a total 3,500-pounds of ammunition over 20 miles. She made 51 solo trips that March, during the battle for Outpost Vegas. Reckless carried 9,000lbs of ammunition in a single day, over 35 miles of open rice paddies and steep hills. At times, artillery exploded around her at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. That night, she was too exhausted to do anything but hang her head while they rubbed her down.

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations both from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

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On August 31, 1959, Reckless was promoted to Staff Sergeant in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. 1,900 of her 5th Marine comrades attended, as did two of her sons, “Fearless” and “Dauntless”. A third, “Chesty”, was unavailable to attend.

General Pate wrote: “In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did. . .Reckless.”

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Life Magazine published a collector’s edition in 1997, listing 100 heroes from American history. Alongside the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Sally Ride and Abraham Lincoln, was that of a small Mongolian horse. Sergeant Reckless.

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August 30, 1776 1776

The astonishing part of this story is it all took place in the midst of a plague vastly more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic, of our own age.

When George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did the General take command of an “army” equipped with an average of nine rounds, per man.

1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.   Manhandled all the way from the wilds of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.  General sir William Howe now faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill, a British victory which had come at a cost he could ill afford, to pay again.  

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when Howe’s fleet evacuated Boston Harbor and removed, to Nova Scotia.  Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw.  The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.

Tory and Patriot alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communication between the upper and lower colonies. Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York placing his troops along the west end of Long Island, in anticipation of the British return.

The fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June.  Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother. 

The Howe brothers attempted to negotiate on July 14 with a letter to General Washington, addressed: “Georg Washington, Esq.” The letter was returned unopened by Washington’s aide Joseph Reed who explained there’s nobody over here, by that address. Again the letter came back addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” the etc. meaning… “and any other relevant titles.” That letter too came back unopened but this time, with a message. The general would meet with one of Howe’s subordinates. The meeting took place on July 20 when Howe’s representative offered pardon, for the American side. General Washington responded as they had done nothing wrong his side had no need, of any pardons. But thanks anyway.

By August 12 the British force numbered some 400 vessels with 73 warships and a force of 32,000 camped on Staten island.

“British troops in the type of flat-bottomed boat used for the invasion of Long Island. Hessians in their blue uniforms are in the two boats that are only partly visible”. H/T Wikipedia

Patriot forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. In terms of number of troops deployed and actual combat it was the largest battle, of the Revolution. The British dug in for a siege, confident their adversary was cornered and waiting only to be destroyed at their convenience while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great tactical feats of all military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of August 30 to discover the 9,000-strong Patriot army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible only through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded. Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Desperate for information about the attack he was sure would come Washington dispatched a 22-year old Connecticut schoolteacher named Nathan Hale on September 10, to keep an eye on British movements. Disguised as a Dutch schoolteacher, Hale naïvely placed his trust, where it didn’t belong. He was betrayed in just over a week.

As expected, Howe landed a force at Kip’s Bay on September 15 and the Redcoats quickly occupied the city. Patriots delivered an unexpected check the following day at Harlem Heights against an overconfident force of British light troops. It was to be the only such bright spot for the Americans who were now driven out of New York and into New Jersey and finally, to Pennsylvania.

A great fire broke out on the 21st that destroyed as much as a quarter of all the buildings on Manhattan Island. Both sides pointed the finger of blame at the other but the cause, was never determined. Nathan Hale was hanged for a spy the following day with the words, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year for the Patriot cause.

Reduced to a mere 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced the decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of an already puny force.  With nowhere to go but the offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25 and defeated a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of the age.  Cornwallis suffered three defeats in a ten day period and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared as enlistments, came flooding in.

The American war for independence had years to go.  Before it was over, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined.  Yet, that first year had come and gone and the former colonies, were still in the fight. 

The astonishing part of this story is it all took place in the midst of a plague vastly more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic, of our own age. Of 2,780,369 counted by the 1770 census* in this country no fewer than 130,000 died in the smallpox pandemic of 1775-1782. That works out to 4,815 per 100,000. Contrast that with a Coronavirus death rate of 194.14 per 100,000 according to Johns Hopkins University a death rate, of less than .2% *This figure does not include Native Americans who were not counted in the US census, until 1860.

A generation later and an ocean away, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain Corsican corporal at a place called Waterloo.  Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815, when he said  “It was a damn close run thing”.

Feature image, top of page: Battle of Long Island, by Alonzo Chappel.

August 1, 1086 Day One

There were others with claims to the crown now belonging to Harold Godwinson, among them the new King’s brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria. Tostig’s animosity for his older brother would alter the course of world history and prove fatal, for them both.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, died after a series of strokes on January 5, 1066, leaving no heir to the throne. Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t normally pick their own successors, but several believed Edward had done just that.  The king’s death touched off an international succession crisis.  The events of the following months, would change the course of world history.

Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson was elected King by the Witenagemot, an early version of our own Town Meeting.  There were others with claims of their own.  One of these was Harold’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, whose animosity for his brother would prove fatal for them both.

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After conducting a few inconclusive raids in the spring of that year, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “the Bastard”, looking for help. William had openly declared his intention to take the English throne, and had no use for the King’s little brother.  Tostig then went to the King of Norway, King Harald III “Hardrada”, the name variously translated as “stern counsel”, or “hard ruler”.

Hardrada believed that he himself had claim to the English throne, and was dismayed at Godwinson’s succession.  The two sailed for England at the head of a powerful fleet of 300 Viking ships and an army of 10,000 warriors, meeting the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar in battle at Fulford Gate on September 20.

The battle was a comprehensive defeat for the English. When Harald came to Stamford Bridge a week later, it was in expectation of formal capitulation and tribute.

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Meanwhile, King Harold stood at the head of an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy. My military friends will appreciate what happened next.  Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking force waiting at Stamford Bridge. The Vikings must have looked at the horizon and wondered how a peace party could raise that much dust, only to face the “gleam of handsome shields and white coats-of-mail”.

Thinking they were there to accept submission, Harald’s army had left half its number behind to watch the ships.  Worse still, many of Harald’s warriors had removed their heavy armor, and scattered over both sides of the River Derwent.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

The English army charged through the loose ranks of Norwegians, as the rest struggled to form the skjaldborg (shield wall) on the opposite bank.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one giant Viking warrior stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge. Swinging the great two-handed Dane Axe. For a time this single warrior held back the entire English army, crowding onto the narrow choke point.   40 English soldiers lay mangled and dead in heaps around this beast, when an English soldier moved beneath the bridge and speared the Viking warrior, from below.

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The savagery of the battle can only be imagined. This was before the age of industrialized warfare, when every injury was personally administered with a bladed weapon or heavy club, of some kind. 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers would be dead before it was over, about a third of his force. Two thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died that day, about 6,000.  In the end, Harald Hardrada invoked the berserkergang (the state of going berserk), and waded into his foe, madly hacking and slashing all about him until an arrow found his throat.

Thus ends the tale of the last ‘Great Viking’.  Harald was dead, as was his ally Tostig. His reward in the words of King Harold, was “Seven feet of English soil, or as much more as he is taller than other men“.

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Of 300 ships that had arrived on the 20th, the battered remnants of the Viking army required only 24, to sail away.

Meanwhile, William was in final preparations for his own channel crossing, a voyage many considered unlikely at that late time of year.  The Norman landing Harold had waited for took place three days later, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest.

tumblr_la6h4gVLfh1qe23mao1_500A greatly diminished Anglo Saxon army marched south, meeting the Norman invader in October, 1066.   History changed that day, when King Harold took an arrow to the eye, at a place called Hastings.   The last of the Anglo Saxon Kings, was dead.  William was crowned King of England that December.  Henceforward and forever more, William the Bastard would be known as “William the Conqueror”.

In this age of mechanized warfare, isn’t it strange to think you could have eaten your lunch that day on a neighboring hill, and never heard a thing.

Main rivals to the new King were now gone, but William wouldn’t be secure on his throne for another six years. Lands were confiscated from resisting members of the English elite and from lords who had fought and died in service to Harold.

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H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Such lands were enfeoffed, a process of the European middle ages through which land was granted in exchange for feudal allegiance, while the King retained ultimate title. Such confiscations led to revolts and further confiscations, as widows and daughters were forced into marriages with Norman barons.

Castles were built at an unprecedented rate, controlling military strongpoints across the land and, in the words of historian Robert Liddiard, “legitmizing a new elite”. Liddiard remarks that “to glance at the urban landscape of Norwich, Durham or Lincoln is to be forcibly reminded of the impact of the Norman invasion.”

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Beginning in 1085, seven or eight panels of commissioners fanned out across the land, taking sworn statements in every shire and village. Elaborate records were compiled of all lands and estates held by the King through his tenants, down to every agricultural plot and fishpond, and its value in pounds.

It was all done for purposes of taxation, particularly to see what was owed during the reign of Edward the Confessor. You can imagine how that went over but, as always, history is written by the victor.

So complete was the Norman conquest that William himself was able to spend three-quarters of his time, defending his interests in France. According to these records, within twenty years, no more than five percent of all lands remained in English hands.

While exact dates are subject to dispute, the major part of the “Great Survey” is traditionally held to have been bound and presented to King William on this day in 1086, in Salisbury.

1200px-Domesday-book-1804x972Late in the 12th century, King’s Treasurer Richard FitzNeal likened the Great Survey to the Book of Judgement, the book of “Domesday” (middle English for “Doomsday”), because its pronouncements were final and inviolate as the Last day of Judgement.

Nothing even remotely similar to the “Domesday Book” would again be attempted, until 1873. For most English towns and villages (most but not all – no Domesday records are known to survive for London or Winchester), the Domesday book stands as the final and dispositive arbiter of lands and titles held, across the British Isles. Day one, the starting point, of English history.

July 9, 1943 The Most Decorated K9, of WW2

“Chips, a German shepherd, collie, husky mix, was the most famous and decorated sentry dog in World War II, one of 10,425 dogs that saw service in the Quartermaster Corps’ new “K-9 Corps.” Prior to the K-9 Corps, dogs such as Admiral Wags on the carrier Lexington and World War I canine hero Sgt. Stubby were mascots and had no official function in America’s military.” H/T Defense Media Network

By the last year of the “Great War”, French, British and Belgian armed forces employed some 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans, 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

US Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. Chips was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  Six weeks of land combat followed in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.

During the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox.  Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.   

Platoon commander Captain Edward Parr recommended Chips for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine gun nest and causing surrender of its crew.”

He helped to capture ten more later that same day.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart but his awards, were later revoked.  At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars.  One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. In 1990, Disney made a TV movie based on his life.  It’s called “Chips, the War Dog”.

June 9, 1772 The Road to Revolution

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground. What followed was one of the earliest acts of rebellion, of the American Revolution.

The Seven Years’ War of 1756-’63 was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering. Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit after all, had it not?

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In the 1760s, several measures were taken to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  For decades now, the colonies had been left to run their own affairs.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures now being taken by revenue and customs agents. In Rhode Island, the Sugar Act of 1764 was particularly egregious as the distillation of rum from molasses, was a main industry. Rhode Islanders took control of Fort George on Goat Islands and fired several cannon shots at the HMS St. John.  The Royal Navy vessel managed to escape harm as did her aggressors, with the approach of the 21-gun HMS Squirrel.

Ten years later, the first distinctly American flag in history unfurled some 27 miles up the road in in Taunton, Massachusetts. Even now the “Liberty and Union” flag proclaimed the desire for autonomy…and union. Liberty and Union but that first open act of rebellion, was already ten years in the past.

Back in 1769, colonists burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold before the Custom House, on King Street.

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The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. On June 9 she was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water when she ran aground near the modern-day Gaspée Point, near the town of Warwick.

Local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There the co-conspirators concocted a plot. They would set fire to the Gaspée, and spent the evening hours casting bullets for the enterprise.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of its own military vessels. Treason charges were prepared. Planning commenced to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

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A few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the April Battles at  Lexington & Concord and the conflict at a place called Bunker Hill, that June.

One eighth of all the British officers to die of wounds in the American Revolution fell that day, on a nearby hill owned by Ephraim Breed. The fuse had been lit, to an American Revolution.  This flame was not to be put out, easily.

May 15, 1997 Bombies

If I asked you about the most heavily bombed nation in history, who would you guess. Japan or Germany during World War 2? Iran or Iraq? You might be surprised who it is. It is none of those.

Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos. To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred specimens each.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union.

The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

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The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military “reunification”, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bombs.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of World War 2 making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

There were all types of bombs from 3,000-pound monsters to smaller “big bombs” weighing hundreds of pounds to “cluster munitions”, canisters designed to open in flight showering the earth with 670 “bomblets” the size of a tennis ball packed with explosives and pellets.  It’s estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode. 80 million of them, the locals call them “bombies”, set to go off with the weight of a foot, a wheel or the touch of a garden hoe and every one packing a killing radius, of 30 meters.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

On February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

On May 14–15, 1997, the Lao Veterans of America and others held a two day series of events honoring the contributions of ethnic Hmong and others to the American war effort, formally dedicating the Laos Memorial, at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a stunning reversal of policy, an acknowledgement of a “secret war”, the existence of which which had been denied, for years.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

Today, Laos is a mostly agricultural economy with rice accounting for 80% of arable land. Other crops include corn, cotton, fruit, mung beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and opium. Increasingly, highland farmers are turning to coffee, a more profitable crop bringing with it the expectation, that the farmer will be able to educate his children.

Profitable yes, but not without risk. The CIA’s “secret war” in Laos has been over for near a half-century. To this day cluster submunitions and other UXO kill and maim dozens, every year.

May 14, 1915 Canary Girls

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls’ gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Since the age of antiquity, heavy weapons have tilted the scales of battlefield strategy. The first catapult was developed in Syracuse, in 339 BC. The Roman catapult of the 1st century BC hurled 14-pound stone balls against fixed fortifications. The age of gunpowder brought new and ghastly capabilities to artillery. In 1453, the terrifying siege guns Mehmed II faced the walls of Constantinople, hurling 150-pound missiles from barrels, wide enough to swallow a grown man.

Monument to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, Edirne, East Thrace, Turkey

Such weapons were slow to reload and sometimes, unreliable. Mehmed’s monsters took a full three hours to fire. Seven years later, King James II of Scotland was killed when his own gun, exploded.

This experimental three-shot cannon belonging to Henry VIII burst, with predictable results for anyone standing nearby.

By the Napoleonic wars, artillery caused more battlefield casualties than any other weapon system.

At that time such weapons were virtually always, loaded at the muzzle. The first breech loaders came about in the 14th century but it would take another 500 years, before precision manufacturing made such weapons reliable, and plentiful.

Breech loading vastly increased rate-of-fire capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought new and hideous capabilities to what Josef Stalin would come to call, the “God of War’.

Heretofore, the massive recoil of such weapons required a period of time to re-set, re-aim and reload. In the 1890s, French soldier Joseph Albert DePort solved that problem with a damping system enabling the barrel to recoil, leaving the gun in place. Recoilless weapons could now be equipped with shields keeping gun crews as close as possible while smokeless powder meant that gunners could clearly see what they were shooting at.

By World War 1, trained crews serving a French 75 could fire once every two seconds. Massed artillery fired with such horrifying rapidity as to resemble the sound, of drums.

This clip is five minutes long. Imagine finding yourself under “drumfire”, for days on end.

While guns of this type were aimed by lines of sight, howitzers fired missiles in high parabolic trajectories to fall on the heads, of the unlucky.

The great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) once said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. So it was in the tiny Belgian city of Ypres where the German war of movement met with weapons of the industrial revolution.

A million men were brought to this place, to kill each other. The first Battle for Ypres, there would be others, brought together more firepower than entire wars of an earlier age. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.

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The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. The three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece. Soldiers on all sides dug frantically into the ground, to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger called, the “Storm of Steel”.

First drum fire in the war, in the Champagne, Lasted 75 hours, from Sept. 22 to 25. Was directed against 20 Miles of the German Front. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The French alone expended 2,155,862 shells during the Anglo-French offensive called the second battle of Artois, fought May 9 through June 18, 1915, a fruitless effort to capitalize on German defenses, weakened by the diversion of troops to the eastern front. The objective, to flatten the German “Bulge” in the Artois-Arras sector.

Immediately to the French left, the British 6th army under Sir John French was to advance on May 9 in support of the French offensive, taking the villages of Aubers, Fromelles and Le Maisnil and the elevation known as Aubers Ridge.

The battle of Aubers was an unmitigated disaster. The man-killing shrapnel rounds so valued by pre-war strategists were as nothing, against fortified German earthworks. No ground was taken, no tactical advantage gained despite British losses, ten times that on the German side.

War correspondent Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to The Times, complaining of the lack of high-explosive shells. On May 14 The Times headline read: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”. The article placed blame squarely on the government of Herbert Asquith who had stated as recently as April 20, that the army had sufficient ammunition.

“We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”.

The Times, May 14, 1915

For British politics at home, the information fell as a bombshell, precipitating a scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915.

Governments were slow at first to understand the prodigious appetites, of this war. Fixed trench lines led to new rail construction capable of providing cataracts of munitions, to front lines. The problem came from a munitions industry, unable to supply such demands.

Men shipped off to the war by the millions leaving jobs vacant and families at home, without income. Women represented a vast pool of untapped labor. Despite social taboos against women working outside the home, wives, sisters and mothers came flooding into the workplace.

By the end of the war some three million women joined the workforce a third of whom, worked in munitions factories.

Ever conscious of husbands, sons and sweethearts at the front, women worked grueling hours under dangerous conditions. “Munitionettes” manufactured cordite propellants and trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives, hand filling projectiles from individual bullets to giant shells.

At the front, the war was an all-devouring monster consuming men and munitions at rates unimagined, in earlier conflicts. During the first two weeks of the 3rd Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, British, Australian and Canadian artillery fired 4,283,550 shells at their German adversary.

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls” gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Nothing could be done and the yellow tended to fade over time but not a very different yellow, caused by toxic jaundice.

The work was well paid but exhausting, often seven days a week. Grueling 14-hour shifts led to girls as young as 14 coming into the workforce, but it wasn’t enough. “History of Yesterday” writes that two women on average died every week from toxic chemicals, and workplace accidents. One 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory №6 near Chilwell caused the death of 130 women.

The modern reader can scarcely imagine the crushing burdens of these women caring for families at home and ever conscious of sons, brothers and sweethearts, struggling to survive in this all consuming war.

The canary colored hair and skin would fade in time, but not the long term health effects of daily exposure to toxic substances. It didn’t matter. Twenty years later another generation would do it, all over again.