August 10, 1920, Ottoman Empire

Throughout the period, the “secret sauce” of Ottoman power was an army of elite infantry called “Janissaries”.  Janissaries were Christian slaves, usually taken as spoils of war, or sold into slavery as children. They came from all over the Ottoman Empire, though the sons of Greek, Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian Christians were preferred. Turkic and Jewish boys were never forced to comply with the Janissary system.

The Anatolian Peninsula is the westernmost point of Asia, forming the northern coastline of the eastern Mediterranean.  Today we call it Turkey.  In the 13th century it was home to a collection of small emirates and Ghazi (Warrior for Islam) principalities, called ‘Beyliks’.

The Turkish tribes united under Osman Bey in 1299 grew to become one of the most powerful forces in history.  A 600-year empire called the Ottomans.

The Ottoman victory at Kosovo in 1389 marked the end of Serbian power in the Balkans.  Christian Europe launched a Crusade six years later, in an effort to relieve the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople, by then virtually all that remained of the eastern Roman Empire.  This, the last of the major Crusades, was crushed at Nicopolis, in modern day Bulgaria.  After the battle, a handful of nobles were held for ransom, those judged to be younger than 20 were sold into slavery.  The rest, as many as 3,000 knights, were bound together in groups of three, and systematically beheaded.  Never again would Greater Europe be altogether free of Islamic influence.

Ottoman Cannon
Siege Cannon of Sultan Mehmet II

By the 15th century, Ottoman controlled lands surrounded the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople.  The forces of 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to the city in 1453, its ultimate defeat and sack punctuating the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and the birth of the “New City” – Istanbul.

Throughout this period, the “secret sauce” of Ottoman power was an army of elite infantry called “Janissaries”.  Janissaries were Christian slaves, usually taken as spoils of war, or sold into slavery as children. They came from all over the Ottoman Empire, though the sons of Greek, Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian Christians were preferred. Turkic and Jewish boys were never forced into compliance with the Janissary system.

Janissary recruitment in the Balkans

Janissaries weren’t free, nor were they common slaves. They were subject to severe discipline, but paid salaries and retirement pensions, forming a distinct social class in Ottoman society. As boys, usually 10 to 12, they were taken from their parents and given to Turkish families to learn the language and customs. They were then enrolled in Janissary training, indoctrinated into Islam, and kept under 24-hour supervision.

Janissaries were prohibited from growing beards and taking up a skill other than war, and were forbidden to marry.

They were an elite slave army, in many ways resembling a modern army.  Janissaries were the first to wear unique uniforms, first to be paid regular salaries for their service, the first to march in cadence, to music. They lived in barracks and made extensive use of firearms, campaigning with their own medical teams of Muslim and Jewish surgeons operating mobile hospitals behind the lines.

suleiman-i-2-sizedThe Ottoman Empire reached the height of its power during the 16th and 17th centuries, under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. One of the most powerful states in the world and ruling over 39 million subjects, the Ottoman Empire controlled a territory spanning three continents:  over two million square miles.

Serbia went to war with the Sultan for its independence in 1804, followed closely by Greece. Sultan Selim III attempted to modernize the army, but his reforms were opposed by the religious leadership and by the Janissary corps. Selim’s reforms would cost him his throne and ultimately his life, but internal order was restored in 1826, when Mahmud II put the Janissary Corps down in a bloody “reform”.

The Ottoman Empire then entered a period of decline, from which it would never emerge. Still one of the five continental Great Powers by the turn of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was “the Sick Man of Europe”, with its many minority populations pushing for independence.

Loyalty-obsessed to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II told a reporter in 1890 that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear”.  Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered in the pogroms of 1894-96.

The Armenian genocide began in earnest with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians within the Ottoman Empire of any semblance of leadership and begun on “Red Sunday”, April 24.  Detainees began to be deported within the Ottoman Empire by the end of May, their number reaching 2,345.  Most, were eventually murdered.


Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor.   Women, children, the elderly, and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert.  Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and outright murder. By the early 20s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

To this day, it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times wouldn’t use the term, until 2004.

This April, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

The Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the losing side during WWI, its ultimate disintegration beginning on August 10, 1920, when representatives of Sultan Mehmed VI signed the Treaty of Sèvres.  Future conflicts and treaties would shape and refine the borders, but the “Middle East” as we know it, was borne of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Empire c1900

Mustafa Kemal and his “Young Turks” demanded complete independence, the Treaty of Lausanne creating the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923.  Kemal became the country’s first president, granted the honorific “Atatürk” (“Father of the Turks”), in 1934.  Multi-party democracy was established in 1946.  Ever since, the Turkish military and judiciary have viewed themselves as defenders of the Kemalist ideals of a secular Turkish state.

Today, the former seat of the Ottoman Empire is 95% Muslim.  The philosophical descendants of Atatürk vie with those of Erdoğan, the modern, constitutionally secular state, versus the fundamentalist theocracy.

Last year, elements of the Turkish military staged the 6th coup since 1960, in opposition to the increasingly Islamist policies of President Erdoğan, a man who once likened democracy to a bus:  It gets you to your destination…then you get off.  One man, one vote, one time.  The coup was put down with a death toll of 265. 3,000 soldiers were arrested, and some 2,700 judges, fired.

As a NATO member, Turkey is privy to some of the US’ most closely held military secrets. Some 50 thermonuclear weapons are housed at Incirlik Air Base, 68 miles from the Syrian border, currently the hottest combat zone, on the planet.  The strategic thinking behind such basing decisions are difficult to understand, at best.  No aircraft currently based in Turkey, is capable of carrying even one of these weapons.

One might wish the history unfolding before our eyes, was more of a political issue, here in the States.


July 26, 1887 Esperanto

As of July 2016, Google Translate supports 103 languages and serves over 200 million people daily.    Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.

Leyzer Leyvi Zamenhov lived in the late 19th century in the Russian town of Białystok, in what is now part of Poland.

Zamenhov was part of the Yiddish speaking majority, living side by side with Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others.  Relations between these groups was anything but harmonious, and Zamenhov became frustrated with the many quarrels that sprang up among the groups.

Primera_edición_de_esperantoAs the son of a German language teacher, Zamenhof was fluent in many languages, including Russian, German, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish and English.  He was reasonably proficient in Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian, as well. Zamenhof came to believe that poor relations between Białystok’s many minorities stemmed from the lack of a common language, so he set out to create an “auxiliary language” – an international second language that would help people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds communicate with one another.

Writing under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”, Zamenhov published the “Unua Libro” describing his new language on July 26, 1887.

His goal was to create an easily learned, politically neutral language transcending nationality, fostering peace and international understanding between people with different regional and/or national languages.

Esperanto alphabetThe Esperanto alphabet includes 28 letters. There are 23 consonants, 5 cardinal vowels, and 2 semivowels which combine with vowels to form 6 diphthongs. Esperanto words are derived by stringing together prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The process is regular, so that people can create new words as they speak and still be understood.

The original core vocabulary included 900 such roots, which are combined in a regular manner so that they might be better used by international speakers.

For example, the adjective “BONA” means “GOOD”. The suffix “UL” indicates a person having a given trait, and “O” designates the ending of a noun. Therefore, the Esperanto word “BONULO” translates as “A good person”.  The title of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie “The Godfather”, translates as “La Baptopatro”.  “Esperanto” itself translates as “one who hopes”.

Some useful English words and phrases along with their Esperanto translation and the International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions, include:

 ○ Do you speak Esperanto? Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? [ˈtʃu vi pa.ˈro.las ˌˈran.ton]
 ○ Thank you. Dankon [ˈdan.kon]
 ○ You’re welcome. Ne dankinde [ˌne.dan.ˈ]
 ○ One beer, please. Unu bieron, mi petas [ˈ bi.ˈe.ron, mi ˈpe.tas]
 ○ Where is the toilet? Kie estas la necesejo? [ˈki.e ˈes.tas ˈla ˌne.tse.ˈ]

As of July 2016, Google Translate supports 103 languages and serves over 200 million people daily.    Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.

July 20, 1914 The Coming Crisis

There would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. This would be a cataclysm that would change a century.  Few realized it on this date, 103 years ago today. The collision was only days away.

On the eve of 1870, the German nation existed only as an agglomeration of 22 independent German states. On the eve of WWI, Germany was one of the five Great Powers of Europe.

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of its historic adversary, France had by that time increased its period of compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the advantage which a population of 70 million conferred on Germany, compared with a French population of 40 million.

Joseph Caillaux was a left-wing politician, once Prime Minister of France and, by 1913, a cabinet minister under the more conservative administration of French President Raymond Poincare.

Never too discreet with his personal conduct, Caillaux paraded through his public life with a succession of mistresses. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, both were divorced and Madame Raynouard had become Henriette Caillaux.

A relative pacifist, many on the French right considered Caillaux to be too “soft” on Germany. One of them was Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, who regularly excoriated the politician.

affairecaillaux_thumbOn March 16, 1914, the now-second Mrs Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the newspaper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark. Gaston Calmette would be dead before the night was through.

It was the crime of the century.  The OJ trial version 1.0.  The French public was captivated as the trial began, 102 years ago, today.

The British public was similarly distracted, by the latest in a series of Irish Home Rule crises.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 nations, 20 Parliamentary groups and 27 political parties, desperately needed to bring the Balkan peninsula into line after the June 28 assassination of the heir-apparent to the dual monarchy.

That individual Serbians were complicit in the assassination is beyond doubt, but so many government records of the era have disappeared that it’s impossible to determine official Serbian complicity. Nevertheless, Serbia had to be brought into line.

Having given Austria his assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of its Slavic ally, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany left on a summer cruise in the Norwegian fjords. The Kaiser’s being out of touch for those critical days in July, has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in naval history.


The Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd, a bald pretext for the war it declared on the 28th. The same day, Madame Caillaux was acquitted on the grounds that hers was a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion.

In the days that followed, entangling alliances and mutual distrust reigned over the European continent. As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia, as Germany began implementation of its long-standing strategy of a lightning defeat of France, before wheeling to face the much larger “Russian steamroller”.

Pre-planned timetables took over.  France alone would have 3,781,000 military men under orders before the middle of August, arriving at the western front on 7,000 trains, arriving as often as one every eight minutes.

There would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. The coming storm would resemble the near-simultaneous detonation of a continent.  A cataclysm which would destroy everything in its path and irrevocably alter the following century.  Few realized it, as this warm summer day came and went, 103 years ago today.   The four horsemen of the apocalypse, cometh.  The collision was only days away.

July 7, 1798 XYZ

In the UK, 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, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

Imagine that you’ve always considered yourself 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”. So much so, that you are subject to execution by your government.  And all that time, your politics haven’t changed.

Our strongest ally in the American Revolution lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into its own revolution.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror”, 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 and for the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France found themselves at war.

Execution of Marie Antoinette

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” between Great Britain and its former colonies, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 vessels in one 11-month period, alone.

France had been the colonies’ strongest ally during the American Revolution, now the Jay treaty infuriated the French, who believed the agreement violated earlier arrangements between the two nations.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “L’ancien Régime”, not to the “First Republic” which had overthrown it and executed its King.

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

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who later became the 5th Vice President, lending his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded a bribe for himself and substantial ‘loan’ to the French Republic, before so much as meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time.  The Americans were appalled.

Believing that the Adams administration sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian allies in Congress joined with 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 to follow.

Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker, was identified in the transcripts, 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 large loan to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans.  Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), Talleyrand’s personal emissary, was then sent to negotiate with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

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 UK, 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, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

John Bull cartoon

At this point, the United States had little means of defending itself.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with the Marine Corps at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” doing customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 established a standing Navy for the first time in US history.  In October 1797, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates.  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War with France, and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy.

Quasi War

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, authorizing American privateers to attack French shipping. The undeclared “Quasi-War” with France, had begun.

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.

For the United States, military involvement proved decisive.  Before military intervention, the conflict with France resulted in 28 Americans killed, 42 wounded, and over 2,000 merchant ships captured.  Following intervention, the US suffered 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost, and that one was later recaptured.

The undeclared naval war with our former ally was settled with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800, and ratified the following year.

June 28, 1914 The Spark

Years earlier, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had said the next European war would be started by “Some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914, when future Emperor Franz Ferdinand came to Sarajevo, the capital of the Balkan province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In 1914, Austria-Hungary was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least that many languages.  Ostensibly a constitutional union between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary, the dual monarchy was in fact divided, sometimes sharply, along no fewer than six religious lines.

Since the 1889 suicide of his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Emperor Franz Josef, Franz Ferdinand, was the Heir Presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

Sophie Maria Josephine Albina Chotek von Chotkow und Wognin was a minor noble in the Kingdom of Bohemia, a small figure in a constellation of 19th century European royalty.  It’s uncertain when Sophie and Franz first met and fell in love, but their relationship caused a royal scandal. The future Queen of the Habsburg Dynasty was expected to hold suitable rank. Only a Princess of one of Europe’s dynastic families would do, certainly no Bohemian Countess.


Ferdinand wrangled with the Royal Court in Vienna for a year before the couple was permitted to marry, but only under hard and humiliating conditions. Theirs was a “morganatic” marriage.  A marriage of unequals.

Three days before the wedding, June 28, 1900, Franz was forced to sign and publicly declare Sophie to be his morganatic wife, never to bear the titles of Empress, Queen or Archduchess. Any children produced by the marriage would neither inherit nor be granted dynastic rights or privileges of any kind. The Imperial family didn’t even show up at the wedding.

In a world where rank was everything, Sophie was never permitted to appear beside her husband in public.  She was humiliated at every court function, relegated to last place and made to stand in line behind every Archduchess, Princess and Countess from Vienna to Budapest.

Battle of KosovoJune 28 was significant for another reason. The invading army of Ottoman Sultan Murad I was wiped out on this date in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, (June 15, ‘old style’), the “Field of Blackbirds”. It was a Pyrrhic victory, as the Balkan defenders were virtually wiped out as well. The Ottomans being far more numerous, the Balkan states soon became vassals of the Ottoman Turks.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes “Balkanization” as “fragmentation of ethnic groups”.  The Balkans form a geographic and political region, including 13 southeastern European nations from Slovenia to Greece. Located at the crossroads of east and west, the region has been subjugated and re-subjugated since the 6th century BC conquests of Persian King Darius the Great. The Balkan wars of 1912-1913 wrested some (but not all) of the area back from Ottoman control, as a newly enlarged Serbia pushed for greater independence and alliance among south Slavic peoples.Balkans

Years earlier, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had said the next European war would be started by “Some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914, when future Emperor Franz Ferdinand came to Sarajevo, the capital of the Balkan province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Morganatic marriage was unknown in Hungarian law and custom.  This trip was a rare opportunity for the couple to openly travel together.  A “place in the sun” for Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie.

Ironically, Franz Ferdinand favored a more federalized model for the Empire, with greater autonomy for all its provinces. That wasn’t enough for the radical Serbian nationalists of the “Black Hand”, who inserted seven assassins along the route which the Archduke was scheduled to travel.

They were a carpenter, a printer, a teacher and four students. The oldest was 27. All suffered from tuberculosis, all armed with revolvers, crude bombs, or both, and a cyanide capsule with which to commit suicide if captured.

Ferdinand and SophieThe six car motorcade drove by the first assassin, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, a little after 10am. He froze, allowing the cars to pass unmolested.

Riding along the Appel Quay, the motorcade passed the second assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, who threw his bomb at the open car. The driver sped away as the bomb went off under the wheel of the fourth car, wounding two occupants and a dozen spectators. Meanwhile, Čabrinović popped his cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka River, expecting to die. The cyanide just made him retch and the river was but a few inches deep, so the would-be assassin was soon in police custody.

The motorcade sped on to a planned reception at City Hall, passing three more assassins, Vasco Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic and Cvijetko Popovic, none of whom did anything. There followed a sort of dark comedy, when Ferdinand jumped out of the car, incandescent with rage. Addressing Fehim Effendi Curcic, the mayor of Sarajevo, Ferdinand shouted “One comes here to visit and is received with bombs. Mr. Mayor, what do you say? It’s outrageous!” Unaware of what had happened, Mayor Curcic began to read his prepared remarks: “Our hearts are filled with happiness…”

Ferdinand later insisted on visiting the wounded at hospital, though he begged Sophie to stay behind. She wouldn’t have it. The Military Governor of the province, Oskar Potiorek, assured them of safe passage. Sophie would remain by her husband’s side.Gavrilo Princip

Soon they were off, speeding by the sixth assassin, Trifko Grabez, before he could react. Taking a wrong turn onto Franz Josef Strasse, the chauffeur realized his error and came to a stop before turning around. They were 8’ from the seventh and last assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Princip was in point blank range in two steps, firing once into Sophie’s side and once into the neck of the Archduke.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s jugular had been severed by the bullet. “For heaven’s sake, what’s happened to you?” she cried, before slipping to the floor of the car. “Sophie dear, Sophie dear, don’t die. Stay alive for our children.”  Asked if he was alright, Franz Ferdinand was already fading away. “Es ist nichts; Es ist nichts…” (It is nothing; it is nothing…). By 11:30, both were dead.

The mad act of a tubercular 19-year led to a series of diplomatic missteps and military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″, culminating in the “War to End all Wars” that August.  There is virtually no part of 20th century history, that would ever be the same.

Knowing that he and his beloved wife could never be buried together in the Imperial Crypt, Ferdinand got the last word. In 1910, the Archduke set up a family crypt below the choir at the Artstetten Castle, in lower Austria. Neither had any idea that they’d need it, four years later. Now, Sophie and Ferdinand are at rest. At equal heights. Photo credit (2012) Marshmallowbunnywabbit at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,


June 18, 1815 Waterloo

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Armée 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 he made the same mistake that Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset. General Winter.

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 Moscow itself in September, with the Russian winter right around the corner. He expected capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

Grand Armee Retreat from MoscowFinally there was no choice for the Grand Armée, but to turn about and go home. 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 there were fewer than 70,000 known survivors.

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. That would last 111 days, until Napoleon reappeared at the head of another army.

Waterloo_Campaign_mapThe Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815.  Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his rule.

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 the 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.

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 while Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of Napoleon’s 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.

Fighting was furious around Wellington’s forward bastions, the walled stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haie Sainte on his left.  Eight times, French infantry swarmed over the orchards and outbuildings of the stone farmhouses, only to be beat back.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most of the French reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. 9,000 horsemen in 67 squadrons 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.

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.  Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.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 before 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 fall back.  Retreat broke into a route, someone shouting “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.Infantry Square

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannonballs fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the leg. 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!”

According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was complete. Bonaparte was once again captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  He died there in 1821.

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million, at a time when the entire world population was about 980 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

June 8, 793 The Viking Age

The Viking age lasted for almost 500 years, beginning in the late 8th century and ending only with the advent of the “Little Ice Age” in 1250.  In the end, the Vikings left their mark from Newfoundland, to Baghdad.

Lindisfarne Castle as seen from Harbour
Lindisfarne Castle as seen from Harbour

Two miles off the Northeast coast of Great Britain is the island of Lindisfarne, just south of the Scottish border.  Once, there was a monastery there.

The island’s monastic cathedral was founded a 150 years earlier by the Irish monk, Aidan of Lindisfarne. Known as the Apostle of Northumbria and spreading the gospel to Anglo-Saxon nobility and slaves alike, the monk was later canonized to become Saint Aidan.

Lindisfarne island had gifts of silver and gold, given to the monastery in hopes that such gifts would find peace for the immortal soul of the giver. There were golden crucifixes and coiled shepherd’s staves, silver plates for Mass, and ivory chests containing the relics of saints.  Shimmering tapestries hung from the walls.  The writing room contained some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts ever made.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island

1,224 years ago today, you could have looked to sea.  You would have seen a strange sight that morning.  Long ships with high prow and stern were lowering square sail as oarsmen rowed these ships directly onto the beach.

Viking Long ShipAny question you had as to their purpose would have been immediately answered, as these strangers sprinted up the beach and chased down everyone in sight.  These they murdered with axe or spear, or dragged them down to the ocean and drowned them. Most of the island’s inhabitants were dead when it was over, or taken off to the ships to be sold into slavery.  All of those precious objects were bagged, and tossed into the boats.

The raid on Lindisfarne abbey gave rise to what would become a traditional prayer:  A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, Lord”.  The Viking Age had arrived.

These Viking invasions were repeated for over a century, until England was eventually bled of its wealth, and the Vikings began to take the land, as

It wasn’t just England either. The King of Francia was tormented by Viking raids in what would one day become western France. King Charles “the Simple”, so-called due to his plain, straightforward ways, offered choice lands along the western coast to these men of the north, if they would leave him alone.  In 911 the Viking chieftan Rollo accepted Charles’ offer, and so created the kingdom of Normandy.  They called him “Rollo the Walker”, so-called because he was so huge that no horse to carry him, but that’s a story for another day.  (Like, August)

A period of Global Warming (yes, they had it then too), during the 10th and 11th centuries created ideal conditions for the Norse raiders, with a prevailing westerly wind direction in the spring reversing direction in the fall to become west to east.

Viking Axe ManViking travel was not all done with murderous intent; they are well known for colonizing westward as they farmed Iceland and possibly North America.

Many of their eastward excursions were more about trade than plunder.  Middle Eastern sources mention Vikings as mercenary soldiers and caravan guards.

Viking warriors called “Varangian Guard” hired on as elite mercenary bodyguard/warriors with the eastern Roman Empire.  Farther east, the “Rus” tribe lent their name to what would later be called Russia and Belarus.

The 10th-century Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan described the Rus as “perfect physical specimens”, writing at the same time that “They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures”.   Tattooed from neck to fingernails, the men were never without an axe, a sword and a long knife. The Viking woman “wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife”.

Stamford Bridge
Battle of Stamford Bridge

The classical Viking age ended gradually, and for a number of reasons. Christianity took hold, as the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia in 1103.

Political considerations were becoming national in scope in the newly formed countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

King Cnut “The Great”, the last King of the North Sea Empire of Denmark, Norway and England, together also described as the Anglo-Scandinavian Empire, died in 1035, to be replaced in England by Edward the Confessor.  Edward’s successor Harold would fend off the Viking challenge of Harald Hardrada in September 1066 at a place called Stamford Bridge, only to be toppled in the Norman invasion, two weeks later.

The Viking age lasted for almost 500 years, beginning in the late 8th century and ending only with the advent of the “Little Ice Age” in 1250.  In the end, the Vikings left their mark from Newfoundland, to Baghdad.