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.

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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
Lindisfarne

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 well.viking-ship

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.

June 4, 1939 Vacation Cruise to Freedom

So it was that a vacation cruise to freedom became the “voyage of the damned”. MS St. Louis returned to Europe

In 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist party came to power, some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. Fearing for their safety, some 304,000 of them emigrated in the first six years of the regime, including the physicist Albert Einstein. Jews were banned from holding professional jobs in 1936, effectively blocking them from German politics, education and industry, and relegating them to 2nd class citizenship. The SS-ordered “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass), was carried out over the night of November 9-10, 1938. Jewish owned stores and offices were smashed and vandalized, and synagogues burned.

Many of Germany’s Jews had lived there since the time of Charlemagne. By the eve of WWII, only 214,000 remained.

msstlouispostcard
Postcard depicting MS St Louis

Part of this exodus, the Hamburg-America line cruise ship MS St. Louis departed Hamburg on May 13, 1939, headed for Cuba. On board were 937 refugees, seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.

St. Louis’ Atlantic crossing was described as a “joyous affair”.  A non-Jewish German and adamant anti-Nazi, Captain Gustav Schröder made sure that it was so.

A full-time nursemaid looked after small children while their parents sat to eat, uniformed stewards serving dishes which were rationed by this time in Germany. Swimming lessons were held for children on deck. They were even permitted to throw a tablecloth over the Adolf Hitler statue in the dining room. Lothar Molton, a boy traveling with his parents, described the experience as “a vacation cruise to freedom”.

The joyous affair came to an end on May 27, when St. Louis dropped anchor in Havana Harbor. Passengers had all purchased legal visas, but most had been retroactively canceled on May 5, due to a change in Cuban immigration policy. For six days they waited amidst bureaucratic wrangling. In the end, only 29 were permitted to get off in Cuba. Four were Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals. Another 22 were Jews with valid US visas. One attempted suicide, and was brought to a Havana hospital.

stlouisinhavanaharbor
Small boats surrounded the MS St Louis in Havana Harbor to prevent refugee passengers from committing suicide when denied landing in Cuba.

St. Louis then crossed the Florida strait, arriving off the coast on June 4 and hoping for better results in the United States. It wasn’t meant to be. “Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami”, passengers sent President Franklin Roosevelt an urgent telegram, pleading to be admitted into the country. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating the United Nations, urged Roosevelt to reject the refugees, sending Coast Guard cutters to be sure that nobody jumped overboard and swam ashore. stlouistelegram

Roosevelt had his own politics to deal with. The Great Depression had left millions unemployed at the time and Americans were fearful of additional competition for scarce jobs. In Congress, the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted an additional 20,000 German-Jewish refugees over existing quotas, was being allowed to die in committee. Roosevelt was preparing to run for an unprecedented third term, and calculations of self-interest won out. He ignored the plight of the St. Louis.

Finally, a group of Canadian clergy and academics attempted to persuade Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary in Canada. The ship was, after all, only two days from Halifax. Director of Canada’s immigration branch Frederick Blair opposed the move. Blair must have been some piece of work. He had written a year earlier, that “Pressure by Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now, and I am glad to be able to add that, after 35 years of experience here, that it has never been so carefully controlled”. Blair urged King against the decision. On June 9, the Prime Minister officially declined to admit St. Louis’ refugees.

Jedes Bild ist mir begegnet © Herbert Dombrowski / Galerie Hilaneh von KoriesSo it was that a vacation cruise to freedom became the “Voyage of the Damned”. MS St. Louis returned to Europe. Captain Schröder negotiated and schemed to find safe haven for his 907 passengers.  Anything but return them to Nazi Germany.  At one point, Schröder contemplated intentionally running aground off the coast of England. In the end, they all found refuge in Europe. 288 passengers were admitted by Great Britain, and 224 by France. 214 were accepted into Belgium and another 181 by the Netherlands.

Many of the St. Louis refugees were later swept up in the Nazi invasion of Europe. Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the Holocaust Memorial Museum have exhaustively researched the fate of these individuals, finding that “Of the 620 St. Louis passengers who returned to continental Europe, we determined that eighty-seven were able to emigrate before Germany invaded western Europe on May 10, 1940. 254 passengers in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands after that date, died during the Holocaust. Most of these people were murdered in the killing centers of Auschwitz and Sobibór; the rest died in internment camps, in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis. 365 of the 620 passengers who returned to continental Europe survived the war.”

May 7, 1945 Victory in Europe

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

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

German surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 21, 753 BC Rome

2,000 years later, the ancient civilization of Rome still permeates our everyday lives.

Romulus-Remus-And-Their-NursemaidAccording to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a mythical city located in the Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.  Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title. However, Rhea was already pregnant by the war god Mars, and destined to give birth to Romulus and Remus.

Learning of the birth, Amulius ordered the infants drowned in the Tiber river, but the pair survived, washing ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill where they were suckled by a she-wolf.

Later discovered by the shepherd Faustulus, the boys were reared by the shepherd and his wife. Much later, the twins became leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors. On learning their true identity, the twins attacked Alba Longa, killed King Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne.

Abduction-sabine-women
Abduction of the Sabine Women, by Giambologna

Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site where they had been saved, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called it “Rome”, after himself.

No new town would last long without women, so Romulus invited the neighboring Sabines to a festival, where he kidnapped their women. A war ensued, but the Sabine women persuaded the Sabine men away from seizing the place. They drew up a peace treaty, merging the two communities under the joint rule of Romulus and the Sabine king, Titus Tatius.

The Romulus and Remus mythology developed in the 4th century BC, the exact date of the founding set by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, in the first century BC.

There would be six more kings of Rome, the last three believed to be Etruscan. The Roman Republic was formed around 509 BC, and ended around the time of the murder of Julius Caesar in 44BC.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,
Vincenzo Camuccini, “Morte di Cesare”, 1798,

The Roman Imperial period which emerged would later split in two, ending in the final dissolution of the Western Roman Empire on September 4, 476, when Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Empire, was deposed by the Germanic chieftain, Odoacer.

The Eastern Empire, originally known as Byzantium, would last for another thousand years. The end came on May 29, 1453, when the capital city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who came to call the city “Istanbul”.

Rome

 

April 20, 1453 Fall of Constantinople

The loss of Constantinople severed trade routes with Asia, forcing European powers to seek out water routes. Forty years later, Ferdinand and Isabella would discuss such a voyage of exploration with the Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus.

ConstantinopleFounded by Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos circa 657BC, the earliest days of Byzantium are clouded by legend.  Located on the easternmost peninsula where Europe becomes Asia, the city is surrounded on three sides, by water.

Besieged and all but destroyed by Rome in 196AD, the city soon regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade.  The Roman Emperor Constantine established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, which was later renamed Constantinople, in his honor.  What had been a fishing village a thousand years earlier was now the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, and would remain so for another thousand years.Theodosian walls

Emperor Theodosius built a set of walls around the landward side of the city in the 5th century.  Avars, Arabs, Rus and Bulgars would all come up against the Theodosian Walls, which were all but impregnable to the siege apparatus of the era.  Until the age of gunpowder.

Seige of Constantinople21-year-old Mehmed II began the final siege of Constantinople on April 6, 1453.  Commanding 120,000 attackers with an estimated 126 ships, Ottoman forces faced 7,000 to 12,000 Christian defenders with 26 ships, defending almost 3½ miles of land wall and another 9 miles of sea wall facing the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn.

Byzantine commander Constantine XI sent out a plea for reinforcements to Pope Nicholas V, who agreed to seek help despite centuries of animosity between the Eastern and Western Churches.   France and England were enmeshed in a hundred-years’ war at the time, Spain had a Reconquista to tend to.  The German Principalities were fighting each other.  No significant assistance ever appeared.

Giovanni Giustiniani arrived with 700 Genoese and Greek soldiers in January 1453, and was placed in command of the land walls.  Three Genoese galleys and a Byzantine blockade runner fought their way through the Ottoman blockading fleet on April 20th.  There would be no more help after that.

On land, Mehmed’s forces encircled the network of trenches, parapets and walls which made up the Theodosian defenses. At sea, he placed his forces on either side of the Bosporus, effectively cutting off the Black Sea and encircling the city on three sides.

A huge chain across the northern harbor, the “Golden Horn”, was all that kept Constantinople open on that side.

Huge siege cannon used in the final assaultMehmed placed his cannon into positions facing the wall. The largest, the monster “Basilica” was 27′ long, weighed 18 tons, and required a team of 60 oxen and 400 men to move it. It had a diameter of 30″, large enough for a grown man to crawl inside.  Its 150lb powder charge was capable of hurling a half-ton stone ball a distance of over a mile. While the weapon did catastrophic damage to the city walls, it took over three hours to reset after firing, and frantic efforts by the defenders were able to repair much of the damage between shots.

Fall-of-constantinople-1453. 1Serbian Sappers dug tunnels under the city, intending to undermine and blow out the walls, but Christian counter-miners broke into the tunnels and attacked them with swords, axes and Greek fire, an early form of napalm.

Unable to breach the chain, Mehmed ordered his ships portaged across dry land on greased logs, enabling them to enter the harbor and attack via the Golden Horn.  Burning vessels called “fire ships” were launched against them without success, requiring Constantine to spread out his already thin forces to defend multiple sides.

Holding a council of war with his advisors on May 26th, Mehmed ordered a massive assault carried out on the night of the 28th-29th, after a period of rest and prayer.

Mehmed’s poorly equipped, inferior “auxiliary” soldiers launched just after midnight. Fall of Constantinople, 1 These were the cannon fodder, their purpose to wear down the defenders in preparation for attacks by professional soldiers, the Bashi-Bazouks.  Then came the Janissaries, Christian slave warriors raised from childhood to be the elite of the Ottoman army,   Attackers stormed the walls by the tens of thousands, while Ottoman ships pounded the city from the harbor.

Christian defenses finally began to falter, as Giustiniani was badly wounded and taken to the rear. Constantine too was under heavy pressure, leading the defense of the Lycus Valley to the south. When Ottomans found the Kerkoporta gate to the north open, they surged into the city, opening additional gates.  Fanning out, Ottoman soldiers moved through Constantinople, killing at will.

hagia-sophia
Hagia Sofia

When Emperor Justinian finished construction in 537, the Hagia Sofia was the largest Christian cathedral in the world, remaining so for almost 1,000 years. Now Christian civilians in their thousands fled to the massive dome, barricading themselves inside where they prayed.

The Venetian surgeon Nicolò Barbaro wrote that “all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city”.  At last, the massive bronze doors of the Hagia Sofia were breached, and the Turks began to divide up civilians according to their value at the slave market. Thousands of civilians were killed and 30,000 either enslaved or deported.

In the weeks that followed, Pope Nicholas V called for an immediate crusade to recover the city, but none stepped forward to lead the effort. It was a turning point in Western history.  Many see the Fall of Constantinople as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The loss of Constantinople severed European trade routes with Asia, forcing European powers to seek out water routes.

Forty years later, Ferdinand and Isabella would discuss such a voyage of exploration with the Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus.

Christian artifacts and artworks were removed or plastered over as churches were converted into mosques.  Mehmed II became “Mehmed the Conqueror”, his greatest conquest “Kostantiniyye”, the name morphing to “Islambol” by the 18th century, meaning “City of Islam” or “Full of Islam”.  Today, the former seat of the Byzantine Empire is the 7th largest city on the planet, by population.  Istanbul.

hagia-sophia-interior_1 (1)
Hagia Sofia, Interior

 

March 29, 1973 Vietnam

This is no benign ideology we’re talking about, current estimates of citizens murdered by their own government in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

French Indo-China, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, was governed as a French Colonial territory since the late 19th century. The region came to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese after the fall of France, at the onset of WWII.  There arose a nationalist-communist army during this period, dedicated to throwing out the Japanese occupier.  It called itself the “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, or “Viet Minh”.

France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat in WWII, but soon faced the same opposition from the  army of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. What began as a low level, rural insurgency, later became a full-scale modern war when Communist China entered the fray in 1949.

The disastrous defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 led to French withdrawal dien_bien_phu-resupplyfrom Vietnam, the Geneva Convention partitioning the country into the communist “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the north, and the State of Vietnam in the south, led by Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Communist forces of the north continued to terrorize Vietnamese patriots in the north and south, with aid and support from communist China and the Soviet Union.

The student of history understands that nothing happens in a vacuum.  US foreign policy is no exception. International Communism had attempted to assert itself since the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871, and found its first major success with the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917.

Domino effectUS policy makers feared a “domino” effect, and with good cause. The 15 core nations of the Soviet bloc were soon followed by Eastern Europe, as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. Germany was partitioned into Communist and free enterprise spheres after WWII, followed by China, North Korea and so on across Southeast Asia.

This is no benign ideology we’re talking about, current estimates of citizens murdered by their own government in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.Paddy

Agree or disagree with policy makers of the time, that’s your business, but they followed a logical thought process. US aid and support for South Vietnam increased as a way to “stem the tide” of international communism, at the same time that French support was pulling back. By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the “National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam” (“NLF”, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders. JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam in 1961.

Vietnam War CiviliansThe war in Vietnam pitted as many as 1.8 million allied forces from South Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand, against about a half million from North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

Even then it wasn’t over. Communist forces violated cease-fire agreements before they were signed. Some 7,000 US civilian Department of Defense employees stayed behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting an ongoing and ultimately futile war against communist North Vietnam.Three_soldiers

The last, humiliating scenes of the war played themselves out on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 29 and 30, 1975, as those who could boarded helicopters, while communist forces closed around the South Vietnamese capital.

In the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war.  We continue to feel the political repercussions, to this day. I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968. I remember feeling horrified at the way some of my fellow Americans conducted themselves. I came to feel at that time as I do to this day, that anyone who has a problem with our country’s war policy, needs to take it up with a politician.  Not a member of the military,

.The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia followed between 1975-‘79, when the “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build their perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of the alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone until it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among the more than three million “boat people”.  Three million from a combined population of 56 million, fleeing the Communist onslaught in hopes of temporary asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia or China.Vietnamese_boat_people

They were the Sino-Vietnamese Hoa, and Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Ethnic Laotians, Iu Mien, Hmong and other highland peoples of Laos.  The 30 or so Degar (Montagnard) tribes in the Central Highlands, so many of whom had been our steadfast allies in the late war.  Over 2.5 million of them were resettled, more than half to the United States.  The other half went mostly to Canada, Europe and South Pacific nations.   A half-million were repatriated, voluntarily or involuntarily.  Hundreds of thousands vanished in their attempt to flee.

The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979-’80, but reverberations continued into the 21st century.  The last boat people were repatriated from Malaysia in 2005.  Thailand deported 4,000 Hmong refugees in 2009.

There were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the day it opened in 1982. Over the years, the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall. As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307.

Things they carried