September 9, 490BC Marathon

It has been said that western culture stands with one foot in Athens and the other, in Jerusalem. The stakes of what was about to happen on the beaches at Marathon, are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.

King Darius I, third King of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   200 years before the classical age of Greece, several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

The year was 499BC and this “Ionian Revolt” lasted, until 493BC.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Every night before dinner according to Herodotus, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Darius I

The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother with a trial.  They threw the ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.

25 centuries ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

Pheidippides

An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians.  The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.

The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance.   Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9.  With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for a week or more.

The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.

Facing a force more than twice as large their own, ten Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.

Greco Persian

A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters.  General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.

The stakes of what was about to come are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.

Athens itself stood defenseless, with every warrior here on the plain of Marathon. Miltiades spoke.  ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided.  Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights.  On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Marathon Charge

Weighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers.  Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.

Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held.  Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an “Antifa” mob.

Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact.  “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.

Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats.  6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand. An unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Marathon Battle

In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.

That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later.  It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent.  No wonder.  The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.

Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet.  The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.

Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire.  The Persian King, would return.

August 25, 1830 A Scrap of Paper

The story of how a night at the opera led to two world wars.

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars once belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. A Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

la muette

The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic and mostly French speaking, in contrast with the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north. 

Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant. Meanwhile high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, La Muette was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29, 1828.   During one performance a riot broke out during a particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland). 

It was August 25, 1830.

Soon the melee was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Meanwhile Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

Leopold_I_of_Belgium
Leopold I, 1st King of the Belgians

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence. Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

By this instrument Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation led by Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands had formally recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In 1914, Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight.  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the slow-moving behemoth, of Imperial Russia.  The only obstacles were the neutral states of Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Believing Great Britain would remain on the sidelines, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4, beginning a great sweep through Belgian territory into France. The government of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German assumptions were grievously mistaken.  Great Britain declared war within hours of the German invasion.

A regional squabble begun that June with the assassination of an Archduke would plunge the world into war, in August. Two world wars, really, with a 20-year break to grow a new generation, in-between.

August 3, 1914 Apocalypse

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

In 1869, Germany had yet to come into its own as an independent nation. Forty-five years later she was one of the Great Powers, of Europe.

Great Powers, 1914

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of her historic adversary, the French government had by that time increased compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the German’s military of a much larger population.

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 public life with a succession of women, who were not Mrs Caillaux. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, Madame Raynouard had become the second Mrs 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.

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

Cailloux Affair

It was the crime of the century.  This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ever ask for. It was the OJ trial, version 1.0, and the French public was transfixed.

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 following 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 to heel.

Balkan Troubles

Having given Austria his personal assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of her 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 that 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, little more that a bald pretext for war.  Czar Nicholas wired Vienna as late as the 27th proposing an international conference concerning Serbia, but to no avail. Austria responded that same day.  It was too late for such a proposal.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia the following day, the day on which Madame Caillaux was acquitted of the murder of Gaston Calmette, on the grounds of being a “crime of passion”.

As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia.  For Germany’s part, nothing was to be feared more than a two-front war with the “Russian Steamroller” to the east, and the French Republic to the west.  Germany invaded neutral Belgium in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which she sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the far larger Russian adversary.

russ-mob

On August 3, 1914, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey announced before Parliament his government’s intention to defend Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

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 every eight minutes.

Declaration

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

Sir Edward Grey

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.  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.

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 Moscow

Finally 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_map

The 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.

Waterloo, Chateau

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.

Waterloo_Cavalry

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.

Waterloo_Cavalry

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.

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.

Infantry Square

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.

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 17, 1775 Act Worthy of Yourselves

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren spoke to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

Bunker Hill, 2

Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, hemming in the British who controlled Boston and its surrounding waterways.

Reinforced and provisioned from the sea over which the Crown held undisputed control, British forces under General Sir Thomas Gage could theoretically remained in Boston, indefinitely.

The elevation of Breed’s and Bunker’s Hill across the river, changed that calculation.  Should colonial forces obtain artillery of their own, they would be able to rain down hell on British forces bottled up in Boston.  It was just this scenario that led Henry Knox into a New England winter later that year, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on the 13th that the British planned to break out of Boston within the week, taking the high ground of Dorchester Heights to the south and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of the Charlestown peninsula.

Bunker_Hill_by_Pyle

Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land to the southeast, which offered the more defensible hill from which to defend the peninsula.

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on June 17 to reveal a 130′ defensive breastwork across Breed’s hill. Major General William Howe was astonished. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect on the earthworks. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot which set fire to the town. Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by General Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

Bunker_hill_first_attack
First Assault

The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving survivors back down the hill to reform and try again. Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the British advanced up the hill for the third assault.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark, and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  The Militia was forced to retreat.

Bunker_hill_second_attack
Second Assault

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren.  Dr. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but the commission had not arrived as of yet.  On this day, he fought as a private soldier. He had been  but the commission had not yet taken effect.

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren spoke to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

“Act worthy of yourselves”. 

That they did.

Bunker_hill_final_attack
Final Attack

The Battle of Bunker Hill ended in victory for the British, in that they held the ground when the fighting was over. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 killed and 828 wounded, over a third of their number and more than twice those of the Militia.

One Eighth of all the British officers killed in the Revolution, died on Ephraim Breed’s Hill. General Henry Clinton wrote afterward, of the battle:  “A few more such victories” he said, “would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”.

June 10, 1944 Ghost Village

Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead”.

It was D+4 in the invasion of Normandy. The 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Das Reich”) had orders to stop the Allied advance. They were passing through the Limousin region in west central France when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that Waffen-SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held captive, by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

June 10, 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane

Forget for a moment the idiocy of our age and incontinent use of the term, “Nazi”. The people who committed the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane are like unto beasts and not to compared with anyone, from the modern world. May it come to pass that we never see their kind, again.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Streets

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, unaware they had confused the place with another village. Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square to have identity papers examined. The entire population of the village was there plus another 6, unfortunates caught riding their bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Women and children were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn where machine guns were already set up.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 1

The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Church

Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they tried to escape.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 4

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane age one week to 90 years, were murdered in just a few hours. The village was razed to the ground.

After the war a new village was built on a nearby location, and given the same name. President Charles de Gaulle ordered the original site to remain as is; a memorial to the cruelty of collective punishment and the savagery committed in countless places, by the Waffen-SS: the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki, Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo, and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto. And on, and on, and on.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Hardware

In 1999, French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour”. The village stands today as the Nazis left it, 78 years ago today.

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 5

The story was featured in the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. The first and final episodes of the program began with these words:

Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 3

May 7, 1945 Victory in Europe

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

Beginning on May 5, reporters from AP, Life magazine, and others began to sleep on the floor of Eisenhower’s red brick schoolhouse headquarters, for fear of stepping out and missing the moment. Adolf Hitler was dead by his own hand, the life of the German tyrant extinguished on April 30.

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

Instruments of Surrender, ww2

The signing of the instruments of surrender ending the most destructive war in history took place on Monday, May 7, at 2:41am, local time.   In Europe, World War II had come to an end.The German government announced the end of hostilities right away to its own people, but most of the Allied governments, remained silent.   It was nearly midnight the following day when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed a second instrument of surrender, in the Berlin headquarters of Soviet General Georgy Zhukov.

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle the matter while the rest of the world, waited.

ve-day-picadilly-square-750-1200x0-c-default

In England, May 7 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.” And 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”.

nintchdbpict000000727094

The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that of the Pacific. Even now, many months of savage combat lay ahead. President Harry Truman broadcast his own address to the nation at 9:00am on May 8, thanking President Roosevelt and wishing he’d been there to share the moment.

Franklin Delano 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”.

So it is that most of the world celebrates May 8 as Victory in Europe, “VE Day”, the day of formal cessation of all hostilities, by Nazi Germany. And yet in some sectors, the fighting continued.

German military operations officially ceased on May 8, a day celebrated as VE Day in in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe and Australia. VE Day occurs on May 9 in the former Soviet territories, and New Zealand.

Even so isolated pockets of resistance continued to surrender day through May 14-15. The “Georgian uprising” of some 400 German troops and 800 allied Georgian soldiers under German officers continued until May 20 on the Dutch island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel).

The last major battle in Europe concluded on May 25 between the Yugoslav Army and Croatian Armed Forces. One contingent of German soldiers lost radio communications in Spitsbergen in the Norwegian archipelago and surrendered to a group of seal hunters, on September 4. Two days after the formal surrender of Imperial Japan and the end of war, in the Pacific.

March 26, 1953 Polio

” Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn’t returned.” – David Oshinsky

When I was little a boy I once asked my mother. What is polio?  At the time I didn’t understand the look that crossed her face but I’ve thought about it, often.  What I saw that day was the realization that the nightmare which had terrorized her generation, was something her children would never have to fear.

Recall the terrors of the AIDS virus. Now, instead of the well understood vectors by which that virus is transmitted, imagine all the terrifying finality of that disease combined with the randomness, of the common cold. Like the Covid-19 nightmare of the last two years polio too was ever-present, but with far more lasting results.

The first major polio epidemic in the United States appeared in Vermont, when 132 cases were diagnosed in 1894. A larger outbreak killed 6,000 New York City residents in 1916, with over 27,000 cases diagnosed.

Wheelchair
Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered polio at the age of 39

Poliomyelitis tended to come out in the summer, disproportionately effecting children and young adults. 58,000 cases were reported in the 1952 epidemic alone, 3,145 of them died and another 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis.

A President of the United States suffered from polio, as a younger man. The press did their best to treat the matter with delicacy, but the disease left him able to stand only with great pain and difficulty, dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Others were doomed to 800-pound monstrosities called “iron lungs”, seven-foot long, “negative pressure ventilators” which reproduced the movements of breathing.  The Smithsonian Institution estimated that in 1959 some 1,200 Americans were dependent on iron lungs.  

Iron Lung

Today, modern “biphasic” ventilators (alternating negative/positive pressure) are worn like the cuirass of the conquistadors, all but replacing the iron lung.  As of 2014, there were only ten individuals left, living their lives in one of the things.

A story of inspiration: Martha was 13 that day in 1948 when the family buried her brother, Gaston.   The boy had died of poliomyelitis, a plague which had terrorized, a generation.  She didn’t tell her parents that night when she went to bed, that her body ached. Mom and Dad already had enough to worry about.  Martha was a year in the hospital before coming home, in an iron lung. She would spend the next 61 years of her life paralyzed from the neck down, dependent on the 7-foott metal tube in which she lived, to breathe.  I can personally think of nothing worse and yet Martha made the best of it, going on to earn high honors in high school and college, entertaining guests at her home and even writing a book once voice to text, became a reality.  

“I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.” You may be interested in the following radio segment about the life, of Martha Mason.

NPR All Things Considered segment describing the life, of Martha Mason

Early efforts to develop a vaccine, proved fruitless.  One New York University study produced no immunity whatever, at the cost of nine dead children.  Other vaccine trials used “volunteers” from state mental institutions.

Jonas-Salk-2

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, the son of Jewish immigrants of Irish descent. Daniel and Dora (Press) Salk were not themselves formally educated, but the couple kept their kids focused on school.

Salk attended City College of New York and New York University School of Medicine, taking the road less traveled on graduation from Med School. Instead of becoming a practicing physician, Salk went into medical research.

Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947, the following year beginning a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became the March of Dimes. The grant was funded to determine the number of polio types, but Salk took it several steps further. He saw it as an opportunity to develop a vaccine.

Polio Trials

It’s not widely known that the American Revolution took place during a smallpox pandemic. George Washington himself was a proponent of vaccinating, which, as with rabies, was always done with live virus.

Live virus vaccination carries obvious risks. Dr. Salk was interested in the way the body developed antibodies to killed virus. On March 26, 1953, Dr. Salk announced the successful test of a vaccination, to prevent polio. He and his team completed lab trials in 1954, injected themselves and volunteers alike, with inert virus. Having experienced no ill effects, field trials began a short time later.

Field trials of Dr. Salk’s vaccine were some of the most extensive in history. 20,000 physicians and public health officials were involved in the trial, along with 64,000 school personnel, 220,000 volunteers, and over 1,800,000 school children.

polio

News of the vaccine’s success was announced on April 12, 1955. Jonas Salk was hailed as a miracle worker. David Oshinsky, history professor at New York University and author of Polio: An American Story, tells a story about that day.

“The public was horribly and understandably frightened by polio. There was no prevention and no cure. Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family. I grew up in this era. Each summer, polio would come like The Plague. Beaches and pools would close — because of the fear that the poliovirus was waterborne. Children had to stay away from crowds, so they often were banned from movie theaters, bowling alleys, and the like. My mother gave us all a ‘polio test’ each day: Could we touch our toes and put our chins to our chest? Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn’t returned.”

David Oshinsky

Jonas Salk consumed over seven years of his life on his goal. When broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him “who owns the patent on this vaccine”, Dr. Salk replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Salk

All those years, all that time, work and effort, and even in the end the man took no personal financial interest in the result. A mortal virus afflicted the children of his generation. One man was going to lift heaven and earth if he had to, to stop it.

In the late 1950s, Salk became interested in building his own research institute. He searched for a site for over a year, until meeting San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, himself a polio survivor. Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new UC campus then planned for San Diego. In June of 1960, the citizens of San Diego overwhelmingly voted “yes”, to donate the land for Salk’s dream. Construction began with initial funding from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, and completed in 1967.

poliovaccina

Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80. A memorial at the Institute bearing his name reads: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

By 1979, the disease was eradicated from the United States.  The worldwide effort to wipe out polio began in 1988, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  20 million volunteers from virtually every country in the world have vaccinated over 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $11 billion. Worldwide, the incidence of new polio cases decreased by 99%.  Today, polio remains endemic in northern Nigeria and the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So it is that those of us born after 1955 can live out our lives in blissful ignorance, having no idea of the terrors our parents endured before us.

December 28, 1914 A Little Kindness

Small acts of kindness abound throughout the long and sordid history of human strife. You need only look for them.

John Rabe was a German businessman working for Siemens China Corporation for thirty years first in Mukden, Peking and Tientsin and later Shanghai and finally, Nanking. Along the way he joined the Nazi party rising to Deputy Group Leader, in local party operations.

Germany had longstanding economic ties with China during this time while WW1 found Germany and Japan, on opposite sides. During the 1930s, aggressively militaristic views brought the former adversaries, into common cause. Meanwhile, the Great Depression brought about a slowdown in Sino-German trade. The second Sino-Japanese war saw Nazi Germany take sides with Japan, a conflict culminating in one of the great atrocities of a century, full of government atrocities. The 1937 rape of Nanking.

Rabe estimated the Nanking massacre resulted in the death of 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese civilians while later estimates put the number, as high as 250,000. Committed Nazi though he was Rabe used his party credentials to appeal to Japanese authorities delaying the inevitable and allowing nearly a quarter million, to escape.

Scene from John Rabe, the movie

Returning to Berlin in 1938 Rabe delivered lectures featuring films and photographs of Japanese atrocities, in Nanking. He wrote Hitler himself asking the Fuhrer to intervene but the letter, was never delivered. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo before being released, at Siemans’ behest.

Rabe was arrested and interrogated after the war first by the Soviet NKVD and later, the British Army. A lengthy “de-Nazification” process and subsequent legal appeals left the Rabe family impoverished subsisting on wild seeds, dry bread, and little more. Dire as they were the family’s circumstances could have been worse. On hearing of their plight the citizens of Nanking raised some $2,000 USD, to help. Nanking’s Mayor personally traveled to Berlin in 1948 to deliver a stockpile of food, for the family. From mid-1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking continued to send the Rabe family a “Care package”, every month.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika

Much the same could be said of the “Lion of Africa“, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Returning home from German East Africa in the wake of WW1 Lettow-Vorbeck was a conquering hero, the only German commander of the Great War, undefeated in the field.

Vorbeck came to detest the upstart Hitler who eagerly attempted to recruit him, to the Nazi party. But for his war hero status Vorbeck’s invitation that Hitler go “f–k himself” may have earned him a firing squad. As it was the man lived out his days financially destitute with his home destroyed by allied bombs and heartbroken, over the loss of two sons. For a time Vorbeck was able to survive mostly by the help of food packages sent by adversaries from the earlier war, British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts.

The Hutu are an agricultural people living in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the largest of three distinct groups with 85% of the population in Rwanda, and Burundi. The Tutsis are a cattle herding people who, despite minority status represent the historic ruling class in a three-tiered patronage/client system not unlike the social system, of ancient Rome. At the bottom are the Twa people, an ancient pygmy hunter/gatherer caste representing less than 1 percent of the population.

In late 20th-century Rwanda, political power lay with the Tutsi minority. Rwanda entered a four-year civil war in 1990 with the aid of neighboring, Uganda.

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcast between July 8, 1993 and July 31, 1994. Called by many “the soundtrack to genocide” RTLM reached most of the Rwandan population with a program of contemporary music interspersed with a vile stream of racist hate propaganda directed by Hutu hardliners toward the Tutsi minority, Hutu moderates and others.

Kantano Habimana was a regulair on-air personality fond of suggesting that “those who have guns [to] immediately go to these cockroaches [and] encircle them and kill them…” The station’s only female presenter, Valérie Bemeriki would exhort listeners to “not kill those cockroaches with a bullet — cut them to pieces with a machete”. Belgium born Georges Ruggiu, the station’s only white personality reminded listeners that “graves were waiting to be filled“.

Talk about Hate Radio.

A vile youth group came into being during this time, called the Interahamwe. The name translates as “Those who work together” but native speakers understood. “Work” referred to killing. Guns were distributed to older members while the younger militia stockpiled machetes and other farm implements. Teachers instructed children to ask parents about their ethnicity and report their findings, back to school. Lists were compiled.

Rwanda under President Juvénal Habyarimana was a one-party dictatorship rife, with electoral fraud. The spark came on April 6, 1994 when the aircraft carrying the president was shot down, with no survivors.

The call went out within hours, across RTLM radio. It was “time to cut down the tall trees“. The average Tutsi stands nearly five inches taller than the average Hutu with many reaching seven feet and more. No one doubted what that meant.

Husbands turned on wives, neighbor on neighbor in a 100-day orgy of violence shocking, even by 20th century standards. Interahamwe militias and others fanned out across Rwanda with guns, machetes, hammers and clubs, savagely attacking Tutsis, even moderate Hutus and Twa. Every ten to twelve seconds for 100 days someone was murdered. Usually, hacked to pieces.

Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, managed the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali. Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana, a Tutsi, fled with the children but never made it to Kigali airport. Targeted by messages broadcast on RTLM radio Tatiana’s truck was singled out from her convoy, and attacked. She was among the lucky ones and managed to flee, to the hotel. Like African Oskar Schindlers the couple took in 1,268 Tutsi and Hutu refugees and hid them, for the duration.

They were the lucky ones. Tatiana herself lost her mother, brother, sister-in-law and four nieces and nephews in the genocide. Her father paid Hutu militia to shoot him outright and not subject him, to a more painful death.

“ With their machetes they would cut your left hand off. Then they would disappear and reappear a few hours later to cut off your right hand. A little later they would return for your left leg etc. They went on till you died. They wanted to make you suffer as long as possible. There was one alternative: you could pay soldiers so they would just shoot you. That’s what her [Tatiana’s] father did”.

Paul Rusesabagina

Rusesabagina himself lost four of eight siblings, a “comparatively lucky outcome” for a Rwandan family.

The Rusesabaginas were not alone in grasping for some shred of decency in the charnel house that was Rwanda during those three months, in 1994. The 22-year-old Hutu Olive Mukankusi found herself walking down a row of torched and burned out homes when she chanced upon two Tutsi girls 15 and 17 dazedly walking among the rubble. Former neighbors, Mukankusi knew what awaited these girls when the militias returned. She hid them in a banana beer pit, behind her two-room dirt floor home.

Olive knew that she herself would be killed if found out and yet she added a third, a 55-year-old woman, to her backyard hiding hole. The best of our kind met the worst when Olive was betrayed to the Interhamwe, by a neighbor. Brought to one of many killing places the four were saved only by the discovery of 20,000 francs sewed into the hem of Olive’s skirt, equivalent to $140 USD. She had just sold the year’s crop. It was all she had.

Olive Mukankusi, now 47

Taking the money the would-be killers wandered off, probably in search of something to drink. Olive’s husband supported her throughout the ordeal and yet was imprisoned for twelve years suspected of being a killer, and not a protector. No good deed goes unpunished.

No fewer than 300 such episodes have been identified during those 90-days in Rwanda when as few as a half-million were hacked to death by their neighbors and perhaps, as many as 1.2 million.

With over 200,000 combatants the Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the largest and bloodiest battles, of the American Civil War.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland gathered up as many canteens as he could carry and stepped into the no man’s land, between the two watching armies.  Sergeant Kirkland stayed out there for an hour and a half while no one fired. None so much as even moved.  There between two hostile armies which had only yesterday torn each other to bits, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” tended to the wounded and dying adversary here straightening out a shattered leg and there covering a wounded man with a warm overcoat and always, the mercy of a drink of water.

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Under cover as a visiting nurse Irena Sendler removed as many as 2,400 Jewish infants and children and another 100 teenagers from the Warsaw ghetto with the help of a little dog, trained to bark at Nazi soldiers.

Irena Sendler

Sendler would travel daily to the ghetto, and soon started to smuggle Jewish babies out in the bottom of a medical bag.  She’d place soiled bandages around and over sedated babies to keep guards from looking too closely. She carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck. Sometimes she’d use that or even a coffin to smuggle larger children and even teenagers out of the ghetto, other times leading them out through cellars or sewers.

She was caught by the Gestapo in 1943, betrayed by a colleague under torture, and by a nosy landlady.  Nazi interrogators beat her savagely, but she never gave up any of those children.

Irena lasted 100 days in Pawiak prison, a place where the average inmate survived less than a month.  She was at last returned to the Gestapo and stood against a wall for execution, too broken to care. One SS guard said “not you” and roughly shoved her out of the door, and into the street. He’d been bribed by her friends and was himself later discovered, and executed.

The B-17 bomber “Ye Olde Pub” made a successful run against the munitions factory in Bremen, but paid a terrible price. The aircraft was savaged by German fighters, great parts of the air frame torn away, a wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns.

Pilot Charles Brown had been knocked out at one point and came around just in time to avert a fatal dive. Barely able to maintain altitude and well inside of German air space the pilot’s blood ran cold at the sight of that sleek German fighter arriving just off his left wing tip.

The two men were so close they could look into each other’s eyes.

“He’s going to destroy us,” the American said out loud. This was his first mission.  He was sure it was about to be his last.

Franz Stigler needed only one more kill to become an Ace and this one, was going to be easy. Except, peering into the eyes of his adversary Stigler remembered the words of his flight instructor, Hans Roedel. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy” Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

Stigler knew the Nazis would shoot him if he got this close without making the kill and so he signaled “proceed”, and he peeled away.

Charles Brown and Franz Stigler met many years later and became fast friends, and frequent fishing buddies. The pair died only six months apart when Stigler was 92 and Brown, 87.

In their obituaries, each man was mentioned as the other’s “Special Brother”.

Perhaps the best known of many such acts of human kindness began on Christmas eve 1914 and continued through this day and in some sectors, for another two weeks.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

Tommies responded back. Silent Night. They saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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

In the wake of the Doolittle raid of 1942, 250,000 Chinese civilians were destroyed by Japanese soldiers in the hunt for the American flyers. Not one was ever betrayed.

So, as we close this Christmas season 2021 and turn to a new year we might remember, that these stories are but a few. Our kind is capable of great savagery but also, great kindness.

What if it’s as simple as that and it’s always been, nothing more than a choice?

December 6, 1240 Mongol

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests, “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. Likewise could be said of the Mongol Empire. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute. 

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There is no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girl

The Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History fails to record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

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The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words, “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, every man capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed the rider to fire in any direction, including to the rear. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his mounts, fresh. 

While medieval armies encumbered with long baggage trains sometimes averaged only single digits and rarely exceeded twelve miles at a time, Mongol riders could cover 100 miles and more, in a day.  Vast hordes of these people could appear outside of city gates often, even before news of their presence.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of an American football field.  High, arching ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 pounds.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

Following the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake with all its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev in modern Ukraine, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required all Princes of the Blood to return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, in what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That all came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of all those books, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad range from 90,000 to an eye-popping one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Mongols never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for pyramids of skulls left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific it’s hard to get your head around. World War 2, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests, “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. Likewise could be said of the Mongol Empire. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute. 

Catalan-Atlas-depicting-Marco-Polo-traveling-to-the-East-during-the-Pax-Mongolica
The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished under Mongol control throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black Death

Mongols ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), but never regained the high ground of December 1241 as chieftains fell to squabbling, over bloodlines.

And yet, the Mongols never went away. Not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals up to 8 percent of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population at this time, to descend directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his tiny little fist.  Genghis Khan.

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