October 15, 1917 Mata Hari

Despite problems at home, the Dutch mail order bride found herself moving among the upper classes. She immersed herself in Indonesian culture and traditions, even joining a local dance company. It was around this time that she revealed her “artistic” name in letters home: “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”), in Sanskrit.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876, the eldest of four children. “M’greet” to family and friends, she answered a newspaper ad placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, then stationed in the Dutch East Indies, in modern day Indonesia.

She’d come from a broken home.  Being a “mail order bride” must have seemed like the way to financial security.  The marriage was a disappointment, MacLeod was a drunk and openly kept a mistress.  Margaretha moved in with another Dutch officer some time in 1897.

Mata_Hari_postcardDespite problems at home, the Dutch mail order bride found herself moving among the upper classes. She immersed herself in Indonesian culture and traditions, even joining a local dance company. It was around this time that she revealed her “artistic” name in letters home: “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”), in Sanskrit.

Margaretha Zelle was divorced by 1905, and becoming known as an exotic dancer. She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement.  As Mata Hari, she played the more exotic aspects of her background to the hilt, projecting a bold and in-your-face sexuality that was unique and provocative for her time.

She claimed to be a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, immersed since childhood in the sacred art of Indian dance. Carefree and thoroughly uninhibited, she was photographed in the nude or the next thing to it on many occasions during this period, becoming the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet.

The world stood still at the beginning of World War I, but not Margaretha Zelle. By 1914 her dancing days were over, but she was a famous courtesan, moving among the highest social and economic levels of her time. Her neutral Dutch citizenship allowed her to move about without restriction, but not without a price. Zelle’s movements brought her under suspicion of being a German Agent, and she was arrested in the English port of Falmouth. She was taken to Scotland Yard for interrogation in 1916, but later released.
Mata-Hari_1910

French authorities arrested her on February 13, 1917, in her room at the Hotel Elysee Palace, in what is now the banking giant HSBC’s French headquarters. She was kept in prison as the case was prepared against her, all the while writing to the Dutch Consul in Paris, proclaiming her innocence. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else”, she wrote. “I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself”.

Her defense attorney, Edouard Clunet, never really had a chance. He couldn’t cross examine the prosecution’s witnesses or even directly question his own.  Her conviction was a foregone conclusion.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was executed by a French firing squad on October 15, 1917.  She was 41.

Mata_Hari statueBritish reporter Henry Wales described the execution, based on an eyewitness account. Unbound and refusing a blindfold, Mata Hari stood alone to face her firing squad.  After the shots rang out, Wales reported that “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.”

An NCO walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead.

German documents unsealed in the 1970s indicate that Mata Hari did, in fact, provide information to German authorities, though it seems to have been of limited use.  It is possible to believe that she was little more than a young woman, with a fondness for men in uniform.  French authorities built her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century”, though that may have been little more than covering up for their own disastrous performance in the Nivelle offensive.

French officers from whom she ostensibly got all that information, seem not to have been questioned.

The whole truth may never be known, but the tale of the real-life exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent, is a story that’s hard to resist.

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October 4, 1918 The Lost Battalion

“WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT”.

The Argonne Forest is a long strip of wild woodland and stony mountainside in northeastern France, a hunting preserve since the earliest days of the Bourbon Kings.  For most of WWI, the Argonne remained behind German lines.  On October 2, 1918, nine companies of the US 77th “Metropolitan Division”, roughly 554 men, came to take part of it back.

Lieutenant Colonel CW Whittlesey
Lieutenant Colonel CW Whittlesey

Their objective was the Charlevaux ravine and a road & railroad on the other side, cutting off German communications in the sector.

As heavy fighting drew to a close on the first day, the men found a way up hill 198 and began to dig in for the night.   Major Charles White Whittlesey, commanding, thought that things were too quiet that first night.  Orders called for them to be supported by two American units on their right and a French force on their left.

That night, the voices drifting in from the darkness, were speaking German.

The 77th had come up against a heavily defended double trench line and, unknown at the time, allied forces to the left and right had been cut off and stalled. Now they were alone, and surrounded.

The fighting was near constant on the fourth, with no chance of getting a runner through.   Whittlesey dispatched a message by carrier pigeon, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.”

The last thing that German forces wanted was for an enemy messenger to get through, and the bird went down in a hail of German bullets.  Whittlesey grabbed another pigeon and wrote “Men are suffering.  Can support be sent?”.  That second bird would be shot down as well.

cher-ami
Cher Ami

On day three, the “lost battalion” came under fire from its own artillery.  Whittlesey grabbed his third and last carrier pigeon, “Cher Ami”, and frantically wrote out his message.

German gunfire exploded from the high ridges above them as this bird, too, fluttered to the ground.  Soon she was up again, flying out of sight despite the hail of bullets.  She arrived in her coop 65 minutes later, shot through the breast and blind in one eye.  The message, hanging by a single tendon from a leg all but shot off, read:  “WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT“.

Drops of food and supplies were attempted from the air, but all ended up in German hands.

lost battalion, map

The lost battalion was isolated for 6 days. Food and ammunition were running out.  Water was available from a nearby stream, but only at the cost of exposure to German fire.  Bandages had to be removed from the dead in order to treat the wounded. Medicine was completely out and men were falling ill.  All the while, they were fighting off German attacks from all sides.

When they were finally relieved on the 8th, only 194 were able to walk out on their own.

Edward Grant attended Dean Academy in his home town of Franklin, Massachusetts, before graduating from Harvard University.  “Harvard” Eddie Grant became a Major League ballplayer, playing utility infielder for the Cleveland Indians as early as 1905.  Grant would aggravate his fellow infielders, calling the ball with the grammatically correct “I have it”, instead of the customary “I got it”.  Grant played for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds, before retiring from the New York Giants and opening a Law Office in Boston. He was one of the first men to enlist when the US entered WWI in 1917, becoming a Captain in the 77th Infantry Division, A.E.F.

Captain Grant was killed leading a search for the Lost Battalion on October 5, becoming the first major league baseball player to die in the Great War.

Captain Eddie Grant
Third Baseman-turned soldier, Captain Edward Leslie Grant, the 1st Major League ball player killed in WW1

Eddie Grant was honored on Memorial Day, 1921, as representatives of the US Armed Forces and Major League Baseball joined his sisters to unveil a plaque in center field at the Polo Grounds. From that day until the park closed in 1957, a wreath was solemnly placed at the foot of that plaque after the first game of every double header.  He is memorialized by the Edward L. Grant Highway in The Bronx, and by Grant Field at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts.

Cmoh_armyMajor Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, and Captain Nelson Holderman, all received the Medal of Honor for their actions atop hill 198.  Whittlesey was accorded the rare honor of being a pallbearer at the interment ceremony for the Unknown Soldier, but it seems his experience weighed heavily on him.  Charles Whittlesey disappeared from a ship in 1921, in what is believed to have been a suicide.

James Leak described his experience with the Lost Battalion, at an Abilene Christian College gathering in 1938.  “[T]he “Lost Battalion””, he said, is entirely a misnomer…it was not “Lost”. We knew exactly where we were”, he said, “and went to the exact position to which we had been ordered”.

LostBattalionMonument
Monument to the Lost Battalion, Argonne Forest, France.

October 2, 1918 1st Division Rags

Rags survived our nation’s deadliest battle with the loss of an eye, but Donovan wasn’t so lucky. He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

Private James Donovan was AWOL.  He had overstayed his leave in the French town of Montremere, and the ‘Great War’, awaited.

When the two MPs found him, Donovan knew he had to think fast. He reached down and grabbed a stray dog, explaining to the two policemen that he was part of a search party, sent out to find the Division Mascot.

RagsIt was a small dog, possibly a Cairn Terrier mix. He looked like a pile of rags, and that’s what they called him.  The dog had gotten Donovan out of a jam, now he would become the division mascot for real. Rags was now part of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

Instead of “shaking hands”, Donovan taught him a sort of doggie “salute”.  Rags would appear at the flag pole for Retreat for years after the war, lifting his paw and holding it by his head.  Every time the flag was lowered and the bugle played, there was that small terrier, saluting with the assembled troops.

Donovan’s job was hazardous. He was on the front lines, stringing communications wire between advancing infantry and supporting field artillery. Runners were used to carry messages until the wire was laid, but they were frequently wounded, killed or they couldn’t get through the shell holes and barbed wire.

The dog learned to imitate the men around him, who would drop to the ground and hug it tightly during artillery barrages. He would hug the ground with his paws spread out, soon the doughboys noticed him doing it before any of them knew they were under fire. Rags’ acute and sensitive hearing became an early warning system, telling them that shells were incoming well before anyone heard them.

Rags-3
A great book, if you want to learn more.

Donovan trained Rags to carry messages attached to his collar.  On October 2, 1918, Rags carried a message from the 26th Infantry Regiment to the 7th Field Artillery.  The small dog’s successful mission resulted in an artillery barrage, leading to the capture of the Very-Epinonville Road.

An important objective had been taken, with minimal loss of life to the American side.

Rags was small and fast, and often ran messages across open battlefield. The terrier’s greatest trial came a week later, during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. The small dog ran through falling bombs and poison gas to deliver his message. Mildly gassed and partially blinded, shell splinters damaged his right paw, eye and ear. Rags survived and, as far as I know, got his message where it needed to be.

Rags survived our nation’s deadliest battle with the loss of an eye, but Donovan wasn’t so lucky. He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

Rags recovered quickly, but Donovan did not.  Donovan was transferred to the United States, and brought to the Fort Sheridan base hospital near Chicago, where medical staff specialized in gas cases.  It was here that the dog was given a collar and tag, identifying him as 1st Division Rags.  Donovan died of his injuries, in early 1919.  Rags moved into the base fire house becoming “post dog”, until being adopted by Major Raymond W. Hardenbergh, his wife and two daughters, in 1920.Rags Grave

The 1st Division marched down Broadway in 1928, part of the division’s 10th anniversary WW1 reunion, a small terrier-mix in the vanguard.

Rags lived out the last of his years in Maryland.  A long life it was, too, the dog lived until 1934, remaining the 1st Infantry Division for all his 20 years.

On March 22, 1934, the 16-paragraph obituary in the New York Times began: “Rags, Dog Veteran of War, Is Dead at 20; Terrier That Lost Eye in Service is Honored.”

October 1, 1918 Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence tried to convince his superiors that Arab independence was in their own best interest, but found himself undermined by the Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated in secret between French and British authorities with the backing of the Russian government, back in May 1916.

In 1879, 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence arrived at Killua Castle in Tremadog, Wales, the estate of Sir Thomas Chapman and his wife, Edith.  Sarah had come to work as governess for their four daughters, but would soon become more than a mere employee.

The affair between the Victorian Aristocrat and the domestic servant produced a son, born in secret in 1885.  When the scandal was discovered, Chapman left his wife and moved his new mistress to England.  Edith never did grant a divorce, so the couple adopted Sarah’s last name and pretended to be husband and wife.  The couple’s second of five children, Thomas Edward Lawrence, learned the true identity of his parents only after his father’s death in 1919.

TE LawrenceTE, as Lawrence preferred to be called, was reading books and newspapers by the age of four.  He first went to the Middle East as an archaeology student in 1909, walking 1,100 miles across Syria, Palestine, and parts of Turkey, surveying the castles of the Crusaders for his thesis.  During this time he was shot at, robbed and severely beaten.  Despite all of it, TE Lawrence developed an affinity for the Middle East and its people, which would last a lifetime.

In 1914, the British government sent Lawrence on an expedition across the Sinai Peninsula and Negev desert.  Ostensibly an archaeological expedition, this was in reality a secret military survey, of lands then controlled by the Ottoman Turks.

Lawrence joined the Army after WWI broke out that August, taking a desk job as an intelligence officer in Cairo.

You may picture the man as 6’3” Peter O’Toole, especially if you’ve seen the movie.  In reality, Lawrence was always self-conscious about his 5’5” stature.  It irritated him to have a safe desk job, while millions were dying on the front.  The guilt must have become overwhelming when two of his younger brothers were killed in 1915.

TE Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, of 1916 – 1918

The Ottoman Empire was in decline at this time, the “Sick Man of Europe”, though still one of the Great Powers.  The Hashemite Kingdom of the Arabs had long chafed under Ottoman rule, particularly following the “Young Turk” coup of 1908, when secular, Turkish nationalism replaced the formerly pan-Islamic unity of the Caliphate.

Seeing his chance to break away and unify the Arab Lands and trusting in the honor of British officials who promised support, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs, saw his chance and launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, in 1916.

Despite having zero military training, Lawrence took to the field at the outbreak of hostilities.

Lawrence and FeisalDressing himself in the flowing Arab Thawb, Lawrence joined the forces of Ali’s son, Feisal.

In theory, the Hejaz Railway could take you from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople to the Arab city of Medina, some 1,800 miles distant, without your feet ever touching the ground. In reality, the rail line was a ripe target for attackers. By his own count, TE Lawrence “scientifically” destroyed 79 bridges, a method of his own perfection by which bridges were destroyed but left standing, requiring Turkish workmen to dismantle the wreckage before repairs could begin.

Lawrence was captured in 1916, subjected to beatings, torture, and homosexual rape by the Governor of Daraa, Hajim Bey, a man he described as an “ardent pederast”.

Lawrence at Aqaba
Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917

Lawrence escaped, though shattered by the experience, joining the desert guerilla war against the Turk.  He would take risks that he would not order on his followers, spying behind enemy lines, leading camel charges, blowing up trains and enduring the hardships of the desert.  Lawrence would suffer dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, in raids that tied up thousands of Ottoman troops and undermined their German ally.

By the summer of 1918, there was a price on his head.  One officer wrote “Though a price of £15,000 has been put on his head by the Turks, no Arab has, as yet, attempted to betray him. The Sharif of Mecca [King of the Hedjaz] has given him the status of one of his sons, and he is just the finely tempered steel that supports the whole structure of our influence in Arabia“.

2,000 years after the Apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Road to Damascus, “Lawrence of Arabia” entered the defeated city on October 1, 1918.  Like many, Lawrence saw Damascus as the future capital of a united Arab state.  Lawrence tried to convince his superiors that Arab independence was in their own best interest, but found himself undermined by the Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated in secret between French and British authorities with the backing of the Russian government, back in May 1916.

FeisalPartyAtVersaillesCopy
Feisal party at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. H/T Wikimedia Commons

Lawrence was furious, believing that what had been won by Arab arms, should remain in Arab hands.  Interrupting the praise of his own exploits at a war cabinet meeting, Lawrence snapped ‘Let’s get to business. You people don’t understand yet the hole you have put us all into.’  He refused a knighthood personally given him by King George V, thinking instead that he’d been summoned to discuss Arab borders.

Lawrence_in_Arabia, 1919
Lawrence of Arabia, 1919

In the end, the pan-Arab kingdom of the Hashemites was never meant to be.  The Middle East was carved into zones of English and French influence, and Lawrence never did come to terms with the betrayal.

Today, Lawrence of Arabia is the subject of three major motion pictures, and at least 70 biographies.  A prolific writer himself, author  of countless letters and at least twelve major works, Lawrence seems to have disliked the fame which had come his way.  “To have news value”, he would say, “is to have a tin can tied to one’s tail”.  TE Lawrence would go on to serve under a series of assumed names, his latest being TE Shaw, possibly a nod to his close friend, the Irish playwright and noted polemicist, George Bernard Shaw.

Brough_Superior_of_T.E._Lawrence
The Brough Superior motorcycle, T. E. Lawrence’s eighth, was awaiting delivery when he died. It is at the Imperial War Museum.

An avid motorcyclist, Lawrence would ride 500-700 miles a day, once even racing a Sopwith Camel biplane.  He owned several Brough (rhymes with rough) motorcycles, the last a Brough Superior SS100.  This thing came with a certificate, guaranteeing that it would do 0-100 within ¼ mile.

There is a roadside memorial in Dorset, marking the spot where TE Lawrence went over the handlebars, trying to avoid two boys on bicycles.  He was forty-six.  Mourners at his funeral would include Winston and Clementine Churchill, novelist EM Forster, and his last surviving brother, Arnold.

LawrenceTo most of us, the desert is an inscrutable place, as is the mind, culture and history of the Middle East.  Few westerners would ever get to know this part of the world like TE Lawrence.

Lawrence taught us a bit about all of it, when he said “Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the free holding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression”.

 

September 15, 1916 Tank

With no suspension, the bone jarring ride on one of these monsters was just the beginning of what crews were forced to endure.

Tank - leonardo-da-vincis-tank-inventionLeonardo da Vinci drew sketches of a man-powered, wheeled vehicle encased in armor and bristling with cannon, as early as the 15th century. The design was limited, since no human crew could generate enough power to move it for long, and the use of animals in such confined spaces was fraught with problems..

H.G. Wells’ December 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads”, depicted huge military land vessels, capable of disrupting military defenses and clearing the way for infantry. Wells’ machine was equipped with 8 giant pedrail wheels, each 10′ in height, and armed with cannon and machine-guns.

Early armored cars were fine for moving personnel over smooth roads, but there was a need for a vehicle capable of navigating the broken terrain of no man’s land. In the run-up to WWI, several soon-to-be belligerents were conducting experiments with “land ships”, with varying degrees of success.

Breton-Pretot machine

A French captain named Levavasseur proposed a crawler-tracked armored vehicle equipped with artillery as early as 1903, but the project was abandoned by the Artillery Technical Committee. Later French attempts included the Breton-Pretot machine, sporting huge 10’ x 13’ tracks and the Aubriot-Gabet “Fortress”.  Electrically powered, each of these things required its own power supply cable.  Needless to say, the idea was not widely imitated.

Tank, Tsar Tank
Russian Tsar Tank

In 1911, Austrian engineering officer Günther Burstyn and Australian civil engineer Lancelot de Mole independently developed working models of such vehicles, but both designs were rejected by their governments.  They too would never be built.

The most unusual tank of WWI was the tricycle designed “Lebedenko” or “Tsar Tank”.  Developed by pre-Soviet Russia, the armament and crew quarters on this thing were 27′ from the ground, making them irresistible targets for enemy artillery.

Tank Vezdekhod
Vezdekhod

Russian shipyard engineer Vasily Mendeleev designed a 170-ton monster while aero-engineer Aleksandr Porokhovschikov developed a small cross country vehicle running on a single rubber track called the “Vezdekhod”, translating as “He who goes anywhere“.

The Russian Revolution would overtake the project before it got out of prototype, but post-revolutionary Russian propagandists would seize on the vehicle as “proof” that Russia had designed the first Tank.

Tank, Tritton_Trench_Crosser_1915
Tritton_Trench_Crosser_1915

The British had the greatest degree of success, after a failed experiment with the “Tritton Trench-Crosser” in May, 1915. This beast had 8′ tractor wheels carrying 15’ girders on a chain, which were lowered into a trench so that the back wheels could roll over it.  Girders would then drag behind, until the machine could back over them and rewind.

Finally, British work with the Holt Manufacturing Company of Stockton, California paid off with the most consistently successful track design. These “Caterpillar” treads had long been used on tractors. By 1916, the British army was using about 1,000 of Holt’s Caterpillar tractors on the Western Front.

Tank, Mk 1 BigWillie
Mark I “Big Willy”

These were the pet project of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who described them as “Water Carriers” to mask their intended purpose.

No self-respecting Brit wanted to be associated with “WCs”, (“Water Closets”), so it was that these contraptions were destined to be known as “Water Tanks”, or just plain Tanks.  The name stuck.  The “No1 Lincoln Machine” gave way to “Little Willie” and finally the Mark I “Big Willie”, the familiar Rhomboid shaped caterpillar track design which first appeared on the Somme Front on this day in 1916.

49 Mark Is were committed in that first tank battle, of which 32 were mechanically sound enough to take part in the advance. German lines fell back in confusion before “der Wagen des Teufels“, “the Devil’s Wagon”, but they were too few to hold.

Tank, MaskWith no suspension, the bone jarring ride on one of these monsters was just the beginning of what crews were forced to endure.

The interior was so loud that communication was only possible via hand signal.  When bullets stuck the metal plates, splinters called “spall” would break away from the interior and fly about the cabin, requiring crew members to protect themselves with thick leather clothing and chain mail masks.

Interior temperatures rose to 122° Fahrenheit and more, making me wonder if these things weren’t as dangerous to their own crews as they were to the other side.

It was not until November 20 the following year at Cambrai, that the British Tank Corps had their first major success. Over 400 tanks penetrated 6 miles on a 7-mile front.  The infantry failed to exploit the tanks’ gains, and almost all territory was recaptured by the Germans. The British scored a far more significant victory on August 8, 1918, with 600 tanks at the Battle of Amiens. General Erich Ludendorff called it a “Black Day” for the German Army.

Tank - A7V
A7V

In all, the French fielded about 3,600 light Renault FT tanks in WWI, the British over 2,500 of their heavy Mark I-Vs.

The German General Staff was slow to adopt the tank, concentrating instead on anti-tank weapons. The majority of the 50+/- tanks fielded by Germany in WWI, were captured British vehicles.

The only German project to be produced and fielded in WWI was the A7V.  They only made 20 of these things in the armored, “Sturmpanzerwagen Oberschlesien“, “Upper Silesia Assault Armored Vehicle” version, and a few more in the unarmored “Überlandwagen”, “Over-land vehicle”, used for cargo transport.

It would be very different, in the next war.

August 25, 1830  Night at the Opera

In 1914, Imperial Germany took a straight line through neutral Belgium into France, believing that Great Britain would never honor a “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839. 

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, formerly belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. It was a Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic, and mostly French speaking, in contradistinction to the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north.  Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant, and high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.la muette

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, it was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29 1828.   During an August 25, 1830 performance, a riot broke out during one particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland).  Soon it 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.  Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

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, and Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.Leopold_I_of_Belgium

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium militarily, 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.

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 August 1914, Imperial Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight, (Germany vs France & Russia).  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the second.  Imperial Germany took a straight line through neutral Belgium into France, believing that Great Britain would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German calculations were grievously mistaken.  A regional squabble had begun that June, with an assassination in the Balkans.  That miscalculation would plunge the world into two world wars.

August 17, 1917  Black Swallow of Death

French President Charles de Gaulle came to New York City in 1960, surprising media and dignitaries alike when all he wanted to do was to visit with a black elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene James Bullard was born October 9, 1894 in Columbus Georgia, the seventh of 10 children born to William Octave Bullard and an indigenous Creek named Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas.  Bullard’s father had come from Martinique, where his people could trace their lineage back to the Haitian Revolution.

Eugene wanted to leave behind the racial discrimination of his day.  The near-lynching of his father became the catalyst in 1902, when the boy was eight.  He ran away from home, spending the next four years doing odd jobs to survive  The elder Bullard had always told him “in France a man is accepted as a man regardless of the color of his skin”.   In 1906, the boy stowed away on a German ship to Aberdeen.

Bullard worked a number of odd jobs to support himself.  By age 16 he was becoming well known as a boxer, and moved to Paris at the first opportunity.

WWI broke out in August of 1914.  By the end of the year the French nation had suffered over a half million casualties.Ace-Website-Banner-1

Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, an American serving as one of 54 different nationalities serving in the Moroccan Division, Third Marching Regiment.

The Regiment was sent to the Somme front in 1915, where 300,000 Frenchmen were lost by the end of November. One unit of 500 men began the disastrous Champagne offensive of September.    At the end of the battle, 31 responded to the first evening’s roll call.

What remained of Bullard’s unit was disbanded to form the 170th Infantry, and sent to Verdun.  He thought he had arrived in hell, saying, “I thought I had seen fighting in other battles but no one has ever seen anything like Verdun – not ever before or ever since.”

Erich von Falkenhayn had designed his battle plan for Verdun to “bleed France white”, calling Verdun Operation Gericht.  Operation Execution Place.  Over 250,000 died in the 10 months long battle, more than 100,000 were missing and 300,000 gassed or wounded.

Bullard had been wounded four times before.  On March 5th 1916, he received the wounds that took him out of the ground war.  He was 8 months in hospital when the opportunity arose to join the French Flying Corps.  A white American buddy bet him $2,000 that he couldn’t get into aviation and become a pilot, and he took the challenge.  Bullard earned his wings on May 5, 1917, and received his $2,000 soon thereafter.

Bullard and JimmyBullard was assigned to the 93d Spad Squadron on August 17, 1917, flying Spad V11s and Nieuports with a mascot, a pet Rhesus Monkey he called “Jimmy”.  He said, “I was treated with respect and friendship – even by those from America.  Then I knew at last that there are good and bad white men just as there are good and bad black men.”

The first black combat pilot and the only one to serve in the Great War, Bullard painted a bleeding red heart pierced by a knife on the side of his Spad biplane. Below the heart were the words “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” The phrase roughly translates as “All Blood Runs Red”.

Bullard is credited with two kills while flying for the 93rd, though one of the Germans crashed behind enemy lines so it remained unconfirmed.  He tried to join the American squadron when the US entered the war, but the whites only policy of the time prevented him from doing so.

Bullard married in 1923.  The marriage ended in divorce, with Bullard gaining custody of their two surviving daughters (a son had died of pneumonia in infancy).   He became a drummer at the jazz club, “Le Grand Duc”, later buying his own club and calling it “L’Escadrille”.  Bullard made several famous friends during this time, including Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and the French flying ace Charles Nungesser.

He volunteered with the 51st Infantry when WWII broke out, becoming wounded and escaping to the United States in 1940.Bullard, medals

Bullard spent his last days in obscurity. His daughters had married by the 1950s, and he lived alone in a New York apartment, decorated with pictures of his famous friends and a framed case containing his fifteen French war medals.  He worked as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center, where nobody knew anything about his service.

The French government requested his presence in 1954, when he and two white Frenchmen were accorded the honor of relighting the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at l’Arc de Triomphe.

France honored Bullard once again in 1959, naming him a Knight of the Légion d’honneur in a lavish ceremony in New York City. Dave Garraway interviewed him on the Today Show, but he remained alone and unknown in his native country.quote-tout-le-sang-qui-coule-rouge-all-blood-is-red-eugene-bullard-71-83-05

French President Charles de Gaulle came to New York City in 1960, surprising media and dignitaries alike when all he wanted to do was to visit the black elevator operator who worked at the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene James “Jacques” Bullard died on October 12, 1961.  He was buried with the tri-color of France draping his coffin, laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers at Flushing Cemetery in New York.

The first black fighter pilot, the “Black Swallow of Death”, was honored by the country he had loved and served during two world wars.  On August 23, 1994, 77 years after Bullard’s American flight physical, the USAF posthumously awarded Eugene Bullard a commission as a Lieutenant.