December 10, 1917 Oh, Christmas Tree…

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, 100 years ago, today.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

The Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running itself aground.

That was when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

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The first ray of light the morning of December 7 revealed some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone. President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train on the scene.

Halifax HeraldThere was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  A very large Christmas tree.

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In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.Halifax Tree Sendoff

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the people of Boston.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

events3406This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

This year’s tree stands 53′ tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax exlosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.download

For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word this year, at the tree lighting ceremony. “We had massive deaths and injuries,” McNeil said of the 1917 catastrophe. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

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December 5, 1914 Shackleton Expedition

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. “The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”.  As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.  Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

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The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island.  It was December 5.Shackleton 12

The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent.  The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for another 497 days.

The disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.Shackleton 7

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, not knowing that she only had six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would one day end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean, as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”.  The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.Shackleton 10

The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat, James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

Shackleton 9The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20.  They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting their long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad“.

 

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December 1, 2013 Sacred Soil

ICYMI – I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and to never let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the 99-year anniversary of the end of World War One.

Before they had numbers, this was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all Wars”.

There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history, which cannot be traced back to it.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.

In Flanders Fields

The current boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife is nothing new, those conditions would have taken a very different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history (WWI is only #5), was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”. He was off, by something like 36 days.

I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened four years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

In the summer of 2013, over 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme.  All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

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The soil from those battlefields was placed in seventy WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  Those sandbags were transported to London, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War will nourish and support a garden.  Ready for the following year, a solemn remembrance of the centenary of that war.

That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.

I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and never to let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

 

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November 11, 1918 Armistice Day

All sides combined suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours, between the signing and the cease-fire. Some have estimated that more men died per hour on that final day of the “Great War”, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

103 years ago this June, the Great War began with the assassination of an Archduke, the heir apparent to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The resulting conflict could have remained little more than a regional squabble, a police action in the Balkans.

It became anything but.

Many of the soldiers who went off in the early days, viewed the war as some kind of grand adventure.  Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.  Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “pal’s battalions”, to fight for King and country.

Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out in pieces.

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The camera captures the last moments of a dying soldier, caught out in the open without a gas mask.

Any single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day of fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally torn to shreds.  Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood of the trenches during the New Year of 1916-’17, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and the frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

Starvation and malnutrition stalked the countryside, with riots on the home front and mutiny in the trenches.  Nearly every combatant saw the collapse of its national economy, or teetering on the verge of collapse.

A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Gas MasksImperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home, had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old German politician Matthias Erzberger.

The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned out of a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

The Germans were shocked at the words that came out of his mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

Staircase

Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”.  He had no intention of letting up.

Foch now produced 34 demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. They were to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.

Crosses in the craterFoch informed Ertzberger that he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”. By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front, yet the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th, as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground that they could walk over in a few hours?

Others continued the attack, many believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…”

Trench lineAt least 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, 3,240 seriously wounded.

Still smarting from their disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120 casualties.

All sides combined suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour on that final day of the “Great War”, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”. Maybe it was his recent reduction in rank, or maybe this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove. Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers yelled for him to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland, was the last man to die in the Great War. The time was 10:59am.

Red PoppyMatthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave mistake. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, he said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

He got it wrong, by 36 days.

Red poppies, tower of london
The red poppy of remembrance, surrounds the Tower of London.

 

November 4, 1914 Battle of the Bees

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck came to loathe Adolf Hitler, and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi political machine. When offered the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, he apparently did more than merely decline the job. He told Der Fuehrer to perform an anatomically improbable act.  Years later, Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer about the exchange. “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go f**k himself”.   “That’s right”, came the reply, “except that I don’t think he put it that politely”.

When WWI broke out in 1914, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

The 2nd Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was stationed in Bangalore, southern India, at the outbreak of war.  By mid-October, the more experienced of their Indian allies had shipped off to France, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Little but leftovers were assigned to the German East African invasion.  Many had never even fired a rifle, let alone a machine gun.

Since August, there had been an informal agreement that the African territories would be left alone. That changed on November 2, when an allied force of 8,000 British troops and their Indian allies arrived at the seaport town of Tanga, in what is now Tanzania.

Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari im KampfThis invasion force, commanded by General Arthur Aitkin, spent that first day and most of the second sweeping for non-existent mines, before finally assembling an assault force on the beaches late on November 3rd. It was a welcome break for the German Commander, Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had assembled and trained a force of Askari warriors around a core of white German commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

The Germans used those 2 days to bring in more defenders, increasing their number from two companies to almost a thousand individuals. The German and Ascari defenders were well situated and very familiar with the terrain, unlike the British-led allied forces, who had conducted no reconnaissance whatsoever.

The fighting of November 4 met with mixed results. Several columns bogged down in the swamps approaching town, leaving much of their lines in disarray. The harbor contingent had some successes in the fighting that followed, with Gurkhas of the Kashmiri Rifles and the 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment capturing the customs house and Hotel Deutscher Kaiser.

Though outnumbered 8 to 1, the defenders managed to turn their attackers when they got some help from an unexpected direction. Millions of bees, agitated by the gunfire, had joined in the fight.

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Charge of the Bengal Lancers

“Killer” bees are a strain of western honey bees that have been “Africanized”; cross bred with larger, more aggressive African bees, in order to produce more honey in tropical conditions.

The honey producers who crossed these creatures in the 1950s quickly learned what Aitken’s men could have told them in 1914. These things are aggressive, they swarm, and, if angered, they will chase you for a mile and more.

The Germans got some of it, but the bees spent most of their wrath on the British and the Indians, who found themselves pelting for the beaches at maximum speed. I don’t know if it’s true or just a story, but I’ve heard of one radio man who stayed at his post, directing the beach withdrawal as he was stung to death by thousands of bees. According to the story, he received the Victoria Cross, posthumously, for gallantry “while sustaining aerial attack”.

The Battle for Tanga was a humiliating defeat for the British. The Royal Navy refused to carry heavy machine guns back, fearing that they might damage their small landing craft. The guns would be left behind, for future allied forces to deal with.  It was a gift for Lettow-Vorbeck, whose forces found enough modern rifles for three Askari companies, along with 600,000 rounds of ammunition, 16 machine guns, several field telephones and enough clothing to last the Schutztruppe for a year.

Askari-on-MarchColonel, and later General Lettow-Vorbeck, was called “Der Löwe von Afrika“, the Lion of Africa. He never once had more than 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris under his command, yet he wore the allies out, leading no fewer than 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops in a four-years long wild goose chase all over equatorial Africa.

The Lion of Africa returned to Germany a conquering hero at the end of WW1.  Of all German field commanders in all theaters of the war, von Lettow alone was undefeated in the field, acclaimed as leading “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful”.

lettowvorbeckportraitPaul von Lettow-Vorbeck came to loathe Adolf Hitler, and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi political machine. When offered the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, he apparently did more than merely decline the job. He told Der Fuehrer to perform an anatomically improbable act.  Years later, Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer about the exchange. “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go f**k himself”.   “That’s right”Came the reply, “except that I don’t think he put it that politely”.

Persecuted by the Nazis, the Lion of Africa was a broken man by the end of WWII, surviving only due to his former hero status. His home was bombed out and his two sons Rüdiger and Arnd, were dead.

Lettow-Vorbeck would get back on his feet, but for a time he had to depend on food packages from England, sent to him from Sir Richard Meinertzhagen and General Jan Smuts.  Two who took to feeding the man, so great was their respect for their former adversary in the earlier war.

October 26, 1918  Choctaw Code Talkers

The history of the Navajo code talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  Less well known is the history of code talking in WWI, based on the language of the Choctaw.
The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Navajo Code Talkers were part of all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater of WWII.  Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima:  Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted from 1942 to ‘45.

Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker.  The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII.  Japanese code breakers never got close.

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the history of code talking in WWI, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Choctaw code talkersLate in 1917, Colonel A. W. Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment.  They were a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

The Allies had already learned the hard way, that many of their German adversaries spoke excellent English.  They had already intercepted and broken several English based codes.  Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying.  If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector.  A captured German officer later confirmed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success.  We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry.  Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and by runner, many of whom were themselves Native Americans.

The Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase.  When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”.  Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII.  At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, described what they did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma.  The last was a native Chickasaw.  The youngest was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War.  Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was 16 on the day he enlisted.

Joseph Oklahombi
Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, tells the story:  “Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades“.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender.  Some guys are not to be trifled with.

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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.