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.

Shackleton 5

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“.


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.

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.

images (6)
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”.


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.

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 4, 1918 The Lost Battalion


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

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”.

Monument to the Lost Battalion, Argonne Forest, France.

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.

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.

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”.


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 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.

July 31, 1920 Corporal Jackie

Albert took a bullet in the shoulder at the Battle of Agagia on February 26, 1916, while the monkey, beside himself with agitation, licked the wound and did everything he could to comfort the stricken man.  It was this incident more than any other that marked Jackie’s transformation from pet and mascot, to a comrade to the men of the regiment.

In 1915, Albert Marr lived with his family and his Chacma baboon, Jackie, on Cheshire Farm, on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa.  The Great War had begun a year earlier, when Marr was sworn into the 3rd (Transvaal) Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, in August of that year.  He was now Private Albert Marr, #4927.

Albert Marr, JackiePrivate Marr asked for and received permission to bring Jackie along with him.  It wasn’t long before the monkey became the official Regimental Mascot.

Jackie drew rations like any other soldier, eating at the mess table, using his knife and fork and washing it all down with his own drinking basin.

He drilled and marched with his company in a special uniform and cap, complete with buttons, regimental badges, and a hole for his tail.

Jackie entertained the men during quiet periods, lighting their pipes and cigarettes and saluting officers as they passed on their rounds.  He learned to stand at ease when ordered, placing his feet apart and hands behind his back, regimental style.

These two inseparable buddies, Albert Marr and Jackie, first saw combat during the Senussi Campaign in North Africa. Albert took a bullet in the shoulder at the Battle of Agagia on February 26, 1916, while the monkey, beside himself with agitation, licked the wound and did everything he could to comfort the stricken man.  It was this incident more than any other that marked Jackie’s transformation from pet and mascot, to a comrade to the men of the regiment.jackie

Jackie would accompany Albert at night when he was on guard duty.  Marr soon learned to trust Jackie’s keen eyesight and acute hearing.  The monkey was almost always first to know about enemy movements or impending attack.  He would give early warning with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.

The pair went through the nightmare of Delville Wood together, early in the Somme campaign, when the First South African Infantry held their position despite 80% casualties.  The pair experienced the nightmare of mud that was Passchendaele, and the desperate fighting at Kemmel Hill.  The two were at Belleau Wood, a primarily American operation, where Marine Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, was informed that he was surrounded by Germans.  “Retreat?” Williams retorted, “hell, we just got here.”Jackie

Throughout all of it, Albert Marr and Jackie had come through WWI mostly unscathed.  That all changed in April, 1918.

The South African Brigade was being heavily shelled as it withdrew through the West Flanders region of Belgium. Jackie was frantically trying to build a wall of stones around himself, a shelter from flying shrapnel, while shells were bursting all around. A jagged piece of shrapnel wounded Jackie in the arm and another all but amputated the animal’s leg.  He refused to be carried off by the stretcher-bearers, trying instead to finish his wall, hobbling around on what had once been his leg.

Lt. Colonel R. N. Woodsend of the Royal Medical Corps described the scene:  “It was a pathetic sight; the little fellow, carried by his keeper, lay moaning in pain, the man crying his eyes out in sympathy, ‘You must do something for him, he saved my life in Egypt. He nursed me through dysentery’. The baboon was badly wounded, the left leg hanging with shreds of muscle, another jagged wound in the right arm.  We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds…It was a simple matter to amputate the leg with scissors and I cleaned the wounds and dressed them as well as I could.  He came around as quickly as he went under. The problem then was what to do with him. This was soon settled by his keeper: ‘He is on army strength’. So, duly labelled, number, name, ATS injection, nature of injuries, etc. he was taken to the road and sent by a passing ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station”.Jackie Portrait

As the war drew to a close, Jackie was promoted to the rank of Corporal, and given a medal for bravery. Possibly the only monkey in history, ever to be so honored.

On his arm he wore a gold wound stripe, and three blue service chevrons, one for each of his three years’ front line service.

After the pair arrived home, Jackie became the center of attention at a parade officially welcoming the 1st South African Regiment home.

On July 31, 1920, Jackie received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal, at the Peace Parade in Church Square, Pretoria.

Jackie died as the result of a fire, which destroyed the Marr family farmhouse in May 1921.  Albert Marr passed away in 1973, at the age of 84.  Marr had missed his battle buddy Jackie, for all the days in-between.