Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Valley of Death

Just north of Turkey is the Black Sea, a roughly peanut-shaped saltwater lake the size about the size of Arizona and New Mexico combined. Jutting out into the Black Sea from the north, connected by a narrow strip of land, is the Crimean Peninsula, on which sits the port city of Sevastapol. The peninsula is now part of the Ukraine, but in 1853, it was under the control of the weakening Ottoman Empire. Russia, sensing the Ottoman power waning, sent troops into the region in July of that year. Britain and France, hoping to deny the growing Russian Empire the valuable port city, sent warships and troops to aid the Ottomans, and the Crimean War was under way.

The British military at the time had barely advanced, either technologically or strategically, since the close of the Napoleonic Wars only twenty years earlier. Most of the commanders were over 60, and had fallen comfortably into peacetime mindsets. General FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, First Baron Raglan, has studied under the Duke of Wellington and had lost an arm at Waterloo; since then, however, he served mostly as an administrator, saw no active service, but was still appointed as overall commander of the British forces in the Crimea. His cavalry commander was Major General George Charles Bingham,3rd Earl of Lucan, who greatly valued the appearance of his beloved cavalry, spending great amounts of his own money to improve their outfits and the gleam of their silver swords. The cavalry was split into two brigades, and the lighter of the two was commanded by Major General James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who also had very little practical experience; he was also the brother-in-law of his immediate commander, Lord Lucan, and the two men hated each other passionately.

The British army landed and took control of the village of Balaklava, southeast of Sevastapol on the shores of the Black Sea. They drove the Russian forces back, but Lucan decided not to commit his cavalry to pursue the fleeing Russian forces, allowing the Russians time to reform. The reconstituted Russian forces attacked south towards Balaklava, but were repelled by the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders, an infantry troop arrange in a 'thin red line' and firing madly at the opposing horsemen. One of the brigades of British Cavalry under the command of General Sir James Yorke Scarlett - the so-called 'Heavy Brigade' - charged into a second, larger body of Russian cavalry, and sent them into a panicked rout. While it was happening, Cardigan and his 'Light Brigade' were commanded to stand still and not participate, meaning they watched while the Heavy Brigade committed this glorious charge. To the egos involved in mid-19th century cavalry corps, this was a terribly frustrating ordeal. Cardigan, of course, blamed his units' inactivity on his hated brother-in-law, Lucan.

Now, if one were to start in the village of Balaklava, back to the Sea, and walk due north, that one would walk downhill into what they called the South Valley, which ran east to west, and in which the Heavy Brigade's charge took place. Climbing over a ridge called the Causeway Heights, our hypothetical walker would then descend into and across the North Valley, also running west to east, before climbing up on the Fedioukine Heights ridge beyond that. This alternating valley-and-hill geography was the site of the Battle of Balaklava and of the most famous of its actions.

Lord Raglan was atop a hill on the west end at the time, and could see that Russians on the east end of the Causeway Heights had captured several British cannon and were preparing to drag them away. He ordered Lucan, below him on the west end of the North Valley, to go recapture those valuable guns; unfortunately, the man with whom he trusted the message was Capt. Lewis Edward Nolan, a pompous zealot who had written a much-maligned book on how cavalry was the ultimate weapon in warfare, and who had no respect for either Cardigan or Lucan. Nolan, a skilled horseman, raced down to Lucan's site and presented him with Raglan's nebulous orders to charge and retake the cannon.

From Lucan's position, he could not see the captured cannon, all he could see was the positioned Russian artillery at the far eastern end of the North Valley - a distance of over a mile. Russian forces were in position on both the northern Fedioukine Heights, and the southern Causeway Heights; a charge through the center of them would be risky at best. Lucan asked the messenger Nolan for clarification, and Nolan - for whatever reason which we will never know - pointed at the distant Russian guns and said "There, my lord, is your enemy; there are your guns." And so Raglan wrote a confusing order, and Nolan misrepresented it even further; Lucan's pride prevented him from questioning the order, and Cardigan's hate for his brother-in-law caused him to begrudgingly accept the order without hesitation. Cardigan arranged his men into three lines, and prepared to charge through a gauntlet of gunfire toward a barely-visible target on a distant hilltop.

When the Light Brigade rode - for it was not a full-out charge at first - into the North Valley, Lucan followed them with Scarlett and the Heavy Brigade. Cardigan, perhaps sensing his men's enthusiasm or giving way to his own, then increased the speed of the Light Brigade, and the Heavy Brigade was soon left lagging behind. Cannon and rifle fire erupted from both sides of the valley - claiming the messenger Nolan as one of its first fatalities - and an enormous cloud of dust obscured the charged British horsemen. Lucan suffered a minor wound to the leg, his horse was hit twice, and one his captains was shot dead by his side; he decided that having the Heavy Brigade continue would be a death sentence, and so he ordered them to abandon the charge and fall back. The Light Brigade was now on its own.

With drawn sabers and levelled lances, the Light Brigade thundered toward the most distant guns at full speed. They could hardly see the length of their arm for all of the dust, and every second produced more gravely wounded cavalrymen and riderless horses. Amazingly, some of the Light Brigade reached the Russian gun battery on the far east side of the Valley, and began hacking and chopping at the gun crews. However, it was too much for them when the Russians counter-charged with their own remaining cavalry, and the Light Brigade was then forced to retreat, through the same line of fire as they approached, receiving even more gunfire as they went.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a military disaster, costing one of the best cavalry units in the world about 40% of its numbers. Almost none of the light horsemen escaped unwounded; one remarked that that night, he was the only one left out of the ten men who normally slept in that tent. The British forces eventually captured Sevastapol and the Charge itself was received as a moment of great heroism in the public. Cardigan survived the battle, was regailed as the hero of the day in London, and presented his story personally to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; later, a type of vest he wore on campaign would become named after him, and today it is more associated with a kind of sweater. Raglan and Lucan blamed each other for the failure; Raglan continued his role in the Crimean before dying of dysentary two years later, while Lucan would be eventually promoted to Field Marshal, although he never again saw action in the field.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death rode the six hundred,
'Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Links and Sources:


Campaign 6: Balaclava 1854, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by John Sweetman, Osprey Publishing, 1990. The color image of the cavalryman is by Michael Roffe and is from that book.

How to Lose a Battle, by Bill Fawcett, Harper Collins, 2006.

Period photo of the cavalryman is that of Cornet Henry John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars, a survivor of the Charge, and was taken by Roger Fenton.

The painting "Charge of the Light Brigade" is by Thomas Jones Barker.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Cannoneer's Wife

When the American Revolution began, many of the men who were called into action brought their wives along with them. One of these wives was 22-year-old Mary Ludwig Hays, the daughter of German immigrants whose husband, John, was a barber from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who became an artilleryman in Captain Francis Proctor's company of the Pennsylvania Artillery. She became one of many women who travelled with George Washington's Revolutionary Army, and became known as an illiterate, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing woman who could curse with the best of the soldiers. During the winter of 1777-1778, she stayed in the women's camp with Washington's army in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

British forces had captured Philadelphia in 1777, but by the summer of 1778, their forces stretched thin, British General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered to evacuate the city. Not having enough ships to carry them to New York by sea, Sir Henry was forced to march them overland through New Jersey. Seeing an opportunity, American General George Washington mobilized his army from Valley Forge and attacked the rear of Sir Henry's 12-mile-long baggage train. The day in which the battle - later called the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse - took place was June 28, 1778, and would turn out to be a stiflingly hot day.

Captain Proctor's artillery unit was stationed in a wing of General Washington's army, firing in enfilade (down the length of the line) at the opposing British troops. The heat was punishing, and many of the day's casualties on both sides were as a result of heatstroke. American soldiers, desperate for water, would call for the women who were frantically carrying water to the soldiers. Mary, who was better known by the popular nickname Molly, was one of these women, and she performed the duty heroically. Molly was covered in blood and dust, red with sunburn, and barefoot as she dashed around the battlefield, pouring the water into the mouths of the soldiers, and then darting off again before they could express their thanks. Once, Molly - who was also pregnant at the time - stopped to carry a wounded soldier out of harm's way, but otherwise she was diligent in her duty.

She saw John get shot and collapse in front of his cannon. Other soldiers carried him away and, with no one to load his cannon, the other crewmen prepared to abandon it. Molly, however, had seen her husband practice it hundreds of times, and knew the routine, so she put down her water bucket and took his place plunging the cannon as it continued to fire shot after shot into the British regiments. One of other soldiers witnessed her actions and wrote about it, even telling that at one point she took a step to load a cartridge when a cannonball went whizzing between her knees. The shot tore away her petticoat, but otherwise left her unharmed. Molly, unfazed, mentioned that it was a good thing the shot wasn't a little higher, or it would have carried away something else. She then continued to load the cannon.

That account and others led Washington himself to personally compliment Molly Hays as she and her wounded husband returned to Carlisle. John died from his injuries in 1786, and Molly remarried a man named McCauly. In 1822, the Pennsylvania Legislature awarded Molly a pension of forty dollars per year - far higher than other war widows received - by unanimous vote. She died in 1833, at about 87 years of age, and is now the woman most identified with the American revolutionary ideal of Molly Pitcher.

Links and Sources:

"Will the Real Molly Pitcher Please Stand Up?" by Emily J. Teipe, at the National Archives' Prologue Magazine, Summer 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2, retrieved March 29, 2012.

What They Didn't Teach You About the American Revolution, by Mike Wright, Presidio Books, 1999.

Hell Hath No Fury: True Profiles of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq, by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross, Random House Digital, 2008, retrieved March 29, 2012.

Top two images by Adam Hook, from Campaign 135: Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The Last Great Battle in the North, by Brendan Morrissey, by Osprey Publishing, 2004.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Up the Garderobe

William the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy, in northern France, when he attacked and seized the crown of England in 1066. Throughout the rest of his reign, and of the six kings that followed, Normandy, while technically still owing its allegiance to France, was under English control. In order to keep that control, Richard I, known as the 'Lion-Heart', built a series of castles, including the imposing Château Gaillard.

Built in only one year - an amazingly short amount of time for a full-sized castle - Château Gaillard sat perched atop an ideal triangular outcropping of rock overlooking the Seine River Valley northwest of Paris. As this rock platform has cliffs on three sides and is therefore only approachable from the plateau to the south, it was an ideal site for a defensive fortification. Richard, who by all accounts was a gifted engineer, had his workers build a tower roughly the shape of a human ear on the very edge of the cliff. This tower - called the 'inner bailey' - was surrounded by a moat, spanned by only one small natural bridge. Around the moat was a second wall - the 'middle bailey' - ringed with towers. That, too, had one gate, and beyond that was the 'outer bailey', a third walled in courtyard, again ringed with towers. Although it cost Richard a fortune, the castle appeared impregnable. It was not.

Richard built fanatically, often joining the workmen personally, and the castle - which he called 'his daughter' - was completed in 1198. Unfortunately, only a few months later, Richard himself died after being shot by a crossbow during the siege of Chalus-Chabrol. He was succeeded by his brother John, who, in comparison to Richard, was more religious but had much less talent in the field of architecture and warfare. These factors combined to explain why John would order a hastily-built chapel within the middle bailey. Even more puzzling was why he would order a second construction adjacent to the chapel - a garderobe, or a castle latrine, with a sizeable opening in the middle bailey's wall.

John was a far less capable strategist than Richard was, and King Philip II of France took advantage of that weakness. Philip - supporting Richard and John's nephew Arthur's claim to the English throne - began a campaign to retake Normandy. Château Gaillard was the key to this campaign; and so Philip laid siege to the castle starting in September 1203. The French army approached from the only direction it could, and dug trenches and built walls of its own for protection. A daring nighttime relief mission from King John's forces failed miserably, as the foot troops arrived before the ships did, allowing the French to dismantle each element in turn.

By February 1204, King Philip's forces had managed to dig a tunnel under the outer bailey wall and collapse it, causing a breach through which their forces stormed. With this done, they were still faced with a problem: the middle bailey was reachable only by a drawbridge, which was up. The French siege, and the conquest of Normandy itself, would have likely come to a screeching halt, were it not for a foot soldier from Gascony named Snubby Bogis. Snubby - obviously a nickname - was creeping around the base of the middle bailey, not far from the steep cliff and plunge into the river, when he saw the window to the garderobe about three or four meters above ground. Realizing its implications, he got four of his companions to lift him up into the convenient hole in the wall. Emerging from the toilet, he dropped a rope and his friends climbed up after him. They crossed from the garderobe to the chapel, and found that it was locked from the outside. Thinking quickly, they banged on the door with their swords so hard that the English defenders thought the middle bailey had been broken and the whole army was upon them; they quickly set fire to the buildings and retreated to the inner bailey. Snubby and his friends then ran through the fire, opened the gates, and dropped the drawbridge, allowing the entire French force easy access.

The inner bailey was undermined shortly thereafter, as the natural bridge provided cover from the miners working in the moat. Château Gaillard fell to the French on March 8, and Normandy itself was back in undeniably French hands for the first time in almost 150 years - all thanks to an unguarded toilet.

Links and Sources:

"The Château Gaillard", by Thomas A. Janvier, from Harper's Magazine, volume 109, 1904.

Mediæval Military Architecture in England, Volume 1, by George Thomas Clark, Wyman and Sons, 1884.
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, AD 500 - AD 1500, by Matthew Bennett et. al., by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, 2006

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mr. Rogers Goes to Washington

In 1969, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was in danger of having its funding slashed by Congress in a cost-cutting effort. Congress called for hearings on the matter and the issue rested on the testimony by children's television host Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers discarded the idea of simply reading the printed material and instead spent about six minutes speaking openly and honestly about the benefits of educational children's television to the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications, which was headed by Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), who was - until that point - unfamiliar with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1928, and earned a B.A. in Music Composition from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, in 1951. His original plan was to attend seminary, but during Spring Break of his senior year, he visited his parents in Pennsylvania and for the first time saw a television set, and the shows that were broadcast on it. He then told his parents that he wanted to enter the television business to bring a higher quality of entertainment. He later explained, "I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces, and that to me was such a demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!"

He applied for work in television in New York, and was accepted to work on various NBC musical shows, where he started on October 1, 1951. In 1952, he married Sara Byrd, whom he had met in Florida, and in the following year he moved to Pittsburgh, where he was co-producer and head musician and puppeteer for The Children's Corner. During his lunch breaks, he continued his seminary studies at the Western (later Pittsburgh) Theological Seminary; the ordaining body, however, was hesitant to ordain a minister who had no intention of starting or adopting his own church. A solution presented itself, however, in having the ordaining body produce a children's TV program itself as an outreach tool; however, the financing fell through and the concept was cancelled.

Fred Rogers had all of 24 hours to mourn this missed opportunity, as the next day, he received a call from Dr. Fred Rainsberry, head of children's programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, who had seen Fred Rogers and was impressed by the rapport he had with children. Rainsberry offered Rogers a 15-minute daily children's show to air all across Canada, and the show MisteRogers was born. The next year, Fred Rogers graduated from the seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and in 1966 he was able to move the shows to WQED in Pittsburgh, with a slight name change to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Two years later, thanks to a show-saving donation from Sears Roebuck, the show went national.

Rogers impressed Pastore enough to save Public Television's financing on the spot. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ran for another 32 years, an entire generation, and Rogers himself won a Lifetime Emmy and, in 2002, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade the following January, and died about two months later, peacefully in his bed, with his wife of 51 years by his side.

Links and Sources:

The testimony of Fred Rogers before Congress, available on YouTube here.
A (long) interview with him appears on the Archive of American Television here.
Video of him accepting his Lifetime Emmy is on YouTube here.

The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, by Amy Hollingsworth, Thomas Nelson, 2005. The quote of Mr. Rogers is from this book.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Do It Yourself

In January of 1961, the Russian research base called Novolazarevskaya Station was opened, isolated deep in the frozen Antarctic ice cap. By the end of April, one of the 13 crewmen started displaying unmistakeable signs of appendicitis, so the base doctor, Leonid Rogozov, decided that, although the conditions would poor, he would have to conduct an emergency appendectomy on the patient. The main problem with this plan was besides being the only qualified medic on the base, the doctor was also the patient.

27-year-old Rogozov began feeling weak and nauseous on April 29, 1961, and had severe pain in his abdomen. When his temperature rose and his vomiting didn't cease by the next day, he had made his own diagnosis, and knew that the only solution was surgery. Novolazarevskaya is in Queen Maud's Land, the part of Antarctica directly south from the tip of Africa; the next closest Russian base was Mirny, which is Australian Antarctic Territory, and more than 3,700 miles away. Nearby non-Russian bases were unable to help because they lacked an airplane, and there was a blizzard closing in besides. So, Rogozov decided to perform self-surgery.

Rogozov and station director Vladislav Gerbovich assembled a team to assist in the self-surgery; the station's meteorologist would serve as the nurse of sorts, handling instruments to Rogozov and holding the wound open with retractors, and had to kneel during the entire procedure. The station mechanic held the mirror - as Rogozov wouldn't be able to see his own abdomen directly - and adjusted the lighting. Gerbovich stayed on hand in case one of the other two would faint during surgery, so he could assume their role. Rogozov gave them basic instructions on artificial respiration and prepared them for what he was going to do as best he could. They sterilized as much as they could, and Rogozov took a local anesthetic called procaine. Fifteen minutes later, he began.

Rogozov worked mainly be touch, which was why he decided not to wear gloves. He made a 10 to 12 centimeter incision in his midsection, and began feeling around for his appendix. The operation took almost two hours - far longer than normal - because Rogozov kept feeling weak and had to rest periodically to keep from passing out himself. The mechanic had to keep wiping Rogozov's forehead, and he was sweating profusely. He bled heavily, and his intestines gurgled.

Finally, he reached the appendix, which according to his later estimation was less than a day from bursting. He successfully removed it and gave himself some antibiotics. After telling his assistants how to clean the instruments, he sewed himself up. and then took some sleeping pills and a nap. Rogozov rested for several days, but recovered fully and stayed at Novolazarevskaya for more than a year. Finally, he returned to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and never returned to the Antarctic. He finished the dissertation he had delayed in order to take the post at Novolazarevskaya, and was awarded the Red Banner of Labour for his ordeals. Rogozov later headed the surgery department at the Leningrad/St. Petersburg Research Institute for Tubercular Pulmonology for 14 years before his death in 2000.

Links and Sources:

"Self-Operation", by L.I. Rogozov, Physician, Sixth Antarctic Expedition, available online here.

Trailblazing Medicine: Sustaining Explorers During Interplanetary Missions, by Erik Seedhouse, Springer Books, 2011.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Beer Flood

In 1810, the owner of the Horse Shoe Brewery in London, built a 22 foot high beer fermentation tank in the middle of a West End slum, and in 1814 it exploded.

The Horse Shoe Brewery, owned and operated by Henry Meux, was at the corner of Great Russell Street and Tottenham Court Road. Near the back of the building was the tank, made of wood but held together with more than 20 massive iron rings. The barrel held 3,555 barrels of rich brown porter - not unlike the stout of today - which was enough to serve a million people with one pint each. The liquid alone weighed more than 571 tons.

At about 4:30 in the afternoon on October 17, 1814, the smallest of the iron rings fell victim to age and corrosion, and snapped. The clerk on duty, George Crick, at the time made note of the breakage, but wasn't overly alarmed - it happened, he later said, about two or three times a year, and they would simply call someone to come and fix it. However, about an hour later, the barrel ruptured, and hot beer burst out of the vat. Crick was standing nearby, but by the time he reacted and ran to the barrel, the back wall of the building had been blown out by sheer force. Also, several smaller barrels and another large vat had been blasted apart, adding their contents to the flood. A tsunami of beer - over 7,500 barrels' worth in all - then burst out into the streets of London with significant force.

The neighborhood around the brewery at the time (shown here at left) was called the St. Giles rookery, and was essentially a slum, with low-cost houses and tenements filled with poor residents, Irish immigrants, criminals, and prostitutes. A 15-foot-high wave of beer and debris poured into it, filling the basements of two nearby houses, undermining the structures and collapsing them completely, killing a mother and daughter who were having tea inside one of them. One building held Mary Banfield and her daughter Hannah, who were taking tea in their upstairs room when the flood killed them both. The other held an Irish wake in the basement for a two-year-old boy who died the previous day; all four mourners were killed by the flood as well, including the little boy's mother. The flood also knocked down the wall of the nearby Tavistock Arms Pub, crushing a teenaged serving girl beneath it; she was buried in the rubble and was still standing upright when her body was found hours later. In all, eight people were killed (though there was a report of a ninth dying of alcohol poisoning several days later), and two went missing. Three brewery workers (including George Crick's brother, John) were rescued by townspeople who waded through waist-high beer to reach them, and another was successfully excavated from the rubble, alive. The area smelled like beer for months.

The disaster cost the Horse Shoe Brewery about ₤23,000 (equivalent to roughly ₤1.25 million today) in reparations, although Parliament, by special petition and supported by the Prince Regent, granted Meux ₤7,250 (roughly ₤400,000 today) as compensation for about 7,600 barrels of lost beer. Meanwhile, locals raised about ₤830 to assist the families of the survivors, who lost an estimated ₤3,000 worth of property. Nevertheless, the amount granted by Parliament was enough to keep the brewery in business, and Henry Meux even built an expansion. An inquest determined that the flood was an act of God and so Henry (shown below) was not charged with any crimes; he was later made a Baronet in 1831 by King William IV. The "Beer Flood" also caused the industry to reexamine the use of wooden fermentation vats; during the course of the 19th century, breweries would change over to concrete vats, lined with resin, asphalt, enamel or slate, to prevent just such a calamity from happening again. The Horse Shoe Brewery was ultimately razed in 1922, and the West End's Dominion Theatre now lies partly on its site.

Henry Meux

Links and Sources:
"Dreadful Accident", The London Times, October 19, 1814, page 3.
"The London Beer Flood of 1814" by Mike Paterson, at the London Historians' Blog, retrieved March 24, 2012.
" A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton" (1911), pp. 168-178, retrieved March 24, 2012.

The Oxford Companion to Beer, by Tom Colicchio et. al., Oxford University Press, 2011.
A History of Beer and Brewing, by Ian Spencer Hornsey, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
Beer: The Story of the Pint: The History of Britain's Most Popular Drink, by Martyn Cornell, Headline, 2003.

All images are very old and are in the public domain.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Challenge

In 57 BC, the Battle of the Sabis was fought in what is now southern Belgium, pitting the expansionist Romans under Julius Caesar against a confederation of several tribes of Belgian Gauls. The Romans won, and the Nervii, one of the tribes of Gauls, was beaten severely and forced to retreat. Three years later, they mounted an attack of their own against the 11th Claudian Legion of the Roman army, led by Quintus Cicero, who were camped for the winter. The Nervii, using tactics they had learned from the Romans themselves, built a ten-mile circular wall and ditch around the Roman palisade, trapping the 11th within their own fortification. Before long, the Nervii assaulted the Roman position with towers, grappling hooks, and manpower. The siege was on.

During this attack, there were two Roman centurions - that is, officers - named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, and there was a rivalry between them, as they were both contending for the position of Primus Pilus, or lead centurion. Pullo taunted Vorenus, asking him “Quid dubitas?” which translates to “Why do you hesitate?” He then asked Vorenus what better chance there will be to prove themselves, and this will be the day for it; Pullo then picked up his shield and weapons and charged out the gates, directly into the thickest part of the attacking army.

Roman soldiers at the time carried heavy iron-tipped javelins called pila (singular pilum), and Pullo immediately threw his and impaled one of the many Nervii charging him. The Nervii typically each carried a tall wooden shield; several of the Gauls covered their fallen comrade with these shields, while many others all threw their own javelins back at the charging Pullo. One lodged in Pullo’s shield, while another stuck in his thick leather belt, spinning it around; as Pullo’s sword is hanging from his belt, he suddenly couldn’t reach it in time, and before long he was frantically defending from the swarm of Nervii soldiers who had closed in on him.

Fortunately for Pullo, Vorenus had accepted his challenge and followed him out of the fort. Vorenus killed one of the Nervi, and the rest turned on him; while backpedaling, his foot got twisted in a depression on the ground and Vorenus fell over. Pullo, now able to draw his sword, returned the favor and in turn rescued Vorenus from the gang of Gaulish warriors. They each were able to kill several of the enemy - not surprising, considering the Romans, unlike the Nervii, are heavily armored - and retreat back to their fortification walls. Many of their brethren were cheering as the two friendly rivals, each having saved the other, returned to their cohorts.

Despite their heroics, the situation for Quintus Cicero and the 11th was still dire. It was imperative that they got a message out to Caesar, who was not far away, so the commander could send reinforcements. They sent out several runners, but they were invariably captured by the Nervii and executed within sight of the fort. Finally, they made use of a man named Vertico, a Nervian who had defected to the Romans earlier; they tied the message to his javelin, and sent him walking nonchalantly out. Vertico mixed in with the rest of his kinsmen, and was able to make it through their lines, and then to Caesar’s camp to deliver the message. Caesar summoned troops to the location, and lead a relief army which successfully drew away the attacking Nervii from the besieged 11th. Caesar then defeated them in a pitched battle.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia entries on Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico, by Julius Caesar, available online here.

Image of Centurion by Angus McBride, and appeared in Warrior 71: Roman Legionary 58 BC - AD 69, by Osprey Publishing, 2003.
Image of Gauls by Angus McBride, and appeared in Men-at-Arms 158, Rome’s Enemies 2: Gallic and British Celts, by Osprey Publishing, 1985.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Father of Scouting

Frederick Burnham was a product of the American west. He was born in 1861 on an Indian reservation in what is now Minnesota, the son of a Kentucky-born missionary and outdoorsman and his English wife. When their village was attacked during the Dakota War of 1862, Fred’s mother, knowing she couldn’t move quickly enough while carrying him, hid Fred in a corn shock while she fled to another homestead; Fred spent the night there under the stacked corn even as the Indians ran by, and was unharmed and sleeping upon her return the next day. Over the years, he inherited his father’s love and skill for outdoorsmanship, and was proficient in the use of a rifle by the time he was eight. Around 1870, Fred’s father slipped on some ice while carrying an armload of wood; the falling wood left him with serious injuries and a case of consumption from which he could not recover. The family moved to California, where Fred’s father died in 1873. Fred’s mother and 3-year-old brother Mather returned to Iowa the next year, while Fred remained in California. Calling upon the skills instilled in him by his frontiersman father, Fred decided at the last minute to remain in California to earn money to support the family, for which he now considered himself responsible. Fred was all of 13 years old at the time.

Over the next ten years, Fred tracked Indians, hunted buffalo, chased outlaws, guarded stagecoaches, scouted territory, and served variously as a guide, messenger, prospector, cowboy, and deputy sheriff. He learned his craft under the tutelage of a man named Holmes, who had scouted with the greats of the American west, including the legendary Kit Carson. He read whenever he could, learning of the Mexican War, and the life stories of Hannibal, Cyrus the Great, and African explorer Dr. David Livingstone. He saved some money and attempted to finish his formal schooling, and after he married his childhood sweetheart Blanche he attempted to settle down and man an orange farm, but he didn’t take well to either one and ultimately returned to the west and to scouting. However, by 1884, he decided that the Old West had become too boring and decided to head out to more adventurous lands, so he moved to Cape Town and joined the British South Africa Company. Blanche, their son, and Blanche’s brother Ingram all went with him, and before long they relocated north to the area around Bulawayo, in what is now Zimbabwe.

Before long, the British South Africa Company became embroiled in war with the Ndebele nation (also called the Matabele), led by Lobengula, who commanded a force of 10,000 men, 2,000 of which had British-made Martini-Henry rifles, compared to the 700 or so in the BSAC. Tales were quickly spread of advancing hordes of African warriors, perpetrating acts of unspeakable slaughter. When British administrator Leander Starr Jameson ordered the capture of King Lobengula, Burnham was one of fourteen soldiers to stage a daring midnight raid on the Ndebele camp; they had trouble, however, identifying which of the laagers (wagon forts) was the King’s, and by the time they figured it out they had been spotted. Ndebele warriors, armed with assegai spears and elephant guns, sprung from every direction as the raiding party rode for their lives. They took refuge near a giant anthill, when Major Allan Wilson discovered that three of their party were missing. Wilson ordered Burnham, the party scout and the only one capable of seeing in the dark, to recover them; while another man held his horse, Burnham tracked the missing men’s horses back by feeling their hoofprints in the black mud with his fingers.

The fourteen men of the raiding party met up with twenty others sent as reinforcements, but within minutes they were attacked by the Ndebele. Burnham, along with two others named Ingram and Gooding, were sent for aid, and engaged on a frantic zigzagging ride under constant attack before reaching the base - which itself was under attack by a large force of Africans. Major Forbes, commanding the British troops there, could not send reinforcements to the raiding party, and aside from Burnham and his two fellow messengers, Wilson and the smaller party were killed to a man. A Ndbele witness later stated that the last five men, sensing the end was near, stood up and defiantly sang “God Save the Queen” until they, too, were killed.

For this action, Burnham’s name became well known; a play entitled “Burnham, the American Scout” played in two separate theaters in London. In the field, his exploits contined. At one point, he was guaranteed safe passage by a treaty, which was then ignored by an African princed name Latea; Burnham snuck into Latea’s camp late at night, kicked down a fence, broke into his hut, and held him at gunpoint until he acquisced, telling the Prince “We may all be killed, but you will be the first to die.” He escaped capture by dropping down between the oxen of a moving cart, then rolling off the road behind the rear guard, and at other times was able to sense Boer or Ndebele scouts invisible to others, leading some to believe he had senses bordering on the supernatural.

The Burnhams were the parents of the first white child born in Bulawayo, a daughter named Nada, which is Zulu for ‘lily’, but when the Second Matabele War began in 1896, the city was besieged, and the family was trapped inside. Burnham, along with a companion named Armstrong and a Major named Baden-Powell, volunteered to sneak into the enemy camp and assassinate their M’Limo, or “Mouthpiece of God”. This was almost a suicide mission, as the African leader was secreted in a cave above a village filled with 2000 Ndebele warriors, and the lands were heavily patrolled. Baden-Powell was called away at the last moment, but Burnham and Armstrong succeeded in crawling so close to the town that they could smell dinner cooking; Burnham fired one shot from his Lee-Metford rifle, killing the high priest instantly.

The entire Ndebele town was alerted by the gunshot, and by the two women who coincidentally had discovered the intruders’ horses at that very moment. The two men lept upon their horses and again Burnham found himself being led on a frantic chase, pursued by hundreds of angry Ndebele warriors. He and Armstrong survived, however, and returned to Bulawayo; before long, the British were able to sue for peace against the Ndebele, whose morale was sapped by the loss of their M’Limo.

During the War, Burnham became friends with then-Major Robert Baden-Powell, who almost accompanied Burnham and Armstrong on the mission. He taught Baden-Powell much about outdoorsmanship, woodworking, and scouting, and the ways of the American west and of the American Indians; Baden-Powell even adopted from Burnham a Stetson hat and neckerchief which would soon become his trademark. Baden-Powell would use much of Burnham’s information when he would later create the Boy Scouts and, with his sister Edith, the Girl Scouts.

Unfortunately, young Nada died in Bulawayo from the hardships of the Siege. Burnham and his wife would move back to California, then he later served as a scout in the Yukon Territories. In 1902, his youngest son Bruce, sent away to live with relatives in London, drowned in the Thames River. Fred Burnham eventually retired to California, and after his wife Blanche died in 1939, 83-year-old Fred remarried his 29-year-old typist Ilo. They retired to Santa Barbara, where Fred died of a heart attack in 1947, at the age of 86. His only surviving child, Roderick, became a geologist and served in World War I. Rod's son, also named Frederick, served in Vietnam, and his son, Lt. Russell Burnham, is a Physician Assistant in the US Army, and was named the 2003 US Army Soldier of the Year (pictured below), and the 2007 US Army Medical Corps NCO of the Year. Russell was also an Eagle Scout.

Links and Sources:

”Burnham, the Scout”, in Pearson’s Magazine, vol. 12, July-Dec 1901.
"Veteran Scout", by E.B. DeGroot, in Highlights magazine, July 1944.

Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis, 1906. Now in the public domain, and available on Wikisource.

Photo of Fred Burnham is a family photo released into the public domain, and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Lt. Russell Burnham courtesy of the US Army.
Drawing of the Matabele War from unknown source; retrieved from this site.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sulfur Island

In February of 1945, US Marines attacked the rocky Japanese island of Iwo Jima, whose name literally means 'Sulfur Island'. It was the first assault on one of Japan’s “Home Islands” in World War II, and its success would deny the Empire the use of the island for early warning purposes and as an emergency landing strip for its damaged aircraft, while providing the US with the same advantages. On February 9, an intense bombardment from US Navy battleships and B-24 heavy bombers from the 7th Air Force began pounding the Japanese garrison on the tiny island, and continued to do so for ten days. The first US Marine boots landed on the southwest beach of Iwo Jima on February 19, and were met with surprisingly little resistance at first. The reason for this was simple: the Japanese defenders were all hiding.

Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commanding officer of the island’s defense, was fully aware of the production and military power of the advancing US military. He ordered the beach defenses to be abandoned, and instead had his men build a series of tunnels, pillboxes, and trenches to augment the natural defensive capabilities of the island. By the time the Americans arrived, the Japanese defenders had built more than 11 miles of tunnels beneath the island, and there, more than 18,000 Imperial soldiers waited, virtually impervious to the bombs.

Iwo Jima is roughly teardrop-shaped, with the southern ‘point’ being dominated by Mount Suribachi, a flat-topped caldera and the highest spot on the island; the rest of the island is mostly flat, except for the much smaller Hill 382 on the north end. At 8:59 am on the 19th, the US Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions landed at four points on the southwestern corner of the beach, and due to the lack of incoming fire, many had thought that the shelling had annihilated the defenders and the Marines would be unopposed. The artillery fire and bombing had to stop, for fear of shelling their own men, and before long the beach was filled with US Marines and equipment. The Americans began making inroads toward the center of the island, but advancement was slow going, in part due to the difficulty of moving in the coarse black volcanic sand. At this point, the Japanese - having been ordered by Kuribayashi to wait until this point - opened fire.

The American advance was slow and costly. The Japanese were in such a superior defensive position that many of the usual American tactics were ineffective. Defensive positions thought secured were suddenly repopulated, as the Japanese literally crawled out of the ground at night to reoccupy them. The pillboxes, bunkers, and caves provided superior protection against small arms and rifle fire; grenades and even bayonets proved helpful, but in order to use them, American troops had to get uncomfortably close to the entrenched Japanese defenders. In order to take the island, the Americans needed to utilize a weapon that would be effective against firmly entrenched enemies, and for that, they turned to the flamethrower.

Flamethrowers were originally a German invention called the flammenwerfer, but by the time of the Iwo Jima, the US had advanced through several versions of it. The M2-2 entered service in mid-1944, and had the same basic structure as its predecessors: two large tanks filled with flammable fuel on a backpack frame, with a smaller tank filled with a compressed propellant. The propellant would force the fuel through a hose and into a vaguely rifle-shaped wand in the user’s hands. The wand had a pilot-like flame at the front of it, which would ignite the fuel as it was forced out toward the enemy. However, instead of gasoline propelled by hydrogen, as the earlier versions used, the M2-2 used thickened napalm propelled by nitrogen, providing a longer range (20-40 meters) and a more stable burn. The standard tactic was for riflemen to engage a fortification from the front and draw the enemies’ fire, while the flamethrower operator - or “torchman” - would approach from an angle and fire obliquely into the target, incinerating or asphyxiating everyone inside. Sometimes the torchman would do a “wet shot” - that is, a stream of unlit napalm - followed by a fully lit burst, resulting in a massive fireball.

One of the torchmen on Iwo Jima was 21-year-old Corporal Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams from Quiet Dell, West Virginia, serving with the 21st Marines of the 3rd Marine Division. He spent the day of February 23, 1945, darting through enemy fire with his flamethrower, neutralizing a total of seven enemy strongholds while periodically returning to gather more fuel or demolition charges. At one point, he climbed atop a Japanese pillbox and torched it down through the air vent (pictured), and at another point he was charged by a group of bayonet-wielding Japanese warriors, flaming them all with one burst. He was wounded in action on March 3, and for his troubles he was awarded the Purple Heart, and - on October 5, 1945 - the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented to him by President Harry S Truman.

Despite Williams’s success, personal flamethrowers had many disadvantages. They were heavy - about 70 pounds - and had a high profile. It was difficult to run or crawl while wearing one. They had a short range and ran out of fuel after about eight seconds of constant fire. While they usually did not explode when shot, they were easy and popular targets; Japanese soldiers eager to avoid a screaming, burning death would target American torchmen whenever they could. As the torchman also would have to pop up and expose his whole upper body before firing, their life expectancy was notoriously short and trained operators were soon in short supply. Alternate methods were desired to deliver the flamethrower’s effects.

Enter the tank. The Americans refitted the ubiquitous M4 Sherman tanks to carry flamethrowers rather than main guns; these tanks were designated M4A3R3, imaginatively nicknamed the ‘Zippo’. Tactics for the Zippo were very much like tactics for the torchmen; other tanks would provide cover and draw fire while several Zippos then rapidly closed in and ignited the target. Terrain sometimes limited their mobility, but they were overall very effective; General Kuribayashi mentioned the flamethrower tanks specifically in his final letter back to Japan.

The siege lasted for 39 days and resulted in a decisive American victory. In the end, only 216 Japanese soldiers survived to be captured; the rest were killed on Iwo Jima. General Kuribayashi was among the dead, though the nature and time of his death is unsure; his body was never found. 6,821 US Marines also died, and 19,217 were wounded. By early September of that year, the war was formally over. Of the six men in the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, three died on the island, and the other three all suffered from post-war stress; the last of them, Navy Medic John Bradley, died in 1994 at the age of 70. In 2011, Woody Williams - aged 87 - appeared on the cable show Sons of Guns, in which he got to fire his refurbished flamethrower once again, torching a stationary target with obvious glee.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia pages for The Battle of Iwo Jima, the M2 flamethrower, and Woody Williams.
”The Battle for Iwo Jima” on the Navy Department Library website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
”Chapter XV: The Flame Thrower in the Pacific: the Marianas to Okinawa” in Chemicals in Combat, on the US Army Center of Military History website, retrieved March 20, 2012.
Hershel Williams at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website, retrieved March 20, 2012.

The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, by Robert S. Burrell, Texas A&M University Press, 2006.
M2A1-7 Portable Flamethrower Operator’s Manual, Headquarters, Department of the Army, 1973.

The Smell of Burning Flesh, on Steve Baker Films, retrieved March 20, 2012.
Sons of Guns, season 1, episode 3, Discovery Channel, 2011.

“Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima” by Joe Roesenthal, for the Associated Press.
Photo of Marine with flamethrower is courtesy of the United States Marine Corps.
Painting of Corporal Williams in action is titled “Corporal Hershel Williams”, by Jim Laurier.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding was born in 1707 to an aristocratic family which soon found itself out of money and out of luck. His mother died when he was ten, and his father - a General in the King's Army - died penniless not long after. At the age of 12, he was sent by his maternal grandmother to Eton for schooling and learned the art of writing, with an eye toward the satirical.

In the summer of 1725, he and James Lewis, his servant, were involved in a brawl over Sara Andrews, a 15-year-old heiress with whom Henry was infatuated. Two months later, he convinced James to help him abduct Sara on her way to church with another man named Andrew Tucker; they failed, and while the constables captured James not long after, Henry drew up some leaflets ridiculing Andrew and his family, posted them up about town, and then ran away.

Over the years, Henry wrote many stories, got married to a woman named Charlotte and had three daughters, attended school in the Netherlands and England, and worked at various times as a theater manager, newspaper editor, and judge. After Charlotte died, he then married his second wife, Mary, who was six months pregnant with their son William at the time; they ended up having four more children afterwards. In 1749, Henry published his most well-known work, the satire Tom Jones; he modelled the heroine after Sara Andrews, the girl he stalked when he was a teenager. He continued to work as a judge, and was responsible for some sweeping reforms of law enforcement, including founding the Britain's first professional police department.

Henry, suffering from asthma, gout, and jaundice, moved to Lisbon, Portugal in 1754, hoping that the warmer weather would benefit his health. Accompanying him and the rest of the crew on this journey were four cats, including one small kitten. On July 11 of that year, he later related, the sails were out but the ship was not making much headway, when the little kitten fell out of the window and into the Atlantic Ocean. Someone shouted that a kitten had washed overboard, and the captain cried out an alarm. The sails were dropped, the ship was immediately wheeled about as the captain of the ship, greatly concerned, frantically guided the ship around to pick up its tiny "man overboard". Henry, watching the action, was surprised by the captain's concern, and did not expect that the poor kitten would be recovered.

The boatswain, however, had other ideas. He tore off his jacket and shirt, and dove into the churning water. He disappeared for a while beneath the waves, and then returned with the kitten, motionless and soaked, in his mouth. Climbing up the ladder, he laid the waterlogged feline out on the deck of the ship and let him dry in the sunlight. A crowd gathered around, but there were no signs of life from the kitten, and the captain - putting on a brave face, and telling those around him that he would rather have lost a cask of brandy or rum - resigned himself to fate, and went below decks to resume a backgammon game he had started earlier with a Portuguese friar.

Against all odds, Henry later wrote, the kitten regained his consciousness and recovered completely, to the great joy of some of the sailors, but the dismay of the more superstitious ones, who believed that if a cat drowned, they would get a good wind for their travels. Henry survived only for a few months in Lisbon, succumbing to his myriad health problems, but the kitten lived to enjoy a full life, probably as a shipboard mouser.

Links and Sources:
"Henry Fielding (1707-1754)" on The Dorset Page, retrieved March 18, 2012.
"Henry Fielding (1707-1754)" on Books and Writers, retrieved March 18, 2012.
Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, by Henry Fielding, published in 1755, available on the web here.
Engraving of Henry Fielding is in the public domain, and is on Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of cat on a hammock from the Sun newspaper, March 18, 2012.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Medieval Jousting: Safety First

On a clear spring day in June of 1559, two massive horses of war thundered toward each other as their armored riders lowered their lances. The crowd cheered as the competitors clashed and pieces of broken lance flew into the air, signifying a score for one of the lancers. The jouster dressed in black and white tottered, then steadied himself in the saddle. As attendants rushed out to assist the wounded man, cheers turned to gasps as pieces of his opponent's shattered lance could be seen projecting from his visor. Blood spilled from the helmet; the tilt had taken a deadly turn.

Jousting was probably the most popular sport among the regency in medieval times. Taking its inspiration from battlefield tactics of the middle ages, the sport consisted of two jousters (or two teams of jousters) charging at each other on horseback, each attempting to unseat the other with the 12 foot lances they had couched under their right arms. In the earlier years of the sport, the contest took place on an essentially open field, with no barrier between the horses - a system called jousting 'at large'. Often, the contestants in these types of jousts would skewer either their opponent or his mount, the horses and riders would violently collide, or the jousters would overcorrect and reflexively keep away from the opposition, leading to a rather dull tournament. In later years, a cloth banner or wooden fence called a 'tilt' was constructed between the riders; this gave the riders a guide, prevented collisions, protected the valuable horses, and idealized the angle of the lance so that there were fewer impalements and more crowd-pleasing broken lances.

The safety of the jousters was improved over the years in other ways as well. Armor and weapons were strictly scrutinized; any competitor missing a piece of either would not be allowed to participate. Jousters were forbidden from striking the opponent's horse, saddle, thigh, bridle hand, or head, and were strictly penalized when they did so. Contestants who were injured could be 'counted out' at the judge's discretion, and risky maneuvers - such as having a jouster tie himself to the saddle - were actively discouraged. Also, the technology of helmets increased, allowing the lancer to retain his wide field of vision, which was crucial to good performance, while providing more and more protection to the lancer's most vulnerable spot - his face.

It was due to this weakness that medieval jousting had its most famous casualty. France's King Henry II proclaimed a tournament to take place on June 30, 1559 to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the King of Spain and the signing of a peace treaty with forces of the Hapsburg dynasty. The King was fond of jousting, and, dressed in black and white, he competed against Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery. On their second pass, the Comte de Montgomery's lance shattered, and slivers of his lance were projected at high speed directly through King Henry's visor and into the royal right eye. Henry somehow kept from being unhorsed, and, despite briefly losing consciousness, was later able to walk up the stairs to his chamber on his own.

The King was immediately attended to by France's premier doctor, Master Surgeon Ambroise Paré, and later by the brilliant Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius. The Comte de Montgomery - himself the captain of the King's personal bodyguards - was distraught, and asked the King to have his head and hand cut off as punishment; Henry refused to blame the young Count for the accident, and ordered his opponent released. The Queen, Catherine de Medici, was eager to help; she ordered the immediate execution of four criminals and had sharpened sticks rammed through their skulls in order to provide the physicians with accurate physical references for their studies.

Despite these efforts, Vesalius performed one medical test and realized that, despite the fact that the splinters had not penetrated to the King's brain, the wound was ultimately mortal. Surely enough, Henry developed an infection and died on July 10. Queen Catherine, who later adopted a broken lance as her personal symbol, never forgave the Comte de Montgomery as her husband had; after the Count converted to Protestantism and was captured leading troops against the Catholic French, the Queen had him executed, and had all of his lands and his children's titles revoked. Henry was succeeded by his feeble 15-year-old son Francis II, who would marry Mary of Guise - later known as Mary, Queen of Scots - and then promptly die from an ear infection after about a year and a half on the throne.

Ironically, it was due in part to the death of one its most famous patrons that jousting gradually fell out of favor. It persisted for some time, though in a different form in which jousters would try to use their lances to ensnare small rings on their tips, rather than oppose another lancer directly; it is in this form that it is the official individual sport of the state of Maryland. The equestrian discipline of 'tent-pegging', derived from a medieval cavalry tactic of riding at high speed through an enemy camp uprooting tent pegs with well-placed lance strikes, is still a recognized equestrian discipline. Recently, traditional jousting is experiencing a revival, most notably at Renaissance Fairs and reenactment festivals, in organizations such as the International Jousting Association, and most recently on the History Channel reality show Full Metal Jousting.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia articles on jousting and Henry II of France.
The New World Encyclopedia article on jousting.
"The Death of Henry II of France" from the Journal of Neurosurgery, December 1, 1992, reprinted here.
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, by Sydney Angelo, Yale University Press, 2000.
The International Jousting Association USA, retrieved March 17, 2012.
Full Metal Jousting, on the History Channel, retrieved March 17, 2012.
16th century woodcut of tournament by an anonymous German artist, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, on March 17, 2012.
Photo of modern jousters by user Pretzelpaws at
Painting of jousters by Graham Turner, and appeared in Warrior 104: Tudor Knight, by Christopher Gravett, Osprey Publishing, 2006.

Friday, March 16, 2012

We Hold the Rock

By 1969, in the midst of the American Civil Rights movement, two separate groups of American Indians from the San Francisco bay area were contemplating the idea of seizing the rocky island of Alcatraz. The prison which made the island famous had been shut down for more than six years, and local officials were debating what to do with the iconic island. When the San Francisco American Indian Center in San Francisco burned down in October of that year, the Indian activists were galvanized and, citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, they formed the multi-tribal group Indians of All Nations, and developed plans to occupy The Rock.

The plan met with resistance. About 75 Indian protestors gathered on Pier 39 on November 9, 1969, to announce their action to the press, but the hired boats didn't show. They hired another boat, but the captain refused to land, saying he would only ceremonially circle the island. Five men dove in and swam to Alcatraz, but they were removed by the Coast Guard and returned to the mainland. The demonstraters hired a third boat to bring them back that night, but that Captain suddenly pulled away from the dock after only 14 of the 25 occupiers on that trip could disembark; they were also soon discovered and returned to San Francisco. A third, more organized attempt was planned, and in the early morning hours of November 20 more than 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. The island's caretaker, Glenn Dodson - 1/8 Indian himself - told the landers than they were trespassing, and then showed them to the warden's house. It was there that the occupiers would establish their headquarters.

The Coast Guard again attempted a removal, but the Indians refused to budge. US President Richard Nixon, whose administration was still reeling from public relations disasters having to do with the Vietnam war and the civil rights protests, ordered that the government forces not use force against the Alcatraz occupiers. The GSA sent a representative with an ultimatum to leave, and the Indians disregarded that as well. Richard Oakes, a charismatic Mohawk ironworker from upstate New York serving as the spokesman for the Indian occupiers, called in to the San Francisco Department of the Interior office, and left a message expressing their motivation and intentions. He ended with the words, "We seek peace."

Meanwhile, the occupation flourished. Celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda were shown around the island by Jim Thorpe's daughter Grace. Donations poured in from Indians and non-Indians alike. The occupiers celebrated "un-Thanksgiving" on the island less than a week after the November 20 landing. The occupiers developed a system of self-government and worked tirelessly repairing and improving their new living space. Plans were developed to turn the island into an Indian-centric complex of buildings including a spiritual center, a university, and a museum. News spread of the occupation, and thousands of Indians - singles and families, of all ages, from every nation, including many who had never met an Indian from a different tribe before - journeyed to San Francisco to join in. About fifteen members of the radical American Indian Movement journeyed from Minnesota to take part in the demonstration; one of them, movement veteran Dennis Banks, noted that "there was a lot of happiness amind those dripping walls". Creedence Clearwater Revival donated $15,000 which Indians of All Nations used to purchase their own boat, which they named the Clearwater. Oakes declared the words that became the rallying cry for the occupation: "We hold The Rock".

Over time, the occupation developed problems. The island, with no electricity or clean water, was becoming an increasingly harsh place to live. Protesters trickled back to the mainland and those who remained began squabbling with each other. Tragedy struck when Richard Oakes's 13-year-old stepdaughter, Yvonne (left), fell from an unfenced pier onto a concrete slab and died; Oakes and his family then left the island. Non-Indians from the hippie culture began to move on to the island. In June 1970, a fire gutted the lighthouse and several other buildings; the government blamed the Indians, but the occupiers, citing the distance between the four damaged buildings, blamed the blaze on government agents. Public safety concerns also were raised because that lighthouse and the fog signals were necessary for the safety of the passing ships. Coast Guard inspectors were met with armed Indians demanding water; someone fired a metal-tipped arrow at a crowded passing tour boat; two supertankers collided nearby and dumped oil into the bay. Although the last one was unrelated to the occupation, public opinion turned pretty sharply against the Indian occupiers.

The occupation lasted 19 months and 9 days, and the remaining 15 Indians were peacefully escorted off of Alcatraz on June 11, 1971. Through sheer determination and persistence, and with no deaths from violence, two small groups of like-minded Indian activists displayed a bold and powerful statement about their plight to the world stage, and elevated the prominence of American Indian civil rights. As a direct result, at least ten major US government policy shifts improved the education, health, and finances of American Indians.

Links and Sources:
Alcatraz is Not an Island,, retrieved March 15, 2012.
"Alcatraz, Indian Land", by Ben Winton, in Native Peoples Magazine, Fall 1999.
"An Occupation Worth Applauding: Celebrate Un-Thanksgiving", by Mickey Z. on MRZine, retrieved March 16, 2012.
The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism, by Troy R. Johnson, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, by Dennis Banks with Richard Erdoes, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
You Are Now on Indian Land: The American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island, California, 1969, by Margaret J. Goldstein, Twenty-First Century Books, 2011. Photos of activists and of Yvonne Oakes both appear in this book; photographers are unknown.
Photo of sign by Wikipedia user Tewy, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Floating Bombs

"Look what I found, dear!"

On May 5, 1945, Elyse Mitchell shouted these words back to her husband, as she and five teenaged students approached the oddity they had found, half buried in a late-season snowbank in Bly, Oregon. Someone shouted that it was a balloon, and Archie Mitchell remembered that he had heard of Japanese balloons being spotted near the west coast. He yelled back for them not to touch it, but it was too late - an explosion shook the park area and by the time Archie reached them, Elyse and all five students were lying around a one-foot crater left by the balloon. Elyse's dress was on fire; Archie tried to put it out with his bare hands, but could not. Elyse and four of the students were killed immediately by the blast; the fifth survived only for a few minutes. They had no way of knowing it, but 26-year-old pregnant Sunday School teacher Elyse Mitchell and her five students who were all on their way to a Saturday church picnic, had just become the only wartime casualties on the American continent due to enemy action in World War II.

How an explosive-laden balloon would end up in the wilderness of Oregon is best explained by going back in time by about a year. By 1944, the Empire of Japan was in the unenviable position of being involved in a large-scale war against a powerful opponent with plenty of industrial resources. In their attempt to find economical but effective ways to inflict damage on the United States, Japanese scientists devised a way to use the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream - a high-altitude river of air which crossed from Japan across the Pacific Ocean to North America - to their advantage. Japanese scientists developed a plan to create a series of 70-foot-tall hydrogen balloons made from mulberry paper, sealed by potato flour, and each carrying a 33 pound incendiary bomb. The balloons were assembled mostly by teenaged girls and were equipped with a complex system of weights and ballast using an altimeter, rotating wheels, and sandbags to keep the balloons aloft during their three-day floating journey. These airborne bombs were called Fu-Go, or "fire balloons".

From November 1944 until April 1945, the Japanese launched over 9,000 of these balloons, with the hopes that they would cause casualties, burn down forests and farmland, and cause panic in the United States and Canada. The first balloon was spotted near San Pedro, California, on November 4, 1944, but the U.S. Office of Censorship asked that news of them not be printed or spread, with the hopes that the Japanese would lose interest in the program if they did not see any evidence of it working. Nonetheless, rumors and sporadic reports persisted. The deaths of Elyse Mitchell and the five students inspired a change in the policy of silence. Civilians were now warned to be wary of the floating bombs. However, no other casualties would be attributed to the balloons and the Japanese never learned of any chaos they were hoping they would create. American geologists analyzed the sand within the sandbags and determined that they must have come from Japan itself; subsequently, American bombers were able to identify and destroy two of the three balloon factories. Disillusioned, the Japanese discontinued the program in April 1945.

For those interested in the technical aspects of the balloons, this video has since been declassified:

Links and Sources:
"How Geologists Unraveled the Mystery of Japanese Vengeance Balloon Bombs in World War II", by Dr. J. David Rogers , Missouri University of Science and Technology, retrieved March 14, 2012.
"Blast Kills 6, Five Children, Pastor's Wife in Explosion: Fishing Jaunt Proves Fatal to Bly Residents," Klamath Falls Herald and News, May 7, 1945.
"Japanese Balloon Bomb Killed 7", from the Southern Oregon Mail Tribune, November 22, 2009.
"Balloon Bombs" in the Oregon Encyclopedia, retrieved March 14, 2012.
Photo of balloon was taken by a US Army soldier in 1944 or 1945, and is in the public domain.
Diagram of balloon is from Japanese Balloon and Attached Devices, by the Technical Air Intelligence Center, Naval Air Station, Anacostia, DC, May 1945.
Photo of memorial plaque courtesy of the Southern Oregon Visitors Association.
Video from the National Archives and Records Administration, Dept. of the Navy, and is in the public domain.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Riding Out the Storm

On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress was one vote short of a unanimous decision to declare their independence. The state needed to assure the support was tiny, coastal Delaware to the south; if it would support the motion to split from Great Britain, then the Congress would be able to formally adopt the Declaration of Independence and assert itself as an independent nation. Backing independence was a risky proposition, tantamount to treason in the eyes of the British, so it was not easily undertaken.

Delaware at the time had three delegates, two of which needed to appear in person in Philadelphia to vote for independence; otherwise, the state would be considered deadlocked and the unanimity would fail. On July 1st, one of Delaware's delegates, Thomas McKean, was voting in favor, but the other, George Read, was voting against. The only way to avoid a deadlock was if Delaware's third delegate, Caesar Rodney, would break the tie, and the final vote was scheduled for the next day, July 2nd.

Caesar Rodney was an odd looking fellow; John Adams described him as "tall, thin, and slender as a reed, pale; his face is not bigger than a large apple, yet there is sense and fire, spirit, wit, and humor in his countenance." He had developed cancer of the face, which began as a blemish on his nose but spread to cover his whole left hemisphere; in order to hide these scars, he wore a green silk kerchief over his nose and mouth whenever he appeared in public. As Rodney was also a Brigadier General in the Continental Army, it was he who had ridden down to Lewes, in southern Delaware, to quell a pro-British uprising a few days earlier, and so he was not in Philadelphia to cast his crucial vote.

His fellow delegate Thomas McKean, who was present on July 1st, realized the implications of a deadlock vote and sent a fleet-footed rider with a message imploring Rodney to return to Philadelphia at once. Rodney immediately mounted a horse and rode 80 miles to Philadelphia in the middle of the night and through a raging thunderstorm. Rodney, suffering not only from the facial cancer but also from persistent asthma, continued to ride over muddy roads, slick paving stones, and over rickety bridges spanning rain-swollen creeks. July 2nd was reportedly a very hot day, so when the sun rose and the clouds cleared, he was then continuing his ride through scorching mid-Atlantic heat.

Caesar Rodney arrived at Independence Hall in time for the vote just as the debates were finishing, with barely minutes to spare before the vote. He must have been a sight to see among the assembled scholars all dressed in their finery; his tall, thin, pale form was still wearing his riding habit and heavy boots, he was covered in dust and worn from the ride, his face was, as always, covered by the green veil. He strode in to the chamber, still wearing his jingling spurs, and cast his vote in favor of independence. The motion passed; Congress debated specific wording for two days, and, on July 4th, 1776, formally adopted the US Declaration of Independence.

Rodney himself downplayed the ride in a letter to his brother Thomas, saying only that he was "detained by thunder and rain" but arrived in time to vote. He would later serve as the President (that is, Governor) of Delaware from 1778 until 1781, at which time he was forced to resign due to his failing health. He died not long after, a victim of the cancer which had plagued him for so many years. No contemporary pictures of him exist, and he is one of the few members of the Continental Congress who do not appear in John Turnbull's famous image of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence (above). He is, however, memorialized by a dramatic statue in Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delaware, and his image on the back of the state quarter; both depict him during his famous overland horse ride which secured the independence not only of his home state, but of the whole country.

Links and Sources:
"Delaware's Hero for All Times", by Russ Pickett, on the Delaware State website.
Biographical and Geneological History of the State of Delaware, Vol. I, by J.M. Runk and Co., Chambersburg, Pa., 1899.
Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Volume 1, Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1921.
Image of Caesar Rodney's statue courtesy of Mitra Images.
Image of Delaware state quarter courtesy of the US Mint.
The Painting Declaration of Independence, by John Turnbull, hangs in the US Capitol Rotunda, and is on the back of the $2 bill.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rome's Darkest Hour

On May 6, 1527, Pope Clement VII was running for his life. Spirited through a secret passage in the wall of St. Peter’s Basilica, he fled for 800 meters down the Passetto di Borgo, a narrow, arched corridor that runs within the Vatican City’s exterior wall. Behind him, an invading army was committing the harshest atrocities upon the Eternal City in its existence.

Four years earlier, Pope Adrian VI died, and Cardinal Giulio d’Giuliano de Medici became Pope Clement VII (right), inheriting a tenuous political position. War was raging between King Francis I of France and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and Clement was not only chronically ill, but, despite being naturally intelligent and harboring the greatest of intentions, he was neither experienced nor ruthless enough to navigate the dangerous waters of medieval wartime politics. The new Pope allied with Catholic France first, but when Francis I was captured in 1525, he then sided with Charles. By this point, ten years had passed since Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and Charles was being forced to acquiesce to a growing Protestant populace, many of which wanted to violently overthrow the Catholic hierarchy. Although the Emperor himself was a good Catholic, and this sort of rage and revolution was contrary to Martin Luther’s own hopes, much of the Lutheran population had their eyes set on revenge against the hallmarks of Catholicism - namely, the Pope and the city of Rome. Their passions were stirred even more when Francis was released in 1526, and Clement rejoined with France in the anti-Hapsburg League of Cognac.

Charles - the prominent heir of the Hapsburg dynasty - was infuriated. He attempted, however, to forestall the need for war by signing an eight-month peace treaty with Pope Clement, the terms for which also entailed the Vatican paying the Empire a sum of 60,000 ducats - money which Charles desperately needed. In the meantime, Charles’s army, who had not been paid in some time and who were largely anti-Catholic Lutherans - heard of this, they enlisted (or perhaps forced) the Duc de Bourbon, formerly Constable of France, to lead them south to the rich, fat, and undefended city of Rome.

Clement was relying on the strength of the peace treaty and the assistance of France to defend his city; neither held true. The Imperial army - including Spanish Catholics, Italian merceneries, and the flamboyant and much-feared Landsknechts, who wielded pikes, great swords, and medieval firearms - reached the walls of Rome and, shrouded by a morning fog, began its siege. The Duc de Bourbon commanded that the Pope must be captured for ransom, and the city must not be sacked, but he was almost immediately shot and killed as he was climbing a ladder. The army, now without leadership or restraint, stormed the walls. Their chaos spread in across the city like a wave.

Clement’s first intention was to encounter the invaders in his his full splendor, and to that end he dressed in his finest regalia. He was at Mass when he heard the blares of cannon, and the cries of the patients in the nearby Santo Spirito Hospital, who were being slaughtered by the invaders. Before long he succumbed to a combination of reason and the insistence of his entourage, and he fled.

The Pope - still in his flowing, scarlet robes - had to be literally carried through the secret exit, because he was sick and too weak to stand on his own. One of his cardinals flung a cloak over the Pontiff’s head, lest he be recognized and shot through the corridor’s windows. Another carried the train of his robes as they fled down the corridor.

The Commander of the Pontificia Helvetiorum Cohors - the Pontifical Swiss Guard - was Kaspar Röist, whose father, Colonel Markus Röist, had previously served in the same position. Kaspar assembled his small force of men and prepared to hold off the invaders as long as possible, to allow the Pontiff to escape. 42 of the Guard, led by Hercules Goldli, escorted the Pope, while the remaining 147 remained behind to protect the single entry into the Basilica. They made their stand at the foot of the obelisk, which at that time was just outside the graveyard of the Campio Santo Teutonico, or German College, to the left of the Basilica. Röist’s wife, Elizabeth Klingler, watched from an overhead window as her husband was mortally wounded by Spanish troops. Röist’s men reverently carried their Commander’s body to his house, and gently laid him on his bed to die, only to have more of the marauders break in and hack his body to pieces; Elizabeth tried to shield his body from them, and she lost several fingers as a result. The remainder of the Swiss Guard retreated and reorganized on the steps of the Basilica, and were massacred where they stood. The last of Röist’s 147 men died on the Altar of St. Peter, after having inflicted about 900 casualties amongst their enemies.

Pope Clement had been watching the Swiss Guard’s last stand through the windows of the Passetta, and wept as he did. He finally reached the Castel Sant’Angelo, a virtually impregnable Roman-era fortress only about 1000 feet from the Basilica, and while there he was insulated from the rampaging hordes. The invaders sacked the city for eight days, defiling relics, looting holy sites, torturing priests (including the future Pope Julian III), raping nuns, and murdering anyone, including orphaned children and hospital patients. One of the soldiers broke the head off of the spear said to have punctured the side of Christ, and mounted it derisively on his own, and others looted St. Peter’s tomb. About 12,000 people died, with about 2,000 of their bodies thrown into the Tiber River.

Eventually, the sacking did end, but the occupation continued. The plague hit the city during the summer, and at about the same time, Pope Clement VII finally surrendered. He agreed to turn several cities and a large amount of money over to the Holy Roman Emperor but he remained a prisoner within the Castle Sant’Angelo until he escaped in December by dressing as a peasant. By the time the occupation ended in about February of the next year, the Swiss Guard had been disbanded in favor of 200 German Landsknecht, the glory of Renaissance Rome had come to a permanent end, and Protestantism had taken a great leap forward on the world stage. Clement returned to Rome in February of 1528 and was immediately swept up in another watershed moment in the progression of Protestantism, as envoys of Henry VIII of England had been waiting to petition the Pope to annul the English King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon - who, perhaps not incidentally, was the aunt of Charles V. Clement would deny the petition, leading Henry to later split from the Catholic church.

While the name of Kaspar Röist and the heroics of the Swiss Guard on May 6, 1527, have been largely forgotten, the Swiss Guard’s position in the Vatican was reinstated in 1548 under Clement’s successor, Paul III. Today, if you are a celibate single Swiss Catholic male between 19 and 30 years old and over 174 cm tall (a little over 5’8”), and if you have completed the Swiss military’s basic training, you can apply to become a Pontifical Swiss Guard. Every year new recruits are sworn in on May 6, the anniversary of the last stand, and their sole duty is to protect the life of the Pope at all costs.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia pages for Pope Clement VII, Charles V, the Passetto di Borgo,the Sack of Rome, and the stand of the Swiss Guard.
Italian Wikipedia page for Kaspar Röist.
“The Sack of Rome in 1527”, on the Website of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, retrieved March 12, 2012.
”The Sack of Rome: 1527, 1776”, by Dr. John C. Rao, on Seattle Catholic, retrieved March 12, 2012.
”1527: The Sack of Rome”, on Salem Press, retrieved March 12, 2012.
”Five Hundred Years of Loyalty: The Gallantry of the Pope’s Swiss Guard”, by Eleanore Villarrubia, on, retrieved March 12, 2012.
“Pope Clement VII” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).
A Traveler in Rome, by H.V. Morton, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1957.
Image of Pope Clement VII from the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.
Image of Pontifical Swiss Guard by Reuters.
Image of Passetto by Raja Patnaik, posted on Wikimedia Commons.