Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day, 2014

When you go home,
Tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow,
We gave our today.


Inscription, British War Memorial, Kohima, India. (attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds, Times Literary Supplement [London], 4 July 1918).

For a moment, pause in your enjoyment of a day off of work, spent with your families, and remember our soldiers, sailors and aviators, serving, struggling and carrying the flag for... us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in Afghanistan and throughout the world. Particularly keep their families in your thoughts and prayers.

Remember also the wounded; those hurting both in body and in mind, who daily cope with the reminders they must bear, of their service to our not always sufficiently grateful country, Never forget those who are missing, or are even today captive; along with those who made the ultimate sacrifice who indeed gave all their tomorrows, for all our todays.

God be with them, with you dear reader, and with our country, today and every day

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Fifth of May. . .


Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, first American in Space, in his capsule "Freedom 7 " during a test shortly prior to his flight on Mercury-Redstone 3, 5 May 1961 (NASA photo).

All kinds of interesting historical events, today. On this day in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when Mercury-Redstone 3 blasted-off from Cape Canaveral's Pad 5 and took Astronaut Shepard and his capsule Freedom 7 into space. Freedom 7 did not orbit, only going up, and then right back down (a "suborbital" flight), and he was only up for 16 minutes.

After moon landings and space shuttles, it doesn't sound like much now, but if you have ever seen a real Mercury capsule (eleven and a half feet wide, just over six feet in diameter), you would understand how absolutely brave a stunt it really was to climb into this thing (actually, you pretty much wore it, you didn't get in it) and sit quietly on the pad while the smart boys fired up a rocket as likely to crash or explode as to fly.

Rear-Admiral Shepard, who later played golf on the Moon commanding Apollo 14, died in 1998. I will never forget, when I was about 16, having the honor to shake the man's hand and talk with him briefly.

On this day in 1883, the first Earl Wavell, or to give him his full titles, Archibald Percival Wavell, Field Marshal, Earl Wavell, Viscount Wavell, Viscount Keren of Eritrea and Winchester, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC, PC -- was born in Colchester, England. Colchester, the oldest Roman town in Britain, seems an appropriate place of nativity for such a distinguished soldier, of a family of soldiers. The future Lord Wavell was not long in Britain, however: he spent most of his youth in India. Wavell's father, like his son and grandson, was a career soldier in the British Army, the father retiring with the rank of Major General.

After a glittering British Army career in the First World War and between the wars, Wavell was given command of all British forces in the Middle East early in World War II. Wavell was given an almost impossibly huge task (containing the Vichy French, beating the Italians and later Rommel, and keeping the Arabs quiet) -- with far too few forces.

Wavell's problems were compounded by excessive political interference, particularly by Winston Churchill. In early 1941 Wavell's forces were winning in Libya and mopping-up the Italian East Africa colony. However, in February 1941, Wavell was ordered by London (that is, Churchill) to halt his advance from Egypt into Italian Libya (Wavell was beating the Italians), and send his best forces off to Greece to fight Germans and Italians. Wavell protested, and the British intervention in Greece proved, as Wavell had predicted, a complete disaster.

The intervention in Greece, with the diversion of effort it occasioned, and the loss of much of the intervention force and its heavy equipment in Greece and Crete, gave the Italians and Germans a breathing space in Libya, and an German general named Rommel his opening. Wavell's efforts to stop Rommel were unsuccessful, although he was able to keep Iraq in the British orbit by successfully suppressing pro-German nationalist rebels (the Anglo-Iraq War), as well as ending Vichy French control of Syria (Operation Exporter).

Wavell was eventually shunted off to Asia, being made the British commander-in-chief there, just in time for Japanese entry into World War II. Again, Wavell was asked to do much too much with far too little, and he made as good a job of it as could be expected, finishing his career as a Field Marshal, and Viceroy of India, and the king creating him Earl Wavell in 1947. Upon Wavell's death on 24 May 1950, all his titles passed, of course, to his only son, another Archibald, another soldier. Major Lord Wavell was killed in action in 1953 in Kenya (fighting the Mau-Mau), and with the son's death, the titles became extinct.

Today is also the anniversary of the death in 1821 of French Emperor Napoléon I, while in British captivity on St. Helena in the South Atlantic. "To live defeated is to die every day" the Emperor said, during this bitter period of his life; and, passing his days at rat-infested Longwood house, Napoleon had ample time to ponder the subject. But Napoleon never gave up or accepted defeat lying down: as a captive exile he fought and won his last (political) battle for control of the popular imagination. Aided by the petty humiliations of his stupid and unimaginative British jailer, the Emperor constructed a political and historical narrative of his life (which was even a little bit true) describing a great man brought low by pygmies. The "Napoleonic legend" helped his nephew become Emperor Napoléon III.

Speaking of Emperor Napoléon III, on this day in 1862, his forces in Mexico (there to collect debts and carve out a Mexican Empire) suffered a check at the Battle of Puebla, on the road to Mexico city, in 1862. General-de-Division Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, with his tough little army of line infantry; Chasseurs a Pied; Zouaves; mounted Chasseurs d'Afrique; sailors with rifles; and the Troupes de Marine -- the French Marines -- tried to overrun General Ignacio Zaragoza's dug-in Mexican Army regulars and local militia straight off the march, but soon learned that fighting even raw or half-trained troops in buildings and behind the walls and trenches of both regular and extemporized fortifications was quite different from catching them in the open, where French fire discipline and training would have told to best advantage.

Count de Lorencez possibly deserves a marginally better press than he gets. True, he rushed into a fight after only slapdash reconnaissance and after ignoring advice from friendly Mexicans. But he had reasons for haste: he was trying to collapse resistance to the French and the Mexican faction they supported with a quick blow to the Mexican forces around Puebla. Most importantly, Count de Lorencez knew he had with him some really splendid troops, which had routed a similar Mexican force with ease on 28 April at Aculzingo. However, the quality of his own force led him to discount that of his Mexican opponents: many of whom (even the militia) were veterans of Mexico's most recent civil conflict and were fighting on their home ground.

In any case, the Mexicans repulsed the French attack, and de Lorencez fell back out of range. The French waited in their own positions for two days, hoping to draw a Mexican attack on their own positions: and when it did not come, they fell back on Orizaba to await reinforcements, allowing the Mexicans to claim the victory.

Count de Lorencez would not be the first general confronted, without realizing it, with a politico-military situation that was quite beyond him. Possibly my Francophile side is showing. In any case, the anniversary of the Puebla engagement is celebrated in parts of Mexico, and among Mexicans in the United States as Cinco de Mayo.

Today in 1864 saw the beginning of the Battle of the Wilderness, first battle of the Overland Campaign, and of US General Ulysses S. Grant (accompanying Meade's Army of the Potomac) against CS General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant thought to move quickly through the Virginia Wilderness, south of the Rapidan, towards more open country to the southeast, where the US firepower advantage could be used to more affect. General Lee, needing to nullify Grant's advantage in artillery, had other plans -- and two thirds of his 60,000 men struck the whole 100,000 man Yankee Army in flank today, in heavy woods along the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike.

Over the next two days, the armies fought to stalemate; each time one side or the other appeared poised to make a breakthrough, reinforcements arrived and re-established the equilibrium. Grant suffered more casualties than Lee. . .but unlike previous Yankee generals, he did not give up but stayed on the field. If the battle was a tactical Confederate victory, strategically it was a draw (or worse). Spotsylvania awaited. . .
 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) 17 September 1862

I've blogged on this subject before, and this post appeared, slightly differently, a couple of years ago. But the Battle of Sharpsburg is both on my mind, and part of my current reading, so the post seems as timely to me now, as then.

Headquarters, Alexandria & Leesburg Road
Near Dranesville
September 3, 1862
Mr. President:
The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland. The two grand armies of the United States that have been operating in Virginia, though now united, are much weakened and demoralized. Their new levies of which I understand sixty thousand men have already been posted in Washington, are not yet organized, and will take some time to prepare for the field…
The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men are poorly provided with clothes and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes. Still, we cannot afford to be idle, and though weaker than our opponents in men and in military equipments, must endeavor to harass, if we cannot destroy them. I am aware the movement is attended with much risk. . .
If the Quartermaster Department can furnish any shoes, it would be the greatest relief. We have entered upon September, and the nights are becoming cool. . .
R.E. Lee
Genl
General Robert E. Lee to President Jefferson Davis, 3 September 1862 (from Dowdey, Manarin, The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee, Da Capo 1961, p. 294).
Headquarters, Near Fredricktown, Maryland
          September 8, 1862
Mr. President:
The present posture of affairs, in my opinion, places it in the power of the Government of the Confederate States to propose with propriety to that of the United States the recognition of our independence. . .
R.E. Lee                                                                                                                 
         Genl Comdg.
Lee to Davis, (Papers, at p. 301).
Today is the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Sharpsburg, known in the north as Antietam, the bloodiest day of battle on the North American continent. No American armies ever assembled contended for such high stakes as their brothers who fought and died this day near the Maryland town of Sharpsburg, hard by Antietam Creek, on this day, so many years ago.

Overshadowed in the popular imagination by Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, a tactical draw, but strategically, a defeat for the South, deprived the fledgling Confederate States of its best possibility of military victory. After Sharpsburg, foreign diplomatic recognition and help for the South’s struggle for independence was exceedingly unlikely.

Southern morale was sky-high in the summer of 1862, at least in the east. After a series of disasters following First Manassas, in the winter of 1861-62, the Confederacy found itself some generals. Robert E. Lee saved the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond, Virginia from a much larger US force under the talented, but slow, George B. McClellan. Meanwhile, in the Shenandoah valley, the tiny Valley Army, under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, beat the Yankees again and again, and briefly threatened Washington, or so the hard-pressed Lincoln administration thought.

Following McClellan’s reverses near Richmond, Confederate armies passed to the offensive all across the south. Lee moved from the Richmond area back towards Washington. From 28-30 August 1862, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia won its greatest victory at Second Manassas. Meanwhile, in the west, Braxton Bragg’s hard-luck Army of Tennessee moved into Kentucky, threatening to make the Bluegrass State’s nominal status as a Confederate state a reality.

Defeat at the very gates of Washington, and Bragg's invasion of Kentucky shocked and embarrassed the Lincoln administration. The federal government’s policy of forcing the Southern states at gunpoint back into the Union they wanted to leave teetered on the brink of ruin. In Britain, William Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, told a Newcastle audience that southerners had “made a nation.” In Paris, the Confederacy’s strongest foreign friend, Emperor Napoléon III, told his foreign ministry to open quiet talks with England on joint diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. For once, both diplomatic and military momentum seemed to be moving in favor of the South.

Under these circumstances, Lee’s decision to move north was a no-brainer, particularly given the General’s knowledge, which jumps out of his papers and correspondence, of the South’s dismal long term military prospects. Lee fully recognized the superiority of his enemies in “numbers, resources, and all the means and appliances for carrying on the war” and warned his President that “we have no right to look for exemptions from the military consequences of a vigorous use of these advantages.” Moving north and beating the enemy on his own soil raised the odds of foreign support, boosted Southern morale, while damaging the enemy's; relieving the Southern home front from the pressure of invading enemy armies, and giving Northern civilians a small taste of what their armies dished-out all over the South.

Still, the campaign was, as Lee and his President knew, a giant gamble. During the first days of September, as the tough Confederate infantry moved down the roads of northern Virginia, across the Potomac and into US territory, problems were readily apparent. Southern industry was simply not up to properly equipping the army. Lee’s force was in part shoeless, clad in rags with only coincidental resemblance to uniforms, largely armed and equipped with enemy weapons and supplies scavenged from the victorious battlefields of that summer. (Lee’s correspondence during this period shows a preoccupation with guarding the site of the Manassas victory, and hauling away the huge quantities of abandoned Yankee supplies and arms).

Also, the army was organizationally cumbersome: no formal Corps structure yet existed; its over-large divisions informally divided into two wings too large for the wing commanders, Longstreet and Jackson, to really handle. Still, in the annals of American war, finer troops never bore arms, and in Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Jeb Stuart, the Hills, Hood, Early, and legions of others, the Confederates had a splendid band of commanders.

The amazing run of victories that summer produced another problem: continuously marching and fighting since March, the army was completely exhausted, and in need of a spell in camp to rest, re-equip and absorb replacements. Replacements, that is, such as there were. Unlike its bigger, richer foe, the Confederate States was already scraping the bottom of its manpower barrel, which further explains Lee’s determination to try to end the war quickly. But General Lee was pushing his force to its physical limit. The long marches (think of barefoot or ill-shod troops and horses on the macadam and gravel roads found north of the Potomac); combined with utter exhaustion and poor supplies produced rampant straggling. Lee’s army, already seriously under-strength, numbered no more that 55,000, and he could not assemble more than 45,000 for the Battle of Sharpsburg.

The campaign began well enough. With the main northern armies camped around Washington, Lee moved into central Maryland, around Frederick. A glance at the maps and Lee's dispatches indicates that his plan seems to have been much the same as he used in the Gettysburg campaign the next year: a move into Pennsylvania, so as to draw the US Army round Washington after him, and then defeat it in detail, as it came up, somewhere between Harrisburg and Gettysburg. . .

However, the Yankees left a huge garrison at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, isolated and vulnerable, and Lee sent Stonewall Jackson to pounce on it. The US garrison there surrendered on 15 September – almost 12,000 troops going into Southern captivity. This was the largest mass surrender of a US Army until 1942.

To close the trap around Harper’s Ferry, Lee had to divide his already outnumbered army. Under pressure from politicians and newspapers, the US Army of the Potomac moved out of Washington, in typical slow McClellan fashion, after Lee. The weak point of the Confederate military machine was administration, and this now came into play. In a field near Frederick, Maryland, (former campground of a CS Infantry Division), Private Barton W. Mitchell, 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, found a piece of paper wrapped around some cigars. The paper, a Confederate military dispatch, “Special Orders No. 191,” gave McClellan his opportunity: “I now know all the plans of the rebels,” McClellan complacently telegraphed Washington.

The “Lost Order,” one of the most consequential pieces of paper in American history, told McClellan exactly where all of Lee’s units were, spelled out their composition, and gave hints as to future operations. Best of all for the North, Lee was completely ignorant of the fact that his enemies now knew his plans.

McClellan told a subordinate: "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home" and, indeed, Napoléon probably could have won the whole war on the strength of that information. Lee had only 19,000 men immediately available to set against McClellan’s 87,000 because Stonewall Jackson was still finishing with Harper’s Ferry. Fortunately for the Confederates, McClellan, (as usual, beguiled by other false intelligence giving Lee three times his actual strength), moved slowly. However, McClellan was able to force Lee to battle in front of the town of Sharpsburg, along Antietam Creek, on unfavorable ground, his back against the Potomac River, and with his army incompletely concentrated.

McClellan’s dithering delayed the battle for a full day, giving Jackson time to arrive with most of his troops from Harper’s Ferry. Still, when the battle began, at dawn on the morning of 17 September, Lee, who had managed to assemble about 35,000 troops, was outnumbered by over two to one.

Sharpsburg was really several separate battles, because McClellan was unable to get his army to make one, all out, coordinated attack. Had he been able to do so, Lee’s army would most probably have been completely destroyed. Instead, the different corps of the Union army attacked, more or less in sequence, separately, from the north end of the field to the south. McClellan never engaged more than two of his six corps at a time, and some of his units never got into action at all. The Confederates, better commanded, used all of their troops.

The slaughter defies description. 8,000 men were killed or wounded in the initial dawn attack alone. With rivers on both flanks of the battlefield, Sharpsburg was fought out as a series of bloody frontal assaults at places called “the Cornfield,” “Bloody Lane,” “Burnside’s Bridge,” the “West Woods.” Fighting was hand-to-hand at many places. The Cornfield changed hands fifteen times that day.

Several times, the Union troops were on the verge of breaking through the Confederate lines, but each time were repulsed short of their objectives, with horrific casualties on both sides. "Where is your division?" John Bell Hood was asked. "Dead in the Cornfield," his reply. "Lee's army was ruined," the Confederate artilleryman E. Porter Alexander later wrote, "and the end of the Confederacy was in sight." But somehow, the embattled, outnumbered Confederates held on, even counterattacking in places. However, by midday, the Confederates were on the ropes, exhausted, last reserves expended, generals and division staffs taking their places in the firing line. McClellan, fatally, hesitated, refraining from committing his last reserves, which would have shattered Lee's stricken center. To the soldiers, it seemed as if night would never come.

The battle ended in the early evening, about 5:30 p.m., with a last US effort to turn the Confederate right flank at Burnside’s Bridge. For the only time during this long battle, observers noted Lee showing signs of real anxiety, anxiously looking southwest, towards Harpers Ferry, for his last division, A.P. Hill's, en route from that place. Fortunately for the Southerners, Hill's troops arrived in the nick of time. The armies eyed each other warily all during the next day, but fighting did not resume, and the Battle of Sharpsburg ended.

Although the battle was a tactical draw, it was a strategic defeat for the South, because McClellan’s disjointed, uncoordinated attacks had hurt Lee’s army bad enough to force him to withdraw during the night of 18 September. The Southern retreat south of the Potomac completely overshadowed the mass surrender at Harper’s Ferry, and possibly prevented foreign diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy.

Despite this, the stand at Sharpsburg of Robert E. Lee’s greatly outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia was probably the Confederate Army’s finest hour. 2,100 US soldiers, and 1,500 CS soldiers died that day a one-day death toll by hostile action not rivaled in America till 9/11. Adding wounded, missing and prisoners on both sides, casualties totaled nearly 25,000. The Civil War was not decided at Sharpsburg – the fall of Atlanta, two years later, did that. But the last chance of the South to outright win the war, as opposed to surviving an attritional struggle, died at Sharpsburg.



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 11, 1941: The Hinge of Fate

No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy . . . but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. . . So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war -- the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand's-breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. . . How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. . . We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force.

Winston S. Churchill's reaction to the news of Pearl Harbor, in his Memoirs of the Second World War: The Grand Alliance.
Several days ago, the United States remembered the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which, among other things, brought the United States into the Second World War. With the Japanese attack on the United States, the line-up of major powers at war was almost complete – but only almost. The US declaration of war, passed-out of Congress on the 8th (with but one dissenting vote) – named only Japan. The United States had not yet heard from Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy – co-signatories to the September 1940 Tripartite or “Axis” Pact. On 11 December 1941, this changed when Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. A good argument can be made that with this step, Nazi Germany committed suicide.

In the strategic sense, Hitler’s decision to make war on the United States – for it was his alone – was absolute lunacy. In December of 1941, Germany had all it could handle in Russia: Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to conquer the Soviet Union in a single campaign in the summer and fall of 1941 – had already failed, and the German Army was stuck in the snow in front of Moscow: its supply lines a shambles or non-existent, casualties already numbering over a million (front line infantry regiments barely fielding the strength of companies). On the 6th (the day before Pearl Harbor), the Russians – who seemed to the German soldiers opposite them to have bottomless resources – launched a massive counteroffensive.

Germany’s other enemy, Great Britain, was running its own war in North Africa, and at sea, but on life-support, relying on massive dollops of American financial and military aid to stay in the war. But without more, and as long as Germany could keep the situation in Russia more or less under control, Britain’s efforts, strategically, were an irritant, and not a threat. But with the Russian campaign teetering in the balance, Germany verged on strategic bankruptcy.

So why then, did Hitler compound his problems? Why did Adolf Hitler, with his eyes open, enter into war with the greatest industrial power on Earth? Pre-war German military planners concluded that Germany had lost the First World War because the Kaiser’s Navy had dragged America into it. But on 11 December 1941, Hitler proved to the world he was an amateur strategist, and repeated the mistake.

An argument can be made that the US and Germany were already at war – US ships were protecting convoys of US military aid to Britain in the North Atlantic; and without Lend-Lease aid from the United States, Britain could not have carried on the struggle. But convoying and massive aid was still not full-scale war, which the Germans, up till late 1941 – seemed to understand very well: the German Navy in the Atlantic being under orders to “avoid incidents with the USA.”

The distinguished historian Gerhard L. Weinberg, and others, believe that Hitler had long forseen actual, open war with the United States, but in the longer term, only after the defeat of Britain and Russia. However, Pearl Harbor, according to Weinberg, made Hitler believe he needed to wait no longer – that with Japan, an apparent first class naval power, on his side, there was no further need to prevaricate. Hitler possibly reasoned that Japan would keep the Americans busy enough for him to win his war in Europe without much American interference.

If this was indeed Hitler’s reasoning – and little else makes sense -- the Führer seriously miscalculated. It seems that Hitler, just as he had underestimated the Soviet Union, underestimated the industrial and military power of America. As matters turned out, American resources were quite vast enough to fight a full scale land, air and sea war with Japan; raise and supply a major army to fight land campaigns against the Germans in Europe; arm and feed the British; help the Soviets; build the ships to move the army and supplies around in; build an air force from scratch to level Germany’s cities; build roads and ports on five continents; work on costly experiments like the atomic bomb – and manage to pay for all this. America could afford it. By comparison, Hitler's Germany, and every other power in the conflict -- fought a poor man's, shoestring war.

Perhaps more importantly, Hitler made the fatal error of taking the geopolitical struggle for world power personally. He wanted a confrontation with the rich plutocratic Americans -- in any way that he could get one. The Führer really, really hated America, and in particular the US President, Franklin Roosevelt – as a reading of his diatribe in the Reichstag, announcing war with the United States -- makes amply clear:
And now permit me to define my attitude to that other world, which has its representative in that man, who, while our soldiers are fighting in snow and ice, very tactfully likes to make his chats from the fireside, the man who is the main culprit of this war. . .
More even than his faulty strategic assumptions, Hitler's hatred and envy of America and its President drove him to abandon rational calculations of interest and advantage, and into the fatal misstep that would destroy him.

But suppose Hitler had done his homework? The German naval staff was certainly aware of the gigantic US military and commercial shipbuilding programs; and both German industrialists connected with the war effort and the intelligence departments of the German General Staff were fully in the picture about the ongoing American industrial and rearmaments programs – which dwarfed the capabilities of all the other belligerents combined. Some industrialists and generals were in fact convinced that Germany had already lost the war prior to American entry.

All of this information was available to Hitler, had he been inclined to hear it. But the Führer (despite months of hints, surprised as much as anyone else by the attack on Pearl Harbor) failed to understand the depths of his strategic predicament, and the possibilities presented by the new situation. For the last time in Adolf Hitler’s strange and bloody political odyssey, opportunity knocked.

What if Hitler had declared German neutrality in the Pacific War? Not that treaties were ever an issue for the Nazis, but technically, Article 3 of the Axis Pact did not require Germany to go to war with the United States. Probably, simply declaring neutrality would not have helped Hitler much, but it would have gravely complicated the allied position politically.

President Roosevelt could no doubt have obtained a declaration of war on Germany anyway, (Congress was working on that already), but it is questionable whether the United States would have enjoyed the unity of purpose, and the national resolve that allowed it fight the war to the finish had Hitler not moved first. The Führer, by stealing Roosevelt’s thunder, did the world a favor by solidifying the conviction of the American people that there could be no deals with the Nazis or the Japanese, and that the war had to be prosecuted until total victory. Isolationism was mortally wounded by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and finished-off by Hitler’s speech in the Reichstag, as the ensuing American declaration of war (after Hitler's) proved. Churchill's reaction to Pearl Harbor, recorded above, more accurately reflected the situation after 11 December 1941.

Suppose, however, that Hitler had not only declared neutrality in the Japanese war, but torn-up the Axis pact and actually declared war on Japan? Unlike democracies, dictatorships can change policies on a dime -- as Hitler had shown in 1939 with his “non-aggression” pact with Stalin, that he tore-up in 1941. What if Hitler had gotten up in the Reichstag, denounced the Japanese sneak-attack on America, and offered the US "help"?  Not that Germany would have ever really fought such a war, but it seems improbable that the United States could have gone to war with Germany under those conditions.

With America out of the European war, and what was left of the isolationist lobby demanding full focus on the war with Japan (no aid for Britain and Russia, and no second front, ever). Hitler might well have forced the British to a separate peace and beaten the Russians. If Germany was stretched to its limits in December 1941 – so were the British. The Japanese rolled up their position in the Far East in early 1942 without serious difficulty. At the least, Hitler could quite possibly have achieved a stalemate with Stalin, thus managing to keep much of Germany's ill-gotten gains, and having his hands free to maintain his criminal Nazi regime indefinitely.

Fortunately, Hitler’s half-baked views of strategy -- and his paranoid fantasy that Roosevelt and the Americans were part of his mythical world-wide Jewish conspiracy – drove Hitler and Nazi Germany to suicide. On 11 December 1941 – Hitler abandoned strategy and just did what he wanted to, cast off ambiguity, and made the quasi-war with the United States real.

Now that pretense was over, the very next day, as the historian Christian Gerlach has shown, Hitler took steps to move the Holocaust (already begun in Russia) into high gear, announcing to his intimates his decision to annihilate European Jewry. However, matters would end quite differently than the architect and maker of all this misery supposed. Hitler’s decision on 11 December 1941 led not, as it easily could have, to a German-dominated Europe but to his squalid suicide in his miserable little Berlin bunker, and the burning of his carcass on some rubbish-heap.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Menin Gate

Today is the anniversary of the unveiling, in 1927, of the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium, a war memorial to the almost 90,000 soldiers of the British Empire and Commonwealth, listed as missing in action, during the five battles for Ypres in World War I and the daily smaller skirmishes between encounters big enough to be “battles,” so called. Ypres, in Flanders, was about the only significant town in Belgium that never fell into German hands. The monument is situated at the eastern edge of town, on the road British troops would take to be fed into the front lines.

The people of Ypres wanted to show their gratitude for the sacrifices of so many British and Commonwealth soldiers. Since 2 July 1928, on every day except during German occupation in the Second World War, the local fire department has sent a file of buglers at 8 p.m. to sound “Last Post” (the British equivalent of Taps). On 6 September 1944, when troops of the Polish 1st Armoured Division liberated the place from the Germans, the Last Post ceremony resumed that very evening, despite the fighting still going on in town.

Meanwhile, the armies of missing (British as well as 90,000 or so Germans) are still on guard, buried in collapsed trenches, or in what’s left of a shell crater; their poor remains sometimes rediscovered during local building or road construction. R.I.P.


Went the day well ?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill, Freedom, we died for you.

John Maxwell Edmonds, Times [London], 6 February 1918.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday, 2012

Blessings and peace to you and to your family today! If you are fortunate enough to be off of work, enjoy your time; but remember also what Jesus Christ endured out of love for you, and for your sake.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11/11/1918

(an annual post)

Have you forgotten yet ?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz – The nights you watched and wired and dug...?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again ?’ . . .
Have you forgotten yet ?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon “Aftermath, March 1919.”

Today is Veterans Day in the United States. In part because the calendar is crowded with holidays, Veterans Day replaced an older holiday, known as Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of the First World War, surely the most needless, tragic, but consequential war of modern times. Canada, Australia and the other British Commonwealth nations, very appropriately, call today “Remembrance Day.” World War I is ancient history to most of us, yet this conflict, the war that in many ways brought down Armageddon, is with us, always. Pause, friend, for a moment, wherever you are, and remember.

At ten minutes past 5 a.m., on the morning of 11 November, the German armistice delegation, meeting with their allied counterparts in a railway car near the French city of Compiegné, accepted the Allied terms for an armistice. The Germans found the terms harsh (although they were no harder than those they had forced on the Russians in 1917) and they signed under protest.

Although the Germans had agreed to quit, the fighting did not stop until 11 a.m.: the dying that went on the rest of that long morning as pointless and futile as the whole war. In the Argonne, future President Harry Truman's artillery battery was in action, firing until it had no more ammunition at 10:45 a.m. Just east of Mons, Belgium, a Canadian soldier, Private George Lawrence Price, was fatally shot by a sniper at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the cease-fire, the last of over 60,000 Canadians to perish.

The cease-fire came, but the dying did not stop. The Allied naval blockade of the defeated Central Powers remained in place -- and it was rendered more effective by Allied access to the Baltic Sea. With agriculture and transport disrupted by the war and the political chaos in Central Europe, thousands died of malnutrition, mostly the aged and children. Meanwhile, bankrupted and bereaved survivors, particularly in the defeated countries, now demanded an accounting from their leaders, and tried to understand what it had all been for, and why this had happened.

When historians look back upon our times, they will probably agree that the 21st Century really began on 11 September 2001. Similarly, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year old Bosnian-Serb revolutionary bandit, member of a terrorist organization familarly called the Black Hand, the al Qaeda of its time, effectively began the 20th Century about 11:15 a.m. on 28 June 1914 when he murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg by a bridge in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite their exalted titles, the dead prince, his wife and their three now orphaned children were, in some ways, quite ordinary; and their ruined family was only the first of millions to come. A month and a week from the murders, after multiple diplomatic fiascos no novelist could invent, that seem impossible to believe today, all Europe was at war.

Ninety years later, Sarajevo was the scene of more violence, this time between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, quarreling over the make-up of the post-Cold War Balkans. The 20th Century thus ended where and as it begin, in Sarajevo, in blood, with another war that nobody would win.

The 1990’s violence in the former Yugoslavia, like almost everything else in modern diplomacy, stemmed from the war that Princip helped begin, and which people tried to begin ending today in 1918. Over 10 million dead bodies later, the war he and a baker’s dozen of incompetents started ended today, in 1918.

Officially ended, anyway. How can an atrocity like the First World War ever truly end?  Fought over nothing, ending in no victory for anyone, except political cranks, left wing and right wing radicals, demagogic ideologues and other fanatics. The road to Auschwitz, Hitler and Stalin runs straight from the murder scene in Sarajevo, through the railroad siding in Compiegné where the armistice was signed. The Second World War killed more, in raw numbers, than the First – but the later war was only a continuation made possible by the poisons unleashed in the first war.

Satan had a good day of it in Sarajevo in June 1914. If not for the murderer Princip, and the clumsy diplomats and generals who blundered Europe and the world into a war everyone but the crazies lost, whoever would have heard of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini ? Lenin would have rotted away in exile with his books and scribblings; Hitler no doubt would have died in deserved obscurity in some Vienna doss-house. Stalin would have met the inevitable fate of a bank robber; and Mussolini perhaps never left journalism. No collapse of the British Empire forcing America onto the world stage to redress the great-power balance. No Great Depression, no Nazis, no World War II or Holocaust, no Cold War. Maybe no collapse of the Ottoman Empire giving us, ultimately, Bin-Laden, Zarqawi, Hamas and suicide bombers.

But Gavrilo Princip fired his fatal bullets, and the whole edifice of civilization crumpled before them. The shots of Sarajevo echo still. Gentle reader, think today of his crime, and of all whom, unknowing, ultimately paid. Because of the shots in Sarajevo, men who had no reason to hate each other fought and murdered each other all over the world in job lots -- in the fields of Champagne, on the roads of Poland and in the snows of Russia, in Iraq and in China. Children died in the cold Atlantic and starved by the million in Russia, the mountains of Armenia, and the Balkans. Sleepy eastern Europe, so long a quiet agricultural backwater, twice in fifty years was turned into an abattoir.

Beyond the seas, America lost its isolation. Americans died in the Argonne and, thirty years later, in the Pacific and in the deserts of Africa; later in the jungles of Vietnam. Today US Marines are dying in the hills of Afghanistan, all in some way because of, or related to the acres of warehouses of cans of worms opened by Princip.

Besides the legions of killed, maimed and wounded, the war had other, more insidious effects. Along with butchering millions, the First World War killed the faith of the western peoples in their civilization -- in progress, parliamentary institutions, science and religion, and left us instead the poison fruits of Communism, Nazism, and Socialism. The west, outside of America (for a time) lost confidence in itself -- at some level even in its right to exist as a culture. Germany and Russia, gravely wounded in both body and spirit, led the turn away from God, progress, law and civilization, and burned books and millions of their own citizens. Britain, mother of Parliaments, the law and of the United States, withered -- crippled and bankrupted both by the war and its 1939 continuation; and its political class today quivers in fear of criticism by modernity's ascendant barbarians.

But today, in 1918, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month, of the eleventh day – war, for the moment, ended. Think of all war dead today, dear reader. But, almost 100 years on, spare a thought for a moment or two for all the dead of the Great War, so pointless, so long ago, but so horribly, tragically important.

Veterans Day, 2011

When you go home,
Tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow,
We gave our today.

Inscription, British War Memorial, Kohima, India.(attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds, Times Literary Supplement [London], 4 July 1918).

As our soldiers, sailors and aviators struggle and stand on guard for us throughout the world, particularly today in Iraq and Afghanistan, pause in your business for a moment, and think of them, and of our veterans who have already served. Remember those who are not with us today, because they made the ultimate sacrifice. Think, also of their families at home, who bear their own scars incurred in coping with the absence and perils of their often far away loved ones.

In particular, I am remembering in my own prayers today (and every year on this day) five US Navy casualties of the Battle of Midway (4 June 1942). Samuel Adams, Lieutenant (j.g.) USN (Scouting Squadron 5, USS Yorktown), holder of three Navy Crosses, who did as much as anybody -- more actually -- to win the battle; Wesley Frank Osmus, Ensign USNR, (Torpedo Squadron 3, USS Yorktown), Frank Woodrow O’Flaherty, Ensign USNR (Scouting Squadron 6, USS Enterprise), and Bruno P. Gaido (Aviation Machinist's Mate (1st Class)) -- O'Flaherty's gunner. Lieutenant Adams and his radioman/gunner, Joseph Karrol (Aviation Radioman (2nd Class)) were presumed killed in action near the battle's end. Osmus, O'Flaherty and Gaido were all US aviators shot down and captured during the attacks on the Japanese fleet, and subsequently murdered by their captors. They each faced their fates alone, but they are never forgotten.

Went the day well ?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill, Freedom, we died for you.

John Maxwell Edmonds, Times [London], 6 February 1918.