Category: History

The Battle of Wisby

In the mid 14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe and killed one third of the population. By 1353 it burned itself out but in many areas severely degraded the power of the absolute monarchs. This vacuum empowered the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant cities that dominated trade on the Baltic Sea (“hansa” is Old German for “convoy”).

For decades, in order to maintain power in Denmark, the Danish kings mortgaged Danish land, and in 1356, King Waldemar IV reconquered and reoccupied that Danish land after being depopulated by the Black Death. On the island of Gotland, the merchants of the Free City of Wisby, a member of the Hanseatic League, mocked Waldemar for being dishonest and unable to manage his finances.

So Waldemar invaded.

In July 1361, King Waldemar landed on the west coast of the island of Gotland with 2800 Danish infantry and German mercenaries. Outside the city walls on 27 July, they were met by the 2000 Gutnish yeomen, burghers, and dismounted knights. Both sides were armed and armoured roughly the same: the knights had plates covering the vitals and joints over mail hauberks, and the yeomen and burghers had “Wisby Plate Armor”, which consisted of metal plates sewn into a leather of fabric hauberk. Both sides were armed with swords, hammers and axes with round or long shields, and an eclectic variety of polearms. Neither side had cavalry. And both sides considered bowmen a waste of precious bodies on the long shield line. As expected, there were no real tactics, and Waldemar’s greater numbers carried the day. Once the line broke, individual Gutnish bands fell in upon themselves, and were isolated and overrun. 1800 Gutnish were killed. The Battle of Wisby was the largest longbowless, pre-swiss pike, purely infantry field battle of the Middle Ages.

Despite the objections of his men, Waldemar decided not to sack the town, but extort it. He decreed that the citizens of Wisby had three days to fill three giant beer barrels with gold and silver (or booze and rattan), or he would massacre them and raze the city. The rich citizens paid Ransom of Wisby within a day, and Waldemar went home.

Waldemar won the first round against the Hanseatic League, but none of the subsequent ones, as the Battle, and more importantly the Ransom, united the loosely organized Baltic merchants against him.

The Battle of Verbita Pass (Pliska)

In the late 7th century CE, the semi nomadic Turkic Bulgars merged with the Vlach and Thracian people, were Slavicized, invaded the Byzantine Empire, and established the First Bulgarian Empire. A hundred years later, Nikephorus I Genik became Byzantine Emperor and after concluding peace treaties with Charlemagne and the Arabs, was determined reconquer the Bulgarian lands.

In 810, Nikephorus with a large Byzantine army of 60,000 invaded the Bulgarian Empire and expected an easy campaign. Initially he was not wrong and defeated the Bulgarians in two separate battles. But the pragmatic and wily Khan Krum knew he could not stand against the Byzantines in open battle and always managed to slip away before his army was completely destroyed. Three times Khan Krum tried to negotiate but the arrogant Nikephorus ignored him. In July, 811, the Byzantines captured, sacked, and razed Pliska, Krum’s capital. Confident in victory and heavily laden with slaves and plunder, the Byzantine Army withdrew back to Constantinople. However, Khan Krum had mobilized his entire people, and shadowed Nikephorus’ march home.

On 26 July 811, Khan Krum blocked the Byzantine Army in the Verbita Pass. As the Bulgar warriors descended on the column, the slaves taken at Pliska revolted, and the Byzantine Army broke. The Bulagrian people hunted down the routed troops, and in the ensuing massace, not a single Byzantine survived, including the emperor Nikephorus, his entire court, and most of his administration, all of whom went on the campaign expecting easy plunder.

After the battle was over, Krum had Nikephorus’ body found. He decapitated the corpse, and had the emperor’s skull bejeweled with the plunder taken from the Byzantine treasury and lined with silver. At the victory celebration, Khan Krum toasted his warriors and drank deeply from Nikephorus’ skull.

The Byzantines wouldn’t bother the Bulgarians for another hundred years.

The Tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

One spring in the Late Middle Ages, the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony had a rat problem: the town was overrun with them. The mayor and the town council were perplexed. “What shall we do!” they cried. Then the town blacksmith had an epiphany, and said, “Let’s hire a Rat Catcher!” (a common occupation in the Middle Ages.) The mayor, not to be outdone, said, “Not just any rat-catcher, but The Bestest Rat Catcher! And I know of him!” So the mayor sent a messenger to find the Bestest Rat Catcher. The town council offered to pay the princely sum of 1000 guilders for his services.

Sometime in early summer, the messenger returned with the Bestest Rat Catcher. He was clothed from head to toe in colorful patched (or “pied”) garments. The townsfolk were again perplexed, he looked nothing like what they expected. To catch a rat, you must get dirty. But the Bestest Rat Catcher assured them he just had to play his Magic Pipe and the rats would follow him away.

On Sunday, 22 July 1376, while the entire town was at church, the Pied Piper of Hamelin did just that. He danced through the town merrily playing his pipes and, just as he said, the rats poured out of the houses and buildings. He led them away to the Weser River, where he boarded a flat boat, and pushed himself off. When the rats tried to follow, they all drowned.

The Bestest Rat Catcher returned to town and when the townsfolk emerged from the church, they were astonished and grateful that the rats were gone. But the greedy mayor was not. He didn’t think the Rat Catcher did enough work, “How could he clear the town so quickly? He did not do a thousand guilders worth of work! It must be the work of the Devil!” The Blacksmith, ever the wise one, managed a compromise: The Bestest Rat Catcher would not be burned at the stake, but would receive only 50 guilders, still a great sum for a day’s work. The Mayor kept the rest of the money.

The Bestest Rat Catcher felt cheated and vowed revenge.

The next Sunday, the Pied Piper returned. But this time he was not in his clothing of bright patches, but garments of deep dark ominous colors. The Pied Piper again played his pipes and danced merrily through the streets. But this time he was not trying to catch rats, but the town’s children. While the adults were again at Mass, the children gleefully followed the Pied Piper as he led them over a hill and far away.

When the adults returned home from Mass, they were horrified to find that only three children were left in Hamelin: one was deaf, and couldn’t hear the Piper. One was blind, and danced into a tree. And finally one was lame, and couldn’t keep up.

The rest of the children, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin, were never seen again.

(There’s two dates for Pied Piper story: one was in 1376 and the other in 1284, but both are on 22 July. The reigning theory is that the “Pied Piper” was actually an emigration recruiter that was getting paid to help Germans settle in recently devastated lands. The first area was along the Baltic, where the Teutonic Knights just wiped out the original Ugric Prussians [1376], and the other was in Transylvania, which the Mongols completely depopulated in the 1230s [1284].)

The Siege of Acre and the Massacre at Ayyadieh

The Second Crusade from 1147 to 1149 wasn’t just a disaster for the Outremer, it was also a catastrophe for the Seljuk Turkish Zengid Sultanate, the Abbasid Sultanate of Baghdad, and the Fatimid Sultanate of Egypt. Out of the Islamic victory a young and hungry Sunni Kurdish general, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to history as Saladin, first became vizier to the Fatimid Sultan, then quickly Sultan himself. In the 20 years after the Second Crusade, Saladin united Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Mesopotamia under the new Ayyubid Sultanate. With no Sunni Muslim lands left to conquer, he turned on the remaining three states of the Christian Outremer: the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Despite some setbacks from the leprous King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, he destroyed the main Crusader army at Hattin in 1187, and promptly seized Jerusalem. Saladin then went on to reduce the three Outremer states to ports and small slivers of land along the Mediterranean coast.

In 1189, Saladin paroled Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and commander of the Crusader army at Hattin. Guy, still king by marriage to Sybella went to Tyre, the new capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but Conrad of Montserrat felt that someone so incompetent and arrogant didn’t have the divine right to anything, and told him to move on. Fortunately for Guy, the loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe and launched the Third Crusade, with Tyre being one of the only ports of arrival left for the crusaders. While Conrad was busy with affairs of state and holding back Saladin, Guy was down at the docks politicking and formed his own army from newly arrived French, Sicilian, and Italian crusaders.

To Guy’s credit (but probably because Sybella convinced him not to), he didn’t turn on Conrad but marched his small army to Acre to acquire his own power base, and recapture his own kingdom. The Muslim defenders of Acre outnumbered Guy 2 to 1 but the same reason Acre was so hard to capture, the narrow approaches to the city, also meant that defenders couldn’t sortie in force, and were bottled up by the much smaller crusader army. Guy, reinforced by a Sicilian fleet, settled in for a siege. Eventually Saladin moved to besiege the besiegers. For the next 18 months, a bloody stalemate ensued between Saladin and the besiegers whom were reinforced by a steady trickle of newly arrived crusaders from Europe.

The loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe, and united Europe in a way that really hasn’t been seen since. Anybody who was anybody packed up their stuff and went to the Holy Land, where Guy at Acre was seen as the only one doing anything (even though Sybella died of dysentery during the siege, which revoked his claim to the throne). In 1191, the crusading armies of the Big Four of Europe: Duke Leopold of Austria, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Phillip II of France, and King Richard the Lionheart of England, all descended on Acre (though the elderly Barbarossa died crossing a river on the way, but part of his army arrived).

After eighteen brutal, bloody months of horrible disease and privation in unheard of conditions, the city of Acre was finally on the brink of capitulation. In early July 1191, Saladin received news from the starving garrison that if he didn’t relieve the city, it would surrender. On 11 July 1191, Saladin attacked the combined crusader armies. The Battle of Acre was a grinding, attritional affair that belied the Muslim stereotype of the lightly armed warrior unwilling to come to close combat. Furthermore, both sides knew the final outcome of the siege would be decided at the end of the day. Saladin came close, but failed to relieve the city. Acre surrendered the next day, and Saladin “grieved like a mother who had lost her child”.

Richard and Philip accepted the surrender of the city, and Saladin offered to pay the ransom for the defenders. Richard demanded a hefty sum, plus 2000 Christian nobles, and the True Cross, which Saladin captured in Jerusalem four years before. Saladin agreed to pay in three installments.

The first installment arrived on 12 August, 1191. However, by this time, the crusader army was breaking down. Barbarossa was dead, Phillip had to leave to deal with a succession issue in Flanders, and Richard was a right bastard with Leopold and Conrad, both of whom he felt were his inferiors, so they took their footballs and went home. The ever impatient Richard also felt that Saladin was using the time to reinforce his army (he was, but why wouldn’t he?), and Richard didn’t want to be besieged himself at Acre.

When the second payment arrived on 20 August, it was short many of the promised nobles and the True Cross. The infuriated Richard rejected the payment and was unwilling to wait any longer. That night Richard had the 2700 prisoners taken to a small hill at Ayyadieh, where he had them all beheaded. The decapitated bodies were in full view of Saladin’s army when the sun rose the next morning.

The eighteen month Siege of Acre was Satan’s Vortex that sucked both Muslim and Christian alike into a hellish battle of attrition in which there was no winner. It cost nearly 100,000 dead on both sides, which as a percentage of the population of Europe and the Near East, was worse than the Battle of Verdun nearly 700 years later. The profits of the Medieval Warm Period were spent at Acre. The Siege of Acre and the Massacre at Ayyadieh gutted the Third Crusade, both physically and spiritually. Richard would go on defeat Saladin at the Battle of Jaffa, but due to the losses during the Siege, would not have the strength to seize Jerusalem. A generation of the finest fighting men that Christian Europe could produce were buried around the city. Never again would the crusaders have the strength to retake the Holy Land.

The Siege also eviscerated the Ayyubid Sultanate and fatally weakened it. All of Saladin’s hard work would be undone in a few decades as small minded men took advantage of the weakness. On the surface, the glittering jewel of the Sultanate was as bright as ever, but the warriors needed to defend it lay dead on the hills of the Levant.

The devastation could not have come at a worse time: A new and terrible threat was emerging from the Steppe; one that would prove the greatest challenge to both Christian and Muslim alike.

The Mongols.

George III Is Melted Down

On 8 July 1776, Colonel John Dixon, commander of the Philadelphia militia regiment, “The Associators”, publicly read the Declaration of Independence for the first time from the steps of the Pennsylvania State House. Written but unsigned copies of the Declaration were sent to each of the colonies (the official one in the National Archives in Thomas Jefferson’s exquisite penmanship was only finished and signed on 2 August 1776).

The next day, the Declaration arrived in New York and George Washington had it distributed to the Continental Army, then bivouacked in lower Manhattan. As Washington’s scouts watched British troops and Hessian mercenaries occupy Staten Island, the commanders of each regiment read the Declaration to the troops and the citizens of New York.

When the Declaration was read to the local 4th New York Regiment, the inspired residents of the city marched over to Bowling Green Park, and pulled down the statue of King George III at its center. They carried the King over to a local blacksmith and had him melted down for musket balls.

I’d like to think many a British soldier had the King in their hearts in the coming days.

The Bikini

Micheline Bernardini modeling the first bikini, 1946

On the most hallowed day of 5 July 1946, the bikini was modeled for the first time at a popular Parisian swimming pool, the Piscine Molitor (honoring a Napoleonic Marshal of France). The bikini itself was named after the recent nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. It was designed by Louis Reard, a French automobile and mechanical engineer who also ran his mother’s lingerie shop. Reard couldn’t find a fashion model to debut the risqué swimwear, so he hired Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer from the nearby Casino de Paris. Although two piece swimsuits appeared before, Reard’s design was the first to expose the hips and navel. While modeling the bikini, Bernardini held the tiny box the bikini was sold in. When asked what separated his design from others, Reard said, “a true bikini will fit through a wedding ring” (both literally and metaphorically).

Reard’s bikini was popular in the fashion circles, but the mainstream public didn’t really catch on until a divinely inspired and epic triumvirate of events occurred in the early 1960s. First, singer Billy Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” hit #1 on 8 August 1960, which set the stage from provocative to fun. Next, Frankie Avalon and everyone’s favorite mousketeer, Annette Funicello, got all growed up and starred in the hit movie, Beach Party: an instant hit with the kids. And finally, Raquel Welch appeared in the movie One Million Years BC in 1966 in the original furkini, and every straight male under 30 in America had a poster of her up on their bedroom wall. Like beer (ever notice most great things in life start “b”, just sayin’) the bikini is proof that Baby Jesus loves us and wants us to be happy.

God Bless America! (and France I guess… and Italy, whatever…)

The Raid on Entebbe

On 27 June 1976, two terrorists from the German Bader-Meinhof Gang and two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked Air France 139 from Athens to Paris. They flew to Benghazi, Libya to refuel but Libya’s dictator, Muammar Qaddaffi, told them they had to move on. They went on to Entebbe airport in Uganda, where dictator Idi Amin welcomed them and put the Ugandan military at their disposal. There they met six more PFLP terrorists. They demanded the release of 54 imprisoned comrades and $5 million dollars. On 29 June, the terrorists separated the Jewish passengers and released the rest. The crew of the plane bravely stayed with the Jewish passengers.

The Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, immediately interviewed the released hostages and based on their information, and information from a few agents in Kenya and on the ground, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered an operation. But Entebbe was 2500 miles away and Uganda’s relatively professional military occupied the airport. Initially, the operation was a combined invasion to overthrow Amin and hostage rescue to secure the passengers, but Rabin didn’t want to further destabilize East Africa.

The Israelis devised a daring plan of flying four C-130 cargo planes 12 hours to Entebbe and assault the base under the noses of the Ugandan military. The first plane would fly right on the tail of a scheduled British airways flight to mask the radar signature. They were loaded with 100 paratroopers, two land rovers and an expensive Mercedes Benz that most corrupt African bureaucrats favored. The assault team would use the vehicles to surprise and overwhelm the Ugandan security, and get close enough to storm the old terminal building where the hostages were held, without getting them all killed. The rest of the paratroopers would destroy the Ugandan air force planes on the base and block any counterattack from a nearby army post while the C130s refueled. It worked almost perfectly.

After two days of rehearsals, Operation Thunderbolt launched from Israel on 3 July 1976. In the early morning hours of 4 July, the Israelis landed, killed the terrorists, secured the hostages, and crippled the Ugandan military in the area. Only the assault team commander, LtCol Yonatan Netanyahu (older brother of the current Israeli prime minister) was killed, and one hostage, Dora Bloch. The elderly Mrs Bloch was taken to a nearby hospital after becoming ill on 2 July. She was murdered by Ugandan army officers after the raid, along with her doctor, several nurses, and an orderly who tried to intervene.

Based on the operation, most countries organized dedicated Counterterrorism units to perform similar missions.

The Battle of the Somme: The First Day

The week long artillery bombardment was largely ineffective. The German troops stayed in their deep bunkers, and the smoke and debris made corrections and assessment difficult. They caught the British on open ground, and once machine guns went into action, they massacred them.

The veterans of the old colonial army, the “Old Contemptibles” as Kaiser Wilhelm II dubbed them, were mostly either dead among the poppies at Ypres, or disbanded to form the cadres for Lord Kitchener’s New Army of volunteers. Most of the recruits joined the “pals” battalions in which they served with those whom they enlisted. In the coming weeks, many a small British village or neighborhood were informed that the entirety of their young men were either dead or wounded.

In the British zone, the fighting around the Tiepval village typified the day. The Ulstermen of the 36th Division captured the Schwaben Redoubt, but the 32nd Division just south at the Thiepval village was pinned down and slowly murdered. The 4th Army commanding general, LieutGen Henry Rawlinson, refused to deviate from the plan and instead of committing the reserves to the Swaben Redoubt and flanking the village strongpoint, he committed them to two unsuccessful and very bloody frontal assaults. To add insult to injury, a hard charging German brigade commander launched a counter attack without waiting for two other brigades to move into their assault positions, who were delayed. They seized the Schwaben Redoubt, and the retreating Ulstermen were massacred crossing back across no man’s land.

Despite the loss of more than 90,000 dead or wounded on 1 July, the largest single day’s battle casualties in history, there was some success. The more experienced French troops south of the Somme River captured most of their objectives, but because the British were so preoccupied with their zone, the French couldn’t exploit its success properly.

All along the front, smaller Schwabens and Thiebvals occurred and the British gained almost nothing on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The Battle would continue for another 144 days.

The Battle of the Somme: The First Twenty Minutes

At exactly 0729, 1 July 1916, 1800 British and French artillery pieces bombarding the German trenches ceased firing. At 0729:42, the last echoes of the explosions from the last shell ended. For the next 18 seconds, as maddeningly long as only the second hand on a pocket watch can be, an eerie silence drifted across the Somme battlefield, as thousands of hushed and tense men waited for the signal. When the hand ticked to 12, junior officers blew their whistles, and 90,000 men went over the top, a number larger than the populations of Watertown NY, Leavenworth KS, and McKeesport, PA, combined.

They didn’t charge, or even jog. They walked. Some even formed ranks like their great-grandfathers did at Waterloo. They were heavily burdened with extra food, water, and ammunition, and they had 400 meters of no man’s land to cross. It was a long walk over open ground, but they were told that no Germans could have survived the week long bombardment. Also, their officers thought it prudent that they at least have the energy to engage at the end, if need be, in that most tiresome of activities, close quarters combat.

Most units were barely 20 meters from their trenches when they heard the first distinctive “crack” from a German Mauser rifle. Maybe a minute later the first Maxim machine gun opened fire. Very soon, many units came to the horrific realization that the wire to their front hadn’t been cut by the artillery. Within seconds, great swaths of men were cut down, as they continued to trudge forward, or jog slightly but only as far as one could carrying 70lbs of kit. Then German artillery, largely unaffected by the bombardment, began to fire. From 0732 until 0750 16 July 1916, about 450 men would die and more than 1300 wounded every minute. That is at least 1750 bleeding and horrifically mangled men in less time than it took you to read this.

The Battle of the Somme had begun.

Private Joseph Plumb Martin

Joseph Plumb Martin was the son of a Massachusetts reverend and was sent to live with his grandparents in Connecticut after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In June 1776, he threatened to join the crew of a American privateer out of Hartford if his grandparents didn’t allow him to join the Continental Army which just arrived in New York to defend against the inevitable British invasion there. His grandparents relented and on 29 June 1776, the 16 year old joined the Connecticut State Troops, and almost immediately was recruited into the 8th Connecticut Continental Line. He wouldn’t see his grandparents again until 1783.

Pvt Martin fought in every major battle from Long Island to Yorktown. He crossed the Delaware and surprised the Hessians at Trenton and was promoted to corporal in early 1777. He froze his ass off at Valley Forge and after MG Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign in 1779 was promoted to sergeant. He stayed a sergeant for the rest of the war and was present when LTG Washington disbanded the Continental Army in 1783.

What set Martin apart from the thousands of other Continental Army soldiers was that he kept a diary nearly every day of the war. Many officers at the time kept journals but few soldiers could read and write. Martin’s journal provides a nearly unique view into a soldier’s life in the Continental Army and its operations. He rarely mentions any officers above his company commander and mentions George Washington only once: when Washington once returned his salute while on guard duty.

The diary is a nearly unique look into the daily life of an American soldier in the Continental Line. Martin’s diary is definitive proof that some things never change and Joe will be Joe no matter the time period.