27 November 2007

Pizarro Coup

We've recently passed an important anniversary in the military history of South America, probably the most significant such event in all its history. It certainly is a top choice of Jared Diamond, whose book Guns, Germs & Steel is still popular on Amazon.com's military bestseller list. I write of the Capture of an Inca King at the Ambush at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532. (The word "Battle", normally used for this, seems to glorify what was basically a massacre.) If your Spanish is up to it, you can read a hand-written account here.

23 November 2007

Maple Leafs in Blue and Grey

I'd known about "British North America's" oblique involvement in the American Civil War since I was very young, thanks to some comic book history of the conflict that I was given when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Some of the panels covered Confederates scheming sabotage north of the border in the loyal states. Then, some years later, I discovered that Clement Vallandigham, the notorious Copperhead, set up his base in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from where I grew up.

However, I was not aware of how substantial Canada's contribution was in terms of supplying volunteers for the conflict. Of course, Collections Canada has an online exhibit of some photographs and printed matter related to the Canadian Civil War, but these all focus on the contribution to the Union cause; undestandable, since the subject of the exhibit is the anti-slavery movement in Canada. Yet some Canadians volunteered for service in the Confederate army, too.

Not quite a hat-tip, but some ackowledgment is due to Gates of Vienna, via Small Dead Animals, who put me on the track of this topic.

OT: My Inner European

I'm not at all surprised.

Your Inner European is French!

Smart and sophisticated.
You have the best of everything - at least, *you* think so.

Hat-tip to Chone.

19 November 2007

Hobson's and Nixon's War

Richmond P. Hobson, a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, is not a name people of my generation can be expected to know, but it has been familiar to me since I was a little boy. For some reason, I've always been attracted to more obscure conflicts than the Big Three of the American Civil War, the First World War and the Second World War. One of my early favourites was the Spanish-American War, largely on account of my liking the look of ships from that era. Amply illustrated books such as Frank Friedel's The Splendid Little War, certainly helped.

One of the most celebrated heroes at the time of the war was Lieutenant Hobson, who attempted to block the harbour entrance to the port of Santiago at a time when the Spanish squadron of four armoured cruisers and two destroyers was inside. He took a collier, the USS Merrimac, and tried to scuttle it at the narrowest point of the channel. Hobson's daring adventure ended in failure, but it gave him national celebrity.

Not many years after I first read the story of Hobson, on 17 June 1971, President Richard Nixon mobilized part of the resources of American government against what he called "public enemy number one" - illegal recreational drugs generally and heroin in particular. I have vague memories of newsmagazine stories about opium poppies (then predominantly grown in Turkey) and the heroin trade. Yet I was utterly unaware of Hobson's part in developing the thesis that heroin and other narcotices were a major cause of crime in the United States, and that it was vital to keep it out of the country.

Hobson had been an important spokesman of the movement that ended up giving us Prohibition in the 1920s. With his work done in that field, he turned his attention to narcotics, and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing about the dangers criminals using heroin posed to civilized society.

The war Hobson urged and Nixon started has turned into a Thirty-Five Years' War that shows no signs of even getting near an end.

15 November 2007

Valkyrie Hundred

Today is the 100th birthday of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the German colonel who planted the bomb that nearly killed Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. Von Stauffenberg (apologies if I spoil the end of Tom Cruise's next big film) was shot that night in Berlin, effectively on the orders of a general who wanted to conceal his own sympathies for the plotters.

Von Stauffenberg's reputation remains quite lustrous, in spite of his coming somewhat late to anti-Hitler plotting. Hans Oster, Wilhelm Canaris, Hans-Bernd Gisevius all preceded Von Stauffenberg into organizing a conspiracy against the German dictator, but are largely forgotten by all except by those taking a closer interest into resistance to the Nazi regime. This is a shame, in part because they came closer to success than one might have imagined at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938.

As usual when it comes to laying blame for responsibility for the Second World War, the British government's own inability to decide whose side it was on during the interwar period bears the greatest blame. Theodor Kordt, the German ambassador to London, alerted the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to the existence of the conspiracy on September 7, 1938. Six days later, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, announced he would negotiate with Herr Hitler. Although, this in itself did not puncture the balloon created by the plotters, it set in motion the events that did. On September 28, Chamberlain agreed to the Munich conference, that apologists for Britain's interwar governments always characterize as having bought vital time for the organization of the Royal Air Force and rearmament. The conspirators, faced with another of Hitler's lucky breaks, put their plans on hold.

Whether the plotters would have succeeded in 1938 is of course open to some degree of doubt. Certainly, the knowledge that a conspiracy had existed at that time encouraged the British belief that almost randomly dropping bombs on German cities at night would eventually rouse the conspirators to action once again. (It didn't, by the way.) Furthermore, Halifax and Chamberlain could not necessarily regard Kordt's statements as reflecting a powerful conspiracy, as opposed to some talking circle Kordt sought to inflate all out of proportion to its real strength.

Yet even with these caveats, the fact remains that there was a chance for the war to be delayed, if not averted, in 1938, and that from time to time we should recall that German opposition to Hitler had a long gestation period.

14 November 2007

Military History Carnival VIII

The newest Military History Carnival is up at Gary Smailes' blog. It went up about a week ago. The Australian War Memorial item on pillboxes around Passchendaele 1917 is of considerable interest, if only for the accompanying photographs. The existence of such fortifications in the First World War tends to be forgotten in mainstream imagery. However, I'd also recommend the five-part series on cotton speculation during the American Civil War, if only because I've read it alleged that the assault on Iwo Jima was largely in order to allow American construction companies to profit from building an air base, rather than any serious strategic considerations. Or, to phrase it another way: 1. Get Air Force to bomb Japan; 2. Build the airfields, 3. Profit!

13 November 2007

25 Years of The Wall

Today is the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The architect/designer, Maya Lin, expressed the view that the politics of the war had 'eclipsed' the sacrifice of those who fought it. Yet how often does the politics of a war eclipse the sacrifice of those who are fighting it? More frequently than we might think, perhaps.

08 November 2007


Continuing a somewhat accidental Hispanic theme, I was watching the film Alatriste on DVD last night, when I was struck by the events of the battle of Rocroi portrayed there not quite fitting my admittedly sketchy memory of the action. A quick search to confirm my memory uncovered this detailed site about the Tercios, infantry units of the Spanish army of the 16th and 17th centuries. It includes a lengthy section on organization, tactics and life in the ranks, as well as descriptions of battles.

07 November 2007

Sack of Lima Library

The War of the Pacific is a little-known conflict in the English-speaking world. However, it made the headlines today when Chile returned 3,778 books to Peru, books that had been seized during the Chilean occupation of the capital Lima during the war. The books include the works of Homer, Bibles, and the 16th-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega.

The comments to this 2006 blog entry reveals a list of some of the absent volumes. In February of this year, a former director of the Peruvian National Library proposed the creation of a commission to draw up a list of the books pending their return. In March, 50 Latin American intellectuals sent an open letter to the Chilean government requesting the return of these books. The Chilean government agreed to do so shortly afterwards. If you can read Spanish, here's a decidedly Peruvian view, suggesting that the 3,778 books represent only a small part of a cultural heritage that has passed into institutional and private hands in Chile, and more should be returned. These two countries still don't get on, really.

06 November 2007

Martyrs in Spain, Politics in Rome

The weekend before last, the Catholic Church beatified 498 clergy killed during the Spanish Civil War for refusing to deny their. That this was a political act is proven as much by the headlines accompanying the news stories describing the occasion. Are you a liberal? Then you'll want to read this article, where the word martyrs appears in quotation marks in the headline. If you are an out-and-out leftist of socialistic or even atheistic communist views, go here. If you are a liberal anti-clerical, a traditional posture of Catholic polities in Europe, you might like to read Christian Laporte's piece in La Libre Belgique, quoted here. (But you'll need to read French.) If your views are of a more traditional, perhaps even Francoist bent, you could find some comfort in this web site aimed at expatriates in Spain.

One of the problems confronted in writing about war is that the construction of the historical record is a political act, and even more so when writing about conflicts in which millions have died. The Vatican was on record on 28 October 2007 saying that the beatification of these martyrs was not a political act. Yet it was, because it's impossible to do such a thing without knowing that fascists will see an event they can take advantage of, and did. The article in El PaĆ­s, a centrist Spanish newspaper very much emblematic of post-Franco Spain, specifically quoted an incident in which a man is carrying a Francoist-era national flag, with the coat of arms in front of the breast of an eagle. At the same time, the mobilization of the event by Franco's fans will certainly alienate those who have Republican sympathies. The Catholic Church is a big enough institution that it can shrug its shoulders, so to speak, and continue to pursue its own agenda. However, those of us writing about it end up prisoners of our own prejudices, as each of these 498 people made an individual decision that cost them their life. Some may have hoped and prayed for the success of Franco's "crusade"; but others might have simply expressed their faith at the wrong time and in the wrong place. To exploit their deaths and the public commemoration of their deaths for political purposes seems far too selfishly intrusive for my taste.

01 November 2007

The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight?

BBC History Magazine has devoted two articles to the Spitfire and the battle of Britain. They don't appear to have much online content, so you'll have to look in your local supplier if you want to have an idea of whether it is worth reading. Here's the article where I first came across the story. At this stage I don't know what to make of it. You'll find some discussion of the matter at this rather odd place, together with a link to another newspaper article. Certainly, I remember from numerous books I read in the middle 1980s that one of the perceived strengths of the Spitfire and the Hurricane was the 'shotgun effect' of their eight .303in wing-mounted machine guns, which didn't require the same level of marksmanship skill as the German Me 109's armament of cannon and machine guns (some allusion to it is made at post 74 ). If you can't shoot straight, throw a lot of lead in a wide area to maximize your probability of getting a hit. However, that would require opening fire at close range, but thankfully the British have always found 'grit' when they need it.