June 6, 1942 . . .

An SBD Dauntless at Midway. Creative Commons Fair Use: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmusn/explore/photography/wwii/wwii-pacific/turning-the-japanese-tide/1942-june-battle-of-midway/1942-june-6.html

Planes from the Enterprise and Hornet chased the retreating Japanese fleet. The battle had begun on June 4th and continued until the 7th.

I helped restore an SBD, back when I was in college the first time.

Memorial Day, Decoration Day

This year, 2022, Memorial Day’s observance falls on Memorial Day (actual), May 30. The United States did not have a day set aside to honor war dead until after the Civil War/War Between the States. Because so many families lost sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, the Grand Army of the Republic (northern veterans’ organization) pushed for a day to be set aside. On May 30, 1868, then US Representative James A. Garfield – a veteran – spoke these words:

Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them.”

The cover of what I suspect was a little history or civics book. Creative Commons fair use. Original source: https://lauriegauger.blogspot.com/2020/05/happy-decoration-day.html

He was at the then-new Arlington National Cemetery. Some in the South had already selected a different date, April 26, to use. However, after 1898, May 30 became the common date in all states. In 1971 Congress changed things so that federal employees got three-day weekends, and Memorial Day was shifted to the last Monday in May. Some people still do not care for this, or for the commercialization and loss of focus that followed.

As my readers know, this is not Veterans Day, or July 4. It is to remember the dead. Celebrate life, enjoy time with family, friends, and comrades, but we should not forget those who never came home.

The YouTube video is John Williams “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan. The images are of memorials, and US and Allied military cemeteries around the world.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omd9_FJnerY

Below are links to two history sites with more information:

https://www.military.com/holidays/memorial-day/how-decoration-day-became-memorial-day.html

https://time.com/4750347/confederate-memorial-day-history/

St. George and ANZACs

Before he was dismissed from the official list of saints, George was the patron of Greece and of soldiers. He was very popular in England. Officially his feast day is April 23, but it is observed this year on April 25, which is also ANZAC Day in Australia. It is a fitting pairing.

The “official” story about George is that he was the son of a Roman officer, and so became a soldier himself (as the law required. Martin of Tours [and of Pannonia] had to join the military even though he didn’t want to, because that was dad’s employment.) He became a Christian, refused to return to paganism, and was executed during the persecutions by Diocletian. The unofficial story involves slaying a dragon [devil] that preyed on the young woman of Silene in Libya. George did in the dragon, converted the town’s grateful residents to Christianity, and then the story either ends, or gets really off beat. I’ve only heard/seen the off-beat version once. Let’s just say that even the medieval Catholic Church expressed some qualms about George really being killed three times and coming back twice.

George is the patron saint of England and Catalonia. He is recognized and still venerated in the Orthodox Church, and is the patron of Ethiopia, Georgia, and the city of Moscow.

St. George by Raphael. https://www.raphaelpaintings.org/st-george.jsp

Then there’s a somewhat later and certainly more florid St. George.

Peter Paul Rubens. St. George. Public Domain, at the Museo del Prado, Spain.

ANZAC Day is the day set aside in Australia and New Zealand, and wherever Australian and New Zealander military forces are currently serving, to remember the dead of all the wars. The ANZACs tended to hit well above their weight class, and the mildest, most soft-spoken Kiwi can turn into a ferocious warrior when need arises.

Gurkhas honoring another group of warriors. The two often fought side-by-side. The image is from Gurhka Association website. https://www.gurkhabde.com/anzac-day-celebrations-in-australia/

April 25, 1915, marked the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. They would also fight in South Africa, New Guinea, France, Burma, Korea, Vietnam, and wherever needed. The Australian Military History museum in Canberra was eye-opening, to put it mildly, for a Yank who had very little clue about the huge contributions Australians (and New Zealanders) made in the wars. Or the enormous price those countries paid for that effort.

Culture and a War

I’ve been messing around in the 1600s for the past few weeks. That period marks such a shift in European political thinking and warfare that I’ve been doing more digging in that era than, well, since I was researching the Colplatschki books. This is the era when war and politics starts shifting from purely dynastic concerns to what we think of as nation-state politics. Rather than religion and family dominating a lot of conflicts and diplomacy, the idea of “reasons of state” start appearing, along with the beginnings of an internationally-recognized, non-religious International Law and Laws of War. The roots go into the political organization of the Holy Roman Empire, and how problems between cities, lords, and others were mediated, as well as into Catholic and later Protestant discussions about war and the law. Warfare also developed rapidly, as the Ottomans discovered to their ongoing chagrin after 1683.

None of this was instant, and there’s not a clean break between the late Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Dynasty doesn’t go away, as Louis XIV would demonstrate with the War of the Spanish Succession and other conflicts. Multi-national states would continue to dominate central and eastern Europe well into the 1900s, another three hundred years from 1648. But the Thirty Years War sees the beginnings of the process. When Catholic France—governed by Cardinal Richelieu as regent for Louis XIII—is funding Dutch Calvinists and Lutheran Swedes to beat up on the Catholic Habsburgs, while waging war against its own Calvinists and against Catholic Spain, um, messy doesn’t start to describe things. The war is no longer “just” about religion, if it ever was. Sweden will claim to be defending Protestantism while beating up on other Lutherans.

The Thirty Years war left cultural scars on Central Europe, notably in the Czech lands, Rhineland and Elbe watersheds, and other major areas of conflict. The inflation and disruption of trade, exacerbated by bad weather (cold and wet, very cold) knocked cultural life askew north of the Alps. Heinrich Schütz, for example, was forced to leave his official post and flee to Denmark in order to find work. He wrote small, limited compositions that are still beautiful and/or inspiring, because he had no other option. No one could afford the large choirs of Venice or the glory days of the High Renaissance. The grinding nature of war and the repeated waves of fighting marked German-language literature. Those marks still appear.

I was listening to a bit of Sabaton the other day, and then Blind Guardian. Both of those metal bands have albums centered on the Thirty Years War, although Sabaton’s includes the Great Northern War as well. The closest thing in American culture might, might, be Glorious Burden by Iced Earth, about the Battle of Gettysburg. I can’t think of anything else, although there’s probably something floating around. Bertold Brecht drew on a novel written during the Thirty Years War for material, and knew that everyone would catch the references. German-speakers still do. One of the great novels about the conflict, Der Wahrwulf, has been translated into English recently. The original is still in print in German (hard copy and e-book. I have the e-book). You could argue that the American Civil War/War Between The States/ The Late Unpleasantness is still leaving cultural traces, but I’m not so certain. It might be that not enough time has passed, but the Civil War was not the enormous break, with the horrible population loss and extended period of chaos, that the Thirty Years War forms.

*shrug* I’m an American looking in, for all that I’ve read and studied. I always will be. But it’s intriguing to speculate and to see how some things still resonate.

What do you mean by that? Musings on Modern Minds . . .

I was looking up Prinz Eugen von Savoy’s birth date, so I could be sure I remembered something else correctly. (He was 20 years old at Vienna in 1683. I was right.) That led to a bit of a rabbit hole, and some head scratching. A writer for a history web site wondered how Eugen could still be considered a hero of Austrian history when he had “blood on his hands.” Puzzled, I kept reading, and discovered that the author disapproved of what happened after the first siege of Belgrade. As usually happened after sieges, the attackers sacked the city, and a number of Muslims and Jews were killed. I sort of nodded and thought, “Unfortunate, but normal. What’s the problem?”

That’s when I realized that the web-site author and I have very, very different views of history, and of this historical figure. The author is looking back from a 21st century, nice person’s mindset, where a commander’s duty is to win with an absolute minimum of bloodshed and good soldiers never, ever do things like that. Eugen should have followed the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions and US or UN Rules of Engagement. Because he didn’t do that in 1683-1704, he was a bad person and not worthy of being honored as a national hero.

I look at Eugen as a brilliant leader and tactician, as well as someone who performed the miracle of fighting successful wars on a Habsburg budget.* So Muslims and Jews were massacred (or at least killed in large numbers) during the fighting in Belgrade. That’s how wars worked back then, especially sieges. Double especially a war that was Islam vs. Christianity and where both sides had been fighting “dirty” for, oh, [thinks back] since the Hungarians first collided with the Ottomans in 1366. Given some of the other things that happened over the 400 years of fighting, just killing people in the streets was somewhat tame. Not right, perhaps, but not the worst. And anyone who didn’t know what incoming troops would do if they broke into a city rather than it surrendering, well . . .

Is my mind warped, or have I spent too much time in the pre-modern era, or have I just accepted that the past really is a different country and so I don’t get bent out of shape when people don’t fit modern expectations? I know that the first is somewhat true. I”m not certain about the second option, so let’s go with the third option. You can’t read lots and lots of history, and walk battlefields or medieval cities without some of the time soaking in.

I guess I was a bit more surprised that the web-site author thought Prinz Eugen should have acted like, oh, Erwin Rommel, or General Michael Rose (during 1990s Balkan War). I shouldn’t be surprised, not anymore.

*The Habsburgs were firm believers in underpaying their military while expecting miracles, then acting surprised when Bad Things Happened. See the sack of Rome, when Charles V was shocked, shocked that his German mercenaries decided to pay themselves.

Eighty Years

December 7, 1941.

Others will pen more eloquent tributes and meditations on the events of that day. But on December 7, 1991, I observed that “This is Pearl Harbor day.” And a fellow college student said, in complete honesty, “What’s that?” She truly did not know the significance of the day or the anniversary. At that moment, my interests, my major, and other things took a hard turn, leading to a decision to do whatever I could to ensure that my generation knew, truly knew, what WWII meant, and why warbirds, floating museums, and other things were important, and that they were real, not made-up stories. In a way, it led to my being where I am, doing what I do, to keep the past alive. I am two steps from Pearl, fewer if you count my having gotten to meet and to hear Gabby Gabreski and others who where there.

Today isn’t for “What if’s” and “We now know that . . .” No, it is to remember the day and the moments, the feelings at the time, the men who fought the fires, who tried to defend their ships and bases, who lost comrades and kin, and the civilians who did what they could in the aftermath of the attack.

Fair Use from: Diginewshub.com. The USS Shaw exploding.
https://pearlharborwarbirds.com/jaw-dropping-color-photos-of-pearl-harbor/ A selection of images from the attack and aftermath. We tend to forget that color film was available, just rare and expensive.

The Second Oldest Historical Specialty?

Because my mind, like the Lord, “works in mysterious ways/ [its] wonders to perform,” I was watching the video for Sabaton’s “Steel Commanders,” and started 1) critiquing the band members in the tank*, and 2) thinking about military history. I started out as a military historian, and while I love environmental history and devour it whenever given the chance, military history remains a very strong interest and default.

I have been told, by someone from a different specialty, that military history is a dead end, and that there’s not really anything new there. Now, this was said in the early 2000s, by someone who was far more into social history than any other field. I bit my tongue, as one does in grad school. I was thinking back, to the very beginning, to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. Which is political, economic, social, and military history, with a dash of medical history as well. Is John Keegan’s The Face of Battle military or social history? What about other works? How can you isolate military history from the context of technology, politics, society, medicine, environment . . . . Unless all you are doing is “march, march, battle, battle, battle, list of dead, list of expended ordinance” you can’t.

Military history was cross-genre (to mix metaphors) long before interdisciplinary history became trendy. That is, when it’s done well. I have read “history of battle” accounts that managed to make the Battle of Leipzig boring. It can be done. It must have taken effort on the part of the historian.

Which came first, military or political history? If you can only study one field [the horror, the horror], which specialty would give a person a broad grasp of events, policy choices, and the “why” of the past? I think you could make a very strong case for military history. It and political history were the first two formal academic branches, once academics became a thing, and Von Ranke and his generation started chasing students into the archives to actually, you know, look at the documents and see what the records said. Obviously, governments and political figures left copious volumes of material, the Catholic Church likewise. So did armies and generals, at least most generals. A few were, let us say, reticent to the point of raising eyebrows.

Military history, when done well, includes so much more than just “people fought, here’s where, here’s how, here’s who won.” I think Keegan was the first to really pull/kick the field into some new directions, although Barbara Tuchmann’s The Guns of August might rival Keegan. The discipline is not a dead end, not any more, and it is a field that I think more people would do well to study. Especially those with political ambitions.

What Purpose War?

It depends on the conflict, the participants, the causes . . . Glory for the ruler, or for the country (and the ruler), gain territory, redress past losses, revenge, gain territory, loot and run, because of alliances, to end oppression and evil, for the glory of G-d and to win souls (which is not strictly limited to the three monotheisms, as it turns out), to gain territory . . .

I got to musing on this because of teaching 1.5 wars (Austrian Succession, Seven Years’ War, American Revolution), preparing for another one (Napoleonic), listening to Sabaton, and reading about the news from Central Europe. Not so much why do men fight, although that is a lot of what Sabaton’s music explores, but why do nations and countries go to war? And what is the purpose.

Those of you who have read my stuff for any length of time know that I vehemently disagree with the “War is good for nothing” line of thought. There are, indeed, worse things than fighting and death. Look at political prisoners in Lenin and Stalin’s Gulags, the Killing Fields, Timurlane’s little trip through Central and South Asia, the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and a few other incidents documented in oral tradition and archaeology. War to keep would-be-Stalins from taking over? War to end Nazi atrocities? War to stop hostile military-aged invaders from overrunning your country ahead of someone else’s armed forces? War to secure a border when a nut-case with delusions of being the next Alexander tries to take over? In the name of his deity? Oh yes. Just War Theory and the international laws the derive from it always allow self defense. Most government laws in the US allow self defense, and the defense of those who cannot defend themselves.

What about war for territory? Used to, that was the main goal. It might be territory for a tribe (or super-tribe, a nation), or a monarch, or a deity (the Northern Crusades, jihad, the Inca’s early wars.) Winning made it yours. That was the only justification needed, although reasons and excuses generally followed, after the fighting stopped and the land had been claimed and pacified. Louis XIV was pretty up-front about setting the Rhine as his eastern border, and the lands that bordered the Rhine, and gaining glory for France—which meant glory for Louis. Other rulers were similar, he was just one of the more flamboyant and less successful. I think resource control can come under territory. Old school, very traditional, and frowned upon today. Not that it stops certain groups or individuals from attempting it.

To be honest, I can respect “I’m fighting to conquer land and rule it because I can” honesty. The silken phrases of professional diplomats wear on a person. “We need oil and farm land. You have it. Next question.” I may disagree, but it’s pretty clear what the goals are.

National honor? Well, what exactly does that mean? For China it means conquering Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, probably chunks of Korea and Vietnam, and controlling the territories that border Chinese territory. It means being recognized as the only power in the world, and all the other powers paying homage and kowtowing, possibly even literally (the nine bows and six prostrations). For the US? Um, heck if I know. Helping allies if they are attacked, keeping our word?

What about WWI? I think as much ink has been spilled on the “real purpose of WWI” as on the battles themselves, if not more. To preserve empire? To uphold alliances? To gain territory? To get even with Serbia for assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Because everyone wanted a short, hard war to “clear the air” and sort out who the fittest was for the next stage of evolution? Because Europe was due? Aliens? (OK, I have not found that one yet, but it’s probably out there.)

Like anyone who really studies military history, or who has been in the military, I don’t want war. War is an evil, although a lesser evil compared to some. Just as killing in self-defense is still taking a life, no matter how justified. War is hell, war is terrible, war can bring out amazing and wonderful things. It is something to be avoided if possible, and fought when needed. For there are worse things than fighting a war. No matter the original purpose of the war.

“A Famous Victory:” Blenheim and Memory

Someone over at MGC posted the Robert Southley’s poem about the Battle of Blenheim, as part of a discussion about ordinary people doing hard duties while the Great and Powerful . . . do their thing. I bristled a little, but that’s because I have firm opinions about both sides of that conflict. So, first, the poem:

THE BATTLE OF BLENHEIM

by: Robert Southey (1774-1843)

T was a summer evening, Old Kaspar’s work was done,

And he before his cottage door Was sitting in the sun,

And by him sported on the green His little grandchild Wilhelmine.


She saw her brother Peterkin Roll something large and round

Which he beside the rivulet In playing there had found;

He came to ask what he had found, That was so large, and smooth, and round.


Old Kaspar took it from the boy, Who stood expectant by;

And then the old man shook his head, And with a natural sigh,

“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he, “Who fell in the great victory.


“I find them in the garden, For there’s many here about;

And often when I go to plough, The ploughshare turns them out!

For many thousand men,” said he, “Were slain in that great victory.”


“Now tell us what ’twas all about,” Young Peterkin, he cries;

And little Wilhelmine looks up With wonder-waiting eyes;

“Now tell us all about the war, And what they fought each other for.”


“It was the English,” Kaspar cried, “Who put the French to rout;

But what they fought each other for I could not well make out;

But everybody said,” quoth he, “That ’twas a famous victory.


“My father lived at Blenheim then, Yon little stream hard by;

They burnt his dwelling to the ground, And he was forced to fly;

So with his wife and child he fled, Nor had he where to rest his head.


“With fire and sword the country round Was wasted far and wide,

And many a childing mother then, And new-born baby died;

But things like that, you know, must be At every famous victory.


“They said it was a shocking sight After the field was won;

For many thousand bodies here Lay rotting in the sun;

But things like that, you know, must be After a famous victory.


“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won, And our good Prince Eugene.”

“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!” Said little Wilhelmine.

“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he, “It was a famous victory.”


“And everybody praised the Duke Who this great fight did win.”

“But what good came of it at last?” Quoth little Peterkin.

“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he, “But ’twas a famous victory.”

Blenheim, fought near the town of Blindheim* on August 12-13-14, 1704. The Franco-Bavarian army collided with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire under Prinz Eugen von Savoy, and General John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The French goal was to break apart an alliance that opposed the merger of France and Spain, and to capture Vienna. The English and Dutch fought as one group, the Imperial forces as a second group.

Those of you who have read Elizabeth and Empire know blow-by-blow how the fighting went, because that’s the conflict I based the final battle on. For others, I recommend: https://www.forces.net/services/army/blenheim-battle-created-marlborough-legend. However, the web-site comes with the caveat that it is very English, and I personally would give Prinz Eugen more credit. Which does not take away from Marlborough’s genius, especially in logistics. He managed to move an army from the Low Countries all the way to Bavaria without the French noticing, at a pace that was not matched until the 1900s. The Imperials acted as the anvil for the Anglo-Dutch hammer. It helped that Eugen and Marlborough were personal friends, and had worked together before. They trusted each other implicitly. The result was one of the most impressive victories in all of the wars against Louis XIV.

As with almost all battles, especially ones of this size, the results were horrific. Civilians had been burned out of their homes along the English line of march, part of efforts to starve and disrupt the Bavarians enough that the Bavarian ruler would back out of the alliance with France. Wounded men burned to death in cottages in one of the villages. Men and horses died by the thousands. The results . . . are as Southey describes. The Thirty Years War would have been only three generations past, and the memories were refreshed by the War of the Spanish Succession. Early Modern armies were worse than locusts, floods, and fires combined. They carried waste, destruction, and plague with them, no matter how careful the commanders might be.

There are worse things than war. Not for the poor people caught between the armies, or those who starved because the Anglo-Dutch and Imperials burned their crops and devoured their livestock, no. But had Louis XIV captured Vienna . . . I really do not care to imagine Europe remade in Louis’ image, thank you. I give him about 90% of the blame for the messes he got into. He sent his armies into the field for his own personal glory, since that would reflect on France, and he was France, at least in his own mind. Louis is one of my least favorite historical characters and always has been.

I also have a very soft spot for Prinz Eugen von Savoy. It’s hard not to admire someone who managed to accomplish everything he pulled off, especially someone who does it on a Habsburg budget! And I can sympathize with the grudge he carried against Louis XIV. I admire Marlborough as well, for different reasons. Emperor Leopold I . . . played into Louis’ hands, and they were fighting over Spain. More precisely, which one would end up with offspring on the throne of Spain. No one asked the Spanish, of course. Leopold is also the one who bailed on Vienna in 1683 when the Ottomans came knocking on the door. Granted, he had a reason, but I’m not really a fan. He was pretty average as Habsburgs go, from what I can tell.

So, was the battle a waste and all for nothing, as Southey’s poem implies? If you were a Bavarian citizen, probably. In terms of stopping Louis XIV and blunting the Franco-Bavarian threat, it was critical. For the average trooper on any side, well, it was another battle, a chance for loot, perhaps, and one collision in a long war. The English were all volunteers, some of whom I have no doubt were “voluntold” by judges, relatives, or others that the man really needed to go fight on the Continent or Else. Others were German mercenaries, conscripts, volunteers, and who knows what.

Blenheim, looking back from a high historical vantage point, was important for a lot of people. But it didn’t make things better for anyone, aside perhaps from the people in Vienna who did not face another siege. That’s the problem with dynastic wars. You don’t really have a hero or villain, not like in WWII or Korea. I root for the Imperials just because I detest Louis XIV. Well, that and because of their commander.

Indeed, it was a famous victory.

*I had the chance to visit the battlefield, but opted not to because the people with me were not interested. I regret that a little.

Not My Question to Ask

I was walking on the treadmill the other morning at the gym* and listening to Sabaton. “Lost Battalion” came up, which sent my thoughts to WWI, then WWII, and Grandpa Carl. He covered a lot of Holland-Belgium on foot, and was one of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.

His office had various and sundry memorabilia in it, including a small, very simple framed item hanging on the wall. The frame was plain, dark-brown wood. It was perhaps eight inches long by five inches high. In it was a set of black and silver shoulder boards and a collar patch. And a neatly typed note card, smaller than a three-by-five index card. The card read “From an SS officer who no longer needed them.” If you looked closely, you could see brown stains on the silver and black. They hung where he could see them as he turned the light on and off when he came and went from the office.

The first time I ventured into his office (up a steep, narrow flight of stairs, one of two rooms under the roof, plus a tiny washroom), he told me about some of the things there. He nodded to the patches and just said, “After Malmedy we were a little mad.” I nodded in turn and that was that. He knew that I knew what he meant, and it needed no further discussion.

I sussed out very quickly that some topics were not open for discussion or query, as I’ve mentioned before. Bastogne and the Bulge, his first marriage. If he made an observation or said something, then I locked it into my memory because I assumed that he’d never tell the story again. The only time he talked in any detail about Bastogne, he spoke to himself and perhaps the TV, not to me. I sat where he couldn’t quite see me, slightly behind him to the left, and I’m not sure I breathed for ninety minutes. I sure as heck didn’t move.

I never asked if he regretted killing the SS officer. It wasn’t an appropriate question, and not mine to ask. That was between him and G-d. I suspect at the time the answer was “[rude word in GI] no!” Later? It was a different time, different place, and one he preferred not to return to.

If I could go back, or he were still alive, I still wouldn’t ask. I wish I’d gotten to see Saving Private Ryan with him, if only to hear him grouse about the stupidity of some of the things in the movie as compared to what he did. He said that the first fifteen minutes were the only time any film has ever come close to catching what D-Day was like. I’d ask about D-Day, and probably ask more about Market Garden and Wesel, but not the Bulge.

He was a Southern gentleman, for all that he grew up poorer than dirt in the Ozarks and considered Boot Camp to be gourmet dining (and the first time he’d had enough to eat in quite a while). Some things are not discussed around ladies, even ladies who like military history and study it. I tried to be that Southern lady, and did not press. Some questions are not mine to ask.

*Yes, I drove to the gym to go walking. It’s hard to find an incline around here otherwise. And I was safe from inattentive drivers, especially on a dark, rainy morning at 0630.