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Verdun Ends and National Roast Suckling Pig Day

18 December…chestnuts roasting on an open fire…and all that.  On this day in 1261 the Yuan Dynasty began in China. And in 1603 the first Dutch East India fleet left the Scheldt. New Jersey ratified the Constitution on this day in 1787; and Amendment XIII banning slavery went into effect in 1865. And in 1800 Charles Goodyear, future tire king, was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Joseph Stalin, future bloodthirsty cannibal, was born in TIflis in what is now Georgia on this day in 1879, the same day that John Kehoe, quasi-anarchist leader of the Molly Maguires, was hanged in Pennsylvania. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first African-American general officer and the future first African-American lieutenant general, was born on this day in 1912 in Washington DC. And Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt at the White House on this day in 1915.  But today, we’re talking about French charnel houses, and roast pork.

…committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms

Before 1916, no German planner ever thought attrition was a good idea for German arms: they simply weren’t set up for it. German war-making had always emphasized the quick encirclement and decisive warfare: Germany was never prepared logistically to pound an enemy to death. Germany had built splendid entrenchments starting in 1915 that could withstand attrition, but committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms.

In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris. 

But Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff to the German Army, believed that France was teetering on the edge of military and political disaster. He believed that French casualties were such that the manpower pool was dry, so his plan for Verdun was two-fold: attack France at its most vulnerable point–Paris, and draw as many French reinforcements as possible into the killing ground. In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris.

Battle_of_Verdun_map
From WIkipedia, the cleanest available

…the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

On 21 February 1916, the German offensive kicked off with a horrific bombardment, but it was also clear that the French still had plenty of fight left in them. While the major success at Fort Douaumont took just three days, it was one of the few tactical successes the Germans saw.  The offensive continued week after week, month after month. Few of Falkenhan’s calculations proved correct.  No matter what he did he could not suppress the French artillery enough to reduce his casualties. First Phillipe Petain then Robert Nivelle, commanding the French forces in the area, managed to keep the trenches filled with men, often with fresh troops every fifth day.  Nearly every French soldier in uniform at the beginning of 1916 spent at least some time in the Verdun killing zone; four out of five French infantrymen were in the Verdun area for more than a month. Half of French and 2/3rds of German heavy (155 mm and larger) and super-heavy (208 mm and larger) artillery was in range of the Verdun battlefield at one time in 1916. Though the infantry often had a respite from attacking trenches, hills, craters and ruins for a few yards of gain, the artillery never fell completely silent for nearly a year.  One scholar estimated that the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force…

But 1916 was about a great deal more than Verdun. As a break in the deadlock on land, Reinhard Scheer took his High Seas Fleet out of port at the end of May to parry with John Jellicoe’s Home Fleet, and the resulting battle in the Skagerrak (also called Jutland) cost only about ten thousand lives and a few ships and the reputation of the naval leadership and the builders of ships. But the German fleet never ventured out again. In June, the Russians under Alexei Brusilov launched an offensive in Galicia that cost as much as 2.5 million casualties for very little territorial gain. To take some pressure off of Verdun, Britain launched their infamous Somme offensive to the north of the Verdun abattoir in on 1 July, and that slaughter-fest cost another million casualties until the offensive officially ended in November. It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force, and the deadlock in the trenches went on.

No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by the costs of Verdun.

After ten months, the French were strong enough to counterattack and start pushing the Germans back.  Falkenhayn was compelled to resign, and the German offensive at Verdun was called off on 18 December 1916.  There were nearly a million casualties at Verdun…a million that anyone officially counted.  But there were deep political and psychological wounds for both the French and the Germans, for the British and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians.  France had survived, but Germany was entering a period of famine called the “turnip winter” caused by a combination of the British blockade, wet autumn weather, lack of agricultural manpower and collapsing transportation networks. Of all these causes, the blockade and the lack of manpower are the most cited as being responsible. It is not difficult to trace the failure of German plans at Verdun to their resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the entry of the United States in the war. Germany survived, but the government of the French Third Republic itself came under siege. French soldiers, though relieved to have survived, felt at if their politicians didn’t care about them. Russia survived, but Austria-Hungary, always a weak link in the German armor, teetered on the precipice of economic and social collapse.  Britain survived, but Russia was cut off completely from the outside world because she could not get her agricultural product out or military goods in, despite Britain’s dominance of the seas. Worse, Russia’s armies were burning with a deep resentment that, in just a few months, would spark a revolution. Russia survived for the moment, but Britain was confronted not just with bankruptcy of funds but bankruptcy of men. No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by costs of Verdun.


18 December is National Roast Suckling Pig Day for some reason (apparently no one really knows why).  The featured image above is a vegetarian creation. A suckling pig is generally less than six weeks old when slaughtered, usually between 8 and 30 pounds.  Cooking it can be tricky because the cross-section is so thin, but those whose cooking skills extend beyond mine (that would be…pretty much anyone who can actually roast anything without the smoke alarm going off) assure me that it’s like roasting a turkey.  Somehow, not reassuring.

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

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Tours, Blue Springs, Heartbreak and “Landing Day”

Most weeks this blog discusses births, deaths, and the occasional battle, but today battles in France, Tennessee and Korea will occupy us.  Decisive warfare, defined as an action that concludes a conflict, has been an elusive thing.  More common before national and industrial warfare, the subject was covered exhaustively by the late Russell Weigley in Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Battle brom Breitenfeld to Waterloo.

But Tours, our first battle from 10 October, 732, predates any battle in Weigley’s work by nearly a thousand years.  Also called Poitiers (which makes it confused with the 1356 battle between the English and the French by that name) and, by Arab sources, the Palace of the Martyrs, Tours was one of the actions covered by Victor Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.  After two centuries of incursions into former Roman provinces of Gaul, the Franks and Burgundians (proto-French) under Charles, Prince of the Franks, defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate under the command of Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Governor-General of al-Andalus, a province of modern Spain that then bordered Aquitaine.  Very little definitive is known about the battle itself.  Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.  The battle did stop further Umayyad incursions into “Christian” Europe, and formed the basis for the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne.  Three things are known for certain: Charles, the grandfather of Charlemagne, earned the nickname “Martellus, the Hammer” (Martel), Al Ghafiqi was killed in the fight, and the Franks fought the battle without horse cavalry. The location, thought to be at the junction of the Clain and Vienne rivers between Tours and Poitiers in north-central France, has been the site of several archeological digs with mixed results, other than to establish that at least two pre-industrial battles were fought there.

Very little definitive is known about the battle itself.  Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.

Much more recently, much more is known about a little-known 10 October, 1863 skirmish in Tennessee. Confederate forces under John S. Williams met a part of Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio. A Federal cavalry division under Samuel Carter at Bulls Gap on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad in Greene County clashed on 3 October, sparred for a week, and met in earnest a Blue Springs on 10 October. By then, the Federal horse soldiers had been reinforced by infantry. After a day of indecisive fighting, Edward Ferrero’s 1st Division of IX Corps attacked the Confederates, breaking their line just before dark.  The Confederates withdrew into Virginia.  Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar: East Tennessee was being cleared of Confederate troops.  Much less well known than Tours, the Civil War in East Tennessee has been graced with a good account by Earl Hess, The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennesseea few memoirs, and that’s about it.

Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar

On 10 October 1951, after a little more than a year of bloody and inconclusive fighting in Korea, a rather messy and prolonged fight over another mass of hills began.  This one was nearly seven miles long and about a mile north of Bloody Ridge, near Chorwon, and was called Heartbreak Ridge by the American forces, Bataille de Crèvecœur by the French, Wendengli by the Chinese (who also confuse it with Triangle Hill a year later). The fighting for Heartbreak started as early as 13 September, but the main UN attack began on 10 October.  The US 2nd Infantry Division and an attached French battalion were savaged in piecemeal fights over limited objectives by well-entrenched NKPA (North Korean) and PVA (Chinese) forces before a concerted armored thrust was mounted 11 October into the Mundung-ni Valley west of Heartbreak to destroy the communist supply dumps there. While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.  Eventually, forces from South Korea, the Netherlands and the Philippines joined the American and French in the battle.  While the United Nations forces “won” Heartbreak, senior planners were horrified at the cost (nearly 3,700 UN to over 25,000 Chinese and North Korean).  The cost of such attacks by the casualty-averse UN forces would be weighed against the “benefits” gained against opponents that disregarded losses.  Arned Hinshaw’s Heartbreak Ridge: Korea 1951 is a worthy effort, and the only known book-length treatment of Heartbreak, aside from a couple of novels (one of which was the basis for the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge that had absolutely nothing to do with Korea).  There is also an excellent description in T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War.

While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.

Today, the second Monday in October, 2016, is designated as “Landing Day,” a Federal holiday in the United States, that is intended to “honor” all the many discoverers of the New World by concluding that the all arrived on some floating day in October.  Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Caribbean on 12 October 1492.  From the 19th century up to the 1970s Columbus was regularly honored in the United States on 12 October, but since then the Italian explorer has become associated with slavery, oppression, disease, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of what are now North and South America.  Further, certain influential groups have determined that the “other discoverers” of the Americas, such as the Norse and Polynesians, should also be honored.  This gesture would have a great deal more meaning if, a) history had any idea who these discoverers were by name (Leif Erickson is thought to have led the Norse expedition that may have hung around Newfoundland briefly ca 1000 AD), and b) if there were any contemporary records of their “discoveries” that would have made them have some meaning.  As it is, the current reasoning only makes for an excuse to make another three-day weekend for banks and some Federal workers. While this correspondent doesn’t get a day off for it and doesn’t recall even the Active Army doing it, his wife does.

Eh, whatever.  Another excuse for pre-Christmas sales.

 

 

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Roncevaux Pass, Napoleon and Anvil-Dragoon

One of the best things about looking at history through a somewhat empirical lens is that the skilled practitioner can make correlations that were simply not possible to contemporaries of events.  Then again, so can semi-competent duffers like your current correspondent.  Such is the correlation we can make with 15 August and France’s fate.

Roncevaux Pass was an ambush by a largely Christian Basque guerilla force and the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreating army after his invasion of northern Spain on this day in the year 778.  The action killed Roland, the commander, and created a legend in the Christian-Moor conflict that would rage for another three centuries.  It also immortalized the sacrifices of Christian “knights” and other semi-nobles that would depict them largely as stories would depict them for generations: pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.  That most were paladins–soldiers for hire–seems to be left out.

Roncevaux Pass immortalized the Christian knights as pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.

On 14 August 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor French nobility in Ajaccio, Corsica.  He was the master of Europe before he was thirty-five, by which time he was well on the way to destroying it as it was known under the Bourbons.  It was Napoleon who won France’s  last major war (War of the Sixth Coalition) in 1809: even if they were “victors” in WWI and WWII, France is better described as having survived, rather than “won.”  Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul even as he destroyed the economy, abandoned two armies in the field (Egypt and Russia), and became a romantic legend on both sides of the Atlantic that grew larger with each successive generation.

Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul

And, on this date in 1944, France managed to redeem itself somewhat for the disasters of 1815 and 1940, with their rebuilt army’s superb performance during the invasion of Southern France known in history as Operation Anvil-Dragoon   Originally intended to be conducted simultaneously with the better-known Overlord landings in Normandy, the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.  Legend has it that Winston Churchill was unhappy with what he saw as a diversion from more important turf in the Balkans (contemporary discussion says this is not as true as Churchill would have later stated it was).  So, according to legend, the name Operation Anvil was changed to Dragoon because Churchill was “dragooned” into supporting it, though the reason for the name change was somewhat more prosaic and not Churchill’s at all.

...the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.

Ultimately, in the distance of time, we can see that 14 August, for France, was just another day, though in 1945 it was, like the rest of the world, a relief when Japan agreed to surrender and the Showa Emperor Hirohito publicly agreed with the broadcast of the Imperial Rescript in 15 August, 1945.  But legends like the romantic knights of French stories, the “genius” of Napoleon and the landings in Southern France live on, as do the legends of a Japanese “surrender” by a “government” that was anything but.  But that’s another story.