Battle of Coronel, Author’s Day, and Stella’s Game

Yes, someone actually decided that authors were worthy of recognition. This happened nearly a century ago…when people were still reading and not waiting for the video.

Battle of Coronel: 1 November 1914

The Endless Game of Weapons Innovation

In the late 19th century, naval ship development was driven by two contrasting needs: beat the other fellow and do it cheaply. The “other fellow” was often hard to define, but the biggest challenge that European navies felt they faced would be merchant ships that their warships couldn’t outrun. Propulsion systems for merchant–especially passenger–ships of all kinds were being developed faster than the more hidebound, budget-conscious navies could adapt.

If this starts to look like a game of paper-scissors-rock, you’re got the right idea

In the mid-19th century, Russia built the first ship called an “armored cruiser” that was meant to show the flag powerfully at distant stations. This preceded by a decade or so the first armed merchant cruisers by that giant arbiter of naval fashion, Britain’s Royal Navy. Their idea was to take one of those speedy merchantmen and arm it to catch other speedy merchantmen. Then someone popped their heads up and announced to no one’s surprise that the enemy could make those, too. so the RN adapted the Russian idea of a powerful warship on a smaller hull but with great speed and range to counter the theoretical armed merchant cruiser menace. Then these ships got big, and fast, and powerful and in 1911 the RN came up with the third part of this deadly game: the battle cruiser. If this starts to look like a game of paper-scissors-rock, you’re got the right idea, but arms designers had done this for centuries at sea: this ship design to counter that one, then another innovation to overcome the next.

…the bosses back in Berlin were light on how this flotilla would survive on the other side of the world if the war went on more than a few months.

Then came WWI, and the game became deadly. Trapped in the Pacific at the start of the war was the German East Asia Squadron, led by Maximilian von Spee. Its mission was to raid enemy commerce in the Pacific in the event of hostilities. While a great idea for a short war, the bosses back in Berlin were light on how this flotilla would survive on the other side of the world if the war went on more than a few months.

So, after running more or less wild in the Pacific for a couple of months, von Spee decided to raid the coast of Latin America for a while. At the same time he realized that he’d run out of ammunition pretty soon, so he decided he’d hightail it for home around the end of the year. But the Royal Navy got in the way.

the German ships were manned by long-service professionals…the British by reservists just called up. German gunnery was renowned; British gunnery…not so much.

The Germans had two armored cruisers (see above) and three light cruisers (defined as a warship in size and power somewhere between that of a destroyer and of a bigger cruiser) with them, in addition to a number of auxiliaries and storeships. To counter this force, Britain’s Christopher Cradock commanded two armored cruisers, a light cruiser, an armed merchant cruiser and a pre-Dreadnought battleship. On paper it looks like the British had the advantage with that big battlewagon…but they didn’t because the battleship was too slow to keep up with the rest of the squadron. In addition, the German ships were manned by long-service professionals; most of the British vessels were manned by reservists just called up. German gunnery was renowned; British gunnery…not so much.

Battle off Coronel, Chile. British ships in red; German in black. Wikimedia Commons

The result was well within the realm of predictable on 1 November 1914. British losses were over 1,600 men and both armored cruisers, which were literally buried in shells. German losses were three men wounded. However, that was but one battle in a long campaign, and to win that fight the Germans expended half their irreplaceable ammunition. Any more commerce raiding anywhere would have to wait; von Spee decided to run for home.

It was the heyday of the half-century long race to outrun those fast armed merchantmen

But in this deadly game of paper-scissors-rock, the rocks were dispatched to break the scissors. Two battlecruisers arrived in the Falklands just in time to destroy the German squadron a month later. It was the heyday of the half-century long race to outrun those fast armed merchantmen, then to outgun those fast armored cruisers. It was also the last demonstration of this kind of deadly one-upsmanship, as the armed merchant cruisers were replaced in strategic importance by the submarine, making the armored cruisers and the battlecruisers strategically pointless.

National Author’s Day

The Unknown Author, plugging away…

Now you, too can honor at least one author…me…by buying at least one of my books. Or at least, by putting one on your list.

In 1928, Nellie Verne Burt McPherson, teacher, avid reader and president of the Bement, Illinois Women’s Club had an idea of setting aside a day to celebrate American authors. She did this because she sent a fan letter–remember those, not just likes on a page somewhere–and decided that mere thanks were not enough. She submitted the idea of an Author’s Day to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs–that’s still around, too–which passed a resolution declaring 1 November as National Author’s Day. The US Department of Commerce followed suit in 1949.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship

Have a seat; we’re dealing Stella’s Game.

And here’s one you really should put on your list–Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship, due for publication 3 December 2019. Stella’s Game follows four kids from 1963 to 1974; half their lives. It’s about friends, family, learning, challenging, fun and danger. It’s also the first volume in a trilogy that will follow these kids until 2001. Look for it in December.

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Jervis Bay, National Doughnut Day, and Scheduled Release Day

First I have to make sure that you all have your fireworks ready for Guy Fawkes Day, which is of course today. Got ’em? Good.  On to more fireworks.

HMS Jervis Bay started life in 1922 as a Commonwealth Line passenger liner and ended her life as a 14,000-ton barely-armed target for Germany’s large cruiser/”pocket battleship” Admiral Scheer on 5 November 1940 while trying to protect eastbound convoy HX-84.

These are the stark and straightforward facts. But there’s a lot more to this story.

First is the concept of the AMC, or Armed Merchant Cruiser. These were a sensible development of the Royal Navy in the late 19th century when the speed and size of passenger vessels grew exponentially faster than the RN could keep up with. The first AMCs were developed to prove the concept, then quietly retired. When WWI began, the first batch of fast passenger and cargo vessels were modified and used mostly in enforcing the North Sea blockade, where they suffered from submarine attacks but were otherwise successful, if unable to confront German auxiliary cruisers, also called raiders. Notable exceptions included HMS Alcantara‘s success against Germany’s Grief in 1916.

But as a concept, the AMCs were obsolete before that. The Dreadnaught revolution in warship design had invited the development of smaller, heavier armed torpedo boat destroyers, that became simply “destroyers” that were better at surviving, cheaper to build, and faster than most raiders. Aside from that, commerce raiding had mostly passed to submarines, against which the AMCs had very little chance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Jervis_Bay#/media/File:JervisBayatDakar1940.jpg

HMS Jervis Bay at Dakar, early 1940; Wiki Commons

But in 1939 Britain had very few options, and not enough warships to protect all the convoys that she needed from the four corners of the Earth just to survive, let alone fight a war. Thus, Jervis Bay and another 40+ merchant ships were given navy crews, old guns, and missions more suited not only to real warships but to several of them. The convoy that Jervis Bay was to protect was 37 ships…and she was the only escort.

On that fatal day, Admiral Scheer found the convoy just before 4 in the afternoon, and Jervis Bay dutifully took her place to intercept, even though the issue was never in doubt. The uneven duel lasted 24 minutes, as the doughy AMC fired her old 6-inch guns at the pocket battleship and the pocket battleship fired her new 11-inch guns back. Ablaze and wrecked with most of the officers dead, Jervis Bay stopped shooting and quickly went down, her captain dead on the bridge. Sixty-five survivors of a crew of 254 were picked up by a Swedish freighter.

Lest the reader think it was all in vain, it wasn’t. Knowing that his ship wouldn’t survive, Captain Fogarty Fegen of Jervis Bay ordered the convoy to scatter in the gathering dusk, and only five of the merchantmen were sunk by Admiral Sheer that afternoon and evening. For his heroism, Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Putting Jervis Bay out there alone was a calculated gamble at that stage of the war, for most convoys were managing the crossing unmolested. The German surface fleet–built and equipped primarily for raiding–was small, and the transit for German submarines was still long before the bases in France were operational late in 1940. Of the 42 AMCs converted in 1939 and 1940, only one was still in service by 1944. The Armed Merchant Cruisers were always a stopgap, and though successful at times, were always meant to be secondary vessels.


And then there’s National Donut Day, of which there are two: the first Friday in June, and 5 November, though precisely why there are two of them is another mystery of the ages. The earliest with known origins is the one in June, dating from 1938 when the Salvation Army in Chicago chose to celebrate the 200-odd “doughnut lassies” that they sent to the battlefields of WWI. Dunkin Donuts, which is in the process of dropping the “Donuts” out of its name (go figure) observes this June date.

The November observation date may have been around as early as the 1930s’ as well, though exactly where and why is still unknown. Entenmann’s and Krispy Kreme observe the November date. This means, of course, a donut war brews for the stomachs of America.

https://www.couponcabin.com/blog/where-to-get-free-donuts-on-national-donut-day/

Celebrate!

No, not really. Donut consumption in the US has been declining for more than twenty years, so no, not really. Dunkin and Krispy Kreme have been expanding their menus in non-fat-pill directions for at least that long, driven by the explosion of Starbucks, primarily, and the general change in American consumer tastes.

And the spelling is supposed to be “doughnut,” but the more common “donut” has been around since, well, Dunkin put up his first sign. Either now is acceptable in most circles, but if the Spelling Police come after you…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But National Donut Day is upon us, and if these photos don’t entice you to go out and at least think about a cruller…I can’t help you.


I CAN, of course, help you choose your next WWII-era book: Why the Samurai Lost Japan is now scheduled for release on 15 December. You should be able to go to your fave bookseller, including the online stores and our Bookpatch store, around then. Electronic versions (PDF, Kobo, e-book) should be available in January.

WHY_07_CUT

Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

For those of you who are new here, for nearly two years I’ve been announcing the reworking of What Were They Thinking? A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45.  My co-author and I have gotten our book back under our control,  reworked and expanded and renamed it into the magnum opus that you will see in December.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan is, as the subtitle says, a study in miscalculation and folly. More than that, it is an object lesson in modernization, industrialization, and what the Star Trek universe warned against with the First Prime Directive: overreaching contamination of a society not ready for tremendous changes in social fabric wrought by advanced machine-age technology. Japan went from a late feudal social organization to an early industrial one in a single generation, and a large and important part of Japanese society–the samurai–failed to understand all the ramifications of those changes. One unfortunate result of that misunderstanding was called the Pacific War of 1941-45. Look for it starting 15 December.

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.

Shell Shock Described and National Sock Day

December already…jeesh, just last week it was November…where does the time go…?  But 4 December is an auspicious day indeed, for it marks the death of Persian poet Omar Khayyam in 1123 (yes, there really was a guy by that name); the end of the Council of Trent (after sixteen years) in 1563; Pere Marquette building the first dwelling in what is now Chicago in 1673 (wonder if he had a permit for it); George Washington’s farewell to his officers a Fraunces Tavern in New York in 1783 (so he wouldn’t have to pay that bar tab); the Electoral College declared James Monroe President of the United States in 1816; merchant brigantine Marie Celeste was found off the Azores in 1876, abandoned by passengers and crew (a mystery that persists to this day); Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting president to leave the county on this day in 1918 when he boarded SS George Washington for France; and Gemini VII was launched from Cape Canaveral in 1965.  But today we talk about one of the worst horrors of war, and socks.

Rivers and other practitioners had treated men who, in the eyes of the military establishment, were simply cowards. 

On 4 December 1917, Dr. WIlliam H. Rivers committed heresy.  For his crime, he was terminated from his post because, well, the Army can’t have heretics treating fighting men. River’s heresy was embodied in a report he submitted to the Royal School of Medicine entitled The Repression of War Experience, which was based on his work at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Scotland. There, Rivers and other practitioners had treated men who, in the eyes of many in the military establishment, were simply cowards.

…the “slackers” started to exhibit behaviors other than just being unable or unwilling to go to the front: panic, fearfulness, wakefulness, babbling, diarrhea, starting at loud noises, dizziness, amnesia.

Since the beginning of organized warfare, military organizations had treated those who, for whatever reason, refused to fight after the battles had begun and they had participated, as simply slackers. In the mid-to-late 19th century, as explosive artillery became more commonplace, range increased and soldiers were in contact longer, the “slackers” started to exhibit behaviors other than just being unable or unwilling to go to the front: panic, fearfulness, wakefulness, babbling, diarrhea, starting at loud noises, dizziness, amnesia. As medical science began to get itself organized, there were some clinicians in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) who looked at medical records and notes from older conflicts, including the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the American Civil War (1861-1865) to see a pattern of sorts: these symptoms appeared after the sufferers had been exposed to high noise level explosions, such as artillery bombardments of some duration. While the medical profession in general either ignored these findings or discredited them, they did not go away.  Indeed, after 1914 they became more prevalent.

As the numbers of these “malingers” increased in the British Army the leadership became alarmed, and actively suppressed any findings related to the phenomenon. 

By the end of 1914, as much as 10% of British officers and 4% of the enlisted men were complaining of one or another of the signs of what was labeled “shell shock” (which in this essay it shall be called regardless of current fashion) in a 1915 article in The Lancet. There were other symptoms by then, including neurasthenia, mutism and fuge. At the time these were regarded as related to head trauma, but many of the patients showed no head injury. As the numbers of these “malingers” increased in the British Army the leadership became alarmed, and actively suppressed any findings related to the phenomenon.  But scientists resisted such manipulations, and began comparing notes by proxy with German, Austro-Hungarian, and even Ottoman clinicians through neutrals, including Scandinavia and the United States, and found that all of them were reporting similar cases.

Rivers and several other neuropsychiatrists came and went, with no supervisor lasting more than a few months before they were sacked because they simply kept their patients too long. 

Grudgingly, British military leaders had decided that a simple rest cure should be sufficient for an officer to recover his wits and spine: perhaps two or three weeks should do.  In 1916, a disused hydrotherapy hospital at Craiglockhart in Scotland was opened to study the phenomenon in British officers, and give them a good long rest. When Siegfried Sassoon and Reginald Owen were sent there in 1917, it was quickly dubbed “Dottyville.” Rivers and several other neuropsychiatrists came and went, with no supervisor lasting more than a few months before they were sacked because they simply kept their patients too long.

Humans can only take so much exposure to these things, and everyone has a different limit.

After the end of WWI, clinicians from all over the world began to talk about the phenomenon called shell-shock, and found that no nation, no culture, no rank or society was immune. The Americans looked at cases as far back as Mexico; the Russians found indications not just in the Crimea but before, as early as 1812, especially among artillerymen. Even Japanese doctors could find an occasional mystery-coward (executed in their case) who simply could neither speak nor stand after fighting in Korea in 1892.  It was called “bullet wind,” “soldier’s heart,” “irritable heart,” and “operational exhaustion” to name but a few of many score titles observers have given it through the ages. But the military was slow to recognize the phenomenon–officially–and had to wait until the 1930s, when the profession of psychoanalysis became socially acceptable. But failure to recognize the side effects of prolonged exposure to high-intensity noise, extreme sound and air pressure, fear, horror, long hours of wakeful alertness and uncertainty on human beings at all levels lingered as late as George Patton’s famous “slapping incidents.” Humans can only take so much exposure to these things, and everyone has a different limit.

The moniker “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD has been adopted since the 1970s to describe the phenomenon, but it too has been abused to the point where it has become meaningless.

For some peculiar reason, the victims of shell shock or any other name given to those whose minds have been affected to one extent or another by warfare, puts medical professionals on edge, and on their guard. Since the 1930s, the collective phenomenon of shell shock has been shuttled around by the medical profession and the insurance industry like a live grenade. Sufferers are often medicated, talked to, given “strategies” that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, and generally treated like a fungus that won’t go away. The moniker “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD has been in use since the 1970s to describe the phenomenon, but it too has been abused to the point where it has become meaningless. The short, technical-sounding catchall term “PTSD” does, however, make it much easier to write up in clinical notes, and easier to pass of to the next poor schlemiel to try to put the sufferer back together and at least be able to function.

The medical profession does not trouble itself, however, to explain how an abused spouse, a bullied school kid, and a combat veteran can all fall under the same label.

To be clear, I personally know no one who suffers–clinically defined–from this horrid affliction, and I don’t–clinically defined–suffer from it, but there are degrees of such trauma.  I have been under fire, and I saw people torn apart by gunfire. I sometimes have nightmares about it, and I sometimes can’t sleep because of it.  It was more than four decades ago, but still…I’m convinced that the condition is difficult for anyone who has never been shot at or exposed to such horrors as war can make to understand. The insistence of many overtrained and underqualified ignorami who want to put all of these conditions and more under the general heading of PTSD is beyond any and all understanding to those who have to deal not just with symptoms and with the patients, but with the record. The medical profession does not trouble itself, however, to explain how an abused spouse, a bullied school kid, and a combat veteran can all fall under the same label.


Today is also National Sock Day, an observance that, according to the founders of National Sock Day, Pair of Thieves, is on 4 December because of two events.  On 4 December 1954 the final curtain fell on “On Your Toes,” a unique Rodgers and Hammerstein ballet/musical that had run since 1936. The second was in 1991, when the Judds “that kept toes two-stepping” performed their final concert together in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Okay, whatever…

The folks over at National Day Calendar also tell us that it’s a day that “recognizes the rarest of all lasting unities, the marriage of matched socks.”  Now, not to be a killjoy (OK, I will), I never have trouble with matched socks because, well, I buy all the same socks.  And yes, I do my own laundry.

Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.

11 November: Nat Turner, VMI, George Patton, and The War to End All Wars…That Wasn’t

It is axiomatic for a  military history scrivener such as myself to write about the end of World War I on Armistice/Remembrance/Veteran’s Day.  And I shall…in a moment.  First we should take a moment to consider that other things happened on that day in other years, both before and after.

In 1831, a Virginia slave, lay preacher and mystic named Nat Turner interpreted from the two solar eclipses of that year that the time was right for a slave rebellion.  There had been eleven such risings in the United States since 1712, the latest before Turner’s was in South Carolina known as the Denmark Vesey revolt in 1822.  On 21 August 1831, the revolt began.  For two days the seventy slaves and free blacks that participated in the rising ravaged farms and homes in Southampton County, Virginia, eventually killing some sixty white men, women and children.   As local militias rounded up and arrested the rebels, Turner hid out until 30 October.  Tried for servile insurrection rather than murder, Turner was hanged on 11 November 1831.  The Nat Turner Revolt, as it has been called since, sent a chill through the slave-holding South second only to the the more successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 that resulted in hundreds of slave owners being brutally murdered.  New and repressive laws were passed restricting slave social activities and what few liberties they had.

In 1839, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded in Lexington.  Originally one of several Virginia arsenals set up after the War of 1812, the first President was Claudius Crozet, a French-born graduate of the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique engineering school who had taught at West Point.   VMI has produced some of America’s best soldiers, including George C. Marshall, Lemuel Shepard, Leonard Gerow, and John Jumper.

On this day in 1885, in San Gabriel, California, George Smith Patton Junior was born.  Georgie, as he was called by his family, always had a marital career in mind.  He attended VMI as an undergraduate before being accepted at West Point.  Graduating 46th in a class of 103 in 1909, he was branched to the cavalry.  Patton always had a mind of his own, and a private fortune to back it up, so his career was only limited by his ability to get higher postings.  While he was a superb organizer and tactician he had little patience for those who disagreed with his plans, including his superiors.  Patton did not understand that the larger the units the bigger the politics and public exposure, and refused in some cases to be anything other than his own vision of marital glory.  Even as he rose in the ranks the consensus was that he was useful, but not indispensable.  As a tactical commander he was useful: as a senior officer, less so.  His death in a traffic accident in 1945 put a counterpoint on a style of soldier who had outlived its usefulness.

And on 11 November, 1918, when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, the killing did not yet stop, not for several days.  Parts of the Meuse-Argonne sector, where the Americans had been attacking since September, were out of communications, and the German forces in Africa wouldn’t get the word of the surrender at Compiegne.  Aside from that, Russia was in civil war, Germany was in revolution, and Austria and Hungary were in chaos,  Worse, the 1918 Influenza was still killing people at a rate that made the Western Front seem…amateurish…and was not a respecter of non-combatants or borders.  While the war caused some ten million dead directly, the influenza probably killed one hundred million, affecting one in four people on the face of the earth before it died out in 1921.