Brétigny and Westphalia, Ft. Douaumont and Cuba

Where to start, where to start.  In planning this little missive, your intrepid researcher dithered for some time to find a common theme (yes, he does try), and finally settled on the lessons of war and peace.  But on 24 October also marked the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861 (which gave California the first breaking news of the Civil War), and the invasions of Ethiopia (in 1935, reported by live radio feeds for the first time) and Hungary (1956, reported by live television for the first time), and of course the first nylon stockings in 1939.  But, today, we look at the lessons of war and peace.

Beginning in 1337, a dynastic conflict called the Hundred Year’s War between the Plantagenet-Angevins of Normandy and England and the Anjous that controlled what is now eastern and southern France (modern France is largely a construction of the Bourbons in the 17th century) raged. By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain. After a peasant revolt threatened the food supply, John finally agreed to a treaty.  The Treaty of Brétigny was ratified on 24 October 1360 at Calais.  Also called the Treaty of Calais, the peace was only a nine-year breathing space, and barely that.

By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain.

Of a somewhat more permanent nature, the Peace of Westphalia (Westfälischer Friede) in 1648 ended a great deal more, for a little while at least.  Traditionally Westphalia was the end of the last of the four phases of the Thirty Years’ War, where much of Europe was ready to fight to the last German.  It was also where the Protestants and Catholics ended their Eighty Years’ War, where they were willing to burn the last German at the stake with any available torch for the heresy of being in the way.  That Germany survived the bloodletting, it is said, can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular mostly because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies. Westphalia was the result of over a hundred different belligerent delegations ranging in size and importance from three-county dutchies to multi-national empires that negotiated three major legal instruments.  First, there was the Peace of Munster, ratified  15 May 1648, between the Dutch Republic and their allies and the Kingdom of Spain and theirs that recognized the independence of the modern Netherlands. There was also a Treaty of Munster between the Holy Roman Empire and their gang of allies and France and theirs, and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden’s allies.  Both Munster and Osnabrück were ratified in Westphalia on 24 October, 1648. While Westphalia didn’t end war or even all the wars that raged across Europe and the New World at that moment, it did create a structure for a European congress, or at least a diplomatic protocol for recognizing the possibility that the bloodletting could end without destruction.

That Germany survived can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies.

And while Europe learned to make peace, it still made war…terrible war.  By October 1916, the failed German offensive at Verdun had turned into a killing machine beyond the imagination of the diplomats at Westphalia, or, indeed, of anyone before or since. Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day for just short of a year, and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning. Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans in February and was pounded by French artillery for  nine months.   On 24 October, 1916 the French recovered the ruined Fort Dounemount from the Germans. The months of shelling had finally breached Dounemount’s eight foot thick steel-reinforced concrete roof that was also cushioned by four feet of earth.  The prominence that the ruined fort was built on became known at Le Morte Homme–Dead Man’s Hill–and today is the site of an ossuary.

Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day, for just short of a year and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning.

It should be said that humanity had learned something of all the wars and treaties by 1962.  After two decades of brinksmanship following WWII, the Soviet Union began to emplace nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.  On 24 October 1962, after the Americans discovered the missiles that were within range of most of the lower 48 states, John Kennedy imposed a blockade-called-quarantine on Cuba, challenging the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev to not only acknowledge the installations (that the US showed photos of in the UN) , but withdraw them.  Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours. Writing in their memoirs decades after the events, American, Russian and Cuban officers at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis fully expected the bombs and missiles to begin falling at any moment for over a week.  But the quarantine worked, and four days later Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles.  Though the true “why” of that decision went to the grave with Khrushchev in 1969, it seems likely that the Politburo decided that Cuba was the wrong war in the wrong place over the wrong issue to risk the destruction of the Communist promise.

Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours.

If humanity learns no lessons ever, the lessons of Westphalia and Cuba should be clear: annihilation is not the answer to diplomatic issues.  But because of that lesson, we are left with Verduns and all their spawn. We get to destroy each other in middling-sized groups.

Advertisements

Winchelsea, Hatteras Inlet and Copenhagen

Three naval battles share 29 August, roughly seven centuries apart.  However, they do have a common thread: The influence of maritime traffic and navies on national affairs.  Though the Hundred Year’s War, the American Civil War, and WWII in Europe are usually viewed as predominantly land wars, their naval aspects were crucial to the course of the land wars.

In the Edwardian phase  (1337-1360) of the Hundred Year’s War, piracy along the Breton coast was costing English merchants dearly.  Today we think of “piracy” as a private enterprise between civilians, but until the mid-19th century commerce raiding by ostensible civilians was often sanctioned if not actively supported by states and monarchs.  Castilian ships regularly captured English cargo ships and murdered their crews.  When a Castilian/Genoese fleet loaded with Flemish cargoes was headed to the Basque ports in August, 1350, Edward III and a fleet of English and Genoese ships struck the Castilians as they sailed south just off French coast, but the battle got its name from the old Kentish town of Winchelsea that the English fleet departed from.  While not much is known for certain about the battle itself except that the English ships were generally larger but were likely outnumbered. It was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships.  The English flagship was sunk, but Edward managed to escape to a captured Spanish ship.  By the end of the day the English had captured more Castilian vessels (14 according to most sources) than they lost (two for certain, but perhaps more).  Winchelsea, also known as Les Espagnols sur Mer (“the Spaniards on the Sea”) was followed a year later by a peace treaty with Castile, which set the conditions for a treaty with Portugal in 1353 and the isolation of France in the century-long conflict over who ruled what part of France.  The treaty with Portugal was the foundation of English diplomacy for centuries.

[Winchelsea] was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships

At the beginning of the American Civil War a small group of naval officers met in Washington as what became known as the Blockade Board.  After a week of discussions, they laid a long-term plan for beginning the longest and largest blockade that had been conducted since the Declaration of Paris in 1856.  How they planned to do it with fewer than fifty warships in commission was anyone’s guess.  But, soon, it became clear that the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port to have a maximum effect, just those served by railroads.  This simple conclusion reduced the number of seceded state ports to be covered–immediately, anyway–from fifty to less than twenty.  The first target was not a port directly but a place where blockading ships could seek refuge and resupply: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The Outer Banks had also been harboring a number of Confederate raiders and privateers.  The battle of the Hatteras Inlet Batteries on 28-29 August 1861–also known as Forts Clark and Hatteras–pitted seven ships of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Silas Stringham that was carrying parts of volunteer regiments and a handful of Regulars under Benjamin Butler against less than a thousand Confederates under WIlliam Martin and Samuel Barron manning two incomplete earthwork forts.  Landing the troops under bombardment on 28 August, there was little initial progress in part owing to bad weather which kept the largest Union ships far out to sea.  On 29 August the seas moderated and the big guns started blasting the beleaguered Confederates who, as so often was the case in the 1861-65 conflict, stood no chance of being reinforced.  At about 11 AM Barron surrendered, and just short of 700 men went into captivity.  The victory buoyed Union morale shortly after the disaster at Bull Run just a month before, and ended a threat to Union shipping that had already begun to be felt.

…the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port, just those served by railroads.  This reduced the number of ports to be covered from fifty to less than twenty.

After April 1940, when Denmark was overrun in a nearly bloodless campaign by Germany, Denmark lived a primarily twilight existence as a “protectorate,” where most Danish institutions continued unchanged (including the monarchy). Danes even joined in the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the Danish Navy was in Copenhagen, though some units had been caught in Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands when the country surrendered, and had been working with the Allies. More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.  But, by 1943, Danish semi-neutrality was wearing thin. Niels Bohr had scattered Denmark’s best scientists all over the world before the invasion, and was profoundly uninterested in helping Germany’s nuclear ambitions.  Allied saboteurs and agents found easy egress into Europe through Denmark’s porous border with Sweden. King Christian was accused of disrespecting Hitler because of his brief response to one of Hitler’s overlong personal communications. Refusal to institute capital punishment for sabotage, failure to turn over Danish Jews, and a host of other perceived slights and offenses, aggravated by  the imminent fall of the Italian government and the Allied success in Sicily, moved the Germans to close down the Danish government and seize the ships in the Copenhagen dockyards in late August. On 29 August, 1943, scuttling charges destroyed thirty-two of them, leaving just fourteen small  vessels to the Germans.  Germany’s navy was small to begin with, and built on commerce raiding.  Denmark’s even smaller fleet included nine submarines, but even more minecraft–important commodities when the Germans and Russian between them had sewn more than a million sea mines in the eastern Baltic by then.

More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.

The English naval response to the Castilian nautical depredations could have been said to set the pace for the rest of the first half of the Hundred Year’s War, if there was a pace to that disjointed conflict. While the blockade that the Union Navy envisioned would take nearly two years to be emplaced, it would still be somewhat porous even to the end.  Still, no blockade could or should ever be perfect.  Winchelsea and Cape Hatteras had a great deal to do with trade, while the mass suicide of the Danish Navy, like that of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, was at least in part to do with spite.  Sometimes, that is all that’s needed.  In capital-intensive naval warfare, where a single fleet unit can cost as much  to build, supply and operate for a month as a thousand land soldiers might cost in a year, the cost and pace of naval activity can rarely be judged by three actions.  But by destroying a Castilian fleet, grabbing a blockade base, and denying an important small-ship asset to a resource-starved enemy, England, the Union, and Denmark demonstrated, even if in a small way, how important navies can be to larger conflicts.