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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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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.

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Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.