Archive for the 'History' Category
[republished from 11/11/12]
When I see someone walking around with a poppy on their lapel at this time of year, I always feel very nostalgic and pleased that someone has donned a symbol synonymous with service and sacrifice. It may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of the precise connection between the poppy and the day in which we take time to recognize and thank all of the Veterans who have sacrificed for our freedom.
Growing up the son of a Canadian Armed Forces officer, I was always pleased when my Dad would break out his collection of poppies every year and pin one on the lapel of my blue blazer in the days prior to November 11th. Both his father and my mother’s father fought in the First World War. Both saw horrific combat and both were highly decorated for their service.
My Dad and his brother fought in the Second World War. My Dad arrived in Normandy after the invasion in July 1944 and in his words, crawled across Northern Europe through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany before the end of the war in 1945. He did not talk much of the war, but when he did, he always told me how violent and horrible an experience it was. Fiercely proud of his unit, The Lord Stratcona’s Horse Regiment, he donned the poppy every year on the anniversary of “Rememberance Day.” He captivated my attention with the story, as told by his father, of the end of World War One on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of November 1918. Both belligerents fired every artillery shell possible across the lines to kill as many men as possible before the clock struck 1100. Many men died in those last minutes of the war. How senseless… how tragic… and how prophetic of a peace that would not last, requiring my dad to don the uniform and go overseas to finish the job that his father could not.
Every year at this time, my dad also loved to recite the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian surgeon, LCOL John McRae from Guelph, Ontario. He was very proud of the fact that a Canadian had written this timeless testament to the brave young soldiers who lost their lives in the Second Battle of Ypres, near Flanders, in Belgium. McRae was a Major when he wrote the poem after an unsuccessful attempt to save the life of a young Canadian wounded in battle. He jotted down his emotions while looking across a brilliant field of poppies that peacefully swayed back and forth in the breeze and in stark contrast to the carnage that existed nearby in the trenches. The poem was published in London in 1915 and became world renowned almost overnight.
My dad had it memorized and I always listened intently when he repeated it to me.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break fait
h with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
Sadly, McRae never made it back home as he died in the field of pneumonia and other complications while taking care of the troops.
Almost one hundred years have passed since Major McRae wrote the poem. He is but one of millions of selfless men and women under arms who have served and sacrificed for their country.
As we spend time with family and loved ones on 11 November, we remember the sacrifice of the countless young men and women who have served or are now standing the watch. Many have paid dearly for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan with life altering injuries. Others, sadly, have paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is essential that we take time out to remember them and thank them.
If you are so inclined, don a poppy… I will.
Transitioning the training of midshipmen from an on-board apprenticeship to an academic curriculum on shore supplemented by time on training ships was a significant change in thought when it came to the development of the navy’s officer corp. The man who guided this transition was Franklin Buchanan. He founded the Navy School at the direction of George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy in 1845, on the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis, MD. Today, we look at two objects that mark this transition from ship to shore: Buchanan’s own training journal when he was a midshipman on board U.S.S. Franklin, and a copy of the first rules and regulations of the new Naval School, signed by Buchanan himself.
It is relatively well-known that students at the Naval Academy are called midshipmen. But what is less-known is where that term comes from. How were officers prepared and trained prior to the founding of the Naval Academy and other, later commissioning programs like ROTC? For the month of May, we are looking at the midshipman training process at the Naval Academy, and we begin with a discussion of the origin of the term midshipman using today’s object, a dirk owned by Stephen Decatur.
This cannon was taken from HMS Confiance after the Battle of Plattsburg in 1814. Clearly visible on the muzzle is the indentation from when the gun was struck by an American cannonball, sending the cannon crashing into George Downie, the commander of the British naval forces, killing him instantly. The Americans went on to defeat the British forces, bolstering American morale and helping to bring about the final end of the War of 1812.
Today’s object is the original flag bearing this famous navy saying which has inspired generations of sailors.There is no error in the title – the original flag does not include an apostrophe. The actual flag is on display in the Academy’s museum, but it looks different from the pristine blue representations of it elsewhere. This is because it in fact was not blue originally, but was covered in blue material in later years in an effort to preserve it. This knowledge was uncovered during recent conservation efforts to preserve the flag for future generations, along with many other interesting discoveries. Dr. Scott Harmon takes us through the story of heroism that inspired the flag and also helps us understand the extensive conservation effort to help preserve the flag for future generations.
For the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Naval Institute’s Proceedings compiled memories of midshipmen who went on to prominence later in their lives. The following is from Captain Edward L. “Ned” Beach Jr., who recalled Orson Welles’ 1938 (75 years ago today) radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” Though he remembers it to have happened on “Halloween night,” it actually took place the night before. The Naval Institute’s headquarters in Annapolis, Beach Hall, is named after Ned and his father, Captain Edward L. Beach Sr. Murray Frazee, the midshipman who tipped Ned off about the “invasion,” went on to become the Executive Officer of the USS Tang in World War II under Richard H. O’Kane.
—Fred Schultz, Managing Editor, Proceedings
Hat tip Claude Berube
One of the impetuses behind this series was a desire to understand transition and innovation in the Navy. This model gunboat helps highlight just how the navy learned and grew in its early years. This episode also helps show why the War of 1812 is so important for naval leaders today. Current Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert briefly tells us just why he studies the War of 1812, and then Dr. Harmon explains how this gunboat would have worked had it been built, and elaborates on the circumstances under which it was designed.
This week marked the anniversary of a great battle—and Americans too love to remember it. Last year at the Naval War College, the war-gaming department reenacted the entire battle, minute-by-minute, with splendid and colorful ship-counters, on the hallowed tile floor of Pringle Hall, which has been the site of many an ancient war game.
My colleague Jim Holmes’ recent “Top Five Naval Battles of All Time” reminds us what fun we can have handicapping history. Playing “pick your decisive battle” is a favorite game of ours. Jim calls it a “bloodsport,” but the very idea of “decisive” battle is a construct, an artifact, a literary invention. Its inventors were eminent Victorians like Edward Creasy (Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World) and our own Alfred Thayer Mahan (The Influence of Seapower Upon History).
These Victorian men were selling their nations a confection called “destiny.” They declared there were forces outside of us, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, or Marx’s vision of history, that determined our fate. Moreover these forces were real and thus could not be shirked. History was all about winning, and for our country and cause to win, we needed to seize the force and ride our destiny. Theirs was a world of conflict and struggle, and only the fittest would reach the top. Hence it made perfect sense that those destined to win would both show their mettle and also shape the path of destiny in highly dramatic moments of contest. “Decisive battle” became the proof of a nation’s future place in history. Deep down we still believe this. To Jim Holmes, a naval battle that “decides the fate of civilizations, empires, or great nations” is decisive — and so it would be, if such a battle actually existed.
Just consider Lepanto and The Armada, for example, two perennial favorites among decisive naval battles. Did they “decide the fate …”? Lepanto actually failed to “assure European, not Ottoman, command of the middle sea.” What it did assure was a renewed and vigorous Ottoman sea offensive, including the completed conquest of Cyprus, the wresting of Tunis from Spain, and the capture of Fez. Nor did Ottoman Seapower thereafter quickly recede. From 1645-1669 the Porte leveraged Crete, jewel of the Venetian seaborne empire, from the grasp of the greatest Mediterranean navy of all. Even as late as 1715, the Ottomans retook Morea (the Peloponnesus) from Venice, fighting their fleets to a virtual standstill. So the middle sea, from Morocco to Otranto to the Dardanelles, plus the whole of the Black Sea, was still ruled by Ottoman fleets and corsairs for a long, long time after Lepanto.
The Armada seems equally “slam-dunk” decisive to us today. Like Lepanto a fleet is destroyed, with 20,000 casualties: What could be worse? Unlike the Holy League, however, the English tried to follow up their victory with an expedition just as big as the Armada, launched against Spanish Lisbon. It was, as my son would say, an “epic fail.” The Spanish Armada (1588) and the English Armada (1589) suffered, at 20,000 each and scores of foundered ships, equal losses. Spain remained one of the big three sea powers, and totally effective defending its world empire for two more centuries. So was there is something decisive here?
Only a wildly entertaining sleight-of-hand lets us believe battles are “decisive.” That sleight-of-hand is this: Picking your decisive battle must be a game with the highest stakes. Hence, if the “bad guys” won at Lepanto we would all be Muslims today; if the “Dagoes” (as enlightened Brits called them for centuries) succeeded with their Armada, we would all be speaking Spanish and crossing ourselves daily.
At Lepanto, according to this sleight-of-hand, the Ottoman fleet could have crushed the Holy League as badly as it was itself crushed by them. But then, on top of that, the (less-than-magnificent) Sultan Selim II could have rushed full-throttle into Italy and made Rome a protected Islamic fiefdom. In that scenario, only the Alps would obscure the view of a Muslim Europe. By extension, at Gravelines, the Spanish fleet could have smashed English galleons and then landed Parma and his army on Kentish soil. Then, with a wave of the hand, that army could have overturned England and stayed fully resupplied by sea, while also maintaining its iron grip on the Spanish Netherlands in absentia. Amazing.
How could this have been done? No Ottoman army could have survived in Italy, let alone quickly conquered it. Logistics from the Balkans made such an enterprise an instant loser, and the tercios would have wiped out such a forlorn army. Moreover Ottoman defeat in Italy would have been far more shameful than any temporary and easily requited loss at sea. Equally, the Protestant cause would actually have benefitted from a Spanish military lodgment in Kent, because the wily Duke of Parma would have at last been cornered. Thus the Dutch-Calvinist cause could have split Spanish forces and cemented their doom. Instead of merely gaining independence (in 1640), they might even have expelled Spain entirely from the Netherlands by 1600. Spain dodged a strategic bullet by losing their Armada.
What we have codified in literary canon as “fate of civilization” moments are instead merely tokens — if useful tokens — that a big military enterprise has reached its limit, and maybe should just stop. Like the old saw: “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down;” what we cherish as “decisive battles” are really just flags and signposts not to go any farther. The Ottomans had some natural imperial limits, and Lepanto was the message. Likewise for the Spanish Hapsburgs, bogged down in the Netherlands, the Armada was a “slow down” message.
So how does reaching a simple threshold make someone else’s shining destiny? We might conclude that the decisive battles we instantly recognize as the Armada and Lepanto are in reality highly refined and very expensive ad campaigns that have lasted centuries, into our own era. Spinning the “fate of civilization” is really all about spinning a narrative about just how great you are, and how a sea battle proves it for all time. You can call the efforts of generations of English novelists and filmmakers propaganda, or you can call it transcendent national marketing, or maybe just one of the greatest campaigns in cultural strategic communications.
But you cannot call what they created in song and story (or movie) a decisive battle. Likewise, Lepanto was even more of Hapsburg-Papal ad campaign: Titian, Tintoretto, Vicentino and Veronese (superstar artists of their day) were each commissioned to create bodacious propaganda paintings on behalf of Mitre and Crown. The very titles of recent best-selling books like, “The Contest for the Center of the World” (2009) or, “Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash” (2008) show that their 16th century ad campaign is somehow still ongoing.
Decisive naval battles are really about celebrating national identity by highlighting the core significance of that identity in a narrative shaped by the great ships of its navy at a moment when the perceived stakes of history are the highest and it could have gone either way. This is especially true of Trafalgar and all modern “decisive” naval battles.
Great ships, whether they are sailing battleships or dreadnoughts or aircraft carriers, have come to personify the nation itself. They often have names with existential significance in a nation’s person and history: Victory, Bismarck, Enterprise, Yorktown, Yamato, Droits de l’Homme, and so many more. These are ships whose great size and power and carefully calculated majesty have already entered the consciousness of their nation’s citizens.
Battles between ships carrying such names are high drama of a sort rarely achieved in war. It is drama; moreover, that lends itself to passionate presentation in all the dimensions of a nation’s collective consciousness. There is as well no doubt that navies, as special sub-cultures of national society, benefit tremendously from the continuing narrative power of “decisive battles.”
But there is a problem, half-hidden perhaps but potentially corrosive.
Wars at sea are not won by decisive battles. Over the centuries in fact there are precious few battles that can be argued were truly “decisive,” which is perhaps why “pick your decisive naval battle” is such a fun game.
A lesson: Too much Navy-focus on your own decisive battles also skews your understanding of what makes navies important. Trafalgar is a reminder in point.
With Trafalgar, it was not the battle that mattered: It was the years of blockading Brest and Toulon and Ferrol that preceded it. Franco-Spanish forces had lost their sailing skills and combat edge. Forced at last to give battle, they knew they were not serving the cause of Alliance victory but rather the cause of British glory and its national morale. The blockade had beaten them, and they were a sacrificial fleet. Not only did Villeneuve’s fleet not stand a chance, the victory itself was built by a much larger naval enterprise. It was a much bigger victory at sea.
Likewise, our wars at sea last century were won in long at-sea campaigns of ocean-grit and day-to-day tribulation, and it was built by fleet submarines and transports and ASW escorts. It is wonderful to enshrine in song and story the grand fleet that wins the literary construct. It is essential, however, to enshrine as well the fleet that wins the actual war. We need to maintain a “balanced fleet” in our own minds.
Before the advent of GPS, how did sailors navigate across the open ocean? Did you know that the War of 1812 raged all over the country, including a great naval victory for the fledgling U.S. states on waters of Lake Erie? What is a sextant and how is it used? This are the questions answered by today’s episode.
As we continue through our naval history journey, keep in mind that for much of recorded history, one of the only other non-manpowered methods of propulsion on the high seas was wind. Raises the obvious question of what do when the wind dies. Today we discuss a piece of equipment called a “sea anchor” and how the most famous ship in the U.S. Navy worked to solve the problem of no wind during the War of 1812.