Tag Archives: European history

Remembering the Munich Agreement of 1938 where both England & France Betrayed Czechoslovakia

[This is an updated version of an earlier article on this topic]

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it! “(George Santayana-1905)

Nevile Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Count Ciano
29 Sep 1938 (German Federal Archives)

The Munich Conference of 1938 saw both Britain and France abandon its ally Czechoslovakia forcing them to cede part of their territory to Germany to avoid war. Let’s look at what the situation was in 1938 and why this happened.

By 1938 there was no doubt anymore about the intentions of Germany’s Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. European nations were generally worried about a major war and to that end the two biggest powers in Europe -France and Great Britain- sought to avert it. It was based on the experience of the First World War in which millions had died. The aftermath of that war was a sentiment that total war must be averted at all costs. So far all of Hitler’s violations of treaties, such as occupying the Rhineland in 1936, had caused no major retribution even if it was a major violation of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had agreed to in 1918. Nor had rearming Germany, also a violation of the treaty, caused any significant reaction.

While worldwide opinion of their open antisemitism was negative, they successfully held the 1936 Olympics in Germany. This despite the fact Germany was a fully authoritarian state ruled by the Nazi Party. All private schools (including religious ones) were shuttered forcing all children to go to the public school. All major corporations and businesses that were controlled by Jews were systematically targeted and forced to sell to Germans backed by the Nazi Party. All media was likewise controlled and could only report exactly what the Reich Propaganda Ministry told them to report. Movies, radios, and newspapers repeated only what was allowed to be reported or dramatized. American movies, in order to be shown in Nazi Germany, had to comply with Nazi rules which prohibited showing Jews in a positive light, criticize German policy in any way, or show any theme the Nazi Party objected to.

As Germany re-armed, it looked to expand its frontiers and bring into being a Greater Germany. Hitler was Austrian and both countries had close ties sharing a common language and culture. Many in Austria already supported such an idea long before the Nazi’s came into power. The Nazi’s had tried in 1934 in supporting a coup attempt, but it failed. By 1938 Germany was in a better position. Politicians and groups sympathetic to Hitler and unification in Austria were loudly calling for it. Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg hoped that a referendum on the issue set for 13 March 1938 would resolve it. Hitler instead threatened to invade and through his agents asked him to resign. The referendum was canceled and on 12 Mar 1938, German troops entered Austria and were unopposed. The long-wanted Anschluss had finally occurred. Neither Great Britain nor France was willing to offer any assistance to stop it from happening. In fact, many  supported it in those countries.

Sudetenland 1938-1945
Stamp Collecting World (via Wikipedia)

About the same time, Hitler was also claiming that German-speaking people living in Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer ties with Germany. And that if this land was not given to Germany, it would have to be done by force. Needless to say the Czechoslovakian government was alarmed especially after what happened to Austria. Leaders in both Britain and France were becoming alarmed that this could spiral into a general war. The position of both governments was to avoid total war; they did not want another World War I that devastated Europe. This policy of appeasement had many supporters in politics, academia, and the media. Those who argued against it were called warmongers, or worse. The problem was that both countries had signed treaties with Czechoslovakia that if they were attacked, their enemy became theirs. Hitler knew this and stepped up the pressure.

Hitler ordered his generals to come up with a plan to attack Czechoslovakia. It was set to commence in October. Meanwhile Czechoslovakia tried to gauge the support it had and found Poland would only assist if the French did. And the French were reluctant to support Czechoslovakia if it meant direct conflict with Germany. Britain was also cool on the idea and forced President Benes to accept an arbitrator. Benes feeling he had no choice, gave in to the idea. Lord Runciman was sent to Prague on 3 August 1938 to persuade Benes to accept a plan for Sudeten Germans. In public both powers appeared to support Czechoslovakia but in private made it clear they would not go to war with Germany over the Sudetenland. As German forces appeared to be poised to invade, it was clear to both London and Paris something would have to give.

Hitler continued upping the pressure by giving speeches that blamed the crisis in Sudetenland on Czechoslovakia. He denounced the state as illegitimate, that it was targeting the German speaking people for extermination, and many other things as well. German media was full of stories that depicted the heroic German people in Sudetenland as suffering and that other nationalities would be targeted as well. Hitler made it clear that the situation could no longer be tolerated, and that Germany was prepared to resolve it if either Czechoslovakia or the other powers involved failed to stop the atrocities. German troops were poised to resolve the situation. And Hitler surmised both the British and French would deal to avoid war.

With Europe seemingly on the edge of war, this precipitated the Munich Conference of September 1938. Without consulting with Czechoslovakia, British leader Neville Chamberlain and French president Edouard Daladier decided to resolve this situation by agreeing that any territory in the Sudetenland that had over fifty percent German speaking people would be given to Germany. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, also at the conference, argued for a German military presence along with an international commission to resolve disputes (this was a German proposal but felt that it was better made by the Italians).

It was formally agreed to on 30 Sep 1938. Czechoslovakia was presented with this agreement and had no choice but to accept or face immediate invasion. Czechoslovakia found itself totally alone and the two powers-Britain and France-who had pledged to protect them now abandoned them to their fate. They had no choice but to accept but left an awful taste in their mouths knowing they had been betrayed. It would end with President Benes resigning in October knowing his country was to be invaded by Germany. This would occur in March 1939. The Germans would hold the Sudetenland until 1945.  Chamberlain would proclaim later, upon arrival in Britain, that he delivered “peace for our time.”  Daladier more or less concurred and later France would sign a non-aggression pact with Germany.

Aftermath

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving to enthusiastic crowds of his triumph upon returning to Britain. Waving a paper signed by Hitler, he pronounced peace in our time. Hitler later chuckled that the agreement he signed with Chamberlain meant nothing.
Image: winstonchurchill.org

Germany acquired not only territory but the industrial resources that it needed (raw ore, steel and iron production, electrical plants). Czechoslovakia was diminished as a result. While many in public in Britain and France heralded the agreement as avoiding war, there were warnings it was wrong. Winston Churchill was critical of the deal and how they had abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The British Labor Party opposed the deal as well. A view began to emerge and would continue long after, that Britain and France wanted to get out of the military pact as they were not ready for war. Was Hitler bluffing or not also is discussed as well. The evidence is that Germany could have invaded but got what it wanted without firing a shot. And it was handed to Hitler on a platter by two powers that in the last war had been Germany’s enemies. It could not have been a greater present for Hitler.

Czechoslovakia was doomed by the pact. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill’s warning had come true. With his policy of appeasement now deemed a total failure, Neville Chamberlain realized that it was time to mobilize for war. The French would likewise prepare (but so entrenched was the avoidance of total war doctrine failed to act when it had the option to do so when most of the German army was invading Poland). In September 1939, World War II would officially begin with the invasion of Poland and declaration of war by Britain and France on Germany.

Both Chamberlain and his French counterpart would live to see how badly it would turn out. After war broke out, Chamberlain’s popularity fell and would resign as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940 and replaced by Winston Churchill though remained in the Cabinet. He would die in November 1940. Édouard Daladier, who was under no illusions as to Hitler’s goals (but knew support for standing up to Hitler was thin), had resigned his position in March 1940 but was still minister of defense when Germany invaded. He would be arrested and charged with treason by the German supported Vichy government and imprisoned. He would be imprisoned in several places, including the Buchenwald concentration camp and ended up in Itter Castle in Tyrol with other French dignitaries until liberated on 5 May 1945 after the Battle of Itter . He would return to the Chamber of Deputies after the war, served as mayor of Avignon, and died in Paris in 1970.

 

Sources

 “Munich Agreement | Definition, Summary, and Significance.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, www.britannica.com/event/Munich-Agreement.

Mullen, Matt. “Munich Pact Signed.” HISTORY, 28 Sept. 2020, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/munich-pact-signed.

Munich Agreement. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/timeline-event/holocaust/1933-1938/munich-agreement.

The British Policy of Appeasement Toward Hitler and Nazi Germany. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/neville-chamberlain.

 “Munich Agreement.” Wikipedia, 13 Jan. 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munich_Agreement.

Remembering History: The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755(1 Nov 1755)

Copper engraving from 1755 showing the catastrophe of the day when the earthquakes hit, the tsunami, and the fires.
Unknown author
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Portugal was a prosperous country in the 18th century. It had acquired immense wealth thanks to its colony in Brazil and its trade in Asia. Lisbon had become a bustling center of trade and one of the busiest ports in the Atlantic. Roughly 10 percent of its population lived in Lisbon and many had become wealthy off the trade generated in gold and diamonds. It would all change on All Saints Day in 1755.

Around 9:40 am three tremors struck Lisbon and one of them is thought to have been 8.0. The shaking was so violent that it was felt in Morocco. The earthquakes caused considerable damage but something far worse occurred. A 20-foot tsunami generated by the earthquakes raced ashore knocking down everything in its path. Since it was All Saints Day many were in churches where candles were lit. When the earthquakes hit, churches and buildings were toppled killing many right away and injuring scores others. The lit candles then ignited fires and were fanned by the winds. The fires would burn for days, and aftershocks would cause more damage and death,

Most of the destruction in Lisbon took place along the Tagus River and the center of the city. The destruction took with it priceless works of art and homes of both the wealthy and the poor. Other areas of Portugal were affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Lisbon saw great cathedrals toppled along with the grand library and the royal palace. Those who had fled down to the docklands saw water had retreated. Some went into the shallow water to try to retrieve treasure from sunken ships not knowing the great danger they were in. When the tsunami hit, everyone in docklands were swept away and perished. Many who had made it out of the city after the earthquake or after the tsunami would never return. Great works of art, literature and prized buildings for their architecture were all gone.

It was a stunning blow to Portugal and the city had to be rebuilt from scratch. 85% percent of the infrastructure was gone. The old city had been built in medieval times with narrow streets and confusing layout. The Marquis of Pombal, the prime minister, was given the task of rebuilding Lisbon. Lisbon would be modeled on French architectural trends of the time that called for wider streets, squares, and avenues. Using the military as a guide, buildings were put up in manner followed an exact pattern making it prefabricated for its time. And they made sure the buildings were made strong so as not to collapse from an earthquake again. The earthquake greatly affected the economy of Portugal that took a while to recover. While price controls were enacted, there were still volatile swings in prices. If there was an upside, construction workers got paid well for their efforts (comparative to what they made before the catastrophe). Also, the economy was reformed in the process making the country less dependent on Great Britain.

The Marquis of Pombal sent out a survey to all local parishes asking them for information about what happened. He was the first person to do this and the preserved detailed responses he got back are a wealth of information as to how much the earthquake did in many areas of the country. This has allowed a scientific reconstruction of the earthquake (and tsunami as well) allowing scientists to understand more fully what these natural forces can do. In effect, Pombal began the science of seismology, the collecting of data about such events.

Today if you visit Lisbon, you can see the effects of the reconstruction and how its people adapted to this massive reconstruction. Rick Steves covers it in his travel to Lisbon. Old world charm with very modern touches.

Sources

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 | Great Lisbon Quake, Tsunami and Fire Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Oct. 2023, www.britannica.com/event/Lisbon-earthquake-of-1755.

Earthquake Takes Heavy Toll on Lisbon. HISTORY, 13 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/earthquake-takes-heavy-toll-on-lisbon.

Cohen, Isabel. “The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: The Day the World Was Shaken.” bePortugal, 26 Sept. 2019, beportugal.com/lisbon-earthquake.

Wikipedia contributors. “1755 Lisbon Earthquake.” Wikipedia, 23 Oct. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake.

Fascinating History: Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr, 1894
Public Domain (Wikimedia)

Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

The Charge of the Light Brigade occurred in a now mostly forgotten war between Britain and France against Russia in 1854. 600 calvary armed only with swords and not supported by infantry or artillery were sent to take a Russian artillery position at the end of a valley. Only 490 would come back with descriptions of a battle that horrified the public. So what happened and why did a light brigade be sent in against a Russian artillery position by itself? Let’s find out

From 1853-1856, Britain and France were at war with Russia. Russia had sought to pressure Turkey in supporting its goals but sent troops to take control. This threatened British commercial and strategic assets in the Middle East (and to a smaller extent France). France used the tension to bolster an alliance with Britain and to bolster its military power. The allies landed in the Crimea in September 1854 to destroy both Sevastopol and the Russian fleet. The Allies, after taking two weeks to set things up, started bombarding Sevastopol on 17 October. The Russians were well prepared but tried to break the siege attacking the British supply base in the fishing village of Balaclava.

The Russians were repelled but occupied the Causeway Heights outside of the town. Lord Raglan, the British Commander-In-Chief, wanted to send in both Heavy and Light Calvary supported by infantry to get to the Russians and get back any British artillery they may have taken. Raglan wanted them to move immediately (meaning send in the calvary with the infantry to follow later). However the calvary commander George Bingham, the earl of Lucan, thought the order meant both calvary and infantry together. This caused a delay as they had to wait for infantry to arrive. Raglan issued a new order to advance rapidly to stop the Russians from taking any guns away. Bingham did not see this happening. He asked Raglan’s aide where to attack, and he pointed in the general direction of the Russian artillery at the far end of the valley. Lord Lucan conferred with his brother-in-law, James Brudenell, the earl of Cardigan who commanded the light brigade. Neither liked each other and apparently they were not respected by those under them. Both decided to follow Lucan’s order without checking first to confirm it. 670 members of the light brigade drew their sabers and lances and began the infamous mile and a quarter charge into the valley.

The Russians began shooting at them from three different angles (not at the same time though). Onward they rode though they took severe casualties. Descriptions of survivors reported horrors of horses covered in blood, arms and heads being carried off by gunfire or artillery, and human brains on the ground. The area was so thick with smoke from Russian gunfire that some said it resembled a volcano. Amazingly the Light Brigade reached its destination crashing the enemy lines and holding it for a brief time. They were forced back, and Russian artillery fired from Causeway Heights. The Heavy Brigade had been turned around before it went further into the valley. When it was all over, 110 were dead and 160 injured and 375 horses were lost. 60 were taken captive. Reaction from many was to admire the bravery and honor of the calvary who were in the charge, but not so much their commanders that had ordered the attack. It took three weeks for it to be reported in Britain and recriminations would fly.

Raglan blamed Lucan and Lucan was angry at being made a scapegoat. Raglan would argue that Lucan should have used his discretion while Lucan argued he was obeying orders. Cardigan blamed Lucan for giving the orders. Cardigan returned home a hero and was promoted. Lucan continued to defend himself in public and parliament and escaped blame as well. However, he never saw active duty again though promoted to general and later field marshal. In short recalled, promoted, and sent to the rear where he could do the least harm. The charge is still studied today of what happens when military intelligence is lacking, and orders unclear. The Russians would claim victory despite never taking Balaclava and paraded the captured weapons in Sevastopol. However, the Allies in 1855 were able to cut Russian logistics and force them out of Sevastopol when it fell between 8-9 Sept 1855.

Other battles in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855 had not gone well for the Russians either. The British appeared to be ready to destroy both Kronstradt and St. Petersburg in 1856 using naval forces. The Russians accepted defeat and sought peace in early 1856. Russia had lost 500,000 troops in the war (not from battle but apparently from diseases and malnutrition amongst other things) and its economy was ruined. They also lacked the industrial infrastructure to build modern weapons. The Peace of Paris on 30 March 1856 formally ended the Crimean War. Britain got what it wanted: the independence of Ottoman Turkey. The Black Sea was made a neutral zone (no warships allowed to enter), and the Danube opened to all commercial shipping. Bessarabia became part of Moldavia along with Walachia to become autonomous states (later Romania). Russia in 1870 would repudiate the Black Sea neutrality to rebuild its naval fleet.

The Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote an evocative poem called The Charge of the Light Brigade which was published on 9 December 1854. He praises the brigade while mourning the futility of the charge.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air, Sabring the gunners there,Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke;Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them, Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well. Came through the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of hell, All that was left of them,Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!

Sources:

Bunting, Tony. “Charge of the Light Brigade | Crimean War, Balaclava, Battle.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Mar. 2017, www.britannica.com/event/Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade.

“Treaty of Paris | End of Crimean War, Peace Negotiations, Great Powers.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Paris-1856.

“Charge of the Light Brigade.” HISTORY, 21 July 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/charge-of-the-light-brigade.

 Greenspan, Jesse. “The Charge of the Light Brigade, 160 Years Ago.” HISTORY, Oct. 2019, www.history.com/news/the-charge-of-the-light-brigade-160-years-ago.


Remembering History: England Defeats Spanish Armada (29 July 1588)

Defeat of the Spanish Armada (Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1796)
Public Domain

On July 29, 1588 naval forces of England and Spain engaged in an 8-hour furious battle off the coast of France that determined the fate of both countries control of the seas. Spain had created the armada to not only gain control of the English Channel but also to land an invasion force in England. England since the early 1580s had been conducting raids against Spanish commerce and had supported Dutch rebels in Spanish Netherlands. The other reason was to restore Catholicism that had been outlawed since the reign of King Henry VIII

The invasion fleet was authorized by King Philip II and was completed in 1587 but delayed by a raid by Sir Francis Drake on the Armada’s supplies. It did not depart until May 19, 1588. The fleet consisted of 130 ships under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. It had 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and 20,000 soldiers. The Spanish ships though were slower than their English counterparts and lighter armed as well despite their guns. Their tactic was to force boarding when their ships were close enough. They believed with the superior numbers of Spanish infantry they could overwhelm the English ships.

The English were commanded by Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham. Like his counterpart, he was an admiral with not much sea experience but proved to be the better leader. His second in command was Sir Francis Drake. The English fleet was at its height 200 ships but in the actual combat was at most 100. Only 40 were warships and the rest smaller, but they were armed with heavy artillery that were able to fire at longer ranges without having to get close to the enemy to be effective. The English strategy was to bombard their enemy from a distance and not give them the opportunity to get close and possibly board their ships (which had smaller number of soldiers aboard than the Spanish had).

As the Spanish Armada made its way, it would be harassed by English ships that bombarded them at a distance negating Spanish attempts to board. The Armada anchored near Calais, France on 27 July. The Spanish forces on land were in Flanders and would take time to get Calais. However, since there was no safe port and enemy Dutch and English ships patrolled the coastal shallows, it meant those troops had no safe way to get to the Armada.

Around midnight on 29 July, the English sent 8 fire ships into the anchored Spanish fleet. The Spanish were forced to quickly scatter to avoid the fire ships. This meant the Armada formation was now broken making them easier targets for the English to attack. They closed to effective range and attacked. Surprising to the English, the return fire was mostly small arms. It turns out most of the heavy cannons had not been mounted. And those that were did not have properly trained crews on how to reload. Three Spanish ships were sunk or driven ashore. Other ships were battered and moved away. The English also were low on ammunition, so they had to drop back and follow the Spanish fleet.

The Spanish fleet had to flee north and around Scotland and from there head back to Spain. The English fleet turned back for resupply. It was a long road back to Spain for the Armada. Autumn had arrived and gales in the North Atlantic made passage tough. Ships were lost to bad weather, navigational errors, foundered near Ireland, and possibly battle damage as well. Only 60 of the 130 survived with an estimated loss of 15,000 men. The English losses were much smaller with fewer men wounded or killed in battle. It appears most of the deaths that came later were due to disease (possibly scurvy). Damages to the English ships were negligible.

Significance

With the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England was made safe from invasion. The Dutch rebels the English backed in Spanish Netherlands were saved as well. Spain up to that point had been considered to be the greatest European power, so it was a major blow to their prestige that would have ramifications down the road for them. Also, it heralded a major change for naval battles. This was the first major naval gun battle where the combatants fought at a distance rather than closing and boarding. Warships that could move quickly and had artillery that fire at long range would become the norm on the seas from that point on. England would now become a major world power. Spain still was in the game for several decades (the English were not successful either in trying their own invasion) and was still a major colonial power. England and Spain formally ended their conflict in 1604. Spain, however, would eventually go into decline as England and other European powers would successfully expand into Asia and establish their own colonies and trade routes.

Sources:

This Day In History: Spanish Armada Defeated
Encyclopedia Britannica: Spanish Armada

Remembering History: Storming the Bastille (14 Jul 1789)

The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735–1813)
National Library of France
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 14 July 1789, the storming of the Bastille, a formidable stone prison originally built to protect the eastern entrance to Paris, is considered the launch of the French Revolution and celebrated as a holiday in France. The prison often held political prisoners and was seen as a sign of tyranny. By this time in 1789, the prison only held seven prisoners none of whom were of a political nature. Four were charged with forgery and two were considered mad or lunatics. The Bastille was actually being scheduled for demolition to make way for public square.

France was facing economic and social problems. Louis XVI had inherited considerable debt from his predecessor but continued to spend (along with his wife Marie Antoinette) considerable sums of money further deepening government debt. Crop failures in 1788 led to a national famine and the cost bread prices to soar. Unemployment was a factor as well and many thought they had lost jobs due to lessening of customs duties with England (resulting in more jobs there than in France). With violent food riots breaking out, King Louis XVI tried to resolve it through the Estates-General (a national assembly of clergy, nobility and the common person).

While in theory all three were equal, two of the other parts could outvote the third. This left many deputies upset demanding a greater voice and proclaiming their own National Assembly. This would lead to the famous Tennis Court Oath of 20 June 1789 not to separate until they had a constitution. Many nobles and clergy crossed over to this National Assembly which Louis XVI gave consent to. His ordering of army regiments into Paris though made many fear he was going to break up the assembly by force. The dismissal of Jacques Necker, a non-noble minister for the government on 11 July, triggered massive protests and destruction of custom posts. Custom posts were hated as they imposed taxes on goods.

On 14 July a mob seized muskets and cannons from a military hospital and then decided to get more at the Bastille. The governor of the Bastille saw the mob and invited them in to discuss terms of surrender. Outside the crowd grew restless awaiting word and it is possible some thought the delegates had been arrested. A group climbed over the outer wall and climbed in to open the drawbridge to the courtyard. The governor broke his pledge not to fire and bullets rang out killing 100 outright leaving others wounded. The royals only lost one soldier. The arrival of the French Guards, sympathetic to the mob, would force the governor to surrender after having cannons blasting away at the Bastille. Without adequate provisions, he surrendered the Bastille. Some of the royalist troops would be butchered after the surrender. The governor was taken prisoner and beheaded by the mob.

Aftermath

The Bastille was dismantled, and its only prisoner later would be Louis XVI. He would be executed on 21 January 1793 along with his wife. The French Revolution, once thought a means to reform France into a constitutional monarchy, slid into a revolutionary government that completely overturned the ancien regime. During its tenure, it became increasingly bloody killing off enemies of the new order. Anyone who was thought to disagree with them could be denounced and executed. Instead of creating a better stable system, it became one long food riot as one professor said to me once. And the revolutionaries fought amongst themselves as to who was the better one to lead. That led to more bloody executions and the guillotine became the image of the French Revolution. Ultimately the people tired of this turmoil and wanted order. And it would come from Napoleon Bonaparte, but that is another story.

 

Sources:


The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand Leads To World War I (28 June 1914

How did the assassination of an Austrian archduke end up starting World War I? Let’s find out.

Map of Europe 1914 (in French)
Varmin, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1914 Europe was divided into several major players: Great Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Russia, the largest country of all because of its sheer territory, was not considered a major player. It was a country that had a small industrial base but was mostly agrarian based society. Its defeat in a recent war with Japan showed how it was quite behind the Europeans in terms of building up a powerful military to protect its interests. Britain and Germany (with France often supporting, but not always the British) often clashed over colonies and related interests.

The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was the second largest country in Europe after Russia and a multinational state with many different peoples under it. It was also a major industrial power and with its access to the Adriatic, a naval power as well. It was a dual monarchy-Austria Empire and Kingdom of Hungary-and coequal in power. Both states conducted joint foreign relations, defense, and financial policies but left the administration under their individual states. Because it was a polyglot empire, it had a lot of different languages. The major ones were German, Hungarian and Croatian. Because of its industrial capacity, Austria-Hungary was a major exporter of electric home and industrial appliances making it third after the United States and Germany.

The first page of the edition of the Domenica del Corriere, an Italian paper, with a drawing by Achille Beltrame depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. (Cropped)
12 July 1914, Achille Beltrame
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unrest though within Austria-Hungary had become an issue with various groups wanting independence or territory for their peoples. And on this particular day, the Archduke Ferdinand was visiting the Imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This area had been annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908, which angered Serbian nationalists who believed it should be part of Serbia. His visit hatched a plot to assassinate the archduke. 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip shot the royal couple at point-blank range while they were in their official procession. Princip was part of a group that was well armed, trained, and assisted by the Serbian government. Serbia though had a major supporter in Russia. This meant any reaction to Serbian support of the assassination team would draw in Russia, so Austria asked Germany to back them should conflict break out. Germany warned to do it quickly while sympathy for Ferdinand was still high. Austria debated its action, and this took time and was not until mid-July they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia.

Russia though had already decided to intervene while Serbia was preparing its reply. However, the Russian military knew it was not yet ready for a general war. Yet they saw the hand of Germany in the ultimatum and were determined to show support for Serbia. Once the Serbians knew that Russia was mobilizing, that made it easier for Serbia to defy Austria-Hungary. Germany became nervous about the possibility of Russian troops amassing on its border. Russia was allied with France, and Germans had figured on fighting France first rather than Russia. They thought Russia would take longer to get its forces ready. France, for its part, now realizing war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was a real possibility, began mobilizing as well.

Britain, which an informal alliance with France and Russia, was not committed to war with Germany. At that point, they were still on friendly terms and wanted to remain neutral. Germany made some promises to further that neutrality. However, the German plans to invade France would involve it invading Belgium, a neutral state. This upset many in British leadership and it was decided on moral terms they had to enter the conflict.

By the end of July, the assassination of an archduke had become barely remembered as the belligerents all lined up. Germany and Austria Hungary (central powers) vs Britain, France, and Russia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Belgium, France, and Russia. On 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany and on 6 August, Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia. The “Guns of August” had arrived, and war would be on until 1918.

The peace that had existed, fragile at best of times, was shattered.

Sources:


Remembering History: Germany and Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

History.com
School History
World War II Database


Remembering History: The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Copper engraving from 1755 showing the catastrophe of the day when the earthquakes hit, the tsunami, and the fires.
Unknown author
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Portugal was a prosperous country in the 18th century. It had acquired immense wealth thanks to its colony in Brazil and its trade in Asia. Lisbon had become a bustling center of trade and one of the busiest ports in the Atlantic. Roughly 10 percent of its population lived in Lisbon and many had become wealthy off the trade generated in gold and diamonds. It would all change on All Saints Day in 1755.

Around 9:40 am three tremors struck Lisbon and one of them is thought to have been 8.0. The shaking was so violent that it was felt in Morocco. The earthquakes caused considerable damage but something far worse occurred. A 20-foot tsunami generated by the earthquakes raced ashore knocking down everything in its path. Since it was All Saints Day many were in churches where candles were lit. When the earthquakes hit, churches and buildings were toppled killing many right away and injuring scores others. The lit candles then ignited fires and were fanned by the winds. The fires would burn for days, and aftershocks would cause more damage and death,

Most of the destruction in Lisbon took place along the Tagus River and the center of the city. The destruction took with it priceless works of art and homes of both the wealthy and the poor. Other areas of Portugal were affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Lisbon saw great cathedrals toppled along with the grand library and the royal palace. Those who had fled down to the docklands saw water had retreated. Some went into the shallow water to try to retrieve treasure from sunken ships not knowing the great danger they were in. When the tsunami hit, everyone in docklands were swept away and perished. Many who had made it out of the city after the earthquake or after the tsunami would never return. Great works of art, literature and prized buildings for their architecture were all gone.

It was a stunning blow to Portugal and the city had to be rebuilt from scratch. 85% percent of the infrastructure was gone. The old city had been built in medieval times with narrow streets and confusing layout. The Marquis of Pombal, the prime minister, was given the task of rebuilding Lisbon. Lisbon would be modeled on French architectural trends of the time that called for wider streets, squares, and avenues. Using the military as a guide, buildings were put up in manner followed an exact pattern making it prefabricated for its time. And they made sure the buildings were made strong so as not to collapse from an earthquake again. The earthquake greatly affected the economy of Portugal that took a while to recover. While price controls were enacted, there were still volatile swings in prices. If there was an upside, construction workers got paid well for their efforts (comparative to what they made before the catastrophe). Also, the economy was reformed in the process making the country less dependent on Great Britain.

The Marquis of Pombal sent out a survey to all local parishes asking them for information about what happened. He was the first person to do this and the preserved detailed responses he got back are a wealth of information as to how much the earthquake did in many areas of the country. This has allowed a scientific reconstruction of the earthquake (and tsunami as well) allowing scientists to understand more fully what these natural forces can do. In effect, Pombal began the science of seismology, the collecting of data about such events.

Today if you visit Lisbon, you can see the effects of the reconstruction and how its people adapted to this massive reconstruction. Rick Steves covers it in his travel to Lisbon. Old world charm with very modern touches.

Sources:

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 | Great Lisbon Quake, Tsunami and Fire Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Oct. 2023, www.britannica.com/event/Lisbon-earthquake-of-1755.

Earthquake Takes Heavy Toll on Lisbon. HISTORY, 13 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/earthquake-takes-heavy-toll-on-lisbon.

Cohen, Isabel. “The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: The Day the World Was Shaken.” bePortugal, 26 Sept. 2019, beportugal.com/lisbon-earthquake.

Wikipedia contributors. “1755 Lisbon Earthquake.” Wikipedia, 23 Oct. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake.

 

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Remembering History: Charge of the Light Brigade (25 October 1854)

Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr, 1894
Public Domain (Wikimedia)

From 1853-1856, Britain and France were at war with Russia. Russia had sought to pressure Turkey in supporting its goals but sent troops to take control. This threatened British commercial and strategic assets in the Middle East (and to a smaller extent France). France used the tension to bolster an alliance with Britain and to bolster its military power. The allies landed in the Crimea in September 1854 to destroy both Sevastopol and the Russian fleet. The Allies, after taking two weeks to set things up, started bombarding Sevastopol on 17 October. The Russians were well prepared but tried to break the siege attacking the British supply base in the fishing village of Balaclava.

The Russians were repelled but occupied the Causeway Heights outside of the town. Lord Raglan, the British Commander-In-Chief, wanted to send in both Heavy and Light Calvary supported by infantry to get to the Russians and get back any British artillery they may have taken. Raglan wanted them to move immediately (meaning send in the calvary with the infantry to follow later). However the calvary commander George Bingham, the earl of Lucan, thought the order meant both calvary and infantry together. This caused a delay as they had to wait for infantry to arrive. Raglan issued a new order to advance rapidly to stop the Russians from taking any guns away. Bingham did not see this happening. He asked Raglan’s aide where to attack, and he pointed in the general direction of the Russian artillery at the far end of the valley. Lord Lucan conferred with his brother-in-law, James Brudenell, the earl of Cardigan who commanded the light brigade. Neither liked each other and apparently they were not respected by those under them. Both decided to follow Lucan’s order without checking first to confirm it. 670 members of the light brigade drew their sabers and lances and began the infamous mile and a quarter charge into the valley.

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

 

The Russians began shooting at them from three different angles (not at the same time though). Onward they rode though they took severe casualties. Descriptions of survivors reported horrors of horses covered in blood, arms and heads being carried off by gunfire or artillery, and human brains on the ground. The area was so thick with smoke from Russian gunfire that some said it resembled a volcano. Amazingly the Light Brigade reached its destination crashing the enemy lines and holding it for a brief time. They were forced back, and Russian artillery fired from Causeway Heights. The Heavy Brigade had been turned around before it went further into the valley. When it was all over, 110 were dead and 160 injured and 375 horses were lost. 60 were taken captive. Reaction from many was to admire the bravery and honor of the calvary who were in the charge, but not so much their commanders that had ordered the attack. It took three weeks for it to be reported in Britain and recriminations would fly.

Raglan blamed Lucan and Lucan was angry at being made a scapegoat. Raglan would argue that Lucan should have used his discretion while Lucan argued he was obeying orders. Cardigan blamed Lucan for giving the orders. Cardigan returned home a hero and was promoted. Lucan continued to defend himself in public and parliament and escaped blame as well. However, he never saw active duty again though promoted to general and later field marshal. In short recalled, promoted, and sent to the rear where he could do the least harm. The charge is still studied today of what happens when military intelligence is lacking, and orders unclear. The Russians would claim victory despite never taking Balaclava and paraded the captured weapons in Sevastopol. However, the Allies in 1855 were able to cut Russian logistics and force them out of Sevastopol when it fell between 8-9 Sept 1855.

Other battles in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855 had not gone well for the Russians either. The British appeared to be ready to destroy both Cronstradt and St. Petersburg in 1856 using naval forces. The Russians accepted defeat and sought peace in early 1856. Russia had lost 500,000 troops in the war (not from battle but apparently from diseases and malnutrition amongst other things) and its economy was ruined. They also lacked the industrial infrastructure to build modern weapons. The Peace of Paris on 30 March 1856 formally ended the Crimean War. Britain got what it wanted: the independence of Ottoman Turkey. The Black Sea was made a neutral zone (no warships allowed to enter), and the Danube opened to all commercial shipping. Bessarabia became part of Moldavia along with Walachia to become autonomous states (later Romania). Russia in 1870 would repudiate the Black Sea neutrality to rebuild its naval fleet.

The Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote an evocative poem called The Charge of the Light Brigade which was published on 9 December 1854. He praises the brigade while mourning the futility of the charge.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air, Sabring the gunners there,Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke;Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them, Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well. Came through the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of hell, All that was left of them,Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!

Sources:


Remembering History: Hitler Invades Poland (1939); Japan Surrenders Ending World War II (1945)

Hitler attends a Wehrmacht victory parade in Warsaw on 5 October 1939
Public Domain

On 1 September 1939, German forces using the pretext they were acting in self-defense against Poland, invaded. The German infantry was not fully mechanized but had Panzers and fast-moving artillery that included truck mounted artillery. The German strategy was to quickly concentrate forces and encircle an enemy quickly. Thanks to the relatively flat terrain of Poland, it made it easy to move mobile infantry about. The invasion came one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August. This non-aggression pact meant neither side could assist the enemy of the other. A secret protocol to the agreement defined German and Soviet spheres in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. This protocol would not be proved until the Nuremberg Trials. So, when Germany invaded, Poland was already split with defined borders between the two countries. With this pact, Poland signed defense agreements with Britain and France. Talks between those powers and Germany did take place and the invasion was held up until they were concluded. Hitler did not believe they would declare war, and if they did would be willing to compromise after the invasion of Poland. Germany wanted the restoration of Danzig (in Polish Gdansk) as a free city (it had a large German population), the Polish Corridor, and the safeguarding of Germans in Poland. Germany demanded that a Polish representative with the power to sign such an agreement be present. The British, remembering what happened before when Czechoslovakia was forced to capitulate to the Germans, did not like that demand. When the Polish representative met with Ribbentrop on 31 Aug, he was dismissed when he had no power to sign. The Germans then claimed that Poland had rejected their demands and Hitler ordered the invasion for 1 September. The Germans were better prepared for war than the Polish. They had higher numbers of troops and had air superiority. Poland had older fighters while the bombers were more modern. They waited too late to upgrade so newer fighters and bombers would not be there when the Germany invaded. Poland had two armor brigades and its 7TP light tank was better armed than the German Panzer. But they only had 140 of those and 88 tanks they imported from Britain and France. The Polish Navy was a small fleet with destroyers, submarines and support vessels. Most of the surface vessels escaped and joined the British Royal Navy. Submarines did engage German shipping in the Baltic Sea but it was not successful. Polish merchant ships that did escape or elsewhere would join the allies and take part in wartime convoys. By 3 October both German and Soviet forces had secured their spheres ending the Second Polish Republic. Both German and Soviet governments quickly took control of their territories, organizing and annexing, and setting up regional controls. Government and military leaders who did escape would form a military force in support of the Polish government-in-exile. In response to the invasion of Poland, Britain and France formally declared war on Germany on 3 September but little else (France did invade the Saar but quickly withdrew). ==

Japan Surrenders

Surrender of Japan, Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945: Representatives of the Empire of Japan on board USS Missouri (BB-63) during the surrender ceremonies.
Army Signal Corps, Public Domain

On the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered ending World War II. By this time Japan was no longer the military power it once was. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 had been the turning point when four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. Since then Japanese control over its captured territories were pushed back under massive effort of U.S. and Allied forces. By the summer of 1945, and with the capture of Okinawa, Japan was being blockaded and being bombed often. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drawn up. After the bloody experience of capturing territory such as on Iwa Jima, it was expected to be a difficult invasion that would cost a lot of allied lives. However, the dropping of two atomic weapons on Japan in August on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed things dramatically. Members of the Japanese War Council and Emperor Hirohito favored accepting the peace terms; some objected and acted to stop a surrender. On 15 Aug a coup was attempted against Prime Minister Suzuki, but it was crushed. At noon that day, and for the first time in Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation by radio. “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The US and the allies accepted the surrender.