Category Archives: History

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 all 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, 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.

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Remembering History: Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)

Remembering History:
Napoleon Invades Russia (24 June 1812)

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia on 24 June 1812 in retaliation for Czar Alexander I not accepting Bonaparte’s Continental System. Napoleon assembled the largest fighting force up to that time called the Grand Armee. With over 500,000 soldiers and staff, it marched into Russia seeking a quick victory. It was not to be. The Russian Army under General Mikhail Kutuzov was in retreat refusing a full-scale engagement against the powerful French. As Russia troops retreated, they burned everything leaving nothing for the French to find.

By September, Napoleon had engaged the Russians at Battle of Borodino. The battle was indecisive but resulted in large losses on both sides. On 14 September he arrived in Moscow to find it empty as the people had evacuated. The Russian Army too had left leaving the city to Napoleon. With winter approaching, Napoleon decided to rest and use it for his winter quarters. Russian partisans though set fires in the city the next day resulting in the quarters he had selected destroyed. He waited for a month hoping for a surrender which never came. Now with winter closing in, Napoleon decided to leave. The retreat though was more difficult than they could have imagined.

Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia by Adolph Northen (1828-1876)
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

An early winter set in making it harder on his troops and food was rationed. The Russians, it seems, had not fully retreated, and began attacking the troops in the rear. Cossacks with very sharp lances attacked ruthlessly. They made it to the Berezina River in November but found Russians waiting for them. Using makeshift bridges, Napoleon and his troops started crossing but the Russians attacked. Napoleon burned the bridges stranding over 10,000 on the other side to be captured or killed by the Russians. Napoleon, in a hurry to return to Paris, would eventually leave his troops behind. The remaining force would eventually return home but fewer than a 100,000 made it back home. The loss of over 400,000 was staggering and called into question his leadership of the French Empire.

Aftermath

The disastrous invasion of Russia has long been studied by historians and military strategists. His basic idea of invading was sound, but he underestimated how long it would take and the will of the Russians to make him pay dearly for every inch he gained. Napoleon thought it would be a quick victory, but it turned into a long painful retreat with an early winter, few food supplies, and his army being attacked by Russians. If you read accounts of those who survived, it is truly horrific the conditions they had to retreat under. Dead animals used for fuel; bodies stacked in windows for insulation. If you recall Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back scene where Han Solo rips open his now dead ride so they can crawl inside it for warmth, this happened for real here.

His defeat in Russia strengthened his enemies. Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Sweden would now ally with Russia against Napoleon. British forces under Wellington were slowly but steadily pushing the French out of Spain. While Napoleon would have some victories, two defeats hurt his reign enormously. The Battle of Vittoria in Spain on 21 June 1813 would end French domination of Spain. His brother Joseph that he had put on the throne, was forced to flee for his life. Sadly, the royal crown worn by Spanish kings was lost in the melee of the retreat and never to be found again. And in October 1813, he suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Leipzig. Paris would fall the following March forcing him into exile. He would briefly return in 1815 but be defeated again in the Battle of Waterloo

Invading Russia has not proven successful for any conquering general. You might get initial successes, as Hitler did, but it seems to always turn around against the invader. Hitler, like Napoleon, thought the campaign would be quick. Instead after their initial victories, Operation Barbarossa ran into real problems. General Franz Halder realized he had sorely underestimated how many divisions the Russians could field. And because of the long distances involved, it became very hard for Germans to hold their lines. Moscow was in at sight at one point, but they never got there due to the long expanse of territory, supply issues, and underestimating the strength of Russia. Like Napoleon, the German forces were stalled. Halder believed without a powerful lightning strike, there was little chance for success. Owing to policy and strategy differences with Hitler, he was dismissed. The damage was done and the losses substantial. The Russians would push eventually the Germans out of their country and follow them all the way back to Berlin.

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Historical Movie Review: The King’s Choice

 

The King’s Choice
Nordisk Film A/S, 2016
133 Minutes

Summary: In April 1940 the Germans decided to invade Norway to preclude the British from blockading the area and cutting off supplies off raw materials. As Norway was a sovereign nation and a declared neutral, Germany tried to convince Norway its action was merely defensive and to allow access to defend it from Britain. King Haakon VII, the constitutional monarch of Norway, was forced to make a decision that would shape its outcome.

Plot

The film begins on 8 April 1940 with King Haakon being informed by his son, Crown Prince Olav, that a German transport ship had been sunk by the British in Norwegian territorial waters. He is concerned with the government neutrality position in the face of ongoing German aggression. The German envoy in Oslo is instructed to contact the Norwegian government and seek their permission to allow German troops on their soil to protect Norway from a British invasion. Curt Bräuer, the envoy, goes to meet with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Halvdan Koht. Koht, after consulting with the Cabinet, declines.

As tensions start to increase, Colonel Birger Eriksen in command of the Oscarborg Fortress prepares his garrison, both undermanned and with inexperienced personnel, for combat. He receives reports for other fortresses of German ships. The German cruiser Blucher is spotted on the morning of 9 April in Drobak Sound. Eriksen considers it hostile and orders his guns and torpedo battery to fire sinking the Bucher. The King is notified by the Prime Minister of the sinking and impending invasion. He is advised to flee Oslo and the entire royal family boards a train to Hamar. The Norwegian Parliament convenes to discuss negotiations while Brauer meets with with the Oslo police chief who his acting as intermediary with the Cabinet. Lieutenant-Colonel Hartwig Pohlman, the military attaché in Norway, receives orders to use paratroopers to capture the royal family and Cabinet in Hamar.

Adding more fuel to the fire, the leader of a fascist group tied to Nazi Germany (Nasjonal Samling) Vidkun Quisling takes to the airwaves and proclaims himself Prime Minister calling on people to accept the German forces. Meanwhile the German envoy receives orders directly from Hitler to negotiate with King Haakon. Brauer does not believe the people, nor the King will accept Quisling, but sets off to meet him. Meanwhile as German troops advance towards Hamar, most of the royal family are sent off to Sweden while the King and his son remain. German forces meet resistance from Norwegian soldiers in trying to get to where the King is.

A meeting of the Cabinet takes place about the German envoy wanting to meet with the King alone. His son opposes it, and the Cabinet is uneasy about it. The King decides to meet with the envoy. Brauer tries to convince Haakon to follow what his brother, King Christian of Denmark did, and agree to capitulate. Haakon gets angry when the envoy tries to use his brother in this manner and tells the envoy he will relay the message to the Cabinet.

At the Cabinet meeting, King Haakon states that Quisling would never be accepted by the people, and he would not appoint him as Prime Minister. He offers to abdicate if the Cabinet decides otherwise. The Cabinet is moved by the king’s statement and Brauer is sent back to Oslo empty handed. With Norway officially turning down the German request, it now becomes war with Germany. German planes start bombing the area they are in forcing the King and those with him to flee into the woods. Both the Cabinet and King Haakon along with Crown Prince leave Norway and end up in Britain for the rest of the war. He would lead the government-in-exile and resistance to the German occupation.

At the end of the movie, King Haakon is reunited with his grandson who has been in America during the war. Then the entre royal family returns to Norway. King Haakon would continue to rule as monarch until his death in September 1957 at the age of 85 after a 52-year reign.

Review
This is really excellent movie and thoroughly enjoyable for those who like movies set in World War II. This deals not with the big actors, but one of the small countries that had declared itself neutral. Norway had strategic importance for both sides, which is why both were planning military action to control its ports, raw materials, and access to the North Atlantic. The film excellently portrays the dilemma that countries that were in the same spot. They did not want to be invaded and tried to thread a needle that would keep them safe. The Norwegian King, though avowedly non-partisan, was drawn into having to provide guidance to the government during this historic crisis for Norway.

The film does not delve deeply into the history of King Haakon, though in the opening credits it outlays how Norway had split (peacefully) from Sweden and selected its new monarch. Haakon was well respected for being above politics and getting to know the country well. His leadership during the crisis really helped the government stay focused despite the German invasion of their land. The easy thing would have been to simply surrender, as Denmark (ruled by his brother) did. When the Germans tried to impose the disliked Quisling, he opposed it saying he could never appoint him as Prime Minister knowing how he was widely disliked. In the famous scene where he would prefer to abdicate rather than do that, the Cabinet looks at him with awe and affection. They all knew exactly what it meant, that the German would end up taking their country. The Norwegian military would put up a fight, but they did not have the means to defeat the very powerful German war machine.

Seeing the movie also from the German envoy’s side was interesting. He understood Norway and was a supporter of invading. He tried to explain to Ribbentrop that Quisling had no support amongst the people but was Hitler who made the call. The envoy hoped to convince King Haakon to spare his country from the invasion and to accept Quisling. When the cabinet informed him later that they turned down the German request to accede, the German military then went into full gear. It is telling when her returns to the embassy that the military are now in complete charge and his role was essentially over.

They do not show it in the movie (and they should have) of the King’s return at the end of the war. During the exile, both he and the government in exile would organize the resistance and provide hope to their people. Film I have seen of how he was greeted with great joy by Norwegians tells much about how they loved him. The same could not be said for those who had collaborated like Quisling, whose name would become synonymous with traitor.

An excellent movie to watch. The version I watched was subtitled (it was filmed in Norwegian) on Amazon, so it was easy to follow.

A few historical notes
There is quite a lot of information out there about the German occupation of Norway, so I will not go deep into it here. Norway became a heavily fortified country during the war, with more German soldiers there then Norwegians. Quisling, as the German envoy noted, was not liked by the people, and was replaced by a German appointed governor. He would be brought back into the government but not hold executive power (but still did a lot of nasty things). His last name became an adjective, coined by the British press, and picked by Churchill. To be called a Quisling meant you were a traitor.

The Norwegians lost all of their trade after the invasion and totally dependent on Germany. Food was rationed and people took to growing vegetables, fruits, keeping chickens, pigs, and even cows if they could. It was not a happy time for Norway and there were opposition activities that took place though nothing as dramatic as elsewhere. The Germans imposed their usual controls over the local populace and of course rounded up and deported any Jews they found to concentration camps.

According to various reports, nearly 2/3 of the Jewish population fled to Sweden or Britain with the assistance by the resistance movement. Those that remained who could not flee faced deportation. 765 died in German hands and only between 28-34 of those deported survived. Norwegian police assisted the Germans in arresting Jews in Norway.

Vidkun Quisling was tried and executed for betraying his country. Others who had assisted or collaborated with the Germans were dealt harshly with as well.

King Haakon VII continued to serve as the monarch until his death in 1957 at the age of 85. He would be succeeded by his son who became King Olav V who reigned until his death in 1991.

To thank Britain for having the King and government-in-exile stay there during the war, each year Norway sends a Christmas tree (Norwegian Spruce of course!) to be put up in Trafalgar Square.


France Surrenders to Germany (21 June 1940)

Hitler (hand on side) and German high-ranked nazis and officers staring at WWI French marshall Maréchal Foch’s memorial statue before entering the railway carriage in order to start the negotiations for the 1940 armistice at Rethondes in the Compiègne forest, France. The armistice will only be signed the next day (June 22), Hitler being absent, by General Keitel on the German side and by General Huntziger on the French side. Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.
Public Domain

On 21 June 1940 near Compiègne and in the same railway car Germany surrendered in 1918, France officially surrendered to Nazi Germany. For Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazi leaders, this erased the shame of 1918 and the imposition of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler sat in the same chair that Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat in 1918 to accept the German surrender in World War I.

France at the outset of the war was considered to have the best professional army in continental Europe. Aside from trained soldiers, they had tanks and heavy artillery. And, of course, the famous Maginot Line. This was a series of fortifications near the German border meant to deter an invasion force. The hills and woods of the Ardennes were considered impenetrable in the north but there was a caveat as General Philippe Petain noted. You had to destroy the invasion force before it exited that area. France and Germany had officially been at war since 3 Sep 1939 when France, allied with England, offered support to the Polish government.

French forces briefly entered the Saar on 7 September but withdrew after meeting a very thin line of German defense on the undermanned Siegfried line. With most of its forces concentrated in Poland at the time, Germany did not have the capacity to stand up to France’s 98 divisions and tanks that were being c0mmitted. However French hesitation and wanting to avoid total war had them withdraw forces starting on 17 September and done a month later. It began a time called the Phony War where both Germany and France were armed and ready but nothing was happening. Hitler had hoped he could make peace with England and France but that was not to be.

On 10 May 1940, Germany attacked France. German armoured units made a push through the Ardennes, and then through the Somme valley to surround the allied units in Belgium. British, Belgian and French forces were pushed to the sea. British forces were evacuated at Dunkirk, which is an exciting tale of its own.  During the six-week campaign Germany conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. German troops marched unopposed into Paris on 14 June. By 18 June with the collapse of both the French government (which had fled) and the military, negotiations began between French and German military officers.

At the meeting on 21 June, Hitler read the preamble and like Marshal Foch left to leave Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht to handle the details. There were several objectives that the Germans wanted and got. They wanted French North Africa and the French Navy out of the war. Also, they wanted to deny the British use of French territories since they could not possibly defend them. Occupied France was 3/5ths of the country which included the key ports on the French Channel and Atlantic and to the Spanish border. The Free Zone was administered by a newly formed French government in Vichy with Marshal Petain as its president.

Map of Vichy France
Rostislav Botev

Vichy France, as it became known, was authoritarian and reversed the policies of previous administrations. The media became tightly controlled, anti-Semitism was propagated, and labor unions put under strict controls. Vichy France kept French territories and the navy under French rather than German control. With the German army elsewhere, unoccupied France was generally free from military control. However due to its neutrality forbidden to assist nations at war with Germany. Despite it being unoccupied, Vichy had to conform to German policies including identifying foreign nationals, deporting stateless persons, and of course assisting Germans in locating and ultimately deporting French Jews to murdered in the death camps.

Aftermath

Three days after the signing of the treaty, the armistice site was destroyed on Hitler’s orders. The railway car was sent to Germany as a trophy of war. A monument depicting the French victory over the Germans was destroyed. The only thing left standing was the large statue of Marshal Foch. Hitler ordered it left there to stare out over a wasteland. The railway carriage would later be destroyed by the SS in 1945.

An exact copy of the original railway car was made. French manufacturer Wagons-Lits donated a car from the same series to the Armistice Musuem (in Compiègne) in 1950. Identical and was part of Foch’s private train during the 1918 signing. Remains of the original car were dug up using German POW’s. The railway car is parked beside the display of those remains.

Titanic News-Italian Titanic Found, Precious Book on Titanic, Belfast Harbor, and Juneteenth

From Outer Space To The Bottom Of The Sea: UAE Adventurer To Explore Wreckage Of Titanic Next
Khaleej Times, 13 Jun 2022

The UAE resident Hamish Harding who blasted off to space as a tourist on board Blue Origin’s crewed flight is now set on a new mission – to explore the depths of the Titanic. Harding is a jet pilot, avid adventurer and chairman of Action Aviation. He has just returned from his maiden space exploration and is ready for a new adventure. Speaking to Khaleej Times, Harding says, “I’ve been lucky enough to get another opportunity to dive to the Titanic which sank in 1912, when it hit the iceberg and split in to two as it sank, in 10 days’ time. I’ll be lucky enough to go down the submarine and explore the Titanic and see what’s left off the Titanic now over 100 years later.”

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The Very Precious Book Sank With The Titanic And Burned In The Bombing Of London
Wire Service Canada, 15 Jun 2022

Among the artworks of enormous value lost with the sinking of the Titanic, in April 1912, is the painting “La Circassienne au bainfor the French painter Merry Joseph Blondel, whose value at that time amounted to 100 thousand dollars, which is equivalent to three million euros today. Another equally famous work was a very valuable version of quatrains (Rubaiyat) by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, a collection of poems also mentioned in the book Titanic. The right story by American writer Walter Lord, who inspired director James Cameron for the famous 1997 film.

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Titanic Lunch Menu 14 April 1912
Photo: AP

A Titanic Theatrical Dining Experience Is Coming To Canberra And My Heart Will Go On
Her Canberra, 16 Jun 2022

If you’ve ever imagined yourself intertwined with Leo or Kate, ‘flying’ at the front of a cruise ship, then it’s your time to be the king of the world (let’s just ignore the ‘sunk by a massive iceberg’ part)! That’s right, Hidden (the crew behind unique events such as the Alice’s Mad Hatter’s Cocktail Party and The Teletubbies Bar) are set to take you back to 15 April, 1912 on an immersive voyage aboard the RMS Titanic. The theatrical dining experience is based on the 1997 Academy Award-winning film which focusses on the tragic love story between Rose and Jack.

Event info:

The Titanic Theatrical Dining Experience: Canberra
Multiple Dates (24 Sep 2022-28 Feb 2023
Location: Disclosed later
Price: $99 (AU)
Information for the event and signing up can be found at https://explorehidden.com/event/details/the-titanic-theatrical-dining-experience-canberra-1554928

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Researchers Have Discovered The Wreckage Of The “Italian Titanic”
Political Lore, 16 Jun 2022

The victims of the wreck of the ship, converted into an auxiliary cruiser with the onset of the war, were 1926 people out of more than 2600 on board. This is the largest naval disaster of the First World War. The wreckage of the ship, which in the publication of the newspaper il Messaggero is called the “Italian Titanic”, rested at a depth of 930 meters in the waters of the Strait of Otranto. The researchers repeated the route of the convoy, which included the “Prince Umberto”, and using sonar detected the presence of wreckage at great depths After three unsuccessful attempts, an underwater robot was lowered to the crash site, which was prevented by a strong current in the sea strait and managed to film and photograph what was left of the steamer.

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4 Titanic Artifacts That Didn’t Go Down With the Ship
Discover, 17 June 2022

The Titanic rests about 12,500 feet below the surface. An exhibition company received sole permission to salvage remains from wreckage. The company has taken seven trips and resurfaced more than 5,500 artifacts ranging from handbags to clocks. Traveling expeditions, in places like the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, display these relics. Many of the interesting items, however, come from people who didn’t go down with the ship. Survivors and witnesses have also offered amazing artifacts. Here are four fascinating finds.

(In case you cannot view the full article, the four things are (1) Iceberg Photograph, (2) Ice Warnings, (3) Life Vest, (4) Menus)

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Belfast’s Iconic Harbour And Docklands Through The Years
Belfast Live, 20 Jun 2022

This is really a nice collection of photos of Belfast, Harland & Wolff, and other things in the area around the harbor. A few you may recognize as they have been published elsewhere. A nice time capsule of different times in the harbor’s past.

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Today is Juneteenth, a Federal holiday in the United States.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate states. Most African Americans would not learn of this act until after the areas they lived in were liberated by Union troops. On 19 June 1865, Union troops entered Galveston, Texas (Texas was a Confederate state during the war) and learned that they were freed. Celebrations began with prayers, feasts, and dance. The following year it would take place throughout Texas on the same date becoming an annual tradition  and holiday in 1980. The celebration would spread to other states and sometimes recognized as a state holiday as well. As a result of its importance to African-Americans and to the United States as well, the U.S. Congress made it a national holiday in 2021 with President Biden signing the resolution of Congress, It formally began as a holiday on Monday, 20 June 2022. Per federal law, since June 19th fell on a Sunday this year, it was celebrated the following Monday as a national holiday. The formal name of the holiday is Juneteenth National Independence Day


Remembering the Tragic Sinking of the General Slocum (15 June 1904)

General Slocum, date and author unknown.
Image:Public Domain (National Archives)

On 15 June 1904 the PS General Slocum was taking was taking members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to a church picnic. It was supposed to be a wonderful outing for all, and many children were aboard. Fire broke out, most likely in the Lamp Room, and then spread. Due to inadequate safety inspections, failure of Knickerbocker Steamship Company to maintain safety standards, and the ship’s captain, the safety equipment aboard was completely unusable. Ship hoses could not function due to age, most life preservers were so old they fell apart or were weighted inside, and lifeboats were inaccessible. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers perished in the tragedy mostly from drowning. It was the single worst loss of life in New York City history until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Sadly, many who died were children though sometimes parents or members of the extended family also perished. Some victims were never identified because there was no one living to do so. The funeral procession of the dead was witnessed by many, and the small coffins caused many to cry. One notable incident was a man accompanied by his wife carrying a small coffin under his arms. He could not afford a funeral wagon and so was walking to the cemetery. Fortunately, a man delivering flowers offered him a ride.

The subsequent investigation revealed the poor state of safety equipment on General Slocum. The company laid the blame on Captain Van Schaick and the government inspectors for failing in their duties (who were likely bribed). It would lead to reorganization of the government agency responsible and tighter accountability of ship owners to safety regulations. Today that function is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the United States has one the toughest maritime safety regulations in the world.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

 

The Knickerbocker Steamship Company was fined, and Captain Van Schaick would be imprisoned for several years. He was paroled in 1911 and in 1912 President Taft pardoned him. Many believed, although he was captain of General Slocum, the company was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church was part of the Little Germany community in New York. The loss brought many together to help the church and its members. However, as people began to move away from the area, the Germans that had made up its base went with it. The church closed and is now a synagogue. A stone memorial to the victims of the General Slocum is at Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan. Today there are those that get together to remember this terrible event in New York City history. Sadly, all the survivors have passed away, the last one in 2004.

The movie Manhattan Melodrama (1934), which stars a young Clark Gable, has as its opening moments the events of the General Slocum which sets in motion the lives of the two characters the movie depicts. Not a bad movie for its time and worth looking at if you have the opportunity.

A memorial plaque placed near the former church of St. Mark’s on the centennial of disaster states:

This is the site of the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1857–1940) a mostly German immigrant parish. On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the church chartered the excursion steamer, GENERAL SLOCUM, to take the members on the 17th annual Sunday school picnic. The steamer sailed up the East River, with some 1400 passengers aboard, when it entered the infamous Hell Gate passage, caught fire and was beached and sank on North Brother Island. It is estimated 1200 people lost their lives, mostly woman and children, dying within yards of the Bronx shore.

The GENERAL SLOCUM had been certified by the U.S. Steam boat Inspection Service to safely carry 2500 passengers five weeks before the disaster. An investigation after the fire and sinking found the lifeboats were wired and glued with paint to the deck, life jackets fell apart with age, fire hoses burst under water pressure, and the crew never had a fire drill. Until the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Slocum disaster had been the largest fire fatality in New York City’s history.

Dedicated Sunday, June 13, 2004, by the Steam Centennial Committee.

The Maritime Industry Museum

SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY


Captain Bligh and Others Arrive Safely After 4,000 Mile Trek (14 June 1789)

Bligh and other officers and crew put adrift by HMS Bounty mutineers on 29 April 1789. Painting: Robert Dodd (1748-1815) Public Domain (National Maritime Museum, London, UK)
Bligh and other officers and crew put adrift by HMS Bounty mutineers on 29 April 1789.
Painting: Robert Dodd (1748-1815)
Public Domain (National Maritime Museum, London, UK)

On 14 June 1789 Lieutenant William Bligh of British Royal Navy who formerly commanded HMS Bounty and eighteen others arrived at Timor in the West Indies after nearly a 4,000 mile trek in a small boat. Bligh and the others were put on the boat back on 28 April after Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and others led a mutiny on the Bounty. The ship was tasked with transporting Tahitian breadfruit saplings to the British Caribbean colonies. The Bounty arrived for a five month layover in 1789. During that time many of the crew lived ashore and formed relationships with the locals. This caused a serious issue for discipline and Bligh began handing out harsh discipline and criticism of the crew.

When Bligh and his other supporters were put into the boat, they had 25 gallons of water, 150 pounds of bread, 30 pounds of pork, six quarts of rum, and six bottles of wine. They were not expected to survive but through Bligh’s exceptional navigation skills and careful rationing of the supplies, they made and survived the ordeal. For the mutineers, life was not as it was hoped. Some of the crew decided to stay in Tahiti despite the possibility of British capture. Christian and six others including some Tahitian men and women ultimately settled on Pitcairn Island about 1,000 miles east of Tahiti.

Aftermath
After returning to England, the HMS Pandora was dispatched to Tahiti in April, 1790. 14 of the mutineers were captured but failed to find Christian or his party, On the return voyage Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef resulting in 31 crew dead and 3 of the mutineers as well. After a court martial in 1792, four were acquitted, three pardoned, and two were hung. The fate of Fletcher Christian was not determined under 1808. An American ship drawn by a fire visited Pitcairn. Only one mutineer, John Adams, was still alive. The Bounty had been scuttled and all of the other mutineers (including Christian) had been killed either by each other or by the Tahitians. He was not arrested and today many of the descendants still live on Pitcairn, which is a British Overseas Territory

Rear Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey(1814) Image: Public Domain
Rear Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey(1814)
Image: Public Domain

William Bligh
HMS Bounty was not a ship of the line but a small commercial vessel purchased by the Royal Navy for the botanical mission. As such command of a vessel of this kind would fall to a senior lieutenant. Bligh was selected because he had served under James Cook in his third and final voyage (1776–1780). After that voyage, like many officers of that time, he was put on half-pay as the American war was over. He commanded a commercial vessel before being given command of HMS Bounty. After the court martial in 1792, the general opinion of Bligh was negative both in the Royal Navy and by the public. And the fact that those who survived confirmed some of the cruel and possibly paranoid actions also fed into a negative opinion of him. He would be put on half-pay and wait a long time for his next appointment in 1797 where he commanded HMS Director at the Battle of Camperdown (October, 1797). He would next  command the HMS Glatton in Battle of Copenhagen (March 1801) and be praised by Lord Nelson for his actions. While in command of the HMS Warrior he was court-martialed for use of bad language to his officers and officially reprimanded in 1805. In 1806 he was sent as Governor to New South Wales in Australia

His style of leadership was a firm disciplinarian which made him ill-suited to the position where you had to deal with wealthy and important landowners on one hand, and powerful officials on the other. He managed to anger both with his confrontational style. He did face a serious problem in that some of these wealthy landowners and crown officials were engaged in private trading. His attempt to shut them down was met with the Rum Rebellion in 1808. On 26 Jan 1808, Major George Johnson of the Royal Marines led 400 soldiers of the New South Wales Corp to Government House in Sydney and arrested Bligh. Bligh was placed on HMS Porpoise where he would remain until January 1810. Bligh tried and failed to get the British authorities in Hobart to support him in retaking New South Wales. Bligh would be allowed to leave in 1810 and eventually returned to England for Major Johnson’s court martial. The trial court sentenced him to be dismissed from the Royal Marines, a very mild sentence considering what he had done. He would return to Australia without his officer’s commission but his wealth from the private trade deals were more than sufficient for him to live a comfortable life.

As the Royal Navy promoted on seniority and patronage rather than by merit, Bligh would be promoted to rear admiral in 1810 and in 1814 admiral of the blue. He would never hold command again even during the height of the Napoleonic War when commands were available. He would design the North Bull Wall on the River Liffey in Dublin. He also mapped Dublin Bay. Bligh died on 7 Dec 1817 at the age of 63. He was buried at the family plot in St. Mary’s, Lambeth though now the church is now the Garden Museum. His tomb is topped with a breadfruit.

Mutiny on the Bounty Books At Amazon.


Remembering History: Germans Take Paris (14 June 1940)

German Troops in Paris, 14 June 1940
Photo: Heinz Fremde (1907-1987)
German Federal Archives:Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-126-0350-26A / Fremke, Heinz / CC-BY-SA 3.0

On 14 June 1940, the open city of Paris was taken by the German army. There was no opposition. Le Havre in the north fell as to German control. The Maginot Line in the east was broken by the German 1st Army under General Erwin von Witzleben near Saarbrucken. The French government had relocated to Bordeaux and appealed to the United States to enter the war. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had asked the French to hold on and not surrender.

In the United States, the fall of France was seen as a catastrophe but there was hesitation on what to do. The French premier Paul Reynaud asked President Roosevelt for aid in either a declaration of war or, if not possible, any help they could provide. Roosevelt was sympathetic but advisors such as Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, argued any open support for the French would be seen as a declaration of war by the Germans. Public opinion was still in support of the U.S. staying out of the European war, and the Congress would not wholly support it either.

Parisians had been fleeing the approaching German troops. It has been estimated that over 2 million Parisians fled ahead of the German arrival in Paris. Parisians awoke that morning with messages blaring over loudspeakers that a curfew would begin at 8 pm that night. The Germans took quick control raising the German swastika on the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. The Gestapo quickly began to start rounding up those already on lists for arrest, interrogation, and execution or deportation to Germany. While the United States did not offer any formal support for France, it implemented a freeze on Italian and German assets in the country (meaning they had no access to funds in U.S. banks or to any property they owned).

By this time, the formal relationship between had already deteriorated. As a response to Kristallnacht in 1938, the U.S. ambassador had been withdrawn. Only a Charge d’Affairs*represented the U.S. from that point on. Germany withdrew its ambassador in response. This would remain unchanged until Germany formally declared war on 11 December 1941.

*A charge d’affairs is a diplomat who handles the ordinary duties of an ambassador when they are not present (whether temporary or permanent). Often this will occur when an ambassador has ended his tour and they are awaiting a new one to be posted. A person acting in this capacity has the same immunities that the ambassador does. In formal ceremonies, a charge d’affairs is treated with a lesser precedence than an ambassador.

Sources:

History.com
History.net
World War II Database


Looking Back at Nazi Titanic

Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig, September 1939.
Photo: German Federal Archives (Bild 183-H27992 )

Recently a posting on HistoryofYesterday.com caught my eye concerning the Wilhelm Gustloff. This is one of those maritime tragedies that got buried and forgotten. It was buried by the Nazi’s in 1945 since it was embarrassing to them. And later it was forgotten after the war ended in Europe when everyone turned to celebrating the end of World War II. Only much later when researchers and survivors sought to bring this story to life did it become known for what it was-a terrible maritime tragedy that dwarfs what happened to Titanic.

In 1937 the German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was launched. The ship was to be used to bolster the image of Nazi Germany. From all accounts, it was designed to be a comfortable ship for its passengers though it omitted any class distinctions you would find on cruise ships. There were not first, second or third class passengers as everyone had more or less the same basic rooms. This was in keeping with Nazi ideology of the master race not having first or second class since they were all the same. When war broke out though,  the Gustloff was first a hospital ship, a floating barracks, and then later a transport ship. Originally designed for 2,000 passengers, its final journey would well exceed that.

With the Soviet Army advancing, it was decided to evacuate both civilian and military personnel from occupied Poland (Operation Hannibal). The Gustloff took on at 10, 582 that were mostly civilians but had military as well. Departing Gdynia on 30 January 1945, the ship faced the danger of Soviet submarines trying to sink her enroute to Germany. She was lightly escorted making her prone to attack as well. A skilled submarine captain aboard tried to warn its captain about Russian submarines and how to evade them. However his warnings were dismissed, but the proved to be accurate. The Gustloff was tricked into turning on her lights allowing her to be scene and for a Soviet submarine to fire three torpedoes. All three hit their target with deadly precision.

With many of the crew killed, it was left to the passengers to get off any way they could. Unfortunately there were not enough lifeboats for the 10,000 aboard, so it became a melee to escape the cold waters of the Baltic. People were crushed or stomped on as they raced to the lifeboats. While some crew were around, passengers had to lower the few lifeboats which proved difficult. Due to the freezing temperatures, davits were frozen. Only 1,252  would be rescued by two nearby ships leaving over 9,330 dead. The bodies would wash up in nearby beaches for months.

News of the tragedy was censored in Nazi Germany as it seen as demoralizing. However news got out about it thanks to German newspapers printed by the Allies.  A 1960 German movie Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen) dramatizes the disaster.

Sources:

Sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff 30 Jan 1945
Forgotten History, 6 June 2022

Operation Hannibal 1945: the Germany evacuation that dwarfed the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’
History Extra

wilhelmgustloffmuseum.com

Interesting History: Ben Franklin’s Famous Electricity Experiment

Franklins_experiment
Ben Franklin’s Famous Experiment To Capture Electricity on 10 June 1752. Public Domain

On June 10, 1752 Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment on electricity that has become both famous and legendary. Electricity was not well understood but many knew the effects of lightning. Franklin was fascinated by the subject and decided to conduct an experiment on a stormy day. He used a kite with a key to gather electricity the storm gave off and used string to transfer it to a Leyden jar. His son was the only witness to it. Franklin made sure he was grounded and that the string his hands were touching were not wet. Franklin’s delving into electricity would give us words we use today:battery, conductor, and electrician. He also developed the lightning rod,a very useful tool if you live in an area where you get thunderstorms. Simply put, a lightning rod on a house (or other elevated structure) acts to capture the electricity from lightning and then sends it through a wire to the ground thus avoiding it passing through the structure (which can cause damage). There are more modern variations of it but all use the same principle of grounding electricity so it does little harm to people or structures.

Attempts to replicate Franklin’s Experiment show how lucky he was and that it is difficult to do even under controlled circumstances. Some doubt it happened at all. Mythbusters found that in their recreation of the experiment he likely would have died. But they concede some parts were feasible such as collecting a charge from a damp string and accumulating it in a Leyden jar. So did it happen or not? Like all good stories, there is likely something to it. If he did do it as claimed,he was truly fortunate or blessed because it is extremely hazardous to do. Many places ban such experiments because of how dangerous it is. Whether he did as claimed or through some other means we may never know the full tale. But likely he did try something close to it and obviously he never tried it again.

Further Reading

Benjamin Franklin’s Inventions, Discoveries, and Improvements
Encyclopedia Britannica
History.com