Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas on the Frontline

In 1914, five months into the Great War, for a few short hours the guns stopped firing on either side. This small act became known as the Christmas Truce.

On Christmas Eve, both lines sang Christmas carols from the trenches and on Christmas Day, the German troops appeared from the trenches saying Merry Christmas in their native tongues.

At first the Allies feared an attack, but seeing their foe unarmed they joined them in no-mans land. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum pudding. There was even a friendly game of soccer (or football) played between both sides.

The so-called Christmas truce only happened in 1914 and this event was the last show of chivalry between enemies; a ceasefire during war was never replicated. Here we are 100 years later, and history would show that the Great War was not the war to end all wars. But on this single day I hope that all can reflect on the true meaning of this holiday: peace, love, and goodwill. May everyone regardless of religion have a truly wonderful day.

About a month ago this ad was circulating. It really depicts what occurred and speaks to what happened a hundred years ago. If you haven't had a chance to watch, it's a nice gesture today.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

First Battle of the Ypres: Oct 19 – Nov 22

When WWI first broke out, many thought that it would be a fast war that would be over by Christmas. Armies happily marched to war. Hindsight of the event would reveal a war that would last 4 years and kill millions of people.

The first major battle was what came to be known as the First Battle of Ypres (yes, there was more than one Battle of Ypres). Starting October 19th and ending on November 22, this battle lasted over a month, and both the German and British strategies are unclear. The accepted reasoning for the battle was the British desire to secure the English Channel ports and their supply lines. The French strategy was to prevent German forces from outflanking the Allied front from the north.

Ypres was the last major German option after their defeats at the First Battle of the Aisne (September 1914) and First Battle of the Marne (September 1914). The Battle of Ypres became the culmination of the Race to the Sea.

After four months of heavy fighting and casualties (750,000 German and 995,000 French), the German and Allied armies attempted a breakthrough operation to win a decisive victory. Ypres was strategically vital. It was the last geographical object protecting Calais and Bologne-sur-Mer, and the loss of these ports would have denied the Allies the shortest supply route. For Germany, Ypres was also strategically important; the collapse of its Ypres front would allow the Allied armies access to the flat terrain of Flanders.

I found it interesting to learn that at Ypres the British army provided the smallest number of men. Instead of providing forces, they saw their role similar to the Napoleonic wars: maintaining their dominance of the seas and providing financial support.

This battle was made up of several smaller battles. Being hugely complex, I’m only going to summarize the conclusion. The German Army, though the best in the world, was unable to gain a decisive victory. On both sides, the commanders struggled to come to terms with the power of modern weaponry and adapting their techniques. The battle also marked the superiority of the defensive strategy over the offensive strategy. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918 when the Allies would no longer take the defensive position.

Ultimately, at the end of the battle both sides were at a stalemate, where they would continue until 1918. This battle brought both armies to the end of the line, the ocean where they could no longer attempt to outflank one another.

As I said, there were several battles at Ypres, and the next will be very influential as well.

Happy History!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Flooding of the Ijzer Plain

Flooding near Yser, 1916

My WWI tour was really wonderful. I had the fortune to see things up close and personal, in addition to learning some new information. Our second stop on the tour was what has been dubbed “The Trench of Death.” This area is part of the Ijzer Plain, and it’s a preserved line of defense for the Germans. On October 19, 1914 the area was flooded to stop the German advances.

Time for some background on this event. Allow me to pull out the nifty handout I was given and I in turn insisted on bringing back with me.

In October the Belgian Army and the German Army were in a stand off over the Ijzer Plain. The Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian armies, King Albert I, calls on his men to preserve some land for Belgium against the German invaders. So the land was passed back and forth between the two sides.

What’s important to note at this point is the geography of the region: the land in this area is only a few meters above sea level. As my tour guide explained it, the Germans didn’t have great maps with them and they thought the region was actually several more meters above sea level than it was.

On October 16, 1914 the area was partially flooded to make sure the strategy would work. On October 19, 1914 the canals from the Yser River were opened and the area was fully flooded, restricting the German movement and effectively stopping their progress to the sea. The fighting switched from a war of movement to true trench warfare. The region remained swampy for the remainder of the war.

Now at the top of this blog I mentioned “The Trench of Death” and I thought (mistakenly) that this area was preserved because of the flooding that happened in October 1914. Well, as I continue to refer to my handy flyer, I realize that the Trench of Death is completely separate. So for that reason I’m planning to wait to post about it.

So now the meat of this short blog: why does this battle matter and why is it important? This small victory allowed the Belgians to remain control of a sliver of land and made King Albert a Belgian national hero. For us today, I think this victory is important to remember and know about. I certainly hadn’t learned about it before my trip and keeping the Germans from reaching all the way to the sea certainly helps give the Allie troops some advantage during this early stage of the war.

Happy History!

My image looking out of the Trench of Death. Notice how close the river is, and imagine how easily this area could become flooded.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Plan XVII and the Battle of the Frontiers

In my notes from my WWI tour I have “look up French strategy/offensive.” I wrote this as I watched a video on the bus from Brussles to the German cemetery; I wrote it because I was taking notes during a movie being played on a history tour that I went on during my vacation.

Clearly I am the coolest person ever.

When I typed this simple term into Google, Plan XVII came up. And with it came the Battle of the Frontiers. This was the offensive strategy of France and the Allies at the start of WWI.

After the defeat of the French armies during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the French military adapted to the new balance of power in Europe. With the growing strength of Germany, and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, France had to react with it’s own plan.

Plan XVII developed from strategies prior to it, and essentially it called for increased military presence at the Franco-German boarder, with additional troops on the Franco-Belgian boarder. Luckily, General Joseph Joffre who drafted the pan saw a risk of German attack through Germany.

When Germany declared war, France executed Plan XVII with five initiatives. Collectively, this is known as the Battle of the Frontiers.

Battle of Mulhouse – Aug 7-10 Battle of Lorraine – Aug 14-25 Battle of the Ardennes – Aug 21-23 Battle of Charleroi – Aug 21 Battle of Mons – Aug 23-24

Essentially, all five were implemented as an offensive into both Alsace-Lorraine and Belgium. Essentially, in a few weeks the French were pushed back to their starting positions. The only reason that the Germans were halted is because they outran their supply lines.

In this same movie I learned that the Germans realized they needed to go on the defensive. So, the Germans began to dig in and create trenches. All the lines that I saw had one thing in common: the Germans had the higher and better ground.

Happy History!

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014 – Beginning of the War to End All Wars

Here we are. We’ve made it to July 28, 2014. And if you paid any attention to my blog or your history classes you should know what’s coming next.

The war to end all wars, the Great War, World War I.

I thought there would be more as we got closer, but really there hasn’t been much made about this. And I find that sad from a historic perspective, as well as for the realiziation I’ve come to about this war.

I need to actually back up a bit.

The post date may say June 28, but I’m not actually posting this on this day (thanks for covering my ass technology). In actuality, I’m posting nearly a week later. Why?

For over a year it has been my dream to go to Europe around the start of WWI. I wanted to be on the continent on the day when this war broke out, a war that would change the map of Europe forever and culminate in nearly an entire generation’s death and cause three empires to crumble entirely. In anticipation I actually scheduled a tour of WWI sites in Belgium. I’m glad I did the tour before I posted.


This war was probably one of the most profound wars that is also overlooked. It lasted for four grueling years, resulted in 10 million military deaths, and nothing was accomplished. For four years men from around the world came to sit inside a trench and do nothing except occasionally gain an enemy trench and kill their “enemy” with cruel and astonishing proficiency. When the war concluded in 1918, the landscape of France and Belgium was completely destroyed, void of town that stood there and any natural elements. Craters existed where bombs had exploded, or mines were dug into the ground.

What I saw on my tour were two very opposite things. First was the sheer volume of death. 10 million is a huge number, but to visit cemetery after cemetery, see the 300,000 names of those who were missing in action, presumed dead, and never identified, and really realize just what a waste the war was on life is profound. The sheer scale goes way beyond what you can understand when you read some numbers on paper. The second thing I saw was life: towns have since been rebuilt, trees now inhabit the previously barren no mans land, and life has moved on.

As my last post addressed, the powder keg was the Archduke being assassinated. However, it wasn’t until this day that the Central Power countries did anything. Think about that, over a month had passed before Austria made a decisive move.

On this day in history the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in preparation of the invasion of Serbia. Let’s back up just a bit; prior to this date, the Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia in response to the murder of Franz Ferdinand and declared war. Austria hoped the Germans could help deter Russia from being engulfed in war. Serbia replied to the ultimatum on July 25, but rejected two of the demands. Austria served diplomatic relations and ordered partial mobilization.

It was William II of Germany who pushed for war. He instructed the German Foreign Office to tell Austria-Hungary there was no longer justification for war and it should temporarily occupy Belgrade. I think also that it can be safely assumed that Austria-Hungary is equally responsible – the leaders probably wanted to prove they were still relevant as an Empire, and wanted to assure their dominance on the continent. The next day war was declared and the artillery began to bombard Belgrade.

At this point the international alliances formed over the previous decades were invoked. Russia ordered partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary.

So, on this day the first shots were fired. What happened next?

Germany no longer believed the conflict could be “localized” to the Balkans, so on July 31 they sent a 24-hour ultimatum requiring Russia to halt its mobilization and an 18-hour ultimatum requiring France to promise neutrality in the event of war. Both countries ignored these demands. So, on August 1 Germany ordered war against Russia and France ordered general mobilization.

As Russia mobilized (which we know always takes them time to do) Germany seized the moment. On August 2 they asked neutral Belgium if they could come through the country to France. Belgium said no, because it was a neutral country. So, on August 3 and 4 Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg before moving towards France, leading Britain to declare war on Germany for breaking Belgium’s neutrality.

Well, what ended up happening was that Germany made it into Belgium, but they got bogged down there from Belgian resistance. The Germans were unable to make it to Paris (per the Von-Schlieffen plan) and the result was a series of battles knows as the race to the sea where the two parties tried to out-flank one another until they hit two land barriers: water and mountains. The trench warfare that pursued was really a 4-year stalemate between the powers.

I’m not even close to being done posting about WWI. I not only have four more years of moments to capture, but a few more that I would like to post about on their 100 year anniversary (among other things). So for now I leave you with this, but expect more to come.

Happy History!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Powder Keg

Every conflict has that defining moment. It can be big or it can be small. With WWI, it was both. But I think it’s the lead up that that made the moment so big. For years Europe had been going through transition. Areas like the Holly Roman Empire and the Italian city-states, formally separate countries and entities, had banned together to become single countries. At the same time, other areas like the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire were experiencing internal struggle from nationalistic groups vying for independence.

Since becoming a unified country Germany felt increasingly vulnerable. With France and Russia at either side, Germany (which was unified primarily from Prussia, known for its strong military) grew its military for protection. In direct comparison, France, Britain, and Russia were threatened by Germany. With such a strong military presence on the content, the balance of power was shifting dramatically.

In reaction, many countries signed strategic alliances to help solidify their safety and power. France, Britain, and Russia joined together to sign a treaty against everyone’s wildest expectations. That left Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire together to form their own alliance. However, geography was against them, since under any circumstance they could be waging a two-front war.

With so much tension, all that was needed to light the powder keg was one spark.

Enter the Balkans. A highly volatile region, the people there were tired of being shoved into the Austro-Hungarian Empire unable to form their own country. As many groups during the time, the people living in this region were willing to fight for their own country away from the central empire government.

With similar Slavic and Orthodox roots, Russia supported the nationalists in the Balkans. But they couldn’t do anything without going against Austro-Hungary and igniting conflict.

With such a fragile peace, it would take something very small to rock the boat.

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este, Austro-Hungarian, Royal Prince of Hungary and of Bohemia, and heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovinian.

One nationalist group, the Black Hand, had a plan; their goal was to assassinate Franz Ferdinand during his parade. The original plan was that he would die from a bomb. In fact, one was thrown into their motorcar, but it bounced out and detonated in another car instead. Insisting on visiting those who were injured, the Archduke and his wife got in the car, although they got held up. It was there, sitting in a traffic jam of their own making, that a young member of the Black Hand spotted the couple and seized the opportunity. He grabbed the gun and shot both the Archduke and his wife at roughly 10:45 a.m.

Killing the heir to the throne didn’t go unnoticed, and Germany took the opportunity to press their ally Austro-Hungary to move toward war.

This was the moment that began the end of peace.

A strange part of me is looking forward to what will be written. Because while the 4-year war that ensued from this single moment was horrible, it also changed the course of history. Empires would be wiped out with a single pen stroke, a generation would be depleted, and the atrocities some saw would inspire a golden age of art and literature.

Here’s the first of many reflection articles from the Wall Street Journal.

Happy History!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Don't Tread on Me

Have you seen the bumper stickers? They are yellow, have a rattlesnake on it, and say “Don’t tread on me”? I have; I’ve been seeing them for a while now.

For those who don’t know about this delightful saying, and where it comes from, allow me to educate you. The bumper sticker is a replica of the Gadsden flag, a historical American flag dating from the Revolution war. The flag is named after Christopher Gadsden, an American general and statesman, who designed it.

Snake symbolism: the timber rattlesnake and eastern diamondback rattlesnake both populate the areas of the original 13 colonies. The symbol of the American colonies as a snake can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin’s publications. During the French and Indian War, Franklin published the image of a snake cut into 8 different sections, representing the colonies with New England joined together as the head, and South Carolina as the tail. When the American colonies began to identify more as their own unique community, icons that were unique to the Americas became popular; this included the rattlesnake and bald eagle. The flag made appearances during the Revolutionary War. The coiled snake represented the American people, and the idea was if they were stepped on they would strike.

So why is this flag making such an appearance recently? What caused it to gain in popularity? Well, the flag has always been there and a part of popular culture, but my suspicion is its gained popularity because of Tea Party involvement. Interesting how symbols evolve over time. No matter your political beliefs it’s interesting that something that symbolized freedom at the start of our country is now a symbol for the Tea Party.

Happy History!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

May Day

I’m a little late in this post, but I decided to go with this real, slightly late date (vs. cheating and pretending I posed on May1) because this little research actually came in handy. Back in April I was at work in a brainstorming session when someone pitched the idea of running a May Day coupon. And while I thought it was a great idea, I also thought about the whole mystique (at least for me) of May Day and what it symbolizes in modern society.

What is May Day? How was it celebrated? What did the holiday represent?

May Day has always been a Northern Hemisphere holiday, celebrated in Europe before Christianity spread to the region. The earliest known celebrations appeared with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. A five-day celebration was held in her honor, beginning on April 28 and ending May 2.

May Day was also known as the Gaelic Beltane in Britain. The Druids would celebrate the festival by lighting fires to give life to the springtime sun, driving cattle through the fires to purify them (I’m not sure how this worked, but I am indeed curious), and couples passing through the smoke for good luck in their relationship.

In pre-Christian European pagan cultures, May Day marked the first day of summer. February 1 was the official first day of spring, and the summer solstice on June 25 was Midsummer.

The May Day pole seems to date from the Middle Ages. Towns would work together to erect large Maypoles, even competing with neighboring towns for the tallest one. Interestingly, the Maypole came from Germany and other Northern European countries. The Maypole dance also goes along with the tradition. Now, this little bit of knowledge served me well on May Day – I could tell one of my bosses about this when he asked about the May Day pole (I love when my research pays off!).

Since I was the one in charge of the entire May Day campaign, I used the May Day pole on the imagery (because in my mind, that is what I associate with the holiday). Well, one of my coworkers saw the imagery and commented that that wasn’t what she first thought of. In her childhood, they would create baskets of flowers and leave them for people to find.

So I wanted to see what traditions are associated with this holiday. There is the May Pole, dancing, eating & drinking, celebrating with flowers, and also trying magic (apparently it’s easiest to perform divination on May Day, who knew?)

So why is this ancient holiday relevant today? I think it’s important to remember where we came from. I also think it’s important to celebrate the changing seasons. And like the Druids, I always like celebrations that involve purifying yourself and starting again.

Happy History!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Daylight Savings

I don’t know about you, but I needed that hour of sleep that I lost yesterday morning to Daylight Savings time. Working hard all week, all I want to do is sleep in on Sunday morning. Well I did do that, but I almost slept into Sunday afternoon.

Time is one of those funny things that is a human invention to keep track of ourselves. We measure our lives in this made up way that measures days, weeks, months, and years, and apparently can change time ahead or back at whim. Maybe I’m extra grouchy due to the time change, but it begs me to wonder, what is the history of Daylight Savings (DST).

Have you ever seen that Disney movie National Treasure? In it they say that it was Benjamin Franklin who first proposed the idea of DST. Doing my research, I see that this practice goes much further back than the Founding Fathers, even as far back as the Romans. It makes sense to think that these ancient civilizations adjusted themselves in accordance to the sun.

There is debate over whether Franklin himself first suggested it, or that belongs to an entomologist from New Zealand. Regardless it was William Willett in 1905 that first proposed the idea of moving the clocks forward in the summer in this more modern age. The first Daylight Savings Bill was drafted in 1909 and presented to Parliament. Many opposed the plans, so it was never put into effect while Willett was alive. DST was first put into effect during WWI to help conserve energy in Germany at 11:00 p.m. on April 30, 1916. May countries followed. Many countries reverted back after the war, and DST didn’t return until WWII. Even then, it wasn’t until the Energy crisis in the 1970s that made DST a common act in the United States.

And so you have it, the history of a practice we have twice a year. Now, I need to go catch up on my sleep I missed this weekend due to DTS. Happy History!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Lapis Lazuli

Two weeks ago I traveled to Tucson, Arizona for the 2014 Tucson Show. Every February the jewelry world travels to Tucson to participate in the 40+ shows that simultaneously go on during the same time period. It’s probably the biggest event of the year for anyone in the jewelry world, and that means artists, designers, vendors, and anyone in this realm can be found in Tucson during this time.

Now, I know my last post was about jewelry, and I try to keep my interests separate, but I had an eye opening moment while I was at the show. Ok, I actually had several eye opening moments, but I’ll only bore you with one. It was during my last day at the show, and I was walking the strip with one of my co-workers.

We were at the Tucson Showplace, and I saw that there was a giant pile of lapis rough (large lapis stones uncut and unpolished) in the parking lot surrounded by chicken wire. Now this wasn’t the first time I had seen a pile of rough during my week, but what really shocked me was knowing the value of the stone, knowing it has had a history since the ancient world, knowing this stone has been prized for centuries. And there it was, surrounded by chicken wire, next to a parked car. And that made me wonder, what is the full history of lapis lazuli?

Lapis has been cherished for over 5,000 years, and the stone played a crucial role in the Middle East where it was thought to have magical powers. The ancient Egyptians used it in statues, signent rings, and figures. In fact, the funeral mask for ‘King Tut’ was decorated with Lapis. It is my understanding that Alexander the Great brought the stone to Europe.

The stone’s name is closely associated with its intense color. The name was derived from the Latin word “lapis” meaning “stone”, and the Persian word “lazaward” which was the Persian name for lapis as well as the name of its mining location. Another source listed the Arabic word “Azula”, meaning blue, as a source of the name.

As it was 5,000 years ago, the best raw stones come from Hindu Kush in north-east Afghanistan. In fact, some of the areas originally mined in the ancient world are still mined today. The stone can also be found in Russia, and in the Chilean Andes.

So there you have it, the history of a stone (or what I could find of it), definitely worthy of more than a spot in the parking lot. Happy History!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Edwardian Jewelry

History is a personal interest, pure and simple. But it isn’t my only interest – jewelry takes a close (and sometimes surpassing) second. Luckily for me, I have a job that revolves around jewelry. I work for a company that creates enthusiast products, and during my year and a half with the company have learned countless new techniques.

When my two passions converge, it is definitely a good day in my camp. Fortunately, my wonderful editors recently created a project eBook that pulls from the Downton Abbey period (Edwardian, WWI, and soon to be depression) to create inspired jewelry designs. Then, another editor decided to issue a challenge to create a fashionable necklace that fits the time period to feature on her blog. Since I super big fan of the show, and I was itching to create my own Edwardian trend, I decided to bust out my pliers and create my own necklace design.

But in true fashion, I also wanted to research the time period and see what history had to say about the jewelry during the Edwardian era. The Edwardian era got it’s name from the English King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910. I found it interesting to learn that this was the last period that was named after a British monarch.

Unlike Art Nouveau, Victorian, or the Arts and Craft movement, the design of Edwardian jewelry was understated, and very feminine in style. Almost overnight, jewelry went from being large and ornate to light and airy in design. Pearls, diamonds, gold, and other precious metals were favored in use.

But I learned that the hallmark of Edwardian jewelry was the use of platinum. Unlike before, this was one of the first times this metal was used widely, and the strength and durability of the metal allowed jewelers to create light, intricate designs with lace-like appearances. Circa 1910, the changing necklines that were fashionable left little room for brooches, giving way to necklace’s popularity. And as white became a more popular color in fashion, pearls gained popularity.

Earrings also had a special place during the Edwardian period. While they started the century as studs, longer light earrings began to be favored.

Honestly, I found a great website that details the styles and trends of jewelry during the Edwardian period, including rings, tiaras, and other hot jewelry styles in detail. If you want to learn more check it out!

I had so much fun researching the trends and being inspired to create my own lightweight necklace design. With pearls, sparkling crystals, and filigree flower, any stylish lady could wear the long necklace I created.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Man Behind the Plan

Before we begin our through WWI we need to understand the information that was behind the scenes. For a part of this year, I’ll be laying the foundation of understanding, hopefully through important dates. Incidentally, today is one such date: 101 anniversary of the German general Alfred von Schlieffen’s death. If you recognize the name, it is because it was his plan that was set in motion and started WWI.

But first, a little information about the man behind the plan: Schlieffen was born on February 28, 1833 to a Prussian noble family. It is said during his early life he showed no interest in joining the military, and instead went to school in Berlin to study law. It was after his mandatory one year of service that Schlieffen was chosen as an officer candidate, and thus began his long military career.

Schlieffen served in both the Seven Week’s War in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Over time he was able to rise through the ranks of the Great General Staff (which was an elite corps of about 650 officers) before becoming its chief in 1891.

In the years since the Franco-Prussian War and the German alliance with Austrio-Hungary in 1879, Schlieffen’s predecessors had been working on a strategy to fight a future two-front war against France and Russia. When Schlieffen took over, he continued these efforts seeing such a two-front war as a distinct possibility. Schlieffen believed that Germany’s best bet was to engage France first, attacking through Belgium and Holland and enveloping western France before finally taking Paris.

Meanwhile, a smaller German force would hold off Russia in the east, since fully mobilizing the Russian army would take more time. This strategy came to be known as the Schlieffen plan.

Less than two years after Schlieffen’s death, the plan was put in motion by the German army. While I’m tempted to go into full detail about this now, I think it would make more sense to wait. Yes, it’s well known that the German’s plan did not work, and ultimately led to a stalemate that resulted in the 4-year trench war. But, I’m going to wait and give my full commentary later this year. So instead, today you’re left with the facts of the matter and the interesting beginning to our 2014.

Until next time, happy history all!