Sunday, May 17, 2015

RMS Lusitania

When you decide to immerse yourself fin history you never quite know what you’ll learn in the process. Maybe you want to learn more about your ancestral home, and you discover that you’re family lived in the same town in Italy where Napoleon was born. Perhaps you discover that your someone in your family was good friends with Paul Revere. Or perhaps you learn, as I did, that your family simply happened to travel among one of the most famous ships in history.

In my specific case I have a tie to the RMS Lusitania. My great grandmother emigrated to the United States with her family on the RMS Lusitania. This obviously happened sometime before May 7, 1915 because on that date the ship was torpedoed by a German U Boat and sunk, killing 1,198 passengers and crewmembers.

When the ship set sail on its maiden voyage in 1906 it was briefly the largest ship in the world. This boat was meant to be a passenger ship, and it boasted a spacious and comfortable interior. But really, history knows this ship for a completely different reason.

The Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law, established in 1856, codified the rules of engagements involving civilian vessels, granting all passengers and crew members of civilian ships safe voyages so long as they could be boarded and checked and did not transport any items of war.

In early 1915 the Germans began using submarines to attack naval vessels achieving occasional successes. In February of 1915 the North Sea around the British Isles was declared a war zone.

The Lusitania was nearing the end of her crossing bound for Liverpool from New York when she was struck. Unfortunately conditions made the usage of lifeboats difficult or impossible. Of the 1,962 passengers and crew 1,191 lost their lives.

Most who died were British and Canadians, but 128 American lives were lost, enraging the then-neutral country.

The Lusitania was sunk because the Germans believed the ship “carried contraband of war” and thus Germany had a right to destroy her regardless of the passengers. Germany was relieved of any responsibility of the 128 American lives because of the existence of “war zones.”

Despite the outrage felt by many Americans, it would take two more years for the United States to become involved in WWI. When Germany re-instituted their unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 this event pushed the US over the edge and brought the country into the war. This event solidified the importance of submarines in modern warfare. While only one of the many ships sunk during the war, I suppose this stands out because of my own personal tie.

Happy history!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Second Battle of Ypres

Gas mask on display at Tyne Cot Cemetery When I was on my WWI tour, the underlying theme was death and waste. This was the first modern war, fought with different tactics than in the past because of the advanced technology. At this point 100 years ago, both sides were in a long stalemate. There were skirmishes but nothing that resembled any sort of victory of one side or another. So to try to have a decisive victory the Germans decided to try something new. On April 22, 5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine were released. 10,000 French and Algerian troops were effected. Within the first 10 minutes, half of those men were dead. Unfortunately, the Germans failed to take advantage of their advantage and the Allies managed to hold most of their positions.

Two days later on April 24, a second gas attack against a Canadian division pushed the Allies further back. 5,975 troops were affected with 1,000 fatalities. The Second Battle of Ypres ended on May 25 with insignificant gains for the Germans. However this was the introduction of poison gas used as a military strategy, and this tactic would have great significance in WWI.

Last year when I took my WWI tour, I think a part of me forgot about the brutality and inhumanity of war. The theme of poison gas, and the sheer waste of human life quickly became apparent as the day wore on. Site after site featured rows and rows of headstones and walls filled with names illustrating the sheer volume of human death. Of this, the gas was probably the most shocking for me to experience.

In Ypres, which has since been rebuilt, there is a fabulous WWI museum that we were able to visit for a little over an hour. The whole day was very memorable, but one distinct memory that I have is from this museum, and it is regarding the use of the gas weapons for the first time. Using audio there were characters from both sides describing the situation, both leading up to and after the battle. During this account the death was described. Beyond human death, any living thing in the area was killed including insects and any rats living in the trenches.

Losses during the Second Battle of Ypres are estimated at around 69,000 Allied troops (59,000 British, 10,000 French), against 35,000 German, the difference in numbers explained by the use of chlorine gas.

Think about that account for a minute. Think about those numbers for a minute.

Gas was continuously used throughout the rest of WWI by both sides. While initially effective, by the end of the war sophisticated gas masks existed to protect troops and thus limited the effect the gas had for either side.

It’s hard for me to truly translate how astounded I was to learn what I did during that tour about the chemical gas. I think putting so much emotion into words is simply not possible. I keep coming back to the sheer waste of life that WWI was. In this way, the Second Battle of Ypres is important, if only so we can stop and think about those who lost their life during this battle.

Happy History
Canadian memorial dedicated to those servicemen who lost their lives during WWI.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Concord and Lexington

On the morning of April 19, 1775, the American Revolutionary War started. It started outside of Boston, Massachusetts.

When I was in middle school I went to visit my Aunt out in Massachusetts. It was one of those family vacations that was long enough ago that I can’t quite remember all the details. To this day I can’t remember when exactly we visited or if there was a reason for our trip out east. More importantly, I think it was this trip that really solidified my love of history. The whole region has so much.

While I was there we took a tour of Paul Revere’s house, walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, and more importantly visited Concord and Lexington. And from what I remember, the experiences were truly amazing. I think they helped open my eyes to the power of history, of truly being able to connect those dots between the past and present. I remember being in Lexington reading the plaques and realizing the impact that the past action of a few men had a profound impact on my current life.

We’ve all heard the story: On the night of April 18, the British Army marched from Boston to nearby Concord to seize their weapons stockpile. Seeing the movements, a beacon was placed in Old North Church, which helped sound the alarm. From there Paul Revere rode out to warm the Minute Men yelling “The British are coming!” When the two armies met in Lexington fighting broke out

(I just learned a fact that really made me laugh a bit; a fact that had me edit what I typed above to include this fun nugget of historical learning. This is the fact that Paul Revere probably never yelled out “The British are coming!” as he rode out to sound the alarm. First, many of the British were hiding in the countryside so the operation was meant to be discrete (even in terms of 1775 timelines a man shouting “The British are coming!” was not discreet). Secondly, the colonists still considered themselves British at the time, so that probably wasn’t the exact phrase Mr. Revere used.)

At dawn on April 19, the British army of 700 came upon 77 militiamen outside of Lexington. After being ordered to lay down their weapons a shot was fired. To this day, nobody knows which side fired first. Several British volleys were unleashed and eventually order was restored. Eight militiamen lay dead on the soon-to-be-American side with nine wounded, and one Redcoat was injured.

The British continued into Concord to search for the weapons being stockpiled there (which had been relocated by this time) and decided to burn what little they did find. Militiamen occupying the high ground outside of Concord moved to Concord’s North Bridge, which was being defended y a contingent of British soldiers. The British fired first, but their fire was returned.

After searching Concord for about four hours the British prepared to return to Boston. But by this time almost 2,000 militiamen had descended to the area. They followed the army and engaged them. When the British column reached Lexington, it ran into an entire brigade of fresh Redcoats, but this did not stop the colonists from continuing their fighting.

What does this event signify? Perhaps I’m overemphasizing the American Revolution because I myself am an American, but we were the first country to seize the ideals for the Enlightenment and fight for them. From nothing, the men and women of our country have created something wonderful. America is revered as one of the greatest countries in the world. While we may be far from perfect, we have withstood 240 from that first day of fighting. Let’s come full circle from where I started – the actions of the men that fought 240 years ago shaped the country we are today. Without their actions, the present may have been very different indeed.

Happy History!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Badass Women in History: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Every day I go to work, sit in my cube and do what I think is important work. Occasionally I get in a slump where I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing and if I’m making a difference. So today I’m going to start what I hope is an ongoing series to remind me that in the grand scheme of things I still could do something significant… here’s to dreaming!

This is a series I’d like to call Badass Women in History. In a world ruled predominantly by men, it’s easy to find information about them and their achievements. But women, they play a completely different role, play by a completely different set of rules, and often met a bloody end because of their influence.

Today I’m going to start off with someone everyone should know: Eleanor of Aquitaine. If you’ve heard the story of Robin Hood (and who hasn’t heard the story of Robin Hood) you know of Eleanor: she was the mother of King Richard I and King John.

Eleanor was born in 1122 or 1124 in Aquitaine, a region of France filled with wealth and prominence. At the age of 15 her father make her Duchess of Aquitaine, making her the most eligible heiress of France. So eligible in fact, that she was married to King Louis of France in 1137. She would have two children, both daughters with Louis.

As part of the marriage agreement it was decided that Aquitaine would remain a separate entity outside France until Eleanor’s first son reached majority, which helped solidify her power. Also showing her power was Eleanor’s decision to accompany her husband on the Second Crusade, it is even rumored she dressed as an Amazon.

In 1152 Louis and Eleanor’s disagreements reached a head and she was awarded an annulment. This was after she birthed two children, both daughters. They remained in France.

This is when Eleanor started looking for prospective second husbands, and her sights fell on Henry II. With a claim to the English throne, he seemed to be a good option, even though he was around 11 years younger. On December 19, 1154 Eleanor was crowned queen of England. At this time, England had claim to more land in France than the French King.

Her and Henry had eight children, five boys and three girls. Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was not easy; both were strong willed and both strayed from their marriage. Eleanor took favor to Richard and raised him in Aquitaine where she resided away from her husband. And in 1173 she even joined forces with her four oldest sons and attempted to overthrow Henry. The revolt didn’t work, and Eleanor was locked up until 1189.

Richard ascended the throne after his father’s death (and death of his three older brothers). While on the Third Crusade Eleanor ruled England as regent. Eleanor died in 1204, outliving all her children except John. She was close to 80-years old.

During the twelfth century women didn’t have much power, so for one woman to be queen of two countries, bare 10 children, and live to be close to 80, Eleanor didn’t do too badly for herself.