July 1

1916 Battle of Beaumont Hamel


While the rest of Canada celebrates its 1867 founding with polite indifference and the occasional folk dance, July 1 is marked in Newfoundland as Memorial Day, a time to remember the tragedy of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. That name remains indelibly imprinted in the history of Newfoundland. So much of the role played by England’s oldest and most loyal colony during the First World War is out of proportion to the island’s relative size and population within the British Empire, be it the number of Newfoundlanders who served, their contribution on land and at sea, or the tragedy that befell the 1st Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st, 1916.

As a Dominion of the British Empire (and still proudly independent of Canada) Newfoundland responded quickly to the motherland’s entry into the Great War. Men rushed to enlist and a regiment was sent to battle the forces of the Ottoman Turks at Gallipoli. Transferred from that disaster, the Newfoundlanders found themselves in the front lines of the Western Front in 1916 just in time for the unspeakable misery of the Battle of the Somme.

The sector to which they were assigned required them to cross 500 metres of open ground exposed to a dug-in enemy who knew they were coming. The result was horrible – of the eight hundred men who went into the attack that morning, just sixty-eight answered the roll call the following day. They were mowed down by machine-gun fire and blasted by artillery, yet they kept coming on. As they walked into the hail of machine gun and artillery fire, it was said that many of them tucked their chins in, almost like they were walking into the teeth of a blizzard back home

It is is probable that the defence of their front line that morning cost the Germans not a single man. So concentrated was German fire and so constricted was the advance, that nearly every Newfoundlander killed fell on ground held by the British before the attack began.

June 30

Home / Today in History / June 30


The Night of the Long Knives

If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this. In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.

So said Adolf Hitler, justifying a murderous rampage by his elite SS forces against his enemies inside, and outside, of the Nazi party.

Hitler had come to power on the backs of the Sturmabteilung, the SA, the brown-shirted storm troopers, who had battled Communist and Social Democrat paramilitaries on the streets, guarded party functions, intimidated rivals, handed out leaflets, and bullied Jews in the streets.  At the time of the 1933 elections that made Hitler the Chancellor of Germany, the SA numbered in the millions. Many of them, especially its leaders like Ernst Röhm (above), were genuine radicals, anticapitalist believers in the “socialist” part of the National Socialist ideology. They terrified the German upper class, and worried the official army generals who believed that they might be supplanted by the SA. Hitler needed the support of both the rich industrialists and the armed forces, so he plotted to reduce the power of the SA. Meeting secretly with army generals and navy admirals on board the battleship Deutschland, Hitler agreed to tame his storm troopers in return for the allegiance of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine, whose men would henceforth wear Nazi insignia on their uniforms.

On June 29, 1934 black-clad Schutzstaffel (SS) squads across Germany arrested both the leadership of the SA, and assorted other politicians and officers that Hitler wished to be rid of. Many of them were shot on the spot. Röhm was given a pistol with one bullet and told to commit suicide; he replied that if Adolf wanted him dead he could kill him in person, so he too was gunned down. Many SA men went to their death vowing loyalty to Hitler, not knowing he had ordered their executions. Among those outside the party murdered on the Night of the Long Knives, was former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and his wife, General Ferdinand von Bredow, several members of the Catholic Centre Party, and a music critic whose name resembled that of someone else on the death list.

Most Germans seem to have accepted Hitler’s excuses for the illegal actions. Henceforth the SA declined in power, losing half its membership inside a year, and Hitler remained unchallenged.

June 23

Home / Today in History / June 23

One of those bloody days.

1314 Battle of Bannockburn

Scots don’t win many battles against the English but they don’t let setbacks like Solway Moss or Culloden get them down. To this day they celebrate the victory of local hero Robert Bruce over the invading English led by the luckless Edward II. The loss led to the English eventually acknowledging Scottish independence.

1565 Dragut mortally wounded

The Great Siege of Malta pitted a massive army and navy of Turks against fortresses manned by the Knights of St John. One of the moments contributing to a Christian victory over the forces of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was the death of his admiral Dragut, “the Sword of Islam”, the greatest of all Mediterranean pirates, who was head of the expedition. Splinters from a cannon ball wounded Dragut who died after a week of suffering. His death split the Turkish command and weakened its leadership, leading to a humiliating defeat.

1611 Henry Hudson set adrift

One of the most plaintive works of art that I encountered as a child was the painting above, of explorer Henry Hudson and his little son John (in reality a teenager) in an open boat amidst the ice floes of the great bay named after him. On his fourth voyage to the New World, in search of a sea passage to Asia, his crew mutinied over plans to linger and put Hudson and loyal sailors into an open boat, while they sailed back to England. The castaways were never seen alive.

1942 First selection of Jews for Auschwitz gas chamber

The 1942 Swansee conference of Nazi officials had determined on a policy of extermination as a solution to the “Jewish problem”. A number of camps were built for the purpose of extracting useful slave labour from some prisoners and a speedy execution for others. On this date a train load of Jews deported from France arrived and selections were made on disembarking.

1985 Air India explosion

Indira Gandhi’s attack on a Sikh temple in Amritsar led to her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards and a rise in terrorism aimed at securing a separate “Khalistan”. Among Canadian Sikh immigrants were a number who chose to wage a violent campaign in their new home. Bombs were put on Air India jets flying out of Canada to Europe and Japan. Though the latter was rendered harmless at Narita airport, a device aboard Air India flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic killing 329 people.

June 17

Home / Today in History / June 17

1565 Death of a Shogun

History is replete with stories of acts of defiance carried out at the moment of death. Nikola Subió Zrinski defended the fortress of Szigetvár against overwhelming numbers of Turks in 1566. When his last tower was about to fall, Zrinski ordered the powder magazine to be exploded and led his men in a charge to certain death. In 1941 Konstantinos Koukidis, a Greek soldier, wrapped himself in the national flag flying from the Athenian acropolis and hurled himself off the precipice rather than surrender to the invading German army. The self-sacrificial spirit of Japanese samurai in the face of defeat is legendary, but only in that country could a tea cup play such a prominent role.

Matsunaga Hisahide (1508-77) was a prominent daimyo in the midst of a century of political turmoil in Japan. Regional warlords such as Matsunaga vied for influence, invaded each other’s territories, and contested for the shogunate. He was particularly noted for his schemes and treachery. On this date in 1565 he assassinated the incumbent shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru and replaced him with his own nominee.

Late in his life he ran afoul of Oda Nobunaga, the so-called “Demon King”, the most powerful of the country’s great clan leaders. In 1577 Nobunaga besieged Matsunaga’s Shigisan Castle. Faced with capture, Matsunaga prepared for the usual ritual suicide but before disembowelling himself he destroyed a valuable teacup which Nobunaga coveted. Painters have captured the gesture of defiance.

June 6

It’s June 6 and time for my annual D-Day post. This year I thought I would concentrate on the goings-on on Juno Beach, the sector of the Normandy coastline allotted to the Canadian Army, supported by the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Airforce.

Juno was the second-most easterly beach of the five assaulted that morning, sandwiched between Sword and Gold, the responsibility of the British while the Americans attacked Utah and Omaha beaches to the west. It was defended by the 716th Infantry Division and the 22nd Panzers. The 718th was not a first-class unit; like most German static defensive formations they were recruited from older troops and foreign conscripts (in this case largely Ukrainian). They had seen no combat but the Panzers were a veteran force, having fought with the Afrika Korps under Rommel.

Few of the Canadian troops had seen battle either. Their brothers in arms had fared badly at Hong Kong and Dieppe but had done great things in Sicily and the Italian peninsula as well as battling the Japanese in Burma. The regiments chosen for the Normandy assault were drawn from across the country. The 1st Canadian Scottish, for example were a British Columbia unit; the Regina Rifles and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles represented the prairies; the Cameron Highlanders and the Queen’s Own Rifles came from Ontario; the Régiment de la Chaudière was Québécois; while the North Shore Regiment and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders hailed from the Maritime provinces.

Shortly before 8:00 a.m. the first wave of infantry landed, supported by amphibious tanks. They took very heavy casualties; some perished when their landing craft hit mines, some were killed by pill-box fire as they disembarked and tried to clear barbed wire emplacements, or raced to the seawall against machine-gun fire. The Queen’s Own took the worst of it, facing a dug-in enemy who had not been affected by shelling from the initial bombardments. Eventually they fought their way off the shore and established a beach-head. Reserve units landed and moved inland, breaching the first German line of resistance. By the end of the day’s fighting, the Canadians had not reached their hoped-for objectives but had penetrated farther than any other Allied army, at a cost in casualties much higher than other Commonwealth forces. The dead, wounded, and captured totaled 960 men. Only the Americans on Omaha beach suffered higher losses.

Worse was to come in the following days as the Germans counter-attacked with elite SS troops and tanks that were vastly superior to the under-gunned Shermans and Churchills. It would not be August that the Allies were in a position to break out of northeast France and head for Paris.

May 25

Towel Day

May 25th is observed around the world by fans of Douglas Adams, author of, inter alia, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Life, the Universe and Everything,  The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. Devotees of the Adams cult carry a towel around with them all day, in honour of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, the original Towel Bearers. The eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide tells its readers:

A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

May 24

1921 The opening of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial

On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company’s payroll was robbed and two men, a guard and the unarmed paymaster, were murdered. As the thieves fled the scene in a dark-blue Buick, they fired at the crowd of workers. Suspicion fell on a gang of Italian anarchists, who were questioned and followed. When police apprehended Italian-born Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fishmonger, they were found to be carrying anarchist literature, and pistols and ammunition which linked them to the shooting scene. They were charged with robbery and murder, which prompted their anarchist comrades to launch a series of bomb attacks including the famous blast on Wall Street that exploded killing 38 people and wounding 134.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti opened on May 24, 1921, eventually becoming a famous episode in American jurisprudence and an enduring part of left-wing mythology. The left presented the two as harmless cheese-eating immigrants persecuted by xenophobic bigots, while the right saw them as dangerous terrorists and a warning of the dangers of unrestricted immigration. What made this clash of ideologies worse was the incompetence and bias of the judge, Webster Thayer, who had already presided over a trial finding Vanzetti guilty of an earlier robbery. A jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of robbery and murder in July 1921.

It was at this point that the American left rallied and used the undoubted flaws of the trial to raise money, publicize labour and anarchist causes, and demand a new trial. The usual crowd of celebrities, academics, and writers supported the cause, making it an international sensation. As appeals dragged on, another anarchist in 1925 took the blame for the Braintree crimes, absolving Sacco and Vanzetti, but again Judge Thayer denied the need for a new trial. However, by 1926 powerful voices, including future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Parker, were arguing that the original case had been a travesty of justice. The uproar was such that Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller established an independent inquiry into the affair which, after two weeks of study and hearing witnesses, declined to overturn the original verdict. Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution on August 22, 1927 was to go ahead.

In prison, the condemned alternated between calls for violent revenge — “revenge, revenge in our names and the names of our living and dead” — and posing as innocents. Vanzetti was particularly touching, telling Sacco’s son in a letter “remember always these things; we are not criminals; they convicted us on a frame-up; they denied us a new trial; and if we will be executed after seven years, four months and seventeen days of unspeakable tortures and wrong, it is for what I have already told you; because we were for the poor and against the exploitation and oppression of the man by the man.”

Their execution prompted a wave of bombings across America and in Europe. Fifty years later Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts decreed that the pair been unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”. Though the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti remains a legend of injustice on the left, the two were certainly guilty. Their defence lawyer told Upton Sinclair, author of a sympathetic novel, that he had provided the men with a fake alibi and that they served the cause better as martyrs than if they had been released. Anarchist sources admitted that Sacco was the shooter.

May 15

1525 Millennialist dreams are shattered at Frankenhausen

 The Protestant Reformation quickly brought to the fore a question that had been vexing Western Civilization since the time of the Greeks: is it ever legitimate to use violence to oppose tyranny?

Martin Luther and his followers initially opposed the notion of violent resistance but it was cautiously endorsed by Swiss theologian Huldreich Zwingli. The next expressions on resistance in the mid-1520s were far more intemperate and violent, coming out of the millennialist tradition formerly represented by the Bohemian Taborites. Thomas Müntzer, once an admirer of Luther’s, turned his back on much the Wittenberg preacher taught, especially his non-violence. Müntzer had come into contact with radicals who sought the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit and who poured scorn on Luther’s biblicism; God, he said, still comes in dreams to His beloved, as he had to the prophets of old. He began to style himself “Destroyer of the Unbelievers” and to speak of the imminent end of the old era and the dawn of a new age of social justice. Müntzer preached to the Saxon princes in May 1524 and warned them that if they refused to use the sword against the godless it would be taken from them but his appeal to German princes to lead his crusade fell on deaf ears. Müntzer turned to the lower orders to be the new Elect, a covenanted people of God; he seems to have been the first in Reformation Europe to make political use of the concept of the covenant, a notion that will prove especially useful to later persecuted Protestants.

When the great German Peasant Rebellion broke out in 1524 he urged his poor followers on to violence and a liberating slaughter that would open the way to the new age of godliness and peace. “On! On! On!”, he told the peasant soldiers at Mülhausen, “Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry. Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! Clang! On! On!”

The climax of the struggle came outside the town of Frankenhausen in May, 1525. An army of poorly-armed peasants flying their rainbow flag met deadly Landsknecht mercenaries hired by Hessian and Saxon nobles. The peasants, entrenched in a wagon fortress of the sort that had been so effectively used by the Hussites in the 15th century, were able to repel the first enemy sorties but the next day they broke under an artillery barrage and a cavalry charge. The rebels were cut down in their thousands, bringing their uprising to an end.

Thomas Müntzer had told the peasants that he would precede them and catch their enemies’ bullets in his sleeves but in fact he ran away and was hiding in bed when he was captured by the forces of the triumphant princes. He was executed shortly thereafter as bloody recriminations against the peasantry were taken across Germany.

May 14

2019 Death of Tardar Sauce

Let it not be said that we live in a frivolous era. One has only to compare the deep philosophical ponderings of Kim Kardashian to those of Marcus Aurelius, or the story-lines of Spiderman films with King Lear, or the lyrics of rap sensation Ski Mask the Slump God with those of Cole Porter to see that the 21st century is indeed a Golden Age of culture.

That is why so many wept when news of the death of Tardar Sauce reached the internet. Since her birth in 2012, Tardar, working under her stage name “Grumpy Cat”, had been amusing millions and her passing clearly subtracted from the sum of human felicity.

Born to a single-parent household — her mother was a calico cat; her father may have been a blue-and-white tabby – she came to the attention of the world as a result of a genetic malformation which gave her a look of perpetual dysphoria. Soon her portrait graced a myriad of computer screens and generated countless memes. Her owners were not slow in accumulating pelf by producing lines of Grumpy Cat licensed merch and featuring her in public appearances and commercials – she was named the Official Spokescat of Friskies. She achieved cinematic immortality by starring in 2014’s made-for-tv movie  Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. A Madame Tussaud waxwork of the fabulous feline was commissioned.

Could an Oscar and a Nobel Prize be far behind? Sadly, those heights were not to be scaled. Stricken by a urinary tract infection, Tardar Sauce passed from this vale of tears on May 14, 2019. When shall we see her like again?

May 13

1940 Blood, toil, tears, and sweat

In the late spring of 1940 things were going very badly for the good guys. Poland, Holland, Belgium, and Norway had been overrun by Nazi armies and France was on the point of collapse. The British Parliament had just replaced Neville Chamberlain, who saw the danger of Hitler too late, with Winston Churchill, who had been warning about the fascist menace for years. Churchill hastily assembled a War Cabinet with the cooperation of the Opposition Labour and Liberal parties and rose to speak in the House of Commons, giving his first address as Prime Minister. His words may serve as a standard against which to measure the rhetorical abilities of our North American politicians in these squalid times.

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”