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

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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 at rallies, 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

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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 22

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War is cruel and men sometimes try to mitigate its brutality with “rules of warfare”. One controversial practice is that of retaliation for the other side’s violation of the norms of battle. In the American Civil War, the Union sometimes executed prisoners in response to Confederate guerrilla tactics. 

In 1864 Major James Wilson of the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry and six of his men were captured and murdered by rebel irregulars. In retaliation, Union troops executed six prisoners from Missouri. Quaker Zadok Street wrote this letter to Abraham Lincoln to protest such acts.

Salem Ohio 9th of 11 Mo 1864
Esteemed & Honored Friend
Abraham Lincoln President

The shooting 6 Men in Missouri in retaliation for 6 Union Men murderd by Guerillas was the companion of my mind frequently day and night, And since then the shooting of others in Tennesse & Kentucky for similar retaliation is so inconsistent with the Gospel of Christ, and cannot be looked upon in favor by the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and as no Nation can be blessed only whose God is the Lord, which thy various Proclamations wisely made from time to time fully declares in substance, I therefore respectfully but earnestly request Thee to seriously consider in thy retired moments when asking secretly for Divine aid to conduct the affairs of the Nation rightly, and ascertain if Thee should not prevent such acts by our Union officers, We do not know the private feelings or the hearts of those Men thus selected to be Shot, what injury may be done to them and their families we know not,

With thy enlarged and comprehensive view of Justice and right, argument is entirely unnecessary and refrain therefrom,

Allow me to say from the time of a few moments interview at thy House in Illinois prior to thy going to Washington after thy election, I have felt a very great desire for thy Administration to be one of Justice and honor under the peculiar trials in which Thee is placed I feel that a Divine interposition placed Thee in the Presidential Chair, and that Thee has been highly favored in thy movements,

Thy sincere Friend
Zadok Street

June 17

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1577 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 16

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1745 Fortress Louisbourg surrenders

To secure their hold on their North American colonies the French built an impressive fortress on the Cape Breton peninsula in what is now Nova Scotia. Designed by the Marquis de Vauban, Louis XIV’s military engineer, the fort with its ditches, thick walls, and cannon looked impregnable.

In 1744, Britain was drawn into conflict with France as part of the larger War of the Austrian Succession. The Anglo-French clash would be known in the British colonies as King George’s War. Until this time, Louisbourg had not participated in any military actions, although the fortress had provided refuge for Indigenous people allied with the French who raided English settlements. Louisbourg also offered a safe harbour for French privateers who preyed on fishing fleets and ships from New England.

On 24 May 1744, a force of soldiers from Louisbourg aboard a fleet of 17 vessels, under the command of Captain François du Pont Duvivier, made a surprise attack on the small English fort and settlement at Grassy Island, near Canso (on the present-day Nova Scotia mainland), forcing the British garrison there to surrender. The French destroyed the settlement and took the British to Louisbourg as prisoners. While the British awaited transfer to Boston in a prisoner exchange, their officers were free to move about the town. They took note of weaknesses in the so-called “impregnable” fortress.

In Boston, the freed officers reported their observations to Massachusetts governor William Shirley. They told him that Louisbourg’s garrison was undermanned, and that morale among the French troops was low, largely because of poor food and because they hadn’t been paid in months. They also said that due to poor construction, parts of the seemingly formidable walls were crumbling. They also revealed the presence of nearby ridges and hills overlooking Louisbourg’s landward walls. And they made sketches of Louisbourg’s defences, which they gave to Shirley.

Shirley raised a force of more than 4,000 New Englanders, commanded by William Pepperell, for an expedition against Louisbourg. The colonial army would be supported by a Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Peter Warren. In April 1745, Pepperell established a base at Canso, where he met with Warren in early May to plan a land and sea operation.

The first siege of Louisbourg began on 11 May 1745. Pepperell had captured strategic points near the fortress, and Warren’s ships blockaded the harbour. The colonial army used sledges to haul artillery across marshy ground to high points from which the guns could bombard the town and batter the walls. The French warship Vigilant carrying vital supplies and reinforcements, was captured by Warren’s squadron. By 16 June, Louisbourg’s walls had been breached and Warren’s fleet was poised to enter the harbour. Short of supplies and ammunition, and under pressure from the town’s merchants to capitulate, French governor Louis DuPont Duchambon surrendered.

Arrangements were made for most of the population to be transported to France. Warren was promoted to rear admiral, and Pepperell was rewarded by Britain with a baronetcy. Under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748, the British returned Louisbourg, and all of Île Royale, to the French, much to the disgust of the New Englanders, who considered it an act of betrayal by the British government.


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.

June 5

1864 The Great Leicester Balloon Riot

Henry Coxwell (1819-1900) was Britain’ pre-eminent aeronaut of the mid-Victorian period, dazzling crowds throughout Europe with his ballooning feats. He and his partner James Glaisher had ascended in 1862 to a height  of 35,000 feet, an altitude at which Glaisher fainted and Coxwell lost feeling in his hands. They would have perished had not Coxwell been able to engage the gas release mechanism with his teeth and land safely.

In 1864 he proposed to ascend in his balloon, dubbed the Britannia, as part of an Order of Foresters celebration at Leicester Racecourse. Because such feats were novel at the time, an estimated crowd of 50,000 people showed up. As Coxwell was making his preparations, a bystander remarked that Coxwell’s balloon seemed rather small. In fact, the man charged, the people of Leicester were being robbed of a chance to see a bigger and better balloon.

Though Coxwell would later dub this a “cruel libel,” the man’s allegations seemed to stir the large crowd into a surly mob that began jockeying for a better look at this disappointing craft. Some had paid to accompany Coxwell into the air, but so many spectators surrounded the balloon that it made take-off impossible. This in turn sparked a rumor that Coxwell was refusing to operate it, which only made them angrier.

People were acting so aggressively that the Britannia began to suffer damage. Coxwell scolded the crowd and insisted they behave, or else he would simply let the gas out. He made good on his threat. The balloon quickly collapsed, ending any hope of a spectacle. The act also reinforced the idea that Coxwell was trying to present them with an inferior balloon.

Already incited, they began tearing the balloon to pieces. The basket was set on fire. Two policemen, Inspector Haynes and Sergeant Chapman, arrived in an attempt to control the scene, but it proved difficult. They soon turned their attention to getting Coxwell away from the area before the crowd—already screaming for his head—began tearing into him.

Coxwell escaped intact, though Leicester’s reputation did not. Maligned by Coxwell as “balloonatics,” the spectators were criticized for their behaviour, though townsfolk blamed visitors. The incident proved embarrassing, but some chose to cash in on the notoriety. Pieces of the trampled balloon were sold as souvenirs.

June 2

1983 The death of Air Canada flight 797

Among the greatest Canadian disasters –- the Halifax explosion of 1917, the abortive raid on Dieppe in 1942, the Trudeau constitution of 1981 – we must include the fatal fire on board an Air Canada DC-9 flying from Dallas to Montreal. While in midair, passengers reported a smell and smoke coming from the rear washroom area. After some delay the pilot decided to make an emergency landing in Cincinnati. When the doors to the plane were opened the fresh air ignited a flash fire that killed 23 passengers.

The fire was significant in two ways. It led to a series of industry-wide safety improvements designed to prevent fires and to ensure a safe exit within 90 seconds. These changes have undoubtedly saved many lives. Sadly for Canada, one of the 23 dead was singer-songwriter Stan Rogers (1949-1983).

It is impossible to overestimate Roger’s impact on Canadian music and, more importantly, the spirit of Canadian nationalism. He would be the Canadian equivalent of Woody Guthrie or Peter Seeger but without the Marxist baggage, or Bob Dylan but with the ability to sing. Compositions such as “Northwest Passage”, “Barrett’s Privateers”, “White Squall” and “The Mary-Ellen Carter” are still sung with gusto whenever Canadians meet up in a foreign land. His songs were of common folk — fishermen, sailors, farmers, soldiers – and in true Canadian fashion they are often about losers: battles lost, ships sunk, jobs threatened. Had he lived our nation would be culturally richer and more united than we are now.

For those new to Stan Rogers, start with this tragic-comic song of a would-be pirate and a cruise for American gold. 

May 31

A mean letter

The great age of vituperation has long since passed. Personal abuse in the 21st century is tediously predictable: “racist!”, “libtard!”, “transphobe!”, “reTHUGlican!”, “fascist!”, etc. Donald Trump lowered the bar even further with zingers such as “fat pig”, “loser”, or “disgusting animal”. In the old days, there was no less hateful speech — John Adams called Alexander Hamilton “the bastard son of a Scotch peddler” – but there was a more imaginative use of language that connoisseurs of English could appreciate.

Consider this letter of defiance sent by the redoubtable Mary Cavendish, Countess of Shrewsbury, to Sir Thomas Stanhope. Their families were involved in a heated quarrel over a river weir, a disagreement which had broken out in bloodshed between groups of their followers. The countess had earlier called Stanhope a reprobate and his son John a rascal but she clearly felt that more needed to said on the subject of her opponents’ personal deficiencies. Therefore she deputed two of her men to deliver the following hymn of opprobrium: 

My lady hath commanded me to say thus much to you. That though you be more wretched, vile, and miserable, than any creature living; and, for your wickedness, become more ugly in shape than the vilest toad in the world; and one to whom none of reputation would vouchsafe to send any message : yet she hath thought good to send thus much to you–that she be contented you should live (and doth no ways wish your death), but to this end–that all the plagues and miseries that may befall any man may light upon such a caitiff as you are; and that you should live to have all your friends forsake you; and without your great repentance, which she looketh not for, because your life hath been so bad, you will be damned perpetually in hell fire.

The only possible reply to such an attack would be that uttered by The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece The Big Lebowski: