September 19

1356 The Battle of Poitiers

The Hundred Years War was one of the nastiest and most unnecessary conflicts in European history, waged on the flimsiest of pretexts and conducted, by the English at least, as a money-spinning proposition. It pitted a small and not-terribly-prosperous country against the richest and largest nation on the continent but England did surprisingly well for so long because of French disunity and, at critical moments, the superiority of dismounted bowman against heavy feudal cavalry.

One such moment occurred on this date in 1356 when an English army, led by Edward, “the Black Prince, heir to the throne, blundered into a much larger French force when returning from a raid. The result was the Battle of Poitiers and disaster for France.

The disparity in the size of the armies made Prince Edward look for a negotiated way out. The English offered to restore all the towns and castles which they had taken in the course of this campaign, to give up, unransomed, all their prisoners, and to bind themselves by oath to refrain for seven years from bearing arms against the king of France. But King Jean II, confident of victory, insisted on the Black Prince and a hundred of his best knights surrendering themselves as prisoners, a proposition which Edward and his army indignantly rejected.

When battle was joined the English longbow men repulsed charges by French knights, sending them into disarray and causing a large body of other cavalry to retreat without having seen action. Edward then charged with his own armoured horsemen and achieved victory by capturing Jean and one of his sons.

Jean was taken back to comfortable captivity in the Tower of London while an extortionate ransom was being negotiated. In the meantime France fell into chaos, peasant rebellions, and noble disunity from it took decades to recover.

September 17

1743 Birth of the Marquis de Condorcet 

A rather flamboyant account by a nineteenth-century English writer of the fall of Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet, French philosopher and mathematician:

Condorcet was born in Picardy in 1743. Early in life he distinguished himself as a mathematician, and his labours in the development of the differential and integral calculus, will preserve his name in the history of science. Associating with Voltaire, Helvetius, and D’Alembert, he became a sharer in their opinions, and a social reformer with an almost fanatical abhorrence of the present and the past, and with an invincible assurance in a glorious destiny for humanity in the future. The outbreak of the revolution was to him as the dawn of this new era when old wrongs should pass away and justice and goodness should rule the world. He wrote for the revolutionary newspapers, and was an indefatigable member of the Jacobin club, but he was less effective with his tongue than his pen. A cold and impassive exterior, a stoical Roman countenance, imperfectly expressed the fiery energy of his heart, and caused D’Alembert to describe him as ‘a volcano covered with snow.’

When the rough and bloody business of the revolution came on, he was unable, either from timidity or gentle breeding, to hold his own against the desperadoes who rose uppermost. During the violent struggle between the Girondist and Mountain party, he took a decided part with neither, provoking Madame Roland to write of him, ‘the genius of Condorcet is equal to the comprehension of the greatest truths, but he has no other characteristic besides fear. It may be said of his understanding combined with his person, that he is a fine spirit absorbed in cotton. Thus, after having deduced a principle or demonstrated a fact in the Assembly, he would give a vote decidedly opposite, overawed by the thunder of the tribunes, armed with insults and lavish of menaces. Such men should be employed to write, but never permitted to act.’ This mingling of courage with gentleness and irresolution caused him, says Carlyle, ‘to be styled, in irreverent language, mouton enrage’—peaceablest of creatures bitten rabid.’

Robespierre, in July 1793, issued a decree of accusation against Condorcet. At the entreaty of his wife he hid himself in an attic in an obscure quarter of Paris, and there remained for eight months without once venturing abroad. He relieved the weariness of his confinement by writing a treatise on his favourite idea, The Perfectibility of the Human Race; and had he been able to endure restraint for a few months longer, he would have been saved; but he grew anxious for the safety of the good woman who risked her life in giving him shelter, and the first verdure of the trees of the Luxembourg, of which he had a glimpse from his window, brought on an over-powering desire for fresh air and exercise. He escaped into the streets, passed the barriers, and wandered among thickets and stone-quarries in the outskirts of Paris. Wounded with a fall, and half-dead with hunger and fatigue, he entered. a cabaret in the village of Clamart, and asked for an omelet. ‘How many eggs will you have in it?’ inquired the waiter. ‘A dozen,’ replied the starving philosopher, ignorant of the proper dimensions of a working man’s breakfast. The extraordinary omelet excited suspicion. Some present requested to know his trade. He said, a carpenter, but his delicate hands belied him. He was searched, and a Latin Horace and an elegant pocket-book furnished unquestionable evidence that he was a skulking aristocrat. He was forthwith arrested, and marched off to prison at Bourg-la-Reine. On the way, he fainted with exhaustion, and was set on a peasant’s horse. Flung into a damp cell, he was found dead on the floor next morning, 24th March 1794. He had saved his neck from the guillotine by a dose of poison he always carried about with him in case of such an emergency.

Condorcet’s works have been collected and published in twenty-one volumes. The Marquise de Condorcet long survived her husband. She was one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her day, and distinguished herself by an elegant and correct translation into French of Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments.

September 16

1919 The birth of a hierarchiologist

Laurence J. Peter (1919-90) was a Canadian educator known best for his studies on bureaucratic incompetence. Born in Vancouver, Peter worked as a teacher in British Columbia before receiving his doctorate in education and moving to the United States. While at the University of Southern California, he published (with Raymond Hull) his groundbreaking The Peter Principle which seems to explain so much about what we experience at the hands of institutions. Briefly stated: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … In time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Peter’s book spawned much critical thinking in businesses and organizations. The truth of his observations have long been recognized but solutions for the problem he discerned have not been notably successful. Other of his maxims include:

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it.

The only valid rule about the proper length of a statement is that it achieve its purpose effectively.

The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to where they can do the least damage: management.

Super competence is more objectionable than incompetence .. [it] disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.

September 15

1940 Climax of the Battle of Britain

The attempt by the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force in order to win air superiority over the English Channel and pave the way for the invasion code-named Operation Sea Lion reached its peak in mid-September, 1940.

On September 15, the Germans launched a massive series of raids on London using 500-bombers, hoping to draw the RAF into a decisive combat with their 620 accompanying fighters. The plan was not a success; the disappointing results and high casualties would persuade the Germans to shift from targeting the RAF to night-time attacks on cities.

The above graphic has some interesting data. The contribution by the British Dominions to the supply of fighter pilots was significant but so was the role played by European exiles such as the Czechs and Poles. But why was the Belgian contingent so much higher than the French (who scarcely outnumbered American pilots whose country was not even at war)? Why were there so many New Zealanders in the air over London compared to Australians? Where was the RAAF at that time?

September 15 is still celebrated as Battle of Britain Day in the U.K.

September 14

1950 Birth of a disgraced prosecutor

In 2006 American tabloids broadcast the story of a horrific sex crime committed by three white students, members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Black psychology student and part-time stripper Crystal Mangum claimed that at a drunken house party thrown by team members, where she had been hired to perform, she had been raped. The racial angle and class differences between the accuser and the accused made this story raw meat for sensationalist reporting and too good for ethnic activists and an ambitious district attorney to miss.

Michael Byron “Mike” Nifong was born in Wilmington, North Carolina and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina. He avoided serving in Vietnam by claiming conscientious objector status. He rose in the legal profession to be appointed acting district attorney for Durham County in 2005 and, in the next year, ran for election to the post full-time. It was during this election campaign (which he won) that he became a zealous and publicity-minded leader of the case against the three accused students, giving dozens of interviews proclaiming their guilt, alleging a racial  motive, and calling them “hooligans”.

Even before his election, Nifong could see the wheels falling off his case. Crystal Mangum gave wildly varying testimony, no DNA evidence could be adduced, and no witnesses backed the accuser’s story. At least one alibi was rock solid, the photo array shown to Mangum contained only pictures of Duke lacrosse players, and the other stripper at the party denied that any  assault could have taken place. Moreover, defence lawyers claimed that Nifong and the head of the DNA lab had agreed to hold back exculpatory evidence. On December 22, Nifong dropped the rape charges but kept the kidnapping and sexual offence cases open. Six days later the North Carolina Bar filed ethics complaints against Nifong, and piled more accusations of violations of legal norms in January. He was called a “rogue prosecutor”.

The accused students were pronounced innocent and won large legal settlements from their university; Nifong was forced to resign, serve a brief term in jail, was disbarred, and lost multi-million dollar civil suits for his misconduct. Crystal Mangum was later convicted of murder. Other casualties of Mangum and Nifong’s actions included the Duke lacrosse coach who was fired and the reputation of 88 Duke faculty members who had published an ad shortly after the arrests criticizing their university for fostering an atmosphere of racist sexual violence that resulted in the assault of Ms Mangum. One beneficiary of Nifong’s missteps in 2006 was Darryl Howard, a convicted murderer who had been prosecuted by Nifong and was able to argue for his release based on similar withholding of DNA evidence.

 

 

September 13

1759 The Fate of New France is Sealed

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham occupies an interesting spot in the historical memory of Canadians. One might think that this decisive British victory which led to the virtual end of French rule in North America – absolutist, feudal, and Catholic – and prepared the way for a religiously-plural democracy would be celebrated as a national founding event: the equivalent of the Battle of Yorktown or the Fall of the Bastille. To think that is to underestimate the Canadian propensity for guilt, self-abnegation, and ambiguity.

The Seven Years War was the world’s first global conflict, fought in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, one of those dynastic tiffs that were so common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those struggles in a minor theatre of operations in the western hemisphere was known (to Americans at least) as the French and Indian War.

For over a century the armies of New France and their native allies had made war on the British colonies and their native allies to the south. The key to defeating New France lay in taking the two main fortresses of Quebec City and Louisbourg on Cape Breton. Louisbourg fell after a scandalously poor defence in 1758 and in 1759 a British army under James Wolfe sailed up the St Lawrence River to lay siege to Quebec. Wolfe conceived of a risky plan whereby a small force would climb a steep and lightly defended path up the cliffs to secure an easier landing spot farther upstream for the entire army.

This worked and the Marquis de Montcalm, the French general, awoke to find an enemy outside the city walls on the Plains of Abraham. He foolishly chose to march out and confront the British forthwith, trusting to his 2 to 1 superiority in numbers. In the ensuing fight both generals were mortally wounded and the French were forced back into Quebec. Montcalm’s successor decided his position was untenable and withdrew leaving the British in command of the city. A French attempt to retake Quebec in 1760 failed.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended most of the world-wide fighting and in the negotiations the French were given the choice of retaining Canada or keeping one of their Caribbean sugar islands. Louis XV chose Guadeloupe over (as Voltaire put it) a few acres of snow.

English Canadians were once allowed to sing proudly of this conquest:

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast, our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

But a plan to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the battle was met with threats of violence by French-speaking Quebecers and the event was cancelled as smacking too much of triumphalism. The motto of Quebec is “Je me souviens” which seems to translate as “I resent”.

September 11

1862 Birthday of O. Henry

William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pen-name O. Henry, was born in North Carolina where he trained as a pharmacist. He spent time in Texas and worked in various jobs, some agricultural, and some clerical before he landed a position at a bank in Austin. There he was discovered to have embezzled some $854 and, fearing conviction, he fled to to Central America before returning to see his dying wife. Porter spent three years in prison; upon being freed he moved to New York where his writing career flourished. He died in 1910 of alcohol abuse leaving behind hundreds of stories and an enduring reputation, Here are some representative snippets of his writing:

His necktie was the blue-gray of a November sky, and its knot was plainly the outcome of a lordly carelessness combined with an accurate conception of the most recent dictum of fashion. – O. Henry, “From Each According to His Ability”, The Voice of the City, 1908

Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningly ejaculates the one word, “parallelogram!” and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder. That would be pure adventure. Would you accept it? Not you. You would flush with embarrassment; you would sheepishly drop the roll and continue down Broadway, fumbling feebly for the missing button. This you would do unless you are one of the blessed few in whom the pure spirit of adventure is not dead. – O. Henry, “The Green Door”, 1906

He had just come from a feast that had left him of his powers barely those of respiration and locomotion. His eyes were like two pale gooseberries firmly imbedded in a swollen and gravy-smeared mask of putty. – O. Henry, “Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen”, 1907

His raiment was splendid, his complexion olive, his mustache fierce, his manners a prince’s, his rings and pins as magnificent as those of a traveling dentist. – O. Henry, “A Philistine in Bohemia”, 1908

“What’s the matter, Bob, are you ill?”

“Not at all, dear.”

“Then what’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

Hearken, brethren. When She-who-has-a-right-to-ask interrogates you concerning a change she finds in your mood answer her thus: Tell her that you, in a sudden rage, have murdered your grandmother; tell her that you have robbed orphans and that remorse has stricken you; tell her your fortune is swept away; that you are beset by enemies, by bunions, by any kind of malevolent fate; but do not, if peace and happiness are worth as much as a grain of mustard seed to you — do not answer her “Nothing.” – O. Henry, “The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Highball”, 1918

September 10

1419 The Assassination of John the Fearless

Pity France in the early 1400s. Off and on, King Charles VI was (as the English say) barking mad — he believed he was made of glass and that his court was out to shatter him and ran howling like a wolf down the corridors of his palace. His wife was suspected of adultery and made wildly extravagant purchases. When the king was mad, the country was run by one of the great princes, John the Fearless of Burgundy, a nasty, greedy little fellow who poured the national treasury into his own. When the king had moments of lucidity, he was controlled by Charles of Orléans, just as much a bloodsucker as Burgundy and one suspected of sorcery.

In 1407, Burgundy solved the problem of rival dukes by ordering Orléans to be assassinated on a dark Paris street. He wept at his cousin’s funeral but soon blurted out that he was guilty – “I did it; the Devil tempted me”, he cried –  and fled the capital. In an amazing trial, his lawyer successfully argued that Burgundy had killed a tyrant, a deed applauded throughout history, and this won him a pardon from the king. France however was torn asunder by this conflict. When Henry V of England invaded the country in 1415, he made easy progress in a nation on the brink of civil war and succeeded in winning Burgundy’s support for his claim to the French throne.

Charles the Dauphin, the son of the mad king and heir to the French crown, relied on the support of the Orleanist (or Armagnac) faction, and tried to woo John the Fearless away from the English alliance. Or so it seemed. In fact Charles was out for revenge. On September 10 at a meeting on a bridge, as Burgundy knelt before Charles, the Dauphin gave a signal and the duke was hacked to pieces. A century later a Carthusian monk, who was showing François I the mausoleum of the Dukes of Burgundy, picked up John’s broken skull and commented, “This is the hole through which the English entered France.”

September 9

1513 A Scottish Catastrophe

Generally speaking, the Scots, for all their martial valour, do not do well fighting against the English. This is why they still yammer on about William Wallace and Robert Burns (treacherous murderers both) 700 years later. When I was living in London the Scots and English still played an annual soccer match and, more than once, I lived through mobs of half-naked, drunken Celts in tams waving their glorious lion rampant banner inscribed with “Bannockburn 1314”. Their record since, from Solway Moss to Pinkie to Preston to Culloden, has not been enviable. A nineteenth century English historian gives James IV the gears for his behaviour at Flodden Field.

On the 9th of September 1513, was fought the battle of Flodden, resulting in the defeat and death of the Scottish king, James IV, the slaughter of nearly thirty of his nobles and chiefs, and the loss of about 10,000 men. It was an overthrow which spread sorrow and dismay through Scotland, and was long remembered as one of the greatest calamities over sustained by the nation. With all tenderness for romantic impulse and chivalric principle, a modern man, even of the Scottish nation, is forced to admit that the Flodden enterprise of James IV was an example of gigantic folly, righteously punished.

The king of Scots had no just occasion for going to war with England. The war he entered upon he conducted like an imbecile, only going three or four miles into the English territory, and there dallying till the opportunity of striking an effective blow was lost. When the English army, under the Earl of Surrey, came against him, he, from a foolish sentiment of chivalry, or more vanity, would not allow his troops to take the fair advantages of the ground. So he fought at a disadvantage, and lost all, including his own life. It is pitiable, even at this distance of time, to think of a people having their interests committed to the care of one so ill qualified for the trust; the Many suffering so much through the infatuation of One.

September 8

601 Birthday of a Kentish princess

One of the ways in which Christianity spread among the barbarian tribes that had overrun the western Roman Empire was the conversion of the king. Often this was brought about as a result of a marriage into a Christian royal family from another realm.

In the seventh century, the Kingdom of the Franks was the dominant state in western Europe and many lesser nations wished to be allied with it. One way to secure this was to marry one of the Merovingian dynasty’s princesses but the Franks always insisted that the young woman be allowed to bring along a bevy of priests and that they be given the right to proselytize. In such a way, pagan Kent became Christianized. King Aethelberht married the Frankish princess Bertha, converted along with a host of his followers, and, in turn, produced a Christian princess of his own, daughter Aethelburh, to marry off to a pagan neighbour. 

After marrying Aethelburh in 627, Edwin of Northumbria  adopted his wife’s faith. The Venerable Bede has a memorable passage describing the debate preceding this conversion. In the end, Edwin will be killed in battle by the Mercians, be made a saint by the Catholic Church, and his wife will flee back to Kent. There she will found an abbey, one of the first Benedictine nunneries in England. She will die in 647.