Friday, 8 December 2017

Pearl Harbor: How Japan Saved the World for "Democracy"

The "dastardly attack."

December 7th is the anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Once again we have the opportunity to either look back in anger or, now that the embers of history have grown cold, to rake through them and ask what was the real significance of that fateful day.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Although every nation committed horrendous atrocities in World War II, Japan is still cast as a pure villain. But, considering that many historians now believe the Japanese were unwitting dupes in one of the most complicated games of propaganda, espionage, and diplomacy ever played out across the world stage, isn't it time to revise the Hollywood version of history and admit the existence of gray areas, especially as the Americans would have been unable to play their full part in the defeat of Fascism without the cooperation of Japan?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Napoleon's Decentered and Disastrous Invasion of Russia

This October 19th marks the 205th anniversary of the start of Napoleon's fateful retreat from Moscow. The march lasted nearly two months and cost tens of thousands of lives, with the remnants of Napoleon's army re-crossing the Russian border on December 12th.

Much is made of the destruction of the "Grand Army of 500,000" by the cold weather and the Cossacks, but this is yet another cliche of World history that doesn't accord entirely with all the facts. 

The first point to make is that the actual force that started the retreat from Moscow was only around 95,000 men, not the half million that is given as the force invading Russia. This force was then joined by an additional 36,000 men on its march home. These were the remnants of 82,000 men detached previously to guard the Northern flank of the advance. From this "retreating force" of 131,000 men, around 10,000 finally exited Russia on the 12th of December.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Italy's Pocket War and Its Dwarf Imperialsm

Italians fighting Turks at Tripoli
Italy was the site of one of the greatest empires -- the Roman -- but, to its shame, it was also the site of one of the more laughable empires, namely the Neo-Italian Empire that emerged following the unification of the country in the 19th century. 

Just as Italian unification owed more to the power machinations of the great states of Europe than the efforts of the Italians themselves, so too did the rise of the Neo-Italian Empire. This is demonstrated by what was the main chapter in this story, the Turkish Italian War of 1911-12, which started today 106 years ago.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Battle of Minden: the Great British Art of Bumbling Through

1759 was the Annus Mirablis ("Miracle Year") of the British Empire, with impressive military victories in all theatres of war—India, North America, Europe, and the open seas—against the power of France. The events of that year decided the course of the Seven Years War, as well as the history of the next 300 years, ensuring that the World would be dominated by Anglophone powers.

On August 1st, one of the key battles of that year took place in Northern Germany. An Anglo-German army (British, Hanoverians, Hessians, and a few Prussians) defeated a Franco-Saxon army, with the key part being played by six British regiments. Because of their remarkable exploits on that day, these regiments (or their successors) are still known as the "The Minden Regiments."

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Top Five Most Memorable Roman Emperors in Film

Sword and sandal epics have long been a staple of the movie business. Rome, with its air of decadence and brutality, is a subject of endless fascination for filmmakers, playing fast and loose with historical truth. Among the most fascinating figures in any Roman epic is the emperor, usually but not always depicted as an incarnation of supreme power and total licence, often with endearing personal quirks. Here is a list of five of the most memorable of the emperors from cinematic history and the actors who portrayed them—in reverse order.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Battle of Hwangsanbeol and the Sacrificial Heroics of Korean Unification

The 7th century was a "foundational" time in the political history of the Korean people. At its start the Korean peninsula was divided into several states, but at its end it was more or less united, certainly more united than it is now.

The key driver of this unification was the rise of the state of Silla and the key event was the Battle of Hwangsanbeol which took place today (July 9th) in 660 AD.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Discovery of Prince Edward Island and the Backwater of Canadian History

"Then 480 years later we plan to legalize weed, gay marriage, and sex with animals..."

The chief characteristic of Canadian history is how underwhelming and indeed twee it is. Although it has its occasional moments, there are few of the Earth-shaking events and titanic figures of the kind that define other countries' histories. This should not be surprising as the country derives its name from a casual Indian word for "village" (kanata) and has chosen to symbolize itself with a flag based on a dead leaf.

Canada is the work of steady, low-profile individuals making calm, rational decisions to exploit hitherto unexploited resources, and keeping conflict to a minimum, not hard to do in a land that is still considered "big and empty." It is a country where the spirit of history has traipsed with light, moccasined feet and gently dipped its paddle, rather than marched with heavy steel-capped boots to the sound of drums.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Indian Mutiny as a Loss and Revival of Imperial Spirit

Miss Wheeler defending herself at the Massacre of Cawnpore.
You can look far and wide for the causes of the Indian Mutiny, which started today in 1857 at the garrison town of Meerut, around 40 miles North East of Delhi.

The most famous cause usually given is the use of pig and cow grease as waterproofing on paper gunpowder cartridges (measured amounts of gunpowder) that the Indian Sepoy troops were then required to open with their teeth, offending their delicate Muslim or Hindu sensibilities. Many other causes are also mentioned, including economic, social, and military ones – such as changes to the terms of military service that required Indian troops to serve overseas. A review of all of these could get quite boring.

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Odd Odyssey of the Dead Duce

The trials and tribulations of Mussolini's body

When Hitler committed suicide in Berlin on the 30th of April, the direct cause was the military collapse of Germany and the victory of the Red Army, but the event that emotionally triggered it was the death two days previously of Hitler’s main ally, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Hitler simply did not want to live in a world without Mussolini.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Copenhagen, the Fulcrum of Napoleon's Downfall

216 years ago today (2nd of April), the First Battle of Copenhagen was fought as part of the great struggle against Revolutionary France, a war that filled the period 1792-1815. The follow-up battle was fought six and a half years later. Both battles involved large British forces pitted against Danish defenders on sea and land. The first involved Lord Nelson, the second the future Duke of Wellington. 

The fact that two big battles between the same contestants occurred at the same point within a historically short span of time is not insignificant. It underlines the fact that Copenhagen was of vital importance to Britain's wider strategy.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

An Oriental Stalingrad and the Chinese Invention of Kamikaze

The Japanese are usually accredited with the development of kamikaze tactics in modern warfare. This is thanks to the dramatic attacks they staged on the Americans in WWII. The rituals that the kamikaze pilots used to prepare themselves for certain death also contributed to the impression that such attacks were part of an ancient and unbroken tradition. They were not. 

The kamikaze attacks launched by the Japanese were acts of desperation, when the war was going against them and their home islands were under direct attack for the first time since the attempted Mongol invasions in the late 13th century. At that time a great typhoon—a "god wind" (kamikaze)—had saved Japan, hence the name of the 20th century suicide attackers.

But rather than the Japanese, who merely branded the technique, it is the Chinese who should get the main credit for its innovation; especially since it appears that the Chinese also "schooled" the Japanese in kamikaze tactics by using them against the Japanese, after they had pushed deep into China.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Stabbed in the Front: Operation Michael, the Ultimate Pyrrhic Victory

99 years ago today the most important event of the 20th century took place, the launch of the last great German offensive in World War One. WWII was merely a post-script to what happened on that day. 

By early 1918, the Germans were in a tight spot. Although Russia had been knocked out of the War by the Bolshevik Revolution and the agreement of Brest-Litovsk, which had ceded enormous territories, the Germans and their Allies were suffering the effects of the prolonged British naval blockade and deep discontent on the home front, with war weariness and strikes breaking out. Also, they were facing the prospect of millions of fresh American troops arriving in the months ahead.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Mongols Conquer the Great City of Kaifeng

The fall of the city of Kaifeng, the capital of the Jin State on the 26th of February, 1233 was the decisive moment in one of the greatest wars of the medieval period, the war between the Mongols and the Jin State that lasted from 1211 to 1234. It was also the culmination of the greatest power struggle between the various "peoples of the steppes" who dominated Chinese history for a thousand years - from the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907 to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1912).

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Meet Liu Ziye, the Chinese Caligula

Rome is justly notorious for several of its Emperors, whether Nero with his cruelty and artistic vanity, Commodus with his gladiatorial obsessions, or Heliogabalus with his perverse sexuality. But the most notorious of the Emperors is undoubtedly Caligula, who committed acts of evil, depravity, and insanity with a degree of panache that makes him the epitome of Lord Acton's famous axiom that power corrupts while absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But Rome was not alone in bestowing such corrupting power on men. The Chinese have an even longer history of Emperors, and although they found ways to contain and enervate their emperors behind silken curtains and clouds of incense and opium, ministered by eunuchs and concubines, they too had their mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know emperors. 

The closest comparison to Caligula was perhaps Liu Ziye (劉子業), who reigned as the Emperor Qianfei over a vast area of Southern China as part of the Southern Song Dynasty (420-479).

Saturday, 14 January 2017

A Scottish Disaster In Estonia: The Siege of Wesenberg

The castle of Wesenberg in Livonia

As a particularly adventurous race, the Scots have had more than their fair share of misfortunes and disasters, even though these have been more than balanced out by their successes around the World.

Disasters often occur when people overstretch themselves or try something outside their experience. This raises the stakes, so when things do go wrong it's a long way down. Embarking on an adventurous course always carries with it the seeds of disaster, and the greater the adventure, the greater the potential for disaster.  In 1574 something went terribly wrong for a large number of Scots far from home—a group of several thousand mercenaries in the service of the king of Sweden in what is now the country of Estonia.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Fall of Calais: A Blessing in Disguise

An attack on Calais in the 16th century

Today (7th January) in 1558, the town of Calais and the small surrounding are, the last English possession in France, fell to a surprise attack launched a few days earlier by the French. At the time, this was considered a great blow, with England's Queen Mary, in particular, biting hard on the black pill. She is reported to have said:
"When I am dead and cut open, they will find Philip and Calais inscribed on my heart."
The reference to Philip is to her husband, Philip II of Spain.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

America: the Empire built on Fat and Shit

The end, as the philosophers often say, is in the beginning. This may or may not be true, but if it is, it is particularly interesting to consider the beginning of the American Empire.

Some would say that America hardly needs an Empire, as it is a vast continent-sized nation with enough of the resources and none of the inherent costs that come with being an empire. Isolationism has always been the default common-sense position for this impressive amalgamation of natural resources and human capital. However, instead of making the most of what they have, Americans have embroiled themselves—at great cost in terms of blood, finance, and internal corruption—in the affairs of the World. It does not seem to be a project that will have a happy end.