Fist Of History

April, 2014Archive for

Philippine-American War 1899-1902

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014


One of the challenging aspects of studying military history is wrestling with the dark side to every military conflict, war at its heart is an extremely messy, ugly, business that lends itself to excesses and atrocities.  The challenging aspect to examining atrocities goes beyond the inflamed passions of the period, as well as the often great difficulty in documenting what occurred, but also because usually atrocities rest upon a foundation of “reasonableness” to those involved in them.  Horrific acts often rest upon a series of choices that, at the time, seemed perfectly logical or even desirable depending on the conditions of the war in question.  An example of this in the history of the United States is the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 – a brutal prolonged war of colonial domination waged by the United States to subjugate the indigenous Philippine population or a necessary war to control a rebellious population bent upon resisting the lawful oversight and protection of the United States against greater foreign threats.  At least for individuals during the war this was the question they debated, fortunately with hindsight most historians today can safely agree that this war was one that was far more heavy upon “racism” and “colonialism” than purely strategic or benevolent aspirations by the United States.  (Cartoons like the one above don’t help argue the latter case.)


The benevolent aspect was captured in cartoons that rested upon the idea of the white male burden of spreading/cultivating “civilization” into regions that lack it.  As the above cartoon shows Uncle Sam his harnessed into the task of turning the Philippines into a modern “civilized” state resting upon the “superior” cultural values of the United States.  Beyond the labor involved in implanting a new social, economic, and political order into a society not particularly open to the idea, the Filipino population in the islands was a bit put out by the United States outlook because:

  • They already felt they had a viable state to take over the administration of their own islands, a republic no less and
  • The United States during its war with Spain had made unofficial overtures that the Philippines would be allowed to administer themselves

Unfortunately with the ending of the Spanish-American War and Spain, by treaty, surrendering the Philippines to the United States in exchange for a token payment of $20 million.  When the armed forces of the United States stopped cooperating with the Filipino revolutionary forces they had previously been closely allied with in the seizing of Manila, the Filipino leadership realized that the United States had changed its mind about giving up on the Philippines.  The United States cited language about human needs and situations beyond the control of its own goals – the Philippines needed the U.S. to remain in place to “protect and nurture it.”  The Filipino government, called the Republic of the Philippines, declared war on the United States and offered armed resistance to these U.S. goals.  The United States did not react well to this development, and doubly so to the use of guerrilla tactics by the Filipinos.  What ensued was a particular horror.


The United States brought to bear not only its superior military forces but also embraced a ruthless level of warfare it felt necessary to destroy Filipino resistance.  Total Filipino losses are unknown, although estimates vary wildly, but the U.S. general in charge of the campaign, General Elwell Stephen Otis, followed a policy of brutal suppression of resistance, the concentration of local populations in forced resettlement villages, the burning of the countryside, a refusal to take prisoners, brutal interrogations, and mass executions.  Otis is famous for a quote, when asked by his Filipino opponent, Emilio Aguinaldo for a cessation of fighting in the initial battle of Manila, Otis replied: “fighting, having begun, must go on to the grim end.”


Yes, that is a Filipino and yes, he is getting water-boarded during this war by U.S. military forces.  Referred to as the “water cure” it was a commonly used method for interrogation during the war and it is on record that it killed people.  The United States Senate formed a committee to investigate reports of the conduct of the U.S. during the war, the committee assembling in 1899 but under Senator Lodge’s oversight in 1902 beginning an investigation into reports of atrocities in the Philippines.  The committee investigated and discovered repeated cases of the U.S. military engaging in acts considered horrific, however the final findings of the committee were sharply toned down by pro-Imperialist elements in the Senate because they were seen as too harsh and negative in their attacks on American tactics in the war.  The general feeling by many was the Filipinos, by resisting, had gotten what they were “due” in the war and should have accepted U.S. rule quietly rather than offering resistance.

However anti-Imperialist individuals in the United States raised a fuss about the actions of the military and published a pamphlet on what happened in the war, using excerpts from soldiers letters back to the United States.  I think one example in particular will capture the “flavor” of the war:

“Talk about war being “hell,” this war beats the hottest estimate ever made of that locality. Caloocan was supposed to contain seventeen thousand inhabitants. The Twentieth Kansas swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native. Of the buildings, the battered walls of the great church and dismal prison alone remain. The village of Maypaja, where our first fight occurred on the night of the fourth, had five thousand people in it at that day,—now not one stone remains upon top of another. You can only faintly imagine this terrible scene of desolation. War is worse than hell.” – Captain Elliot, Kansas Regiment.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Philippine-American War, Elwell Stephen Otis, Lodge Committee, Treaty of Paris 1898, and website on the pamphlet American Soldiers in the Philippines Write Home about the War


Alf Landon – Liberal Republican

Monday, April 28th, 2014


Meet Alf Landon (1887-1987), one of the greatest examples of a Progressive (a.k.a. Liberal) Republican to grace United States politics in the 1930s.  Landon made his initial career working in the petroleum industry and by the 1920s was a wealthy man – war veteran from World War I.  Landon got into politics in 1922 serving as secretary to a governor of Kansas and lead the successful Republican Presidential and Gubernatorial campaigns of 1928 in Kansas.   With the onset of the Great Depression Landon entered politics for himself, running for governor of Kansas in 1932 and winning despite the overall implosion of the Republican party in reaction to the economic collapse of 1929-1932.  Landon ran again in 1934 and was the only Western Republican to retain his seat as governor – due to this electoral success and the success of his policies at combating the depression in Kansas while remaining more centrist economically led to his being selected as the Republican nominee for the Presidency in 1936.  Running against Franklin Roosevelt Landon received a mighty electoral spanking, winning 16 million votes to Roosevelt’s 27 million and only scoring a total of eight electoral votes.  (Maine and Vermont respectively backed him, Landon did not even carry his own home state.)  After his 1936 electoral defeat Landon left politics and did not seek further political office, although he remained an influential member of the Republican party.


So the question then is why should the average reader care about a losing Republican Presidential candidate like Alf Landon – the simple answer is because Landon represented a type of Republican that was briefly viable during the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.  Landon and others like him grabbed controlled of the Republican party when it was reeling from the electoral losses of 1932 and 1934 and helped push the party towards a Centrist-Right, and even somewhat Centrist-Left, position in electoral policies to meet the demands of the American voter while also keeping closer to the views of some progressive conservatives that the nation needed reform but not the seeming revolution Roosevelt was offering.  Some of the policies enacted by Landon while governor of Kansas illustrate this philosophy:  tax reductions, a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, state supported local relief, and several emergency banking laws.  However Landon achieved those goals for Kansas without increasing the state deficit.  His ideas didn’t end the Depression for the state but they took some of the sting out of it.


Landon held to the idea that government had social obligations that it needed to focus upon, and social ideals the government should approach, but he sought to do so in a framework of fiscal conservancy.  Landon did not oppose Roosevelt on his social programs but instead attacked Roosevelt on the control the federal government had taken over the overall United States economy.  Landon wanted a federal government that was active but lean.

Whether or not his ideas might have worked is a what-if of history we’ll never know, but Landon represented a wing of the Republican party that remained a factor in United States elections up until the Richard Nixon era.  It wasn’t until Nixon, and later Reagan, that the Republican party really gave up its Progressive wing almost entirely and instead focused upon courting the more conservative elements in the United States electorate (and also scooped up the solid South once and for all.)

Sources:  Wikipedia on Alf Landon, Kansapedia on Alf Landon, Kansas State University page on Landon Lectures.

Friday – Old Cartoons and Old Ads

Friday, April 25th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

Note:  They mean crappy roads, really REALLY crappy roads


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

Note:  I continue to adore how often these ads specify their products are disfiguring chemicals free


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891

Note:  Humor was harsher in the past, it really was


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896

Note:  There are a lot of very negative comments about cable car service in New York in the 1890s


Source:  Life Magazine, 1900

So this one requires a bit of an explanation, the Second Boer War occurred from 1899 to 1902 – it was a war between South African white settlers of Dutch origin, founders of two republics in the northern portion of modern South Africa.  The war was fought over political control of the region which was rich in gold and diamonds.  The war basically boiled down to the British seeing the richness of this territory and deciding that what it really lacked was a proper level of “Belonging to Great Britain.”  The Second Boer War was an ugly war, complete with one of our first incidents of modern concentration camps.  (Note, not extermination camps, concentration camps, a future entry I’ll clarify that distinction further.)  The above cartoon is referring to the third phase of the Boer War, the guerrilla portion of the war.  From 1899 to 1900 the British invasion of the two republics proceeded according to clockwork, beat back their armies with a massive force, capture the two main capital cities, and as far as the British were concerned that was the end of the war.  The resisting forces, the Boers, disagree with this assessment and began a massive guerrilla war, using hit-and-run tactics, small units assaults, attacks on supply lines and communication hubs, and generally being a pain in the ass to the British.  The British, with a massive and highly immobile infantry centered army, stomped around the countryside trying to crush the smaller Boer units but failed.

Eventually the war ended when the British army got…creative.  First they dotted the countryside with thousands of small bunkers and stowed six to eight soldiers in each, those blockhouses were then used to deny the Boers access to vulnerable supply and communication points by simply garrisoning them all.  Next the British strung huge amounts of barbed wire between bunkers to break up the countryside and began methodical sweeps in these fenced off areas to shrink areas of Boer guerrilla control.  Finally the British embraced a particularly aggressive tactic, scorched earth, which in this case meant burning everything they could get their hands on the Boers might use for support.  It took two long years but eventually the British broke Boer resistance and the two former republics were melded into the new Union of South Africa.

The above cartoon refers to an early portion of this guerrilla phase of the war where three factors came together – the British officer class and its desire to appear brave to inspire the men, Boer guerrilla’s disregarding traditional rules of engagement, and the fact the Boers were almost universally very good long range snipers.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on the Second Boer War

Asymmetrical Aircraft of World War II (and beyond)

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Aufklärungsflugzeug Blohm + Voß BV 141

Ah the German Luftwaffe of World War II, a powerful force in the research to advance science and technology harnessed to the demands of war, not only was it a leading force in jet aircraft development but as the war progressed they funded increasingly crazy ideas to try and turn the course the war back in Germany’s favor.  The above aircraft, the Blohm and Voss BV 141, is not one of those aircraft however, what you are looking at above was an aircraft considered too fantastical for even the German air force to use.  The BV 141 was developed in answer to a 1937 Luftwaffe call for designs for new reconnaissance aircraft that were single engined.  The above design was developed by Dr. Richard Vogt who decided to try something really new, his main idea being that with the cockpit offset like that the pilot and observing crew members could be given a fantastic view all around the aircraft.  The design made it to the final stages of consideration but was rejected on the technical grounds it was considered “underpowered” although it exceeded all the other design requirements the Luftwaffe required.  The actual winner was the Focke-Wulf Fw 189, a plane one could argue technically cheated in that it had two engines and that wasn’t what the Luftwaffe originally wanted.


Dr. Vogt kept coming back to the Luftwaffe with other asymmetrical designs, such as the P.194 (of which we only have models and drawings as it was never built), a single engined off-center cockpit designed fighter-bomber, submitted in 1944 it again offered performance advantages potentially and was again rejected, mainly because it was “funny looking.”  Dr. Vogt also submitted designs for conventional aircraft, some of which were built, however every time he submitted one of these designs the Luftwaffe leadership hated it, many reasons were given but the core one seems to be “it doesn’t look like what a plane is supposed to look like.”  Which is interesting because research has shown planes that “don’t look like what a plane looks like” actually can do fairly well.


Like the Rutan Boomerang Model 202, designed to provide a more easily controlled aircraft in the event of one of the two engines being lost, although technically harder to manufacture it also in numerous years of testing proved a more stable design in the event of the loss of an engine.  It was also never adopted, for multiple reasons, but I like to think at least in part it was because it was “funny looking.”  Our final example though is my favorite.


The NASA AD-1 was a test project and plane from 1979 to 1981 that attempted to tackle the question of how to deal with the problem of very high speed flight, in low-speed flight a conventional wing configuration provided the best lift, but when an aircraft reached high subsonic to low supersonic speeds wind tunnel tests showed that an oblique wing configuration would provide better fuel economy and better aerodynamic properties.  NASA proceeded to build one, with the ability to move its wing from a normal configuration to a 60 degree offset (pictured above.)  The plane had issues of stability and control when the wing angle got beyond 45 degrees but that was mainly due to the low-tech control system put in the plane and its fiberglass construction, otherwise it proved the concept.  There was conversation after the test program about building commercial aircraft that could do this but the idea was shelved, technical issues, costs, and the need for more research.  (Although again I’d contend it was also because the plane “looked funny.”)

Richard Vogt survived the war and was brought to the United States under Operational Paperclip and worked with various military and civilian aircraft projects.  To his credit in particular is the post-war development of “winglets” – those little upturned wing-tips on modern jetliners that you see everywhere, he was the first to discover and prove they’d improve aerial handling.

I’ll be the first to admit it is opinion but it has always amused me that part of the reason designs like this get shelved without further research is they don’t look “plane-like enough” – which causes my amusement because we are the ones who first settled what plane-like meant.  Had the Wright brothers gotten into offset cockpit design today would we as a species point and scream in shock at planes with an in-line cockpit because they don’t look “plane-like”?

Sources:  Wikipedia pages on the BV 141, the BV P.194, the NASA AD-1, Richard Vogt, and the Rutan Boomerang Model 202; German Aircraft of the Second World War, including Helicopters and Missiles by Antony L. Kay and John Richard Smith.

Conservatives – not always halting progress

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

So this entry is a reaction to the following text that was part of a larger, pro-animal rights screed on Facebook:

“It was liberals who ignited the American Revolution! Liberals who crafted our Constitution! Liberals who opposed slavery! Liberals who fought for blacks to vote. Then for women’s suffrage! Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights!

Conservatives were opposed to all these things!

As Tories, conservatives opposed the  American Revolution. As Democrats they supported slavery and opposed giving African-Americans the right to vote. (Most people don’t know that the Republicans were the liberals in 1860, when Lincoln was elected. The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt.)

As Republicans, conservatives opposed women’s right to vote. They were opposed to going to war against Hitler! Liberals fought for integration, conservatives fought to keep segregation.

Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed civil rights! They now oppose women’s rights to equal pay, gays’ rights to marry and adopt children, and animal rights!

I ask this simple question: When, in history, have Conservatives ever been right about anything? Think about it:  Conservatives opposed the American Revolution. They supported slavery. They opposed women’s suffrage. They opposed unions. They opposed child labor laws. They opposed Social Security. They opposed World War II. They opposed integration. They opposed civil rights. They opposed inter-racial marriage. They opposed voting rights. Now, they oppose gay rights and animal rights. They have been a drogue anchor on the ship of civilization. They have delayed, but not prevented, social progress.”

Written by one Roland Vincent, link located here

The problem with this viewpoint, which is not uncommon, is two fold, first it is not entirely accurate as it simplifies a series of very complex historic situations and second, it is a tautology as defined, any politicians supporting the above causes were “liberals” and those who opposed them “conservatives” – but the argument that conservatives have always been on the wrong side of history and positive progress is also overly-simplistic and, bluntly put, often wrong.  Now some of his points are valid but some aren’t, and in fine Fist tradition lets present a blow-by-blow breakdown:

Liberals and the American Revolution – the author posits that Conservatives all stood behind the King and Liberals sparked the American Revolution, in that particular conflict individuals who supported the King were labeled “Tories” by those in favor of Revolution, their name for themselves though was “Loyalist” and many of them had supported other efforts that helped lay the groundwork of opposition to the British Crown, including the anti-British goods boycotts that successfully ended certain detested tax laws imposed by the British parliament.  Many Loyalists started out in the American Revolution trying to find a middle-ground that would maintain a connection to the British Crown but carve out a new unique space for the American colonies, it was over the course of outright rebellion that such efforts were squeezed out and a viewpoint of either for or against the war and Revolution became the only solution discussed.  (For the record had the American Colonies remained part of the British Empire slavery might have been prolonged in the British Empire, rather than ended in 1833 with a gradual and peaceful ending.  Wikipedia entry here.)


An example of the complexity of this issue can be found in Benjamin Franklin (pictured above) – who in the 1760s and early 1770s acted as an agent of moderation and reconciliation between the American colonies and the British crown, he initially supported the 1765 Stamp Act as a legitimate effort of Britain to gain extra revenue.  When the American colonists reacted with overwhelming negativity to this action Franklin argued for the British Parliament repealing the tax, when they did, he considered it a mark the system worked politically.  It wasn’t until 1774 when Franklin was publicly humiliated in front of the British parliament over some private letters he leaked that reflected poorly on the Massachusetts colonial leadership that he switched outlook entirely from pro-Crown to pro-Revolution, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.  Which raises the question – does this kick him over to the Liberal camp, was he a secret Liberal the whole time, or are we seeing someone who shifted in their outlook on a complex issue?  (Source here.)


Liberals crafted the Constitution – the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Father of the Bill of Rights” is James Madison (pictured above), also the fourth President of the United States.  His plan, the “Virginia Plan”, was the instrument that was used at the 1787 Constitutional Convention as the foundation of the modern Constitution that the United States still operates under.  Which by the above argument should make Madison a solid “Liberal” however throughout his political career he detested the idea of “excessive democracy” – meaning legislators that passed laws focused mainly upon their constituents demands rather than the long-term good of the state or nation, Madison believed that legislators should be detached, above political concerns, floating above the vulgar needs of the masses.  He is also the creator of the three-fifths compromise that defined African-Americans for taxation, representation, and census purposes as 3/5 of a human being and for his entire life legitimately felt that African-Americans were not only inherently inferior to Caucasians but that bondage was their natural position in the world and the best possible position for them in the United States.  He felt that their welfare was best protected by their limited representation in government (as 3/5 of a person, to remind you again gentle reader) – and that as slaves they should rely on their masters to protect them from excesses of the law.  Both of these life-long outlooks would seem to move Madison more towards the Conservative side of the equation.  (Wikipedia entry on Madison here.)  [As a bonus point many of the more Liberal members of the original American Revolutionaries, like Patrick Henry, were anti-federalists and opposed the new Constitution as taking too much power to the center, so one can argue that many Liberals of the period sharply opposed the new Constitution.]


Liberals opposed slavery/Liberals supported the Black Vote – Broadly this is correct, the Republicans (the Liberal party of the 1860s) were instrumental in backing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, however the amendment was also supported by several powerful Democratic (Conservative) elements in the nation, including the Tammany Hall machine that dominated New York politics (run by Boss Tweed, pictured above.)  Passage was supported by sixteen Democrats, and all the Republicans in the House, and although the sixteen Democratic supporters were mostly lame-ducks after the 1864 election, not all of them were.  (Wikipedia entry here.)  Liberals (Republicans again) were strongly in favor of providing African-Americans with the vote through the Fifteenth Amendment but its passage was fiercely opposed by many Woman’s Suffragist supporters (very Liberal) for providing African-American men with the vote ahead of Caucasian women, leading to some of the most ugly racist rhetoric you’ll see coming out of this period.  The debate split the suffragist movement and two key, very Liberal leaders of the cause for women’s voting, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton, considered the Fifteenth Amendment a gross insult to women and only reluctantly, decades later, embraced it.  (Wikipedia entry here.)


Liberals gave Women Suffrage – Actually no, the 19th Amendment was favored by both Conservatives and Liberals and was passed in May 1919 by a House and Senate dominated by the Republican Party (by the above rhetoric Conservative again.)  The states mostly ratified it quickly but the key final ratification was by Tennessee, where a highly Conservative young voter switched his vote unexpectedly in favor, leading to the that state being the final key approval needed to make the 19th the law of the land.  (The representative passed it in part due to a letter from his mother advising him to do so.)  (Wikipedia entry here.)  [The above image is of the Speaker of the House in 1919, Frederick Gillett, a Conservative, signing the legislation proposing the 19th amendment after the House passed that bad boy.]


Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights – so first lets get the following out of the way, the author is correct on the following points:  ending child labor, legalizing unions, enacting Social Security, and leading the fight on women’s rights (1970s-1980s) and gay rights (1970s – 1990s) he is correct, Liberals get a clear support point on this.  On the first three FDR was a key figure in the 1938 shift to the left of the New Deal that lead to all of those major social reforms and they passed due to a uniform position of power in the legislature held by Democrats.  Now during this period the Republicans went through a centrist period, which is too much detail for this entry, but I’ll give liberals these without opposition.

But when it comes to Civil Rights the happy harmony train has to come to an end, both Liberals and Conservatives alternated between getting cuddly with Civil Rights and backing away from it, due to the support the Democratic Party (Liberals) had from the Solid South (very not Liberal on this issue.)  From Roosevelt through Kennedy you have Democratic Party Presidents who were extremely cautious about doing anything to antagonize the South and Civil Rights languished under their watch.  It wasn’t really until Lyndon Johnson got into the Presidency that the Civil Rights movement got a serious kick of federal support.


The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt – this argument just annoys me to no small end and is a commonly held up troupe on the Internet.  The above is William Howard Taft, president immediately after Teddy Roosevelt and a trust-busting, pro-corporate income tax, pro-law, anti-politics, and pro-federal budget President one has to see Taft as a generally Progressive President.  More critically he was a crap President on politics because he believed in the rule of law, the rule of efficiency, and the rule of competence over political gains in most situations.  This, of course, made him terrible at the parts of the job of President that most people actually dislike publicly but embrace privately, the wheeling and dealing for the party that backed the candidate into office.  (Wikipedia entry here.)


They were opposed to going to war against Hitler – Actually no, the U.S. isolationist movement in the United States pulled support from many sectors, including Conservatives and Liberals.  However of particularly fascinating note is first that the Stimson Doctrine, which was created in 1931 and attested that the U.S. would not recognize territorial gains through aggressive military actions, was created and supported under the Herbert Hoover administration, a staunch Republican and a poster-boy (unfortunately) for “out-of-touch economically” Republicans with the rise of the Great Depression.  Furthermore when Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation through Congress allowing the President to “consult” with other nations dealing with aggression the move died in Congress, in part due to strong opposition from highly Progressive (read Mega-Liberal) Senators Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.  Senator La Follette (pictured above) is an interesting example of this period’s political complexities, in 1926 he got into office as a Republican but in 1934 and 1940 he got into office as a Progressive and was a leading member of the Wisconsin Progressive Party.  That political party collapsed and in 1946 he ran as a Republican again and lost.  He was a staunch isolationist and yet was a major supporter of organized labor.  Conservative or Liberal I leave as an exercise to the reader.  (Wikipedia entry on La Follette Jr. here and article on 1930s U.S. isolationism here.)

One could argue though that in all of this I have merely refuted his individual examples but not his core points, that I have not proven any case where Conservatives lead the way to social progress, to which I respond as follows:


Richard M. Nixon – poster boy of the Conservative forces in the U.S. in the late 1960s, elected by his so-called “Silent Majority” who wanted to see a return to “law and order” and an end to rioting and the domestic unrest riling the U.S. over many issues including Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, just to name a few.  A President so manipulative he was nearly impeached and remains the only President to resign from office.  He also happened to be the key leader in passing/creating:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency
  • the Clean Air Act of 1970
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • Endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment
  • Philadelphia Plan (first Federal Affirmative Action plan)
  • Normalized relations with the Peoples Republic of China
  • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and reduced tensions with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic

(Wikipedia entry on Nixon here.)

Bottom Line on it all – nothing is simplistic and arguing that one broad political movement is “opposed” to progress while another is “supporting” progress is overly simplistic, the reality in U.S. history is far more messy, far more nuanced, and far more fascinating.

Battle of France 1940 – why did France lose?

Monday, April 21st, 2014


From last Wednesday’s entry readers might have been left with the question, if France had been aware of the dangers posed by a German attack against the Ardennes forest and Sedan, why were the German’s so successful at smashing through at that point?  More critically, why once the German army had broken through did the French defense collapse so quickly – going from a robust and respected force of combined French, British, Dutch, and Belgian arms to an utterly routed force in just six weeks?  Unfortunately there are many factors to consider – a fractious and politically divided nation that had been facing its own simmering internal stability issues for years, a complicated relationship between the military and French industry that lead to wasted production and inefficient competition, outmoded industrial production models that could not complete with German material effectiveness, a declining birthrate that forced the French military to use more older and less physically able males in their forces, and paralysis in the French government – each of these factors could be an entry in and of itself.  However the most critical elements to the actual collapse of the French defense in 1940 can be zoomed in upon – historians vary in their view but it seems to boil down to these core elements:  the wrong sort of tanks that were also used incorrectly, supported by far too few aircraft, and redeployed far too late in the initial critical moments of the battle to do any good.

The tank issue is probably the best example, pictured above is one of the finest heaviest French tanks in the war, the Char B1, a heavy tank with massive armor plating, a heavy main gun, and an impressive secondary gun, the Char B1 is on record for being a highly effective machine that smashed German tanks efficiently in individual battles.  (One story, possibly false, speaks of one of these tanks smashing thirteen German tanks in a quick battle and escaping unharmed after taking 140 hits upon the vehicle.)  The problem with this beast of a tank was it was great in individual tank battles, but lacked speed and mobility, issues not considered vital by the French military leadership.  This tank was designed to smash open a strong point in the enemy line and allow infantry to follow-up on the breakthrough, or lighter tanks working with the infantry, the French military embraced the idea of combined arms but missed entirely the potential of high-speed and high mobility combined arms, infantry units moving on trucks or other mechanized vehicles following massed formations of tanks that could smash through a prepared line and then race to the rear, breaking up supply, communication, and transport routes quickly.  The Germans embraced this idea and it was this idea that allowed their major battle formations used in the Sedan to not only break through French defenses quickly but follow-up with sweeping movements that broke into open countryside and wrecked havoc on French defensive planning.


The French and British air forces were overall outnumbered in aircraft by the German air force but it was also a matter of quality, the most modern aircraft the French had, the Dewoitine D.520 (pictured above) was capable of tangling with the German aircraft as a near equal, but in the Battle of France the French deployed all of them, thirty-six in total, in one unit.  Most of the French and British aircraft were defeated in the air and, furthermore, French industry had not been focused enough to build up sufficient spare parts to allow the planes when damaged to stay in the air.  Due to this the German air force was able to gain air superiority which caused a major crimp on French defensive mobility, French units moving during daylight hours had to hide from German aerial attack.  (A problem the Germans dealt with in 1944 during their Western Winter Offensive, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge.)  The restricted mobility imposed by a loss of aerial control upon the French military, combined with the need to avoid concentrating units that would attract German aerial bombardment, resulted in French units being moved in a haphazard manner and gave the German military the capacity to use its air power as a highly mobile support force to their ground attacks.


In the end though the largest problem that affected the French military, and that was recognized at the time, was a major breakdown in command and control of the French military.  Marc Bloch, an officer at the time, after the defeat wrote a firsthand account of the destruction of the French military as it attempted to stem the tide of the German invasion.  He recounted how the French military was gripped by a paralysis of will, unable to move troops and supplies to areas of critical need, establishing their rear areas far too close to the front lines and seeing them overrun again and again, and a feeling of the inevitability of defeat that paralyzed the military command of France.  Even efforts by some military commanders, such as Charles De Gaulle, only delayed what many felt was inevitable.  The war with France came to an end on 22 June 1940 with an armistice, which went beyond an admission of military defeat and entered the realm of a complete collapse of the French government’s will to struggle at all.  It marked the end of the French Third Republic and the rise of Vichy France, an unusual amalgam of a nation.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Battle of France, Char B1, and Dewoitine D.520, A Strange Victory by Ernest May, Strange Defeat by Marc Bloch.

Old Cartoons and Old Ads Friday

Friday, April 18th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

(For my politically active readers you might enjoy how little views of Wall Street have changed over the years)


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896

(I find this a particularly interested artifact because it captures the earlier feeling that Government was a highly competent organization- hence the boast about contract selection)


Source:  Life Magazine, 1887

Normally I don’t put up items from my growing collection of racist cartoons and ads – some are really bad – but this one stands in an odd place for me – the depiction of an African-American and an Asian are racist, yet I can’t shake the feeling the advertiser was really trying to sell their product to all three racial groups.  (From the tag line how some prefer one color, some another.)  I’m also pretty certain this is advertising a hair salon and not some sort of odd 1880s tanning booth.  I leave the question of if the ad is racist to the reader for consideration.



Source:  (For Both) Life Magazine, 1901

Now this is one of the rare happy moments when online research actually provided some context for these particular advertisements.  The “chainless bicycle” or shaft-driven bicycle was an idea that was patented in England and America, simultaneously by two different inventors, in 1891.  The idea didn’t catch on in England but in the United States the Columbia Cycle company, through a mix of buying exclusive rights and other smaller cycle companies, by 1897 was in the business of producing both chained bicycles and chainless bicycles, and they began to promote their shaft-driven bicycle technology aggressively.  The advertisements above are specimens of that effort to promote an alternate propulsion technology.  The idea never really caught on and was abandoned by the early 20th century because of a few problems – the mechanical production capacity of the period was simply not good enough to make the gears mesh neatly enough to really make the idea work as well as its potential implied and the bicycles were heavier due to the need for a more robust frame to handle the power transmission system.  (For the record, according to one website conversion the value of that $75.00 bike in today’s funds would be over $2000.00 – so these bikes were developed for the serious cyclist.)

Source:  Wikipedia entry on Shaft-driven bicycles and this Inflation Calculating page.

1940 France Ardennes Forest Breakthrough – a.k.a. why didn’t the French see it coming?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014


So the above image captures a general perception held by many, how could France, a modern military power in 1940, rely upon a forest to stop the largest armored assault in history – in many sources the French defense in 1940 is treated as a textbook example of a nation failing to properly understand the potential of German tanks and in the common teaching of the war the above joke is treated as a serious point of military history.  The conventional wisdom is “France was expected a retread of the attack through Belgium and Germany totally got the drop on them by punching through the forest which France stupidly relied on as am impenetrable barrier against tanks.”  The first thing to explain is that France, and Great Britain’s expectation of a retread of the German World War I invasion plan through Belgium was actually pretty reasonable, it was the plan the Germans were working with up until late February 1940 and the plan favored by most of the German military leadership.  (For perspective the invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland started on 10 May 1940 so a two month major change of plans was uncommon for a major military offensive.)  The original German plan was basically the World War I invasion plan beefed up with tanks and aircraft, however the problem was that the German high command, in anticipating the French and British response, expected high German causalities and the offensive winding down with the German army holding about half of Belgium.  Enter the German general Eric von Manstein with his crazy “up the center” plan to invade France.


Manstein (pictured above) suggested the famous thrust through the Ardennes forest as the major offensive effort, breaking through the French army at that location, and then pouring troops through into the open territory behind French lines and trapping the Franco-British combined armies that had moved into Belgium behind a fast moving German military movement.  The reason the rest of the German military leadership disliked this plan was it was incredibly risky, had the French facing the German military breakthrough mustered any of the following three things:  massed tank formations to crush the German armored columns, massed successful air offensive against the German leading tank formations, or French infantry with sufficient anti-tank artillery to contain the breakthrough.  Now Manstein could feel confident the first two would not happen, for reasons outlined below, but the last item was the one that was uncertain, bluntly put it would not take much French infantry with proper anti-tank weapons to delay the German breakthrough for long enough for the French and British to realize “Oh crap, attack up the center, shift reserves there” and then the brilliant lightening stroke would have turned into a nasty mess with Germany’s fine military suddenly caught in a trap of its own making.


Furthermore the French military command actually did see the offensive potential of a German breakthrough in the Ardennes forest, battles had been fought there in World War I and as early as 1938 the French high command understood the Ardennes was not sufficiently strong as a barrier to prevent German tank offensives without “special preparations in advance.”  The military commander of the French forces in World War II, Marshall Maurice Gamelin (pictured above) argued prior to the war that not only was the point that Germany later smashed through defensively weak but pushed to have it re-enforced in defense.  Specifically the town of Sedan, considered a linchpin defensive point, was found by multiple French military leaders to be insufficient to prevent a serious attack.  The problem was an easy solution was not present – building heavy fortifications would be expensive and arguing that the Ardennes was sufficient as a defensive point also helped deter French politicians from requiring the massive Maginot line be extended into the region, which would have siphoned off French economic resources for other military improvements that the French military leadership thought more critical – such as more advanced aircraft and more armor.

So what happened when Germany invaded and why, even knowing the danger in advance, did France fail to properly stem the German attack through the Ardennes forest?  That’s a story for a second installment next week…

Source:  Wikipedia articles on Manstein Plan, Battle of France, and the Battle of Sedan, the book Strange Victory by Ernest May


Lebensborn – Nazi Baby Houses

Monday, April 14th, 2014


Founded in 1935 the Lebensborn program (“Font of Life”) was a Nazi German government program designed to provide natal care and support for mothers giving birth to infants.  In particular the Lebensborn program was aimed at providing a safe space for unwed mothers to have their children away from their communities where they may have felt social shame or isolation due to their pregnancy outside of wedlock.  The program also provided assistance in the placement of infants whose mothers put them up for adoption with “suitable” families whose fathers were members of the SS.  As this is a Nazi governmental program, you would be correct to expect that there were some horrifying and creepy goals behind this program, in particular it was a part of the Nazi eugenics based ideology of promoting the breeding of “racially superior” Aryan stock.  The trick to gaining access to this program was that both the mother and father had to pass a careful screening for genetic/racial purity before being allowed access to the support provided by the Lebensborn program.

"Verein Lebensborn", Taufe

The Lebensborn program was centered around a series of maternal “houses” set up throughout Germany, and later in several occupied territories judged to have sufficient Aryan roots, where women who were allowed access to the program could get prenatal and natal care for their children.  This program was also an extension to provide social services that were felt to be needed thanks to the earlier 1932 SS Marriage order and the 1935 Lebensborn Decree, the former requiring that members of the SS get the permission of the government before marrying to ensure their “racial purity” remained intact and the second strongly encouraging SS members to have at least four children, either in or out of wedlock.  The Nazi government felt that if they were encouraging the SS to breed, and also encouraging them to breed solely based on considerations of “racial purity”, that a support network needed to be in place to support single mothers in having their infants.  This was also seen as a necessity due to the Nazi government putting incredible roadblocks in the way of Aryan women getting an abortion.


The Lebensborn program was a broader extension of the Nazi government’s emphasis upon German/”Aryan” women remaining in the home and supporting the instilling of traditional German domestic values in their children, the major emphasis being upon “racially pure” women staying home, breeding, and raising children.  One of the interesting extensions of this emphasis upon procreation came about from the League of German Girls, a Nazi organization focused on pre-teen and teenage women, with a goal of instilling into them state-approved values and outlook on life.  The League of German Girls encouraged its membership to have babies and espoused the value of motherhood, the result was a spike in teenage pregnancies and an increasing number of complaints from more conservative German parents that these efforts to instill Nazi ideology in favor of childbirth were undermining traditional German values supporting delaying sexual activity till marriage.  The Lebensborn program was designed to also deal with these issues and provide a means of allowing teenage mothers to complete their pregnancies in a psychologically supportive environment.

However even the Nazi state had its limits of tolerance for teenage female sexuality, reportedly in 1936 at the Nuremberg rally members of the League of German Girls and the Hitler Youth, the male teenage Nazi organization, were allowed to camp next to each other during the rally.  Afterwards when over nine hundred of the young women who had attended the Nuremberg rally returned home pregnant the Nazi government decreed that at future party events the two teenage organizations were not to camp next to each other.

Although the SS organized the systematic kidnapping and relocation of children throughout Europe into German homes, to focus the “acceptably Aryan” into a “proper environment” – the Lebensborn program was found after the war to have had minimal to no real role in that program.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Lebensborn and the League of German Girls, U.S. Holocaust Museum entry on “Women in the Third Reich“, German History in Documents translation of the SS Marriage Order, and Children During the Holocaust by Patricia Heberer

Cartoon and Old Ad Friday

Friday, April 11th, 2014


Title:  The Magician

Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890


Source:  Life Magazine, 1892


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

The above poem is in reference to the Bimetalism Crisis of the 1890s and refers to the ambitions of farmers and western miners that the use of more freely coined silver money would allow debts taken on under tighter gold money to be paid back more cheaply.