Friday, 16 December 2016

Decimation - not as bad as you might think?

Decimation - if you were to look it up in the dictionary you might find words to the effect of "to destroy or kill a large proportion of  (e.g. a plague decimated the population)".  In the Thesaurus you will find synonyms such as 'annihilation', ' cataclysm' or 'devastation'; all of which sounds pretty apocalyptic. But was it always this way? Has modern usage assigned a meaning that is far bigger than the original intent?

Well - the short answer is "yes", but when was there ever any fun in giving a short answer when you have a long one to hand, as it were. 

The word decimation - as you might not be surprised to learn - originates from the Latin for ten (i.e. decem). In its original form, decimation was a form of punishment used to instill discipline within the Roman Army from the fifth century BC until the early Imperial times of the first century AD, and which even made the odd appearance in much later times - but more of that later.

So what was decimation all about? Well, in essence it was a spectacularly brutal exercise that must have been an incredibly effective deterrent to any unit that was considering desertion in the heat of battle or mutiny against their commanding officers.

In summary, the procedure - once enacted - was as follows: a cohort (typically around 480 men) was divided into groups of ten. Each group then drew lots with the loser then being executed by the other nine - usually by means of stoning or clubbing to death. 

Watching someone being executed by means of a hangman or similar must have been bad enough, but actually having to do the killing yourself must have been horrendous. The poor sod who drew the short straw might well be your best friend - someone with whom you had joined up many years before, trained with, fought with, perhaps even saved your life on occasion. At the very least it would be someone you shared a tent or barracks-room with. Someone with whom you had forged an incredibly strong bond of trust and loyalty. And now you had to crush his skull with a rock. 

For the rest of the unit, that was not the end of the matter, though their fate was by no means as bad. They were made to live off barley instead of wheat rations and forced to camp outside the walls of the fort for a few days which, if on campaign, must have carried its own dangers.

I can well imagine that the threat of this punishment must have gone a long way to keeping legionaries in line when it came to facing down overwhelming odds in battle. Better to fight and die with honour than live with disgrace and the threat of decimation. 

How often was it used? Not very, in a nutshell. The earliest recorded instance occurred in 471 BC where, after the army had been scattered by the Volsci tribe, the consul of Rome ordered that the officers who had thrown away their weapons would be whipped and beheaded and that the rank and file would be decimated. 

Another example occurred during the Third Servile War in 71 BC (cue cries of "I'm Spartacus and so's my wife".... er.... hang on). Following early victories for Kirk Douglas' slave army, the Roman Commander - Marcus Licinius Crassus - dished out the punishment to which a number of contemporary historians then attributed his subsequent success. Hollywood left that bit out of the film, though I don't know why as it would have added to the drama quite nicely.

Although the practice was eventually outlawed in the later Roman Empire, there have been a few recorded instances in more recent times. For example, in 1642 during the Thirty Years' War, Colonel Madlon's cavalry regiment (of the Holy Roman Empire) fled the Battle of Breitenfeld (near Leipzig) without a shot being fired. Afterwards the commander, Arch-Duke Leopold of Austria, erased the regiment from official lists, condemned the officers to be beheaded and 90 of the the soldiers were decimated with the survivors being discharged from the army.

So whilst decimation only really meant that 1 in 10 were actually killed, the impact on those involved must have felt pretty cataclysmic all the same. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Operation Anthropoid - the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich: my small tribute.

In my novel - To the Devil His Due - I tell the fictional story of a British attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II. The two protagonists are foreign nationals, one Dutch, the other Czech, who have both fled their homeland to escape the Nazi occupation. 

In choosing the name of the Czech agent - Jan Kubcek - I was quietly - but very deliberately - doffing my cap to the memory of two very brave men who carried out the successful assassination of Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich on the 27th of May 1942. Those two men were Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis - the conflation of their surnames giving me Kubcek (well - approximately). I even went so far as to have Kubcek say that he had been scheduled to go on the operation to kill Heydrich but had broken his ankle during a practice parachute jump, and that the man who had replaced him had been the one who had ultimately cracked under pressure to reveal the whereabouts of the agents after the event. 

Who was Reinhard Heydrich and why did he have to die? 
Effectively third in command of the Nazi hierarchy, Heydrich had been appointed as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941. In the months that followed he became known as the Butcher of Prague as he rounded up more than 5,000 resistance leaders and members of the intelligentsia, many of whom were executed out of hand.  At the same time he drove massive improvements in production by rewarding workers who exceeded targets and punishing those that didn't. The German military machine relied heavily on the output of the Czech weapons and munitions factories to feed their Eastern Front campaign.

Meanwhile the leader of the Czech government in exile (based in London) - Edward Benes - grew increasingly concerned about the gradual assimilation of his country under Nazi rule. As far as he was concerned, bold and unequivocal action was needed. He therefore authorised a scheme, code-named Anthropoid, whose objective was to insert two members of the Free Czech Army (specially trained by Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE)) into Prague with orders to kill Heydrich.

Eventually, on 28 December 1941, Kubis and Gabcik parachuted into Czechoslovakia armed with sten guns and anti-tank grenades. Gabcik injured his foot on landing and it was two months before they were able to move into Prague to begin planning the assassination. They soon worked out that the most suitable option was to attack Heydrich as he made his daily commute from his home in the suburbs to Hradcany Castle where the Nazis had their headquarters. Whether supremely confident or supremely stupid, Heydrich used the same route every day and had no escort other than his driver. Gabcik and Kubis established that there was a point on the journey where the car had to slow to negotiate a 120 degree turn - that would be the spot where they would launch the attack.

On the day, however, not everything went to plan. 
As the car slowed, Gabcik stepped out in front to open fire but his sten gun (notoriously unreliable) jammed. At this point Heydrich made the mistake that would see him killed. He ordered the car to stop and he stood up to fire back at the fleeing agent. At this point, Kubis threw a grenade which exploded beneath the car, showering both men with shrapnel. Heydrick stepped out of the car to get a better aim with his pistol but immediately collapsed, blood spurting from a wound in his side. 

Heydrich did not die of his wounds immediately. Indeed, it seemed at first that he would make a full recovery once he had been operated on. He was actually sitting up in bed at midday on 3rd June when he suddenly went into shock, lapsing into a coma before dying the next morning at 04.30. Blood poisoning caused by fragments of the car upholstery was the most likely cause of death. 

The agents made good their escape but were unable to get out of Prague due to the intensity of the manhunt to find them. Moving from house to house they were eventually taken to the crypt of the Church of St Cyril and Methodius. Pressure was, however, growing. Over 600 people were executed in the immediate aftermath and thousands more arrested on suspicion of aiding the agents. Ultimately one of the wider network of agents cracked and revealed the location of a number of safe houses. One of which was owned by Marie Moravec who had sheltered the agents on their arrival in Prague. 

Marie committed suicide before the Nazis could take her but they did manage to capture her teenage son. He held out for as long as he could but broke when presented with the severed head of his mother, floating in a fish tank. Soon after, 750 SS troops surrounded the church on the morning of 18 June. The ensuing battle lasted for 2 hours before the 7 agents in the crypt (including Kubis and Gabcik) either succumbed to their wounds or committed suicide.

Worse was to follow. So enraged was the Fuhrer that he order massive reprisals the scale of which was beyond belief. The tiny town of Lidice, 30 miles from Prague, was razed to the ground and simply ceased to exist after the Nazis bulldozed the town, removed all the rubble and planted grain instead. Every single man (over 200) was shot, the women sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and the children either placed with SS families for re-education or were themselves sent to concentration camps too. 

Days later another town, Lezaky, met a similar fate. All 33 adults were shot and 11 of the 13 children died in concentration camps. Just two girls were spared, being selected for Germanisation. Ultimately they survived the war and were able to return to their families.In Prague itself, a further 5,000 or more civilians were slaughtered and many more sent to camps. The Nazis had sent a brutal message: the price of resistance was heavy. 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Star-Spangled Banner - a little piece of Britain

As events across the pond focus on the forthcoming presidential election (and no, I’m not going to get into that, other than to say from a population of over 300 million, surely they could find two better candidates than this…?), I thought I’d digress from matters Anglo-Saxon to something a little more recent; the origin of the Star-Spangled Banner, the song that became the national anthem of the United States of America in 1931.

The anthem traces its origins back to the – somewhat unimaginatively named – War of 1812 which was fought between the USA and the United Kingdom from June 1812 to February 1815. The war itself was a bit of a damp squib as far as the UK was concerned as its major focus at the time was the war to defeat Napoleon in Western Europe. The Americas - and especially the US - however, quite naturally saw the conflict as rather more significant.

It was the United States that declared war; the first time it had done so in its history (all 30-odd years of it at that time). Overall the war achieved little with the British electing, for the most part, to follow a defensive strategy as most of its man-power was tied up with events in Portugal, Spain and France.

The war is, however, notable for at least two events. First the so-called burning of the White House in August 1814. Well, I say the White House, but it was actually known as the Presidential Palace at the time. The Americans were quite rightly aggrieved by this action and it is often remembered today. 

What is less well remembered however is (and note, this falls squarely into the camp of ‘two-wrongs-doth-not-a-right-make’) that this was in itself seen by the British as revenge for the burning of the government buildings in York (the capital of the British province of Upper Canada) by the Americans the previous year. The other notable event was what became the inspiration for the poem which, in time, became the American National Anthem; the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

A few weeks after the burning of Washington, the British army and navy moved 40 miles north west to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a base for American privateers. They launched a combined assault by land and water against well-prepared and heavily fortified American defences. The navy was equipped with the latest technology – called Congreve rockets – which had a longer range than the American shore batteries. This allowed them to stand off, out of range of the American cannon, and bombard the fort with relative impunity. Although there were actually relatively few casualties and little damage down to the fort, the bombardment was nonetheless heavy and spectacular, lasting for the best part of 25 hours.

It was during this time that a lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was inspire to write his, now famous, poem: ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’. As night fell during the bombardment, the light created by the exploding rockets and bombs served to light up the American flag that was still flying over the fort.  As he and his companions retired for the night, they were left to wonder whether it would still be there in the morning.

When morning came and Key saw that the flag still flew defiantly, he wrote his poem on the back of a letter that he had kept in his pocket. The first stanza eloquently sums up the sense of pride that Key must have felt as he awoke to see that the fort still held against the British onslaught.

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H Nicholson, who realised that the words fit rather well with a melody that was popular at the time; ‘The Anacreontic  Song’. In a nice little twist of irony, this song, the basis of the American National Anthem, had been composed by an Englishman – John Stafford Smith – and was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians which met in London.

The original manuscript can still be seen in Maryland Historical Society on Baltimore.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Duke William: a Bastard in life and death.

It must have been the event of the year, the one place to be seen in 1087 if you were anyone: the funeral of William, King of England and Duke of Normandy.

William was 59 when he died by when - much like one of his more famous descendants, Henry VIII - he was no longer the fine figure of a man he had been in his youth. Rather, he had become something of a fat bastard, or - as William of Malmesbury (a 12th century English chronicler) rather more eloquently puts it in his Gesta Regum Anglorum - he had become "very corpulent". All that dining on fine French cuisine and good old-fashioned English fare had taken its toll. 

Despite this, before his death he was still putting it about quite a bit, as it were. A key aspect of early medieval kingship was the need to see and be seen. A lot of your authority came from showing yourself to your people and leading them in all manner of military exploits. It was during one such exploit that he met his end. Not shot by an arrow, run through by a spear or hacked down by a sword, but rather he hurt himself while riding his horse in the battle of Mantes in July 1087. 

Well, to be fair, it seems as though the horse must have bolted or been startled - probably protesting at the immense weight it was having to carry - with the result that William was projected violently forward, rupturing his "internal organs" on the protruding pommel of his saddle. He returned to his capital, Rouen, but failed to recover and passed away five weeks later on 9th September.

Arrangements were made for the funeral to take place at the Abbaye-aux-Hommes (which William himself had founded in Caen) and it was there that William left his final mark on the world, though one which he would probably rather have avoided. 

During the service, it was discovered that his vast, bloated body was too big to fit into the stone sarcophagus. You can imagine the panic among the assembled monks. What on earth are we going to do? Everyone's watching! This is so embarrassing! 

Then one bright spark no doubt pointed to the most junior novice and ordered him to 'encourage' the body into the sarcophagus. After some pushing and shoving, the inevitable happened; the bloated stomach burst open. There must have been guts and gunk all over the place. I have a horrible feeling, also, that the poor fellow who had picked the short straw must have ended up almost elbow deep in royal, rotting intestines. It can't have been pleasant. 

Another chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, tells us that the stench was so great that even the frankincense and various other holy spices in the abbey could not take the edge off it. It was so bad that the officiating monks had to rush through the remainder of the proceedings as quick as they could so they could get the hell out of there. A rumour that the last monk to leave the abbey was heard to remark "I'd leave that for five minutes if I were you" cannot, unfortunately, be verified.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

"I fart in your general direction" - Art imitating life

Many people of a certain age will recognise this quote without any difficulty. If you don't then I can only offer sympathy and suggest that there is a Monty Python-shaped hole in your movie and comedy education - specifically, in this case, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Released in 1975 and up there with Life of Brian as two of the greatest comedy films of their era.

To put it in context: King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman) and his knights of the round table arrive at an unknown castle somewhere in England, in their quest to find the Holy Grail. They try to find out whose castle it is but the French guard (John Cleese) quickly loses his patience:

Frenchman: You don't frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person! I blow my nose at you, so-called Ah-thoor Keeng, you and all your silly English K-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-niggits! [makes taunting gestures at them]
Sir Galahad: What a strange person.
King Arthur: Now, look here, my good man--
Frenchman: I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
Sir Galahad: Is there someone else up there we can talk to?
Frenchman: No, now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!

So what possible relevance can this have for the story of William, Duke of Normandy and his conquest of England? Well, in a strange case of art imitating life, I was more than a little surprised to find the very same reference captured by the chroniclers in relation to an event that took place in 1068. 

All was not plain sailing for King William in the months and years immediately after his coronation on Christmas Day 1066. Even the coronation itself was not without incident: the shouts of acclamation coming from the crowd within Westminster Abbey were supposedly mistaken by the Norman soldiers outside as the start of a riot, resulting in much burning and destruction.  

So it was that it may have come as no surprise when William received word of a conspiracy against him centering around Exeter. Messages urging other nearby towns to join the uprising were intercepted by royal agents and it quickly became apparent that this was a serious issue as the ring leaders appeared to be none other than Harold's mother, Gytha, and three of his sons from his first marriage to Edith Swan-neck. Something had to be done for fear that they might rally the English to rise up against him.

When William's demand for fealty was refused, he quickly raised an army (notably - for the first time - calling upon Englishmen to serve as well) and marched west. At first it seemed that the rebellion would soon fizzle out. As William's army drew near, a delegation came forth from the city, apparently seeking terms. They promised to open the gates of the city to the king and gave hostages as a promise of good behaviour. 

When William eventually arrived at the gates of Exeter, however, he found them barred against him. Quite why this happened is not known. Was the delegation a bluff to buy time to enable the defences to be completed? Or was it evidence of a disagreement among the rebels, with one party wishing to sue for peace and the other to hold out?

Either way, William was unimpressed and was not inclined to waste any more time. He called for one of the hostages to be brought forward and had him blinded in full view of the defenders on the city walls. It must have been a gruesome sight, not to mention a clear warning as to what would befall the rest of them should they choose not to surrender there and then. 

On the contrary, however, this act of brutality did not have the desired effect. If anything, the chroniclers say, it stiffened the resolve of the defenders. Clearly they were made of pretty stern stuff down in the west country and weren't about to surrender control of their borders to some unelected, jumped-up foreign overlord. (Sorry - best move on quickly!).

Indeed, so unimpressed were they with King William's bullying tactics that one bold chap - so William of Malmesbury tells us -  "standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans." Whether he also shouted the immortal words to accompany this act goes unrecorded, but I like to think he did. I would also hope that there was a better than slim chance that William's father smelt of elderberries. 

The gesture proved ultimately to be futile, however. An eighteen day siege followed, after which the Normans managed to enter the city, possibly because part of the wall had collapsed and possibly because the leaders of the rebellion had all scarpered, leaving the town to its fate. Happily for Exeter, William chose not to raze it to the ground and slaughter its citizens which feels like a lucky escape. I also hope the chap who had the bare-faced cheek to fart at the king also lived to to share the tale with his grandchildren at every family gathering even though they had heard it, like, a gazillion times before!  

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Just how many kings did England have in 1066?

It all started off with a question in a pub quiz a couple of years back: "How many kings ruled in the year 1066?". 

Being something of a history buff, I love it when we get a question or - nirvana of nirvanas - a whole round on history. I can feel the rest of the team looking at me with expectation in their eyes - not unexpectedly given how much I boringly bang on about history being my specialist subject and all that!

Anyway, on this occasion I was confident I knew the answer. Although I have not formally studied the Norman Conquest, I had a good enough grasp of the key facts and dates to answer this question. Or so I thought. 

At first glance you might think the answer was two - Duke William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard (parentage rather than personality.... although........) and, more commonly William the Conqueror) defeated and killed King Harold II of England at Hastings on 14 October 1066. Every school child knows that, right? Well at least they did when I was a school child in 1970-something. 

But what not everyone knows is that Harold only reigned for ten months. He acceded to the throne in January 1066 following the death of his predecessor, the - not so saintly - Edward the Confessor. It was Harold's perceived usurpation of the throne, which William claimed had been promised to him, a claim which Harold had supposedly sworn on holy relics to support, that effectively triggered the whole conquest. 

So, anyway, the point is that Edward had reigned for the first few days of 1066. The answer was therefore three, an easy point in the pursuit of glory as that week's pub quiz champions (I think we came second in the end). But when the answer was confirmed as three, there was a mild protest in the corner from the uber-clever team. The team that won week in, week out which became so dull in the end that we ended up seeking a quiz elsewhere with more evenly matched contestants - but that is another story as well.

They stated that there had actually been four kings in 1066. I don't know whether they actually put four down as the answer - it would have been dangerous as the chances are the pub quiz would not have that kind of specialist knowledge. Nonetheless, my interest was piqued. Four? who was the fourth then and why is he not documented in the regnal lists? I was aware that there had been other men with claims based on their ancestry but had any of them actually been king - and if so, why do we not know more about them?

So who was this fourth king and when (and to what extent) did he reign? His name was Edgar and he was known as the Aetheling (a term used in Anglo-Saxon times to designate princes of the royal dynasty who were eligible for the kingship). Edgar was the great-nephew of Edward the Confessor and thus could be said to have had a better claim to the throne than Harold when the old king died. 

However, he was only a boy of 14 in January and the country needed a strong leader to face the troubled times ahead. An additional, and indeed crucial, point to note was that Anglo-Saxon kingship worked on a principle of acclamation. To be acclaimed by your peers was far more powerful than any mere coronation. Indeed, coronations often occurred long after the acclamation of kingship. More of that later - it's important! Harold was the most powerful man in the country (even during Edward's reign) and was head of the most powerful family: the Godwines. There was no way that Harold and his supporters would allow anyone else to muscle in on his patch.

Thus Harold, rather than Edgar was acclaimed on the very day that Edward the Confessor died. It is interesting to note, also, that his coronation took place within a matter of days too. Some might say the whole thing took place in unseemly haste, perhaps because Harold knew that his claim was not as strong as others, domestic or foreign, and needed to put the matter to bed quickly before any whispers began.

Now we fast forward 10 months to sunset on 14 October 1066. Harold lies dead, mutilated beyond recognition (and possibly with an arrow in his eye - i feel a subject for a future blog coming on....). The bodies of his two remaining brothers (Gyrth and Leofwine) lie close by. Duke William is victorious, but he is not yet king. The country does not submit to him (much as he might have hoped it would).He has not been acclaimed by anyone nor has he been formally crowned. Note, the Norman/French style of succession was much more based on coronation. Once the crown was placed on your head, then you were king - none of this acclamation malarkey was needed.

So what actually happened in the aftermath of the battle? Well the truth was that even though William had won a battle and killed a king, the only bits of England that he actually controlled were Pevensey and Hastings. None of the other towns and cities had submitted to him. Indeed, London, the biggest city of all, was full of fighting men; a mixture of those that had survived the battle or who had arrived too late to take part. Their mood was defiant and they were not about to raise the white flag. Instead they chose Edgar Aetheling to be their king, his main backers being the brother earls Edwin and Morcar (of Mercia and Northumbria). 

William meanwhile had waited in Hastings for two weeks, but when no formal surrender came, he set off to London to seize control for himself. On arrival, however, he found the city offered resistance - the defenders even attacked the Normans, albeit unsuccessfully. Nonetheless, safe as they were behind the city walls, William could not attempt frontal assault. Instead, William went on the rampage, turning west, crossing the Thames at Wallingford (the first place it could be safely forded) before turning back towards London. All along the way his army cut a swathe of devastation. 

The mood in the city changed to one of despair; partly because of the effect of the Norman pillaging and, more significantly, when Edwin and Morcar withdrew their support for Edgar ad retreated north. With no support and no options remaining, Edgar travelled to Berkhamsted where he submitted and swore fealty to the Conqueror. 

And so ended Edgar's brief reign, no more than a couple of months at best, as William was himself crowned in Westminster Abbey in Christmas Day, 1066. But was Edgar really a king of England and should he be remembered as such? Well, it comes down to how the definition of kingship and how that varied between the Saxons and the Normans. To the former, Edgar was king. He had been acclaimed by his peers and that was all that mattered. During his brief reign he had confirmed the appointment of a new abbot of Peterborough, a clear indication of him exercising royal authority as this was one of the duties of a king. The fact that he had not been formally crowned did not matter - that was simply a ceremony to confirm an existing fact.

To the Normans, however, the lack of coronation was key. Edgar had not been crowned and therefore was never a king. This, therefore, explains why the poor spotty teenager never gets the recognition he deserves because, you know what they say? History is always written by the victors!