Omaha Beach

Tuesday, 6th June, 1944 would be D.Day, start of Operation Overlord the Allied invasion of Nazi Occupied Europe. It had originally been intended for the day before but storm conditions at sea, high winds and poor visibility had forced a postponement but it could not be delayed indefinitely however, with the Armada ready to sail and the required high tides and full moon imminent any further delay could only lead to outright cancellation.

The atmosphere at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) was then understandably tense and opinions as to a course of action sharply divided, so it was with some relief that General Dwight David Eisenhower, the man burdened with the responsibility received the report of his Chief Meteorologist that the coming few days would present a brief window of improved conditions, but improved did not suggest good and it certainly did not mean calm.

The plan was for a massive Armada of 5,000 vessels with 11,000 planes providing aerial support to land 156,000 men on 5 designated beaches along the Normandy coast. One of these landing sites was codenamed Omaha, a five mile stretch of crescent shaped beach situated between the villages of Vierville-sur-Mere and Coleville-sur-Mer with sheer cliffs to both its left and right and high bluffs in front. It was by far the least promising of the landing sites but it had to be taken to link up with the British at Gold Beach and with their fellow Americans on Utah Beach.

An Allied invasion of Fortress Europe was hardly unexpected so the possibility of gaining any strategic advantage from the assault was already lost but there was still the opportunity for operational surprise – where would the invasion come, where exactly would the landings be made?

The most obvious place was the Pas de Calais the shortest distance across the Channel from England and great efforts of deception were undertaken to convince the Germans that this was indeed the case. Certainly Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, and man responsible for fortifying the so-called Atlantic Wall thought so and he focussed his attention on just that region but never to the level of neglect elsewhere that had been anticipated and planned for.

Despite his frustration at being denied a battlefield command since his return from North Africa, Rommel approached his new remit with gusto trawling over maps, studying blueprints, and making regular tours of inspection. He also pondered at length the best strategy to be adopted in the event of any invasion and was convinced that it had to be confronted where it landed, on the beaches, and when the enemy would be at his most vulnerable.

The German Commander in the West Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed however, preferring instead a defence in depth. The argument between two of the most respected Senior Officers in the German High Command would fester and prove increasingly divisive particularly over the distribution of the Panzer Divisions which were held under Hitler’s personal command, and though a compromise would eventually be reached it did little to smooth relations or create a coordinated response.

With his plans to drive the enemy back into the sea thwarted Rommel remained determined instead to create killing zones on the shoreline too costly in human flesh and blood for the Allies to endure.

The troops assigned the task of storming Omaha Beach were men of the 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, veterans of the campaigns in North Arica and Sicily and the 29th Infantry Division men barely out of their teens as yet untried and untested - a deliberate fusion of the old and the new, the careworn and the cynical with the young and the enthusiastic.

Now after months of intense training and preparation the moment of decision had come; their precise destination remained a mystery to most and rumours were rife but pledged to silence they were whispered rather than shouted. So aboard the ships many had already been on for some days time was spent reading, writing letters home, attending church service, playing cards or simply resting and thinking of what lay ahead.

Before they departed they heard a message from General Eisenhower:

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air defences have seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory.”

What they didn’t hear was the other short note the General had penned and kept about his person:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the Air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

In the event it never had to be broadcast.

Amazingly the 5,000 ship Armada, the largest sea-borne operation in the history of the world went virtually undetected in the narrow straight that separated England from mainland Europe. Field Marshal von Rundstedt was far away at his Headquarter in Koblenz on the Rhine oblivious to the invasion that was imminent while Rommel had returned to Germany to attend his wife’s birthday party. It seemed then, that the many acts of deception had worked beyond the protagonists wildest dreams and little, if any, attempt was made to hinder the Armada’s deployment off the French coast, so as the sun rose and the mists cleared that dreary summer morning the surprise was almost total.

At 05.50 on 6 June 1944, after 1,738 days of war 138 Allied ships of various types some 13 miles out to sea began to bombard German coastal defences. Around the same time bombers of the Royal Air Force followed soon after by those of the United States Army Air Force began flying the first of some 13,688 sorties against enemy communications, transport hubs, and rear areas.

Meanwhile, in a heavy swirl, buffeted by six foot waves, 18 mph winds, and weighed down by 60 pounds and more of equipment troops began descending scrambling nets into waiting landing craft where tightly packed, weakened by fear, tormented by thoughts of death and distracted by memories of home the squally damp conditions only added to the sense of foreboding.

Many of the men green to the gills were violently sick vomiting into their helmets while others more able to keep their breakfast where it belonged used theirs to bail out the craft just to keep it afloat. Even so, ten landing craft in that First Wave would be abandoned at sea swamped, holed below the water-line, or destroyed by enemy fire.

Forced to take a circuitous route to avoid the six 155 mm guns located atop Pointe du Hoc a few miles further down the coast that could target the landing craft as they approached the shore the troops hunkered down  cold and wet for what seemed an eternity. In the meantime, a  Ranger Battalion undertook the perilous task of scaling the cliffs with rope ladders and grappling hooks to eliminate the threat only to find no guns (they had in fact been moved further inland the previous month) only telegraph poles. The 500 men still in their boats who had not participated in the initial ascent would later be landed elsewhere on Omaha Beach to telling effect.

The Pointe du Hoc fiasco would not prove the only failure of intelligence that day, the defences at Omaha were believed to be manned by just 1,000 troops many of whom were barely motivated Russian volunteers and aged Reservists but these had in fact been reinforced the previous March by 352nd Infantry Division veterans of the Eastern Front; and they were well dug-in behind barbed wire and minefields in 15 separate strong points or Resistance Nests with 35 pill boxes connected by tunnels and defended by heavy machine guns, light artillery pieces and anti-tank weapons.

And at Omaha, as elsewhere, there would be no free ride to the beach - the Desert Fox had been thorough:

Four lines of obstacles had been constructed in the inner-tidal zone, the area of shore that is under water at high tide; 270 yards out from the high water line were 200 Belgian Gates, heavy steel fences some 2 metres high with mines attached; at 235 yards out was a continuous line of sharpened logs pointing seaward each third one armed with a mine; at 202 yards out were a series of ramps also armed with mines which were designed to tip over and capsize those landing craft that ran onto them; at 160 yards out were numerous hedgehogs, X-shaped anti-tank obstacles with explosives attached - all this had to be encountered and overcome before the troops even disembarked.

Neither was it ever intended for the troops to storm Omaha Beach unsupported but few of the amphibious tanks assigned to provide fire support made it ashore, the rest were swamped in the heavy seas and their crews drowned while those that did with no radio communication and unable to coordinate their fire proved largely ineffective.

As the ramps came down on the landing craft many men, aware they would be targeted, chose instead to exit over the sides. Some craft also stopped too far out to sea forcing the shorter men to inflate their life preservers merely to stay afloat while some who had fitted them incorrectly tipped upside down, were submerged, and drowned.

Raked by machine gun fire the landing craft quickly became death traps as the men who abandoned them in haste blundered into minefields or were shattered by the shellfire that now peppered the beach. Many did not make it out of the sea their bodies left to bob in the water or washed up with the surf. Others lay wounded on the beach unable to move waiting to be drowned as the tide came in. Army medics did what they could but they were no less vulnerable to enemy fire than anybody else.

The survivors who made it across the almost 400 yards of open beach huddled behind a low shingle wall where wet, cold and uncertain what to do some nervously lit cigarettes while others tried to unclog the sand from their rifles. In the meantime, engineers worked to clear the beach of mines and any other obstacles incurring almost 50% casualties as they did so.

The Second Wave that landed fared better but only by comparison with the First and to General Omar Bradley, commanding U.S ground troops witnessing events on Omaha from a destroyer moored offshore it appeared the landing had failed and he more than once considered cancelling any further attempt.

Seeing little on the beach other than the detritus of war and dead Americans the Germans felt victory was already theirs and had they counter-attacked at that moment they would almost certainly have driven the invaders back into the sea and been proved right, a  vindication perhaps of Rommel’s preferred strategy; but regardless of the carnage no hands had yet been raised, no white flag was visible and those Americans who had taken shelter behind the shingle wall were beginning to fire back.

Bradley taking his cue from a number of vessels which had already done so ordered others to risk mines and the fire of shore batteries to close within a few miles of the beach and provide big gun support. It was gratefully received if not by those who were their target.

Among those who landed with the Second Wave was Brigadier-General Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota the highest ranking Officer to engage in combat on D.Day who immediately began to bring some order to the chaos. Finding himself amongst a unit of Rangers relocated from Pointe de Hoc he ordered an advance from the shingle wall. Upon learning that some troops were refusing to budge he shouted:

“God damn it then Rangers, lead the way!”

It was a sentiment echoed elsewhere on the beach by Colonel George A. Taylor in command of the 16th Infantry Regiment who rallied his men with:

“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!”  

Using Bangalore Torpedoes (an explosive charge set within a series of interconnected tubes) to blast through the defences they began to leave the relative safety of the shingle wall and advance up the bluffs first in small groups, then by the dozen, and finally by the hundred. Now forced to defend their own positions the Germans could no longer target the beach area with impunity as before and with ammunition running low their rate of fire began to slow. With the fresh troops being landed now able to cross the beach at pace through lanes cleared of mines  and tanks able to provide the fire support so lacking earlier the tide of battle began to turn as one by one the pill boxes and machine gun nests fell or were abandoned in haste.

As the pressure intensified the German will to resist began to wilt and those who had not already surrendered were withdrawn further inland. By mid-afternoon the worst of the fighting was over and a beachhead secured, but barely.  The Americans had advanced little more than a mile from the beach but it was enough.  When reinforcements were landed the following morning (D.Day+1) it was so peaceful the troops could barely believe the rumours circulating of the intensity of fighting the day before. That is except for the discarded equipment, abandoned craft, burned out vehicles, and bodies that still floated in the water.

Accurate figures for the dead and wounded at Omaha Beach are difficult to ascertain with any accuracy on both sides but it is believed at least 1,300 Americans were killed and 4,500 wounded including 80% of the First Wave. German losses though fewer were not too dissimilar and were mostly the result of ship to shore bombardment.

Yet the Allied casualties on D.Day as a whole were far lighter than had been anticipated only 4,414 killed in all operations and 10,000 wounded. It was only on that slither of elongated sand known as Omaha Beach that the Allied High Command’s worst fears appeared about to be realised. That they were not was the result of German failure to exploit the opportunity presented to them and the raw courage and perseverance of those American troops who held on amid the carnage that threatened to engulf and overwhelm them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pilgrim Fathers

By the time of her death on 24 March 1603, the glory days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were well and truly over. The defeat of the Armada all those years before may have been a blessed deliverance but the ruinously expensive war against Spain continued, overseas trade was in decline and a series of failed harvests saw unemployment increase and poverty stalk the land; with an aged and childless Queen on the throne who would come after her dominated discussion in the corridors of power, whispered though it was. Her refusal to name a successor had led to great uncertainty and no little paranoia on the part of those responsible for ensuring a smooth and orderly transition of power. The obvious successor was her nephew James VI of Scotland but he would not be a popular choice and rumours of unrest and usurpation were rife, and which, with enemies both at home and abroad were not without foundation. It was little surprise then, that the Tudor Police State encouraged denunciation with bribes, demanded compliance with menaces and kept the magistrates busy in hunting Jesuits, persecuting non-conformists,, whipping paupers from the parish, silencing dissent, and suppressing enemies of the state - so busy in fact that gibbets blighting the skyline became a morose and familiar sight.

Yet it had not always been so, Elizabeth’s reign had ushered in an unprecedented flourishing of the arts along with the spread of English power and influence around the globe as never before. A remarkable woman in so many ways, a star that shone bright beloved of a people who saw her as their own, Henry VIII’s bastard daughter had proven her worth.  Good Queen Bess would be sorely missed but the years had not been kind and few were sorry to see her go.

The twilight of the Elizabethan Era had seen all pretence to religious toleration cease, the very idea “I will not open windows into men’s souls,” now merely a quote for the ages. Refusing to conform to the 1559 Act of Uniformity, the legal requirement to attend Church of England services was no longer mere aberrant behaviour to be rectified by force if necessary but a treasonable act that could be punishable by death.

Referred to as Recusants they were for the most part Catholics who refused to relinquish their ties to the old religion but there were also Calvinists who advocated a rigid interpretation of their own faith no less hostile to the Anglican Church of England.  Known as Puritans they were few in number and unlike Catholics could not be accused of owing allegiance to a foreign potentate based in Rome but they were nonetheless treated with suspicion and liable to both persecution and prosecution.

Genuine hope was expressed however, that with the Virgin Queen’s passing her successor James VI of Scotland would bring relief to those religious minorities subject to persecution and conciliatory words early in his reign had suggested as much. He was after all, both the son of the Catholic martyr Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and a strict Protestant. Even so, he was no Puritan and though he revered his mother it was as the Divinely Appointed Monarch he believed her to be not for her Catholicism.

The Guardians of Scotland responsible for the future King’s upbringing following the execution of his mother were determined to eradicate any trace of Catholicism in her son and he remembered all too well the harsh treatment he had endured at the hands of his tutors and others - the deprivations and humiliations, the verbal and physical abuse, the regular beatings. He had no love for the stricter kind of Protestantism and would come to hate all religious extremism in whatever form it chose to manifest itself. Even so, some believed that his mother’s milk and Biblical teaching would combine to create the toleration that had been so lacking.

But it wasn’t to be, any hopes  for greater compassion and a reconciliation of understanding were dashed at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604, when it was made clear that religious toleration would not be extended to Roman Catholics and that the Puritans would be made to adhere to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.

It was perhaps testament to the King’s subtlety of approach and powers of persuasion that most left the Conference satisfied with its outcome for though James had conceded little he had at least appeared willing to listen and had also resisted demands from the Church to impose even heavier penalties upon Recusants. But this would all change the following year when a Catholic plot to blow up the entire English Establishment at the State Opening of Parliament along with the King and his immediate family was uncovered.

The Gunpowder Plot as it became known was not the first attempt on James Stuart’s life (fanatics had come close to assassinating him in Scotland also) and so despite it being an exclusively Catholic affair it effectively put all religious dissenters in the dock much to the anger of those who had played no part including most Catholics. But it should have come as no surprise that a King, or indeed a man, might be inclined to punish those who seek to murder him, and to restrain others whose beliefs are so irreconcilable as to incite such drastic a solution to the differences between them.

The English would never fall in love with their Scottish King in the way they had the Virgin Queen before him but in the immediate aftermath of the treasonous plot to assassinate him and the royal children James would for a short period at least bask in the warm sunlight of popular approval. It wouldn’t last of course, his character would see to that; his clumsy demeanour, coarse language, frequent drunkenness, open homosexuality, constant demands on the public purse, and barely disguised contempt for parliament may have belied an acute political instinct and not inconsiderable diplomatic skill but it caused great offence to the Godly – the King was corrupt as his Church was corrupt. That runt child of Papist idolatry the Church of England with all its splendour and display, its stained glass, crucifix laden altar tables, tapestries, icons, worship of graven images and Latin Mass was an abomination. It’s Episcopacy and it’s Bishops simply intolerable - if the Puritans could find no relief in England then they would go elsewhere for solace and redemption and the freedom to worship as they pleased - but where exactly?

Many of those who would later become the Pilgrim Fathers were from Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands one of whose leading members was William Brewster, Postmaster in the village of Scrooby who permitted the local Puritan congregation to meet in his home. It was indicative of how few they were that it was possible to do so. It was also no secret to the Bishop of Durham Matthew Hutton under whose religious jurisdiction Scrooby fell. Fortunately, Bishop Hutton was sympathetic to the Puritans plight believing that unlike the Catholics they could be persuaded to return to the Church of England and he would write to the King in their defence, but when he died in 1606 to be replaced by Bishop Tobias Matthew attitudes hardened.  He was determined to force these so-called ‘Separatists’ into line and the more outspoken among them were imprisoned while many others were penalised financially among them Brewster himself who was fined so heavily it brought him to the brink of ruin. His experience became an increasingly common one. It was written:

“They could not continue in any peaceable condition but were instead hunted and persecuted on every side, so much that their former afflictions were as flea bites. Some were clapped in prison while others had their houses watched day and night. Many were forced to flee.”

In 1607 they decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands a thriving commercial centre where they would not be hounded by the Authorities. Here they prospered at least in respect of work being readily available even if it was often menial and low-paid; but no longer liable to fines they were at least able to keep their money while being free to practice their faith and both publish and disseminate their teachings. As their later chronicler William Bradford would write:

Such was the true piety, a humble and fervent love of this people. Whilst they thus live together towards God and his ways they come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any churches of this latter time have come.”

Yet they remained very much a community within a community unable to break out into wider Dutch society even if they had chosen to do so which they did not. They found the morals of the Dutch to be even looser than those of the English they had so often complained about. It was an alien environment they would come to believe threatened their English identity and would overtime contaminate their faith. They feared for their children sensing they may be tempted away from the path of righteousness by as one of their number warned “evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses.”

It was also the time of the ‘Twelve Year Truce’ an extended period of peace in the Dutch Provinces War of Independence against Spanish rule and the Puritans quite rightly feared their treatment should the truce end and Leiden fall into the hands of Catholic Spain.

They had to move on and soon, some had already abandoned the community to return to England.

The New World was an obvious destination; it was far away and largely uninhabited except for native Indians with no recourse to civilisation:

“The place they thought of was one of the vast and un-peopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for living. There are only savage and brutal men present, just like wild beasts.”

There was also an English colony already established in the Americas at Jamestown in Virginia, a place of business and profit both profane and licentious that may have professed the Anglican faith but little more.  The Puritans were possessed of a higher calling than mere vulgar commerce and any settlement they established would belong to God, a place where they could live a virtuous life for the benefit of their soul not the frivolous blandishments of physical well-being. It was, they believed, the yearning of all God’s people to live in freedom according to their own lights so Jamestown then, was perhaps a place best avoided, but they were comforted by the fact it was English nonetheless.

It would however, be an expensive venture and a long perilous voyage that would be the cause of trepidation even in the hardiest of souls.

William Brewster would work hard over the next few years raising money for the planned migration and in trying to negotiate a land grant and charter from the King that would legitimise it and provide guarantees that would otherwise leave them vulnerable to exploitation from the more unscrupulous and powerful. In this he would fail but in 1617 one of his close associates John Carver did acquire a land grant from the Virginia Company based in London. Permission still needed to be sought from the King however, James who had no fondness for the strict Calvinism that had so blighted his youth was not inclined to do them any favours but despite adopting a hostile attitude he would not stand in their way on condition they recognised the Royal Supremacy and that of the Church of England while not seeking to formally establish a separatist Calvinist Church.

Raising the money for the voyage wasn’t easy however, the Puritans in Leiden may have prospered but they were far from rich and theirs was a small community with few friends. It appeared that their best laid plans would bear little fruit when in the early spring of 1620, Thomas Weston, a cloth merchant representing a number of businessmen seeking to break into the trans-Atlantic trade in fish and furs visited Leiden with a suggestion – would the Puritans be willing to engage in a commercial venture? Serving as agents of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London was less than ideal but without the businessmen’s financial support their voyage could not be undertaken. They had little choice but to agree.

Brewster spent much of the year before departure in hiding having published a series of pamphlets critical of the King’s religious policies and the final preparations for the voyage were done by others.

Two ships were chartered for the voyage the smaller of which, the Speedwell, was hardly fit for purpose. It was already 45 years old, spent more time in dry dock than it did at sea, and was more suited to coastal waters than it was an arduous Atlantic crossing. The other, the Mayflower, was a much larger and sturdier vessel, a three-masted merchant ship approximately 100 feet in length and 25 feet wide with three decks and a cargo capacity of 180 tons. She was also heavily armed with more than a dozen cannon of both light and heavy calibre with a fully stocked armoury of muskets, swords, pikes, breastplates, powder and ball. The threat posed by pirates, particularly Barbary Corsairs was a very real one and every precaution was taken against boarding and night attack.

In July 1620, those chosen for the voyage to the New World departed the Netherlands aboard the small cargo vessel Speedwell bound for Southampton in England. The tendency of the Speedwell to leak did little to inspire confidence in a community where the reluctance to embark upon any sea-crossing was evident and the excuses not to do so manifest and many.

In Southampton they met for the first time Christopher Jones, co-owner and Captain of the Mayflower, a rugged, straight-talking married man in his early fifties who was an experienced mariner having plied the trade routes of northern Europe and the Mediterranean for many years. He had never sailed to America before, he told them, but knew the Atlantic well from his time deep sea fishing and his many whaling expeditions.

Despite the little they had in common Brewster, Bradford, Carver and the other leading Puritans were to strike up a good working relationship with Captain Jones, the indispensable man if they were to have any chance of success in their great adventure.

They first set sail for the New World on 5 August 1520, but did not get far before the Speedwell sprung a leak, began taking on water and had to return to port for repairs. When a second attempt had likewise to be abandoned the decision was taken to leave her behind along with many of her passengers and crew.

On 6 September they set sail once more, a day one of the congregation Edward Winslow travelling with his wife Mary later recalled:

“Wednesday, 6th September, the wind coming east north-east, a fine small gale, released from Plymouth having been kindly entertained and courteously used by diverse friends there dwelling.”

The Mayflower had a crew of 30 while of the 102 passengers aboard only around half were Puritans with 28 male members of the congregation (many aged and past their prime) 20 women (3 of whom were pregnant) and a number of children. The rest were representatives of the company referred to by the Puritans as ‘Strangers’ and treated with suspicion.

 It was the worst possible time of the year to be embarking upon such a voyage, progress was slow and with the sea rough sickness was rarely absent. In the meantime, huddled below decks in cramped and unsanitary conditions surrounded by damp discarded clothes, chamber pots and no little vomit where privacy was at a premium the Puritans made the best of a bad situation. Yet for all its unpleasantness it was for the most part an uneventful voyage; at one point a mast snapped and had to be replaced, a child was born they named Oceanus, and four people died of disease but there had been no life or death struggle against a raging sea, no attack by pirates, no seething resentment below decks that threatened mutiny.

On 9 November, after 65 days of sea land was at last sighted, but it was not the land they were looking for. Captain Jones soon ascertained they were off the coast of Cape Cod still some hundreds of miles from the Hudson Bay area and their intended destination. He was eager to move on but first some kind of agreement had to found between the Puritans and the Strangers as to what form any future settlement might take. Tensions had been mounting between the two groups for some time with both equally determined to assert their rights and freedom to do as they pleased.

The Puritans and Strangers had little in common other than self-preservation, which of course was no small thing, but if that were to be secured then some accord would have to be reached.

On 11 November an agreement was signed by 41 male passengers and on behalf of the 29 women aboard that declared in the name of the King they would work collectively for the common good and in the best interests of the colony they would establish. The Mayflower Compact, as it became known, would be a document of governance, a founding document – ten days later they elected the wealthiest among them, John Carver, to be their first Governor.

After a week spent undergoing repairs and a few brief forays ashore, after one of which William Bradshaw returned to discover his wife had fallen overboard and drowned, the Mayflower sailed north but hidden shoals, dangerous tides, adverse weather, and inadequate charts soon saw Captain Jones turn south once more.

As they sailed along the coast landing parties under the command of Myles Standish, an experienced soldier who had been appointed military commander were sent ashore to survey the land for possible settlement. Certain criteria had first to be met: the land had to be arable, the location easily defendable, and it must have a harbour for ships to dock. Finding such a place was easier said than done however, but there was evidence of previous settlement including rudimentary dwellings and burial grounds while abandoned foodstuffs were retrieved and taken back to the ship with a promissory note of future payment being left in its place.

Having heard many lurid tales of a violent and savage Indian not subject to God’s Beneficence the landing parties were well armed, and a first encounter with the Indians where arrows rained down and shots were fired in exchange only confirmed them in their worst fears - as a result they did not remain in any one place for too long.

On 17 December the Mayflower docked in Plymouth Harbour by which time weakened by hunger sickness had spread throughout and Captain Jones was desperate to land his cargo before it got any worse. Explorations continued then, but with even greater urgency.

On 21 December they stumbled across an Indian village that had been abandoned four years earlier when most of its inhabitants had been wiped out by plague. It was a Godsend, once called Petuxet, they would name it Plymouth, and here they would remain.

They immediately began constructing what buildings they could but the shelter provided was barely adequate for the inclement weather and already weakened by disease more than half were to die during that first terrible winter. William Bradford was to write of their despair:

“It was a time of great cold and deprivation the foulness of which affected us all. It had pleased God to visit us then with death daily with so general a disease the living were scarce able to bury the dead and the well no measure sufficient to tend the sick.” 

With starvation imminent a hill overlooking the settlement became the last resting place for many. Indeed, it appeared that Burial Hill as it became known would be the only permanent memorial to their presence.

This would change in ways unimagined when on 16 March a tall, well-set scantily clad Indian strolled boldly into their camp greeted them in his broken English and demanded that beer and bread be brought. His name was Samoset he told them and he was there on behalf of the Pakonet tribal leader Massasoit Ousamequin.

Encounters between the Indian and the white man were not uncommon, the English and the French had been trapping and fishing in the Cape Cod area for many years and Samoset had learned their language trading with them. But that isn’t to suggest relations were good and violent clashes were common with massacres committed by both sides. But fighting with the white man was as nothing compared to the warfare waged between the tribes and when they weren’t stealing each other’s land, women, and killing each other then they were seeking to do so, and having been decimated by the plague the Pakonoket were particularly vulnerable.  Massasoit was no friend of the English but with their weapons, tools and know-how he recognised the value of being so. Under threat from both the Narragansett and in particular the warlike Abenaki, he sought them as an ally.

Samoset departed the camp telling the settlers that he would return soon with his tribal leader and that they would talk together.

Samoset was to prove as good as his word for Massasoit had already decided how best to deal with these trespassers upon his land.  Some had wanted him to attack them forthwith, to wipe them out, but he instead chose the path of peace even if it had taken him sometime and had been a close run thing.

When Samoset did return four days later accompanied by Massasoit it was with a large retinue of warriors among whom was a man of Petuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto as he would soon be known.

He had been abducted by an English raiding party some tears earlier, taken to Europe and sold into slavery. It would appear his captivity was less restricted than one might imagine for he was able to travel from a monastery in Spain to London from where he later took ship back to North America.

In the meantime, he had not only become fluent in English but believed he understood them as no other Indian could and with the settlers for the most part being artisans and tradesmen with little farming experience it was he more than any other who would save the Plymouth Colony from extinction. He showed then what seeds to sow and how to cultivate them, where to hunt and fish, and how to build homes more weather resistant.  He also helped make and maintain the peace but his role as chief interlocutor between the English and the Indians also fuelled his own ambitions and it was not without justification that Massasoit believed he was conspiring with his English friends to replace him. Indeed, he was to imperil that peace when the English refused Massasoit’s demand that they hand him over for summary justice.

Before the crisis could escalate any further however, Massasoit fell ill and appeared near death. All tribal remedies had failed and it fell to Edward Winslow with a mixture of common sense, concoctions from home and no little prayer to nurse him back to health. For this the Pakonoket Chieftain would be eternally grateful declaring “the English are my friends, they love me, and I shall never forget the kindness they have showed me.”

As long as Massasoit lived the peace would be maintained.

In the autumn of 1621 the settlers gathered in celebration of their first harvest. Joined by Massasoit and other Indians who brought along five deer for the table food was ample and the atmosphere one of amity and optimism. Plymouth colony, the first established on the North American Continent for a higher purpose than that of mere commerce alone, had survived against all the odds. It had been a miracle of sorts, and though the Puritans might disavow such interventions they remained firm believers in God’s Providence; as also in time would others as that first Thanksgiving Feast took on a significance unimagined by those who had been in attendance. It would become a founding myth even if the details of its conception have become blurred in the mists of time; but then the reality of any myth lies not in its truth but its meaning, and more importantly its legacy.

The Pilgrim Father’s as they had been known since 1820 when the preacher Daniel Webster first coined the term were that myth, and the community created by his handful of persecuted religious malcontents from the heart of rural England while never the ‘shining house on the hill’ later described  was nevertheless to prove one built on solid foundations.

The founding of America was not the founding of the United States of course (that would come later) but it was a seminal moment nonetheless; and it was to be in celebration of that first harvest that President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of a civil war to preserve the Union would declare the fourth Thursday in November a day of national unity – Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate?

The story is told how many years ago a young Russian Jew was paid a rouble a month by the local Mayor to stand on the outskirts of his town so that should the Messiah return there would always be someone there to greet him. When a friend of the young man complained that the pay was too low and that he should ask for more, he replied:  “I know the pay is poor but at least the work is permanent.”

But whereas the Coming of the Messiah remains a matter of dispute among Jews for one breakaway sect it long ago ceased to be the subject of intellectual debate for the Christians declared Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth who lived and preached in the land of Israel, to be their Messiah - the Son of God subject to a Virgin Birth who died upon the Cross for the remission of their sins.

 

But who killed Jesus, who was responsible for the death of the Messiah? Was it Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea? Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jewish Temple? Or was it the Jewish people who had themselves demanded it?

It is written that Pontius Pilate only reluctantly ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, and upon this the Gospels, which otherwise vary in their accounts, agree.  But did he, would he, could he have been so ambivalent and indecisive? If so, then he was a strange choice as Governor of the most turbulent and fractious of all the Roman provinces? If so, then it would appear to have been out of character.

According to Philo of Alexandria, Pilate was a vindictive man of violent temper who was wilful, inflexible, and relentless in pursuit of his aims. He likewise criticised “his corruption and acts of insolence, his rapine and habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his murder of people untried and un-condemned, and his never ending, gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.”

Indeed, it was his cruel and arbitrary behaviour that the Jewish historian Josephus tells us was the reason behind his recall to Rome. He does not then, seem a character who would demur at the execution of a heretic preacher.

He had been born a Roman citizen but was not of Roman ancestry, rather he was a Samnite, a member of a hardy tribe from the mountain country of south-central Italy that had fought long and hard to resist Roman rule. By the time he reached adulthood the Samnites had only been fully assimilated into Roman society for a hundred years or less and they were still not entirely trusted.  They were considered outsiders still and sensing the need to prove and reaffirm his loyalty constantly Pilate would have had to try harder than most to succeed.

Even though he was of noble blood, a member of the Pontii clan, as a Samnite he could not rise above the rank of Equestrian, the lowest strata of Roman nobility making political advancement on the basis of status alone difficult and unlikely, so he instead chose a more traditional route for an ambitious young man of limited opportunities, he enlisted in the army.

In the Legions Pilate would have learned to be ruthless and hard but as an outsider would he not also have felt an empathy with, perhaps even sympathy for, others similarly marginalised. Who knows, but he was good soldier and rose rapidly through the ranks displaying a flair for leadership and administration as he did so.

In AD 26 his hard work was rewarded when he was appointed Prefect, or Governor, of Judea - his remit a simple one, to maintain order and collect taxes.

Caiaphas as High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Rome presided over the Sahnredin, the Supreme Council that administered to Jewish affairs religious and otherwise. He could be high handed in the delivery of his duties and lived in conspicuous luxury courtesy of his willingness to co-operate with the Roman occupiers. It was not something that had gone unnoticed by those who sought a change to the status quo but then his task was to ensure that the Jewish people remained compliant and that no serious threat emerged to Roman rule.

Religious preachers were not uncommon in Judea and Roman policy (such as it was) towards them was one of indifference as long as they did not advocate for rebellion and posed no threat. One such man was John the Baptist who had been practising his ministry along the banks of the River Jordan for a number of years. But Roman toleration of such activities was not necessarily mirrored by the Sahnredin who saw all such preachers as a direct challenge to their authority and were particularly concerned by all the constant chatter of a coming Messiah.

A preacher, Joshua Bar-Joseph, known as Jesus, had been gathering disciples for only a short time but his popularity had been noted and his growing reputation as a healer and miracle worker saw his name spoken of in the same breath as that of the Messiah.

Caiaphas felt threatened by this Jesus  whom he not only thought was preaching against him but showing great disrespect by his repeated attacks upon the Temple, the very hub of Jewish life and commerce, where, it barely needed saying, the blasphemy committed was both  stark and absolute.

Before entering the Temple a Jew had to be ritually cleansed in a mikveh, or bathtub, for which the priests charged a fee and once inside the Temple there were business transactions to be seen aplenty - it had, or so it seemed, ceased to be a place of worship and had instead become a centre of corruption, graft, and greed.  Jesus was furious and storming into the Temple, overturned the tables, and drove out the money-changers, “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it into a den of thieves,” he said.  His behaviour was scandalous.

To verbally attack the Jewish Religious Establishment was one thing but to assail their holiest shrine and threaten their wealth was another. Caiaphas was unequivocal in his condemnation. Such behaviour could not be tolerated even if this meant the preachers death. Others among the priesthood were not so sure. His criticism was not without foundation, after all. He had condemned the money changers for defiling the sanctity of the Temple which was self-evidently true. But Caiaphas was adamant - by physically attacking the Temple he had committed a crime against God?

Even if his blasphemy could be proved to commit an offence under Jewish law was not to commit one under Roman law and Caiaphas who did not want the responsibility for condemning Jesus wanted Pilate to do it, but would he? There was someone who who was willing to betray this so-called Messiah.

Pilate may have had the reputation of a man who trampled upon the religious sensibilities of those he governed but he was no fool. As far as he was concerned Jesus had committed no crime under Roman law. His priority was to maintain order and collect taxes not launder the Jews dirty linen for them. But the Sahnredin having already condemned Jesus under Mosaic Law and taking their instructions from Caiaphas now accused him of openly opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and to Rome even though he had already declared “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Words that are to be plainly understood but tax resistance could not be tolerated and was a capital offence. Pilate knew this and so did Caiaphas.

Four days after raising Lazarus from the dead in the village of Bethany, Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives to ride through Jerusalem on a donkey. It was Passover and the city was teeming with people who in anticipation of his arrival had strewn flowers and palms along his path.

Aware that tensions were often high during Passover, Pilate who resided in Caesaria and rarely visited Jerusalem was in the city for the festivities, his presence a reminder, should anyone be inclined towards dissent, who still governed in Judea.

A short time after events in the Temple, Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples and a close associate of Jesus approached the Jewish Authorities and agreed to betray him for the payment of 30 pieces of silver. Later at what became known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his followers that despite their assertions to the contrary one of their number would betray him. The following day he was arrested as he walked in the Garden of Gethsemane after Judas had identified him with a kiss on the cheek.

As the priests and the guards who accompanied them moved in to seize Jesus a scuffle broke out, weapons were drawn, and blows struck. To prevent further violence Jesus intervened telling his disciples: “Return your swords to their place, they who take up the sword will die by the sword.”

Judas, distraught at what he had done would later hang himself.

Taken before the Sahnredin Jesus angered Caiaphas by refusing to be cowed in his presence and infuriated him further by remaining silent under questioning spurring the High Priest to cry out in frustration: Will thou answer me nothing! At last to the question: are you Christ the son of the Blessed? He replied: I am, causing an increasingly agitated Caiaphas to tear at his cloak and demand “Are you then the Son of God?” Jesus, who had in contrast to his interlocutor remained calm, replied cryptically, “You say that I am.”

It was enough for Caiaphas, there was no need for witnesses the accused had declared himself King of the Jews and admitted his guilt. He ordered that he be taken to Pilate.

Pilate couldn’t care less that some itinerant preacher had declared himself King of the Jews - it wasn’t his affair. He sent him to Herod Antipas in Galilee under whose jurisdiction he fell.

Herod, who drunk and amorous had only recently succumbed to the wiles of his step-daughter Salome and her Dance of the Seven Veils presenting her with the head of John the Baptist as a reward was disinclined to offend God any further. It was his want to mock, humiliate and belittle Jesus demanding that he perform miracles for his entertainment but he would not take responsibility for his execution - he returned him to Pilate.

It came as no surprise to Pilate that the idiot Herod had returned Jesus to his care but it was unwelcome nonetheless especially as Caiaphas and the Sahnredin weren’t about to let the matter lie.  They continued to harangue the Governor until at last he determined to meet the preacher, the holy man, who was causing him such grief.

Their meeting would be brief but deeply profound in its simplicity. There would be little to add, all that could be said would be said.

Pilate asked the preacher:

Do you consider yourself to be King of the Jews?

Jesus replied:

“If you say it is so, but my Kingdom is not of this world. I came into this world to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”

Pilate paused for a moment before replying:

What is truth?

It is the question of eternal memory the resolution of which lies in the redemption of man but even as the answer stood erect before him Pilate could see nothing. But he had been disturbed by the exchange, moved even. His verdict: I find no fault in this man. Caiaphas disagreed, and he was quick to remind Pilate that to declare oneself King of the Jews was to declare oneself against Caesar - how would the Emperor in Rome react to such an assertion going unpunished?  Pilate could only say once again, I find no guilt in this man. His wife Claudia Procula agreed, she whispered in his ear of a dream she’d had. It was a warning she told him: “Have nothing to do with this righteous, innocent man for I have suffered many things this day because of a dream I had.” Caiaphas whispered in his other ear: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar’s.”

Jesus would be condemned. It could not be otherwise but what should be his punishment?

It was the custom during Passover for the Prefect to release a condemned man according to public acclamation. Pilate put the question to the crowd – should the preacher be set free? They responded,  “Let his blood be upon our heads, and the heads of our children,” and chose instead a common thief named Barrabbas.  But why, asked Pilate, “what evil has he done?” They chanted “crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate yields to their demand but then washes his hands in full view of the crowd before saying to those accompanying him: “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see you to it.”

Made to wear a crown of thorns in mockery of his claim to Kingship, Jesus, relentlessly scourged and beaten as he did so was forced to carry the Cross to which he would be nailed upon his back along the Via Dolorosa to his place of crucifixion on the hill of Calvary overlooking the city.

The many women who lined the route hearing the jeers and seeing the blood and torn flesh wept at the torture he was forced to endure but he told them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children.

Nailed to the Cross with his arms outstretched Jesus did not cry out or beg for mercy much to the irritation of Caiaphas and many of those looking on, no doubt.  Meanwhile, Pilate had pinned above his head a sign which read: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. When Caiaphas complained that he was not King of the Jews only claimed to be and that the sign should be taken down Pilate refused saying: “I have written what I have written.”

Jesus died on the Cross for the remission of man’s sins, be resurrected, and ascend to heaven. Pilate too would die, but in Rome, made to account for his actions, condemned, and ordered to take his own life by the man he served, the Emperor Caligula.

Few ponder much upon the fate of Pontius Pilate, and fewer still that of Caiaphas, but the death of Jesus remains forever etched in the heart and soul of man whether one wishes so or not, that is the truth of eternal memory; but that it was meant to be surely negates the requirement for blame and all then are guilty and innocent in equal measure? Maybe, maybe not, it falls to man to find the imponderable intolerable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner

A thick-set robust man of boundless energy with a loud voice and a big personality, William Jennings Bryan was difficult to ignore. His appeal to the hard scrabble workers of America, the forgotten man, would earn him a reputation as the ‘Great Commoner’, a name in which he revelled though it was never intended as a complement. Common he was not but he was certainly the ‘Great Campaigner’ as it fell to him, he believed, to carry the flag for social justice and a better world, an argument he would make at rally after rally in town after town across the heartland of the United States. To some his was a message of hope, a call to arms for David to rise once more and smite the Goliath of global capital and the East Coast elites; to others his message was a naive stump politics laced with hypocrisy and made sordid by deceit. It falls to few then in a world devoid of tyrants to enthuse so many while antagonising even more. Yet for all the bluster, the frenzied debate, and the endless oratory he would fail not once, not twice but again and again, and live to see his ideas thoroughly rejected by a liberal and progressive mainstream that had come to loathe and detest him and everything he stood for. But the maverick in politics is a beast not easily slain and his message both in style and content resonates still with the great silent majority it always intended to rouse from its slumbers.

William Jennings Bryan was born to some affluence in Salem, Illinois, on 19 March, 1860. His father, Silas, was a circuit court judge active in Democratic Party politics while his mother, Mariah, was active in the Church, and the earnest young William eagerly embraced both. Indeed, he was to experience his own religious conversion aged 14, that he was later to describe as the best day of his life.

A studious child it was said he was rarely distracted from his work and he excelled both at school and college often finishing top of his class, though he was to be distracted long enough while studying at Illinois College to court Mary Elizabeth Baird, the daughter of a local businessman whom he married in October 1884.

They shared a healthy and stable relationship in which Mary not only bore her husband three children but was constantly at his side working tirelessly on his campaigns. It was a partnership in more ways than one and her role in his future success cannot be underestimated.

After graduating from Law School in Chicago he briefly worked as an attorney in Jacksonville before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the opportunities for advancement appeared greater; and being already by his mid-twenties a lay preacher and an experienced public speaker, having honed his oratorical skills at the pulpit and in college debating societies, he now entered local politics determined to succeed where his father had seen his political ambitions thwarted.

The Nebraska Democrats had in fact, never encountered anyone quite like him and he was to rise rapidly through the ranks of the local party machine.

The connections made by his father during his many years in the Democratic Party and his own association with the ex-Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull, for whom he briefly worked, served the ambitious Bryan well and by 1891 he had been elected to the House of Representatives in Washington. His Congressional career was to be brief and not particularly distinguished but by force of personality alone his impact on the political scene was to be far greater than it perhaps at first appeared.

In the summer of 1896, as the great and the good of the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was not being spoken of as a serious candidate, though evidence now suggests that manoeuvres were underway on his behalf. He had recently been making a name for himself campaigning against the Gold Standard wanting instead the dollar pinned to the Silver Standard also, thereby putting more money into circulation, making it cheaper, lowering interest rates, and allowing easier access to credit and loans. This would not only put more money in people’s pockets but should also increase the price of agricultural produce making farming more viable.

On 9 July, following a series of dreary speeches either in favour of the Gold Standard or in defence of the deeply unpopular departing President Grover Cleveland; with many delegates plainly disinterested and shuffling about in preparation to vote on the party platform, William Jennings Bryan rose to address the Convention.

Although many had been bored into numb indifference there were those who had been waiting in eager anticipation for him to speak, and so it was to a mixed reception that he strode to the platform. It wouldn’t be long however, before he grabbed their attention. Modulating his voice to good effect and expressive in his mannerisms he seemed to grow like a colossus upon the stage and he was to dominate proceedings as none had before. With few able to divert their eyes he rode the rhythm of his speech as a ship rolls with the waves, plunging and rising and forging a way through as time and again he electrified them with comparisons between the hard working common man and the quixotic business elites while defending the small proprietor against the East Coast money men:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight, upon the side of the idle holders of capital or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question which the party answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who, have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

As the delegates shouted their approval, cheered wildly and threw their hats into the air he treated them to a rousing and defiant finale:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the Gold Standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interest, the labouring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a Gold Standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

As he concluded delegates rushed the stage and chaired him from the platform. It had been the speech of his life and it would propel him to the nomination as he unanimously defeated the pre-Convention favourite, the ex-Congressman from Missouri, Richard P Bland, on the sixth ballot.

His Cross of Gold Speech, as it became known, was a sensation being widely reported, much commented upon, and eagerly dissected. It elevated William Jennings Bryan, the relatively obscure machine politician from Nebraska to national prominence - he would now take his message to the country.

Following the Cross of Gold speech and his nomination as the Democratic Party candidate the Populist Party which represented the farming interest and had received more than a million votes in the previous Presidential election threw its weight behind him.

The support of the Populist Party made him appear an outsider and this was to be his own cross to bear for he was seen by many not to be a true Democrat, that he didn’t really represent the values and ideals of the party. Nonetheless, he remained popular and could draw a crowd; but politics is as much driven by jealousy as it is the art of persuasion and though Bryan was now the de facto leader of his party those who had previously been so did not easily give up the reins of power.

President Grover Cleveland was certainly no admirer of Bryan’s and would not support his candidacy but did not make his objections public. Others were not so shy in coming forward however, especially those who remained supporters of the Gold Standard, the so-called Gold Democrats, who broke away and nominated their own ticket which was to receive 137,000 votes in the forthcoming poll, not enough to swing the election but a significant number nevertheless.

Bryan’s Republican rival in the race for the White House was the popular and urbane veteran of the Civil War, William McKinley who, no less earnest in his way than his Democratic rival but no orator would not even try to compete with Bryan on the campaign trail instead he would run his campaign from the front porch of his elegant home in Canton, IIIinois.

With the financial backing of big business and the support of a largely sympathetic press he could be assured of the positive coverage he required.

By contrast Bryan hit the road and he hit it hard, as travelling by train he embarked upon a whistle-stop tour visiting 27 States, making 600 speeches, and addressing as many as 5 million people.

His message that remaining on the Gold Standard and its strict control of the money supply was keeping people poor when switching to silver coin at a ratio of 16 to 1 would restore prosperity resonated with people; and so portraying himself as the man who would stand up for the weak against the strong, as the man who would be the voice for those who had no voice, he was cheered to the rafters as he swept through the mid-West and Deep South like a cyclone. But when he addressed an audience of white farmers on the wind-swept plains of rural America he was speaking to the already converted.  His  campaign for Free Silver had made the election about class and the small farmers and rural poor flocked to his cause but the industrial working class who would have to carry the burden of higher prices did not.

Opining from the comfort of his front porch it was easy for McKinley and those surrogates campaigning on his behalf to portray Bryan’s demand for Free Silver as reckless. It would make the dollar in your pocket worth less he declared while also destabilising the economy and threatening U.S trade overseas.

He also appeared positively sanguine in the comfort of his own home drinking coffee and sharing a joke with reporters while the energised Bryan stumped around the country as evangelical in his politics as he was in his religion.

When the election result was announced it was perhaps closer than many people had expected, at least in terms of the popular vote. McKinley received 7,116,607 votes or 51% of the total winning 23 States; Bryan received 6,509,052 votes or 46.7% of the total winning 22 States. It was a comfortable enough win in the Electoral College at 271 to 176, and the electoral map had what would be thought an unfamiliar feel to us now with the Republican McKinley securing the East and West coast and industrial centres while the Democrat Bryan swept the mid-West and South.

The impact of Bryan’s campaign had been great, however. He had received more votes in defeat than any other previous candidate, more votes indeed than Grover Cleveland had received in becoming President four years earlier. McKinley’s front porch campaign of calm reassurance had been a success but could any candidate again afford to give their rival free rein on the campaign trail? Bryan had perhaps shown they could not. As such, even in defeat he was encouraged to run again and he would run again, but first there was a war to be fought.

 

On the night of 15 February 1898, the Armoured Cruiser USS Maine, which had been sent to protect American interests in Cuba threatened by its rebellion against Spanish rule, blew up and sank in Havana Harbour killing 268 men. It was a shocking incident which had most likely been an accident, an exploding boiler, but an Inquiry held shortly after found otherwise declaring it an act of sabotage carried out on behalf of the Spanish Authorities. An affronted nation their outrage fuelled by a bellicose press ensured that vengeance was now on every man’s lips and though President McKinley was at first reluctant to enter upon the path of hostilities the war hysteria that gripped the country left him with little choice - on 25 April, the United States declared war on Spain.

Bryan, who despite rumours to the contrary was no pacifist, recruited a regiment of volunteers to fight but the war was over before they could serve overseas. He had displayed a willingness to take up arms in defence of his country but what he could not countenance was imperial adventurism and was outspoken in his opposition to the American annexation of the Philippines that followed the end of the war. His anti-imperialism and the fact he never led men in combat would bear comparison to the man who would soon loom large not only in his but the nation’s life.

Bryan had wanted to fight the 1900 election on the same issue as the previous one, Free Silver, but now with the country recovering from recession and confident in victory the case for a change of Administration was a difficult one to make and the argument had lost much of its potency. Undeterred however, he once more took to the stump, another whistle-stop tour, more speeches (up to six a day) and crowds no less numerous and enthusiastic than before.

President McKinley would again run a front porch campaign greeting delegations at his front gate and holding garden parties for his supporters but this time Bryan would have a rival on the campaign trail, the Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, a man just as energetic, just as charismatic, and one who had led men in combat, his famous Rough Riders in the storming of San Juan Hill.

Perhaps deafened by his own rhetoric or blinded by the multitudes who came to listen Bryan was slow to realise that a focus on the evils of big business at a time of economic prosperity was not a good issue upon which to campaign but when he shifted the focus to America’s continued presence in the Philippines, despite the support of the vocal anti-Imperialist League, he struggled to make headway against the wave of patriotism that invariably follows victory in war - a patriotism that was embodied both in word and deed by the man stalking him on the campaign trail.

In truth, morality can rarely withstand the storm of a robust jingoism.

As the results came in a pall of gloom descended upon the Bryan camp and the Democratic Party, McKinley’s vote had risen to 7,228,864 and the Electoral College was even more decisive than before at 292 to 155. Bryan’s vote had decreased slightly to 6,370,932. He had also won 5 fewer States one of which was his own, Nebraska.

While it was clear that his supporters had remained essentially loyal he had failed to reach out beyond them – their champion had failed them. It was enough for the Democratic Party to look elsewhere in 1904.

Bryan meanwhile, remained determined to spread his message far and wide and in January 1901 published the first edition of his weekly newspaper The Commoner, a commentary on current affairs which permeated with religious fervour became a popular addition to the political discourse of the day. It would at its peak boast 100,000 subscribers and become a regular feature on small town newsstands, but though it was sold in every State of the nation it did little to boost his support among the urban working class.

On 6 September 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  He remained conscious following the assassination attempt and it seemed for a time that he would make a full recovery but by the 13th it was clear that his blood was poisoned and there was little hope. He died the following day.

McKinley was the third President to be murdered while in Office in just over 30 years following Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A Garfield in 1881 but it came as no less of a shock for that and especially as reports had suggested he would survive. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt had been so confident of the President’s recovery he had gone on holiday and had to be summoned back to be sworn in.

Bryan would have relished the opportunity to cross swords once again with his old rival on the campaign trail but though his ambition to be President had not dimmed the enthusiasm within the Democratic Party for another Bryan candidacy had. He chose then, not to seek the nomination in 1904 much to the relief of the party establishment if not his grass roots supporters who remained many; but as is so often the case when the establishment of any organisation is presented with a free hand they then proceed to reveal just how out of touch they really are.

Their nomination for President would be Judge Alton B Parker, a conservative Democrat respected but of limited vistas and little personality. He was also a Gold Democrat whom Bryan would not endorse and openly criticised declaring that no decent Democrat should.

The truth was Parker’s nomination and that of his running mate the 80 year old Henry G Davis was forced upon the party to prevent the campaign of another popular but controversial candidate, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, from gaining any traction.

With the party platform offering little new and Parker failing to inspire the result when it came was not unexpected. The Democrat vote had decreased by more than 1,200,000, a mere 37:5% of the total cast, and every State in the mid-West had been lost. The return to a more traditional politics had failed. It only served to strengthen Bryan’s position and power within the party.

In the meantime, he travelled extensively including to Asia and Europe where he met leading politicians and collected lecturing fees while honing his pitch for the next Presidential cycle. But he was never to be an internationalist. Indeed, the more he travelled the more he came to appreciate the United States.

By 1908 he was again at the helm of the Democratic Party and once more its nominee for President.

Bryan had expected to run against Theodore Roosevelt but the President had kept to the promise he had made to the American people not to seek a Second Term (something he’d soon come to regret) but he would hand-pick his successor and that man would be his Secretary of War William Howard Taft whose campaign he effectively ran.

Taft, a large, avuncular man of common sense and integrity was considered a safe pair of hands while Bryan had a significant number of problems to overcome: the popularity of Roosevelt in whose shadow Taft basked; a lack of divide between the two parties and any real issue to fight over; and, of course, the law of diminishing returns. He may dominate the Democratic Party still, but this was his third run at the presidency and his standing as the champion of the people was beginning to wane.

Most of all however, was the problem of perception.

Bryan did not distinguish between his politics and his religion. Indeed, the one developed from the other and religion was in many respects his political crutch forming a large part of his mass appeal throughout the rural United States. But it was also his Achilles Heel for it allowed his enemies to portray him as an unsophisticated backwards populist appealing to the baser instincts of ill -educated yeoman farmers and an ignorant rural poor - a man congenitally incapable of running an increasingly industrialised, technologically advanced, and socially progressive country.

He was also a loser, and so it proved.

The outcome of the election was a disappointment for the Democrats not just for its defeat, Taft had won comfortably enough with 51.1% of the popular vote while Bryan’s had fallen to 43.4% or his worst performance to date, but in the manner Bryan had once again failed to bridge the gap between his traditional base support in small town America and the large and growing industrial centres. No matter what he said or what he campaigned on he just couldn’t make that breakthrough, it was as if he was banging his head against a brick wall.

Even so, there were those among his supporters who wanted him to run again in 1912, but he understood where perhaps others did not the weariness of the voter.  His time as a viable candidate for President was over and he would instead focus on what he did best, campaign, not now for election but social reform.

So Bryan stood aside and for a very different kind of man, the erudite law professor, former President of Princeton University, and one term Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson who with his indelible air of intellectual superiority brought a gravitas to Democratic Party politics that some thought had been lacking for too long.

Bryan and Wilson had little in common other than shared political allegiance and a mutual disdain for black people but they would work together for the benefit of the party.

Having lost all faith in his protégé Taft, Theodore Roosevelt would run again for President in 1912 as candidate for the Progressive Party in effect creating a split Republican ticket. After sixteen years in the political wilderness it offered a path back to power for the Democratic Party and so it would prove as Woodrow Wilson was elected President on just 41.8% of the popular vote, less than Bryan had received in defeat four years earlier.

The now President Wilson was, he believed, a man for the age, weary of tradition, ambivalent towards the constitution, determined that the Government should have the greater say in man’s affairs, and dismissive of those who read their Bible and merely pray for deliverance. He had little time for Bryan’s more populist brand of small town politics, his fire and brimstone religiosity but he was an impossible man to ignore and so  he appointed him Secretary of State. Given his lack of experience in foreign affairs and limited diplomatic nous it seemed a strange choice but it did at least remove him from the domestic scene and restricted his ability to meddle with Wilson’s progressive agenda.

It came as little surprise to those who knew him that his naivety should be exposed on the international stage and he found both the minutiae of administration and the running of a department laborious and dull. The few initiatives he did explore such as coaxing mutually antagonistic countries to sign non-aggression treaties (and some did) were to prove a waste of his department’s time while his somewhat half-hearted attempt to mediate in the conflict that had broken out in Europe was largely ignored.

Rather than end the soon-to-be Great War, Bryan’s primary objective was to keep America out of a conflict he believed was the direct consequence of the Social Darwinism he had come to fear and dread; where the survival of the fittest in a world without God had replaced the Biblical mandate to be one’s brother’s keeper, where the desire for war and conquest had replaced the Sermon on the Mount and the love of Christ in men’s hearts.

When on 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a U-Boat drowning 1,198 of its passengers and crew among them 128 Americans, Bryan believed Wilson would use it as the pretext for war.  The outrage that followed and the initial hard-line adopted by Wilson appeared to confirm Bryan in his view. When Wilson refused to unequivocally state that the United States would maintain its neutrality throughout and regardless of provocation, he resigned. No doubt, to the relief of both men.

But Bryan was first and foremost a patriot, when, following the revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram the United States did at last declare war on Germany he wrote to Wilson:

“Believing it to be the duty of the citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of the peril, I hereby tender my services to the government.”

Wilson declined the offer but he did encourage Bryan to speak favourably in public of American involvement which he proceeded to do with his usual gusto.

Following his resignation from Wilson’s cabinet Bryan returned to Florida where he had moved for the sake of his wife’s health in 1912. It was also time for him to make some money and he would do so by promoting real estate giving speeches and entertaining potential buyers at his luxury home in Miami. It was perhaps not the most edifying career move for the Great Commoner, selling land to millionaires, but everyone has to live.

His removal from front-line politics also freed him to campaign on issues close to his heart not only as an advocate for prohibition and women’s suffrage but also a minimum wage, an eight hour day, and trade union rights. Issues he should perhaps have focussed on earlier in his career.

As the clocks approached midnight on 15 January 1920, the keynote speaker at a gathering of the Prohibition Movement in Washington’s First Congregational Church brought his peroration to a resounding crescendo as quoting from the Book of Matthew, William Jennings Bryan declared:

“They are dead who sought to take the young child’s life. They who would have killed us we have killed them.” 

Minutes later as the Church bells rang out the Volstead Act or Eighteen Amendment to the U.S Constitution banning the production, distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol came into force to be followed just 18 months later by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted the franchise to women nationwide. These were rare victories for Bryan and ones in which he took his full share of credit even though he had been a peripheral figure in both campaigns for many of the preceding years – even so, it was nice to taste the fruits of victory after so many bitter weeds of defeat.

There was still one battle to be fought, however.

Bryan considered Eugenics, as developed from Darwin’s theory of evolution to be the greatest threat to mankind and social cohesion.  It undermined Biblical teaching and advocated for a material rather than a moral world and he fought hard to restrict its teaching in public schools. Support for his campaign wasn’t always forthcoming from the sources he expected and so disappointed was he in the Protestant Churches embrace of Darwinism by its acceptance that one could be both an evolutionist and a Christian that he ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church - it was yet another election he lost.

His determination to defend a fundamentalist interpretation of the Old Testament and to argue in favour of creationism over evolution and the inherent evil of natural selection it contained within made him both a figure of fun and easy to lampoon. He remained undeterred however, he had endured such all his political life and so he ploughed on regardless, writing, speaking, and organising against the further spread of Darwinism. But he was more and more only speaking to those who wished to hear. Elsewhere, away from his traditional support, he was becoming increasingly marginalised and ignored; but the opportunity soon emerged for him to make his case not just in a moral but a legal context, and to a much larger audience.

In March 1925, the State of Tennessee, which had three times voted for Bryan as President, passed the Butler Act making it an offence to: teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Bryan, who had been campaigning for States to legislate against the teaching of Darwin was understandably delighted, though he wanted it banned or taught merely as one theory among many rather than made a criminal offence, wrote to the Governor of Tennessee:

“The Christian parents of the State owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.”

In Dayton an enterprising local businessman George Rappalyea aware of how controversial the Butler Act was likely to be saw it as an opportunity to put his small town on the map. He discussed the matter with others and together they persuaded a 24 year old high school teacher John T Scopes to deliberately violate the code. He agreed, and was duly arrested.

The case made headlines but the carnival that was soon to surround it astonished even Rappalyea.

The American Civil Liberties Union eager to contest the legality of the Butler Act agreed to represent Scopes and appointed the New York attorney Clarence Darrow as Defence Counsel. Darrow was the most famous advocate of his day and had recently represented the defendants in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder trial saving both from the death penalty. He had also once campaigned for Bryan as President but he no longer had much belief in or affection for his old friend.

Learning of this Bryan, champing at the bit to get involved, volunteered to lead the prosecution.

Two of the most famous men in America were to go head-to-head and the press descended upon Dayton like a swarm of locusts, one of whom was the acerbic H.L Mencken, journalist with the Baltimore Sun who had a deep loathing for Bryan, what he stood for, and the places from where he drew his support. He would use his particular poison pen to very good effect.

He was to be scathing of Dayton and its inhabitants though it was in truth an attractive small town, bathed in sunlight, with a polite and hospitable people something he was to submit to the privacy of his diary:

The town, I must confess greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty.

But he wasn’t one to let reality intrude upon pre-ordained and long held prejudice or to unnecessarily influence his prose:

Everywhere I venture in the Tennessee hill country I encounter faith healers, fanatics, medicine men, and frauds.”

The people were ignoramuses, childish in their theology, narrow minded, bigoted, imbecilic in their beliefs, and Bryan was their fundamentalist pope.

H L Mencken would use his particular poison pen to good effect and set the tone for much of the coverage of the trial and the debate that followed but the picture he painted wasn’t always an accurate one.

The atmosphere in Dayton was not confrontational however, but celebratory; the streets were adorned with bunting, the bands played; there were markets and fairground stalls and salesmen and charlatans and itinerant preachers and even a chimpanzee or two.

Bryan was greeted like a returning hero and he was in his element as he played the crowd, spoke often, and attended prayer meetings. The reception for Darrow was a little more muted.

The trial began on 10 July, to a packed courtroom which with the public gallery resembling a melee, journalists in every nook and cranny and even microphones set up for one of the first live radio broadcasts was clearly too small to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. The intense heat of a Tennessee summer only made it more unbearable and the courtroom would soon be abandoned for the cooler climes of the grounds outside.

There was no doubt that Scopes was guilty but then Darrow was less interested in the fate of his client than he was in excoriating the law he had been accused of violating and he had gathered an impressive line-up of witnesses to do just that.  Judge John T Raulston thought otherwise however, and ruled all of them as inadmissible – the court was not charged with the responsibility to prove or disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, or challenge the legality of the Butler Act, but to try the defendant John T Scopes with the violation of that act.

It seemed as if the case was as good as over but Darrow had another card up his sleeve, he would call the Prosecution Counsel William Jennings Bryan to bear witness to his ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. Judge Raulston was inclined to rule this inadmissible as well but Bryan was eager to take up the challenge and he was not one to defy the great man.

Darrow would prepare well for his cross-examination but Bryan felt no requirement on his part to do likewise. He was no theologian after all, and made no claim to be so, but he knew the Bible and he believed in the Word of the Bible. He had nothing to fear if he answered every question honestly and faithfully and by that alone the truth would be revealed to all those willing to listen.

Perhaps, he had become unfamiliar with the exigencies of the justice system or mechanics of court procedure but he was soon to find that whereas repeated declarations of one’s absolute faith might resonate with force from the pulpit it sits less easily on the witness stand.

The fish had taken the bait, and Darrow wasn’t about to let it off the hook.

The stuffiness of the courtroom ensured that Bryan’s testimony would be heard alfresco and a carnival atmosphere prevailed for a time as people gathered to watch.  A hush descended however, as their hero stepped up to the witness stand smiling and waving to his supporters. There was a little joshing between the men, a verbal joust or two, before Darrow began to turn the screw. He pointed out the Bible’s many contradictions, its lack of historiography, and questioned Bryan as to his own absurd assumptions. He demanded clarity where Bryan’s answers were often vague and uncertain. As the Great Commoner stumbled and narrowed his eyes the atmosphere turned into one of open hostility. At times appearing confused it was not only the bright sunlight that Bryan was subjected to but the intense glare of public humiliation. Diminished in the eyes of those looking on he could not escape the vice-like grip of having to defend the indefensible. He could not say what he wanted to say and they were laughing. These were his people and they were mocking him.

He had revealed himself to be what the so-called ‘smart set’ had always said he was, a bigoted old fool who peddled superstition and lies to stand upon the shoulders of those too ignorant to know better, and they revelled in it. H L Mencken wrote:

It is tragedy indeed to begin life as a hero  and end it as a buffoon.

It was unfair of course, and not all agreed with many in the South and mid-West considering the entire Scopes Monkey Trial to be an attack on their way of life but the support he received in the regional press had little influence nationwide or around the world.

Still he had one last chance to redeem his reputation, his summation at the end of the trial, a speech he had been working on for days. This would be his opportunity to address the Court and those looking on; to make clear the dangers inherent in abandoning the teachings of Christ for the assertions of an unfounded, unproven, and perverted science -  but it wasn’t to be.

Much to Clarence Darrow’s delight, on 21 July the Court reconvened to find John T Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act. He could now appeal the verdict to a higher court and having informed Judge Raulston of his intentions he declined to deliver his summation. It was a last twist of the knife for he knew by doing so it negated Bryan’s right to do so.

The Scopes Monkey Trial would fade from memory only to be revived from time to time, but its damage to Bryan’s reputation would remain. The speech he never delivered would later be published though he would never see it.  The following brief extract provides something of its tone:

Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.

 If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.

Bryan remained in Dayton after the trial happy to be in the company of God-fearing people for a change where he held meetings, attended church service, and gathered his thoughts for the battles ahead. Always a prodigious eater on 26 July having dined lavishly he went for his usual afternoon nap. He never woke up.

Upon receiving the news that Bryan had died H.L Mencken remarked:

“So, we killed the son of a bitch.”

Clarence Darrow’s initial remarks were hardly less generous though he later tempered them somewhat. Mencken however, remained unrelenting in his hostility as he wrote in his obituary:

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had travelled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

Not all would agree and William Jennings Bryan remains one of the most significant figures in the political history of the United States more for what he stood and campaigned for than anything he achieved, though many of the things he advocated for would later become law such as female suffrage, a federal income tax, the direct election of Senators a ban on the corporate funding of campaigns, and the government guarantee of bank deposits.

By championing the causes he did he highlighted aspects of the American character that had been present since its founding and exposed a fault line in society that exists to this day - and when his legacy is debated at all it can still inflame the passions.  Even if up to the present day with our now mass media determined to peddle the conventional wisdom they themselves are the creators of the argument has been a lop-sided and unequal one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birth of Kaiser Wilhelm II

On 27 January 1859, Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria gave birth to her first child, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. It was to be a traumatic experience, a breech birth that, though it remained unknown for some time, left him with a withered left arm. It would impact his childhood in particular and play a major role in the formation of his character, though it would be artfully disguised in later life.

Being the mother of nine children Queen Victoria knew all about the pain of childbirth but had found chloroform to be a great help and now recommended it to her daughter, and the Queen’s recommendations were rarely ignored. She also sent Vicky her long-time midwife, Mrs Innocent and her personal physician Dr James Clark.

There was little possibility of Queen Victoria leaving her daughter’s labour in the hands of German doctors alone.

Following the birth, Victoria's husband Friedrich, heir to the Prussian throne, also known as Fritz, wrote to his Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert providing an account of the birth:

"After Vicky had been visited by pains of an unusual nature in the few days prior to the 27th, which had more than once given us a false alarm, she experienced sharp pains shortly before midnight on the 26th, and soon thereafter wetness, which induced me to call in Mrs Innocent. She soon informed me quietly that the time had come, but advised Vicky to try and get a little sleep.

This was no longer possible, as the above-mentioned pain recurred a short time later and Sir James was informed and Wegner. Countess Blucher was summoned. Vicky put on some warm loose clothes and paced to and fro for several hours supported by Countesses Perponcher and Blucher and myself, desperately clutching us or at a table whenever the pain set in. At around half past two in the morning, I went to my parents to announce that it had begun, and Vicky went into the bedroom, which had meanwhile been prepared for the decisive event; and there, she spent the night either walking or lying in the chaise lounge.

The pains gradually increased and by daybreak were no longer by any means negligible. At around 9 a.m., she lay down on the bed, the very place where my father was born; only somewhat later did Dr Wegner notice by chance as he examined her that the position of the baby was not quite the normal one.

Vicky's pain, as well as her horrible screams and wails, became even more severe; however, whenever she was granted a respite from her suffering, she would ask for forgiveness from everyone for her screaming and impatience, but she could not help herself. When the final stage of labour began, I had to try with all my might to hold her head in place, so that she would not strain her neck over much. Every contraction meant a real fight between her and me, and even today, 29 January, my arms still feel quite weak.

To prevent her from gnashing and biting, we made sure that there was a handkerchief in her mouth at all times. Occasionally, I had to use all my strength to remove her fingers from her mouth, and also placed my own fingers in her mouth. With the strength of a giant, she was at times able to hold off two people, and thus the awful torture escalated until the moment of birth was so near that complete anaesthesia with chloroform was undertaken. Vicky was laid at right angles on the bed; she let forth one horrible, long scream, and was then anaesthetized.

Because the baby was lying in the breech position and Vicky had absorbed so much chloroform she was virtually comatose and unable to help in the delivery it had to be literally yanked from the womb. But it wasn’t breathing, everyone thought it was stillborn, and it was only the swift action of the midwife Fraulein Stahl who began to slap the baby’s face first lightly and then more vigorously that saved the young prince’s life.

Upon hearing his son’s first faint cries Friedrich wrote:

"The sound cut through me like an electric shock. I then staggered, in a half-faint, into the next room where the baby was in a bath, and first I fell into Mama's arms, and then I sank to my knees.”

 

 

Constance Markiewicz: The English Countess of Irish Freedom

Born on 4 February 1868, Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was destined to be a lady, and as an English aristocrat raised in Ireland, beautiful, intelligent, graceful and courteous she could have lived a decorous life; that she chose not to in the end can be worthy of praise but in her manner of doing so no less worthy of criticism, for she took up arms in the cause of Irish freedom thereby conspiring against the country of her birth and committing treason.

Her parents Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth were of Anglo-Irish stock and owned estates in County Sligo where unlike many of the English landowning class in Ireland they enjoyed a good relationship with their tenants and were well respected locally.  Liberal in their politics they also allowed their daughters a freedom to roam which Constance took full advantage of indulging her passion for the outdoors learning to ride, hunt, and fish. Indeed, she loved her childhood in Sligo, its landscape, the fresh air, and all the other myriad attractions of a carefree life in rural Ireland. It was a privileged existence, and she no less enjoyed being the pampered young lady as she did the self-indulgent tomboy of her daylight meanderings.

As she grew older and became increasingly accomplished she attracted a great many male admirers and even impressed the not always amenable Queen Victoria when presented to her as a possible paramour for her grandson the future King George V, but she had no relish for the ornamental life. She wished to achieve things in her own right, though what exactly remained a mystery but it certainly didn’t involve politics. Indeed, she showed little interest in the social movements of the day and would disagree agree passionately with her more engaged younger sister Eva on issues such as labour reform, improved living conditions, and even women’s suffrage.  So instead she studied art first in London and later Paris; and it was in Paris that she first met Count Casimir Markiewicz, a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish descent, at least that’s what he told people, a not very successful playwright and theatre director who nonetheless was a familiar figure among the artistic mileu of the city introducing Constance to a bohemian lifestyle of which she neither approved nor disapproved but did think decidedly un-English. But able now to live outside the rigid social conventions of the day while still attending the Ambassador’s Ball suited her well, and it helped her relationship with Casimir blossom, that was until they married in September 1900.

Constance gave birth to a daughter not long after the wedding and in 1903 the now Countess Markiewicz and her husband returned to Ireland but despite being back in more familiar surroundings she could not adapt to domestic life, she was not equipped to be a mother neither was she a dutiful wife. It was not enough, she needed some purpose, some reason to exist, and her frustration was placing an intolerable strain on the marriage. In 1905 she wrote:

“Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for.”

Dissatisfied with life the Countess Markiewicz came late to politics.

By 1905, she and Casimir were living in Dublin where working as a theatre director he staged a number of plays in which Constance acted alongside Maud Gonne the unreciprocated love interest of the nationalist poet W.B Yeats. It was Maud who was to introduce Constance to radical circles where the promotion of the Gaelic language and preservation of Irish culture dominated literary output and was the topic of choice at any dinner party worthy of attendance.  Constance soon became an advocate for this resurgent Ireland but it wasn’t until the following year having read at length many of the pamphlets and essays then circulating which called for Irish independence from Britain, by force if necessary, that her cultural nationalism became political.

In 1908, she joined Maud Gonne’s radical Daughters of Ireland and a little later the recently formed nationalist party Sinn Fein – at last she had found that elusive purpose for life, a cause to fight for, and yes, to die for.

Not that she was entirely trusted by her new colleagues. She was after all a lady, English, and a Protestant. Turning up for her first party meeting in a ball gown and a tiara having just attended a party at Dublin Castle the seat of British power in Ireland, didn’t help; but she was soon to prove the sceptics wrong, that she was more than a merely decorative fellow traveller. She had been radicalised, and soon after travelled to England to harass Winston Churchill during the Manchester North by-election campaign over his refusal to support women’s suffrage. Her impact was minimal but this did little to diminish her delight at his defeat. There was always something about Churchill that brought out the worst in his opponents. This was just the beginning for Constance however, as she threw herself into the cause she now believed in utterly working assiduously at every level in both organisations from distributing leaflets, to sitting on committees, and addressing rallies. In 1909, she helped found Fianna Eireean, a front organisation for providing young men with military training and for which she made land available on the family estate. Her social connections would indeed prove of great value to the movement and in 1911, she was drafted onto the Sinn Fein Executive.

The situation in Ireland which so often appeared like a powder keg ready to explode was only inflamed further by the Liberal Government in Westminster introducing a Home Rule Bill intended to establish a bi-cameral Irish Parliament elected by Irishmen to administer Irish affairs. It was the third attempt in as many decades to secure a settlement for Ireland but it was to prove no less problematic than the previous two.

Protestant Unionists in the north of the country refused to be governed by a Catholic dominated Parliament based in Dublin. Under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson (who earlier as a barrister had prosecuted Oscar Wilde) they founded an armed militia the Ulster Volunteers, and on 28 September 1912, he presided over the ceremony that saw 500,000 Ulster Unionists sign the Solemn League and Covenant which vowed to oppose the attempt to introduce Home Rule by any means possible. In response to the belligerency of the Ulster Unionists in the north nationalists in the south also formed their own armed militia, the much larger Irish Volunteer Force.

Ireland seemed on the brink of civil war.

Unlike on previous occasions the Government appeared ready to face down the Unionist opposition to Home Rule by force if necessary, but doubt was cast upon their ability to do so when in May 1914 letters were received indicating that senior Officers of the British garrison based at the Curragh in County Limerick would resign their commissions if ordered to act against the Unionists in Ulster. The Curragh Mutiny as it became known sent a shiver down the spine of the British Establishment and it seemed as if an impasse had been reached. But while the Navy was being prepared to sail to Belfast and do if necessary what the Army could not be trusted to do war broke out on the Continent.

The Great War changed everything, or so it seemed, and when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond agreed to the shelving of the Home Rule Bill for its duration (expected to be a year) and called upon Irishmen everywhere to support Britain’s war effort it seemed that the crisis was at an end.  But it had only been stymied, passions were still running high, Redmond’s commitments had served to split the nationalist movement and more militant elements now came to the fore with their hopes raised rather than quashed by events.

Home Rule aside Ireland was also not immune to the rural unrest and industrial strife that beset mainland Britain in those turbulent months before the outbreak of war with Constance active in the many disputes working closely alongside the trade unionist leader James Connolly in setting up soup kitchens in Dublin and organising collections for the strikers. Times were tough yet despite this and the continuing rancour and division caused by the proposed Home Rule Bill there was little enthusiasm for independence. But the war provided an opportunity for where the nationalists could oppose it publicly they also knew it weakened Britain and made the prospect of finding allies among her enemies willing to support Irish independence more likely. Germany had indicated it would provide arms and ammunition in preparation for an uprising. Should such a rising prove successful they might even invade. It was enough to convince the nationalist leadership to make their bid and strike for freedom.

On 24 April 1916, Padraig Pearse, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood stood upon the steps of the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and read out his Proclamation of the Irish Republic:

“In the name of God and the dead generations from which she receives her tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom.”

The operation had been carefully planned and he had 1200 armed men behind him willing to fight but with little popular support Pearse knew the chances of success were slight but he was also convinced that a blood sacrifice was required and that Britain’s response to any rebellion would be swift, harsh, and vengeful – he was right. In the midst of a foreign war they were not about to countenance rebellion at home. Troops were despatched from the mainland to reinforce the local garrison and when the demand the rebels lay down their arms was refused the hostilities began.

The fighting was fierce as the determination of the rebels was more than matched by the anger of the British and Constance was in the thick of it. Stationed at St Stephen’s Green it was said she had been appointed second-in-command which may not have been entirely accurate but she was certainly prominent overseeing the positioning of troops, the building of barricades, and the distribution of ammunition before taking up arms herself.

A nurse who was taking shelter nearby later described in her diary:

“A lady in a green uniform holding a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other was standing on the footpath giving orders to the men. We recognised her as the Countess Markiewicz. We had only been looking a few minutes when we saw a policeman walking down the path. He had only gone a short way when we heard a shot and saw him fall forward onto his face. The Countess ran triumphantly into the Green shouting – I got him!”

If the writer’s account is accurate then she had just shot an unarmed man without warning who later died of his wounds.

It had been hoped, forlornly perhaps, that once news of the armed insurrection in central Dublin spread it would create in its wake similar events elsewhere in Ireland but no reports of such reached the rebels and while Dubliners ventured to look they chose not to participate. The rebellion then had not been the spark that would set Ireland ablaze, that would rouse the people to rise up and expel the foreigner from its blood soaked but sacred soil, to revive and restore once more the freedom and liberty of the Gaels sojourned for so long in the mists of time. Such was the rhetoric of romance, the romance no doubt that drew an English Countess to the cause of Irish nationhood.  But there is little romance in the crash of an artillery shell and he rat-tat-tat of the machine gun.

By establishing themselves in fixed positions that were easily cordoned off and surrounded the rebels had foregone any freedom of movement and could not be reinforced or resupplied.  Without support from outside the end was inevitable. Even so, the ferocity and determination with the Irish fought surprised the British who having seen their attempts to storm their positions repulsed would resort to siege and high calibre explosive shells – the rebels would either starve or die in the rubble.

After six long days and with the British poised to use even heavier artillery, maybe even warships moored on the River Liffey, to which the rebels had no answer with ammunition running low and casualties mounting on 29 April, in order to avoid further bloodshed and needless loss of life, Padraig Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender.

This would not be the end of his intended blood sacrifice, however.

As the captured rebels were marched through the streets of the city they were shocked to find themselves jeered at and spat upon by a people hostile to their aims and unsympathetic to their plight – they had expected better. The Easter Rising as it was soon to become known was not after all a terrorist attack or an incident of guerrilla warfare, nor was it intended to be. They had announced who they were, declared their aims, had a command structure, some wore uniform, and they all acted under orders - they were an army, a citizen army, an Irish Republican Army, and had fought the enemy in the open after a formal declaration of intent. They had expected to be treated as prisoners-of-war but were in fact to be considered traitors to the crown.

During the first two weeks of May 1916, a series of military tribunals sentenced 90 of the captured rebels to death among them the seven signatories of the proclamation and the Countess Markiewicz.  Unlike the 15 who were to be executed by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol, Constance, who’d had the dubious honour of being able to surrender to her own cousin and was the only one of the more than 70 women taken prisoner to be kept in solitary confinement, to preserve her dignity it was said, was to be spared such harsh treatment. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds that she was a woman, not a factor that seemed to trouble the criminal courts greatly in passing judgement on capital cases.

The decision of the military authorities in Ireland to execute the leading rebels was obtuse and counter-productive in effect making the rebel’s case for them by rallying an apathetic Irish people behind the cause of national independence.

The Government in Westminster soon realised its mistake and Constance, along with the other prisoner were released just a year later following a general amnesty. But it was to prove too little too late.

Despite her work on behalf of the nationalist cause and participation in the Easter Rising there were always those within Sinn Fein who viewed Constance Markiewicz as an outsider and not an entirely trustworthy one. As such, she often felt the need to re-assert her credentials and so upon her release from prison she converted to Roman Catholicism despite having not previously expressed any deep religious faith. She also immediately re-entered the political fray and was briefly imprisoned once again this time for opposing the Military Service Bill which sought to extend conscription to Ireland but was released in time to campaign for the seat of St Patrick’s Dublin in the General Election of December 1918 which she duly won thereby becoming the first woman elected to the British Parliament; but she wasn’t to be the first woman to serve in the House of Commons  for like the other 72 members of Sinn Fein elected  she refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown and so was unable to take her seat. That honour would later go to the American born Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Lady Astor.

The Election which had seen Sinn Fein take 73 of 105 Irish seats provided them with a political legitimacy and moral force unimaginable just two years earlier and they were determined to use it. Having chosen to ignore the Parliament at Westminster they now established their own the Dail Eireaan (Assembly of Ireland) which met for the first time in Ireland on 21 January, 1919.

The issue of Home Rule which had so dominated politics prior to the Great War was by now a dead letter and there seemed no possibility of Britain relinquishing its control over Ireland or tolerating any notion of dual power. A tense stand-off ensued which following a series of terrorist incidents descended into an undeclared war of independence between the British Armed Forces and the Irish Republican Army led by Michael Collins.

Such was Countess Markiewicz’s fame she was unable to play an active role in the war and remained for the most part in hiding but she stood firmly the activities of the I.R.A and its elusive and charismatic leader.  Her admiration for Collins wouldn’t last, however.

The war, though not the violence, would end with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

 

 

Michael Collins had headed the Irish delegation sent to London to negotiate the end of the conflict but the treaty he signed which detached the six Protestant dominated northern counties from the rest of Ireland and kept the new Free State within the Commonwealth was simply unacceptable to many within the nationalist movement and their de facto leader, President of the Dail, Eamon de Valera.

hThe treaty was ratified at a stormy meeting of the Dail on 7 January 1922 but only just by 64 votes to 57. The violence of the debate made it clear there was little room for reconciliation and Constance argued furiously with Collins accusing him of being a traitor to which pointing at her he responded more than once, “You are English! You are English!”  The anti-treaty faction then walked out – Civil War would follow.

Though it would cost Michael Collins his life the war between the newly constituted Irish Free State and the anti-treaty forces would be an uneven struggle. Constance, who sided with the rebels, would again find herself imprisoned, this time by people she had previously fought alongside.

The Civil War was a sad denouement to the long struggle for Irish independence but in the end an Irish State would exist, not over the entire island perhaps, but over those parts which wanted and had voted for it.

Following the end of the Civil War, Constance joined Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fail Party for whom she was elected to the Dail in 1927, but she was not fated to serve as a peacetime politician. On 15 July following a short illness she died, aged 59.

The Countess Markiewicz had been a steadfast figure on the left of the nationalist movement at a time of great uncertainty and often discordant debate even if some doubted her commitment and were never convinced that it was more than a fad or the distraction from bored nobility. Those who worked closely alongside her knew otherwise however, and Eamon de Valera was present at her bedside as the end neared. Her contribution then was acknowledged even if the obituaries were often less than flattering. But even among her enemies and opponents there was a grudging respect, as the playwright Sean O’Casey, not always an admirer wrote:

“One thing she had in abundance – physical courage, with that she was clothed as if in a garment.”

Reconciled though she was to the Free State by the time of her death there was to be little official commemoration of her passing and certainly no State Funeral as had been requested. She was instead buried in a private ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery with some of her previous colleagues in attendance, but certainly not all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, a Hohenzollern, and future Emperor of Germany was born on 27 January 1859 in Berlin at a time when the country he would come to rule, made up of a myriad of separate kingdoms, duchies, and principalities did not exist other than as a geographical expression on the map of Europe; but he was destined to be King of Prussia nonetheless, Germany would come later after a long gestation and much like his own, a difficult birth with severe and lasting implications.

His mother was the eighteen year old Princess Victoria known as Vicky, the strong-willed eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria the future matriarch of Europe’s many dynasties great and small.

She had been schooled by her father, Prince Albert, to think for herself and be unafraid to express her views. She also shared his liberal values, the English way of doing things, and was determined that others should believe in them to, among them her husband Friedrich, the Crown Prince of Prussia, but when he spoke in favour of greater press freedom or liberty of conscience it was not well received in a deeply conservative country little interested in reform and dominated by the army. It would in time see him increasingly alienated from his father and excluded from affairs of state. This came as a surprise to Vicky, from a country where a prince’s views on a whole range of issues were not just expected but sought, listened to, and even acted upon.  But then the entire Prussian Court with its rigid protocol, cold palaces, and even colder servants was so unlike her cosy childhood in the bosom of a loving bourgeois family home. Even so, she would not be intimidated by the parade ground politics and barrack room manners of her new world. She would not be silent, she would have her say, and she remained determined that together she and the Crown Prince would change their country forever. Or so she thought.

But all such and their consequences thereof were as yet unknown, for now as a newly-wed young princess she had her duty to perform, to provide the Prussian Monarchy with a son and future heir, and so it would be that on a cold winters afternoon in the Crown Prince’s Palace on the Unter den Linden in Berlin that a most protracted and painful labour began.

In attendance at her bedside was Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir James Clark who was a great advocate for the benefits of chloroform which, despite finding the baby lying in the breech position, he had administered to Vicky in heavy doses to help deaden the pain and silence the screams which were frequent and loud. Indeed, so much had been absorbed she was almost comatose and incapable of helping in the delivery. Under such circumstances a Caesarean Section would normally have been contemplated but it was then a perilous procedure and after consulting with his German colleagues it was decided they could not risk the death of both mother and child. Instead, the baby was quite literally yanked from the womb with great force. In doing so, its left arm which was lying behind its back was crushed.

The injury was not apparent at the time  and of far greater concern was the baby seeming not to breathe and it was only the timely intervention of one of the Princess’s female attendants who, much to the horror of the doctors present , took the baby and began to slap its face vigorously that likely saved the future Kaiser’s life.

The severity of the infant Wilhelm’s disability would become apparent over time and we can only speculate as to any brain damage that may have resulted from the violence of the delivery, though many would later remark upon his erratic behaviour and an evident emotional instability.

Vicky may have sparkled in the joy of having given birth and glowed with good health but the same could not be said for her son who as a future King would require not just the moral strength to lead but physical accomplishments to be admired. As he grew into infancy it became apparent that his disability was graver than at first thought. She could not allow it to go untreated and determined that his paralysed and useless left arm would be cured a series of increasingly bizarre medical procedures were undertaken to that effect.

At the age of six he was subjected to a twice weekly ‘animal bath’ where his left arm would be placed inside the still warm carcass of a freshly slaughtered wild hare, it being thought that its hot blood and feral energy would transfer itself to his withered limb; he was also forced to undergo galvanism, or electro-therapy treatment, powerful electric shocks that were intended to jolt his arm back into life but the impact of such treatment was not on his disability but on his nerves with the possible psychological effects on a child made to endure the fear and pain of such a harsh remedy never even taken into consideration.

On other occasions his good arm would simply be tied behind his back forcing him to try and use his other arm which of course he was unable to do causing him great embarrassment and no little distress.

Vicky was observant of every aspect of her son’s well-being and by the age of four Willy’s tendency to tilt his head to the left was causing concern and so he was made to wear a brace that extended the length of his back and neck and was fixed over his head which when screwed tight kept it ramrod straight. This particular anomaly was at least overcome but there was little they could do about his arm and it appeared his disability would be permanent. Vicky wrote in despair to her mother:

“The idea of him forever remaining a cripple appals me. It spoils all the pleasure and pride I should have in him.”

Vicky’s love for her first born diminished the more it became apparent he would remain an invalid and a distance grew between them. As a result, Willy’s childhood would be both a time of great affection and the most excruciating torment; a confused myriad of emotions that were reflected in a character that was needy, hyper-active, and prone to tantrums. Again Vicky wrote to her mother expressing her concerns:

“He gets so fretful and cross and violent, and passionate he makes me quite nervous sometimes.”

Still, if she could not cure him then she could at least educate and mould him as a man.  She would start by demanding that he learn to ride, withered arm or not, and learn to ride well. His disability should not be seen as an impediment and so he would learn to mount and dismount without assistance; to that end he would do so again and again and ride for hours without respite. If he lost his balance and began to fall then he would be allowed to do so. If it hurt him the more, then good, the sooner he would learn.  When Friedrich watching his son and seeing him in tears complained to Vicky that she was too harsh, she replied – it must be done!

Vicky was also eager to inculcate her son with the same liberal values she had been taught at her father’s knee and so Willy was encouraged to play with the children of ‘common folk’ and even made to visit their homes. They were of course the children of respectable bourgeois, friends of the royal couple, but even so she was insistent that he learn of life outside the Imperial Palace and the confines of the Royal Court. All it achieved was to provide him with an inflated opinion of his own understanding, that no one knew the people better than he for he had spent time alongside them.

Wilhelm would come to view his mother’s teachings as weak and foolish and in the end reject them in their entirety.

At the age of eleven Willy was sent to Boarding School in Kassel and it was here that he first imbibed the Prussian nationalism that came to dominate his thinking.

Lonely and infused with that sense of abandonment many children feel when sent away from home his relationship with his mother was only intensified by her absence. The many letters he wrote (often not reciprocated) were affectionate and filled with longing. Vicky, when she did reply, was cold and unsympathetic - where he expressed his love she corrected his grammar.  Indeed, the letters exchanged between them bear stark testimony to the breakdown in their relationship.

The happiest periods of Willy’s childhood were spent with his grandmother at her home Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. It was here playing with his British cousins that he fell in love with the sea and later as Kaiser he would regularly attend the Cowes Yachting Regatta not as a tourist but as a competitor. He would race his own yacht determined to win, or at the very least finish ahead of his Uncle Bertie, the future King Edward VII.

On 18 January 1871 following Prussia’s victory in their short but bloody war against the French, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, King Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of the newly unified Germany.  Despite fears expressed in some quarters of Prussian domination a wave of patriotism swept the new nation as its people took pride in its achievement and Willy was no exception.  He was thrilled by the turn of events and especially proud of his father’s role as Commander of the victorious Third Army. At odds though he often was with his father this fact alone would earn him his undying respect and in later life no little envy.

The genius behind German unification however, was the Emperor’s Chief Minister Count Otto von Bismarck, a man who was to become increasingly influential in the young Wilhelm’s life and work to separate him from his father and the malign influence of the Crown Prince’s English wife.

With his coming of age Willy’s grandfather, the Emperor, decided it was time for the boy to become a man. He would learn the discipline the sense of duty, and experience the camaraderie that comes with army life and so he was commissioned First Lieutenant in the elite Foot Guards stationed at Potsdam.

Here at last was a place he felt at home, somewhere he could be happy morning, noon, and night whether on manoeuvres, in the officer’s mess, or on the parade ground.  The manly attributes of the soldierly life suited him down to the ground. If his disability was any impediment at all then no one cared to mention it – they were all stout fellows together. He wrote of his time there:

“In the Guards I really found my family, my friends, my interests – everything I had up to that time had to do without.”

Despite his acceptance into the Guards as a fellow officer with few questions asked his disability did in truth remain problematic. He could not mount a horse without assistance or wield a sabre or lance once he had done so; he could only fire a rifle using his good arm and had to have it reloaded for him; even at dinner a footman would stand behind his chair ready to cut up his food, at least until a knife and fork mechanism was designed specifically for his use. He also walked with a limp and had done so ever since he’d had a tendon removed to help with his balance.

But soldiers overcome such adversities, and so it was with the future Kaiser; he would become a competent if nervous rider, an expert marksman, and would stride out with confidence on the parade ground. He also learned to place the hand of his withered arm on the hilt of his sword making its paralysis barely visible even to those already aware of it.

On 27 February 1881, Willy married his second cousin Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein known in family circles as ‘Dona.’ He had previously proposed to his first cousin Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, the older sister of Alexandra the last Empress of Russia, but she had spurned his advances in favour of the Grand Duke Sergei. As a future King of Prussia and German Emperor he did not take kindly to being rejected for a Duke, Grand or otherwise, and certainly not a Russian one. It reminded him perhaps, of Germany’s parvenu status among the great dynasties of Europe, so it could be said he married Dona on the rebound much to the chagrin of his parents  who considered her to be of minor nobility and unworthy of such elevation.

But if it was a hasty choice it was also a wise one for she would prove the ideal partner for her rarely less than exuberant husband. She said little, remained in the background, had no opinions anyone was aware of, and bore him seven children in ten years without complaint - it was a happy marriage and by all accounts a faithful one.

While his successor once removed wallowed for the time being at least in domestic bliss the Emperor Wilhelm lurched towards a venerable old age retreating further and further from public life leaving both domestic and foreign policy in the capable hands of Bismarck, but even as he succumbed to physical infirmity and the increasingly maudlin reminiscences of a long life there would still be no political role for the Crown Prince. Instead the wily old Chancellor fostered a relationship with his son providing him access to government documents denied his father.

Willy soon forged an understanding with Bismarck, a man whose views appeared to correspond with his own. If indeed they were his own for Bismarck was a master at manipulation who had long sought to influence the successor to the Crown Prince whose reign when it came would have to be hindered rather than helped.

So for now the longer the old Emperor remained alive the better but he was drawing on borrowed time and on 9 March 1888, just thirteen days short of his 91st birthday, the account was finally closed.

The Crown Prince would be Emperor at last, and he could no longer be excluded from affairs of state. Here, after being sidelined for so long was Friedrich and Vicky’s opportunity to shape the future of Germany and change it in their own image but he was ill, though few at the time realised how ill - what Friedrich believed was a lingering but heavy cold was in fact something far worse - throat cancer.

Vicky consulted the British cancer specialist Morrell Mackenzie who at first delivered a positive prognosis and recommended various treatments. Yet despite periods of apparent improvement and veiled optimism the decline in his health could not be reversed.

Willy was less than sympathetic and did little to lift the pall of gloom. Instead he strode the corridors of power as if he were already Kaiser-in-waiting criticising his mother and loudly damning those who were tending to his father’s medical needs. Vicky wrote despairingly to her own mother in London:

 “Willy is saying it was an English doctor who crippled his arm and that now it is an English doctor who is killing his father.”

Despite being too weak to attend his father’s funeral the new Kaiser nonetheless remained determined to do what he could but by now unable to communicate verbally he ceased to hold meetings or attend royal functions. Vicky was distraught and became even more so when at the end of May he was confined to his bed. Informed by Dr Mackenzie that the cancer was malignant she insisted there must be an operation to remove the tumour but there was little they could do.

Friedrich wrote a last entry in his diary:

“What is happening to me? I must get well again. I have so much to do.”

The Emperor Friedrich III died on 15 July 1888 - his reign had lasted just 91 days.

Mourn though the country did over the death of its second ruler in just a few months Friedrich’s passing came as a relief to many in government circles, none more so than Bismarck who at least knew that his successor was no liberal. Indeed, he had guided the young Wilhelm in his political development to ensure this would be so and in doing so encouraged his estrangement from his parents.

He was to confirm his conservative credentials when in one of his first acts as Kaiser he ordered troops to surround the Royal Palace and have his mother’s private chambers ransacked in the search for court documents and proof of private correspondence she was sharing with her relatives in England. They found little evidence of Vicky’s alleged espionage but it was to prove the straw that broke the camel’s back of their relationship.  Unable any longer to influence his behaviour and aware that he resented her presence she went into a self-imposed exile on her country estate.

Wilhelm’s first public address as Kaiser was also not to his people but the army, and this concerned Bismarck. The prosperous and stable Europe with Germany at its centre was very much his creation but the peace was a fragile one and the balance of power built upon shifting sands. He knew that Germany was surrounded by enemies who bore the mask of friendship only out of fear and intimidation; to the West was a France still bristling with resentment over its loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871, in the East was an aggressive and expansionist Russia with its eyes on Constantinople and access to the Mediterranean; while Britain remained the dominant commercial power and would respond to any threat posed to its control of the seas and the protection of its trade routes to India and the rest of its Empire.

The political situation in Germany itself was no less precarious with its rapid industrialisation seeing the emergence of a working class and their representatives an increasingly powerful Socialist Party.  Bismarck sought to curtail their influence by making concessions on welfare and pension rights while seeking to divide and rule in the Reichstag.

So there was a delicate balance to be maintained in both domestic and foreign affairs and Bismarck was a master of both but the young Kaiser was not. He was just 29 years old, a young man with a short attention span bombastic in his speech and impetuous in his decision making, who it was said lacked judgement - he hadn’t been expected to rule so soon and it showed.

The detail of politics and the everyday routine of governance bored him, and the popular image of him in some dress uniform or other entertaining friends and sipping champagne wasn’t an entirely false one. He was indeed more likely to be found in the company of his tailor or perusing the items on the wine list than he was at the cabinet table in the presence of his Ministers. But this didn’t prevent him from meddling in affairs of which he was at best ill-informed and at worst dangerously ignorant - a reckless foreign policy or ill-judged attempts at social reform could ruin everything. Bismarck tried to govern much as he had before but he would no longer be given a free hand, and the Kaiser determined to assert his authority could rely upon the support of the Chancellor’s many enemies in Cabinet and at Court.

Wilhelm, who had previously admired Bismarck and even been in awe of him now found this single-minded, strong-willed, and stubborn old man an inconvenience. He would rule not reign and if his Chancellor interfered and tried to prevent him from doing so then he would have to go. It was in fact a dispute in the Reichstag over labour legislation (which the Kaiser supported and Bismarck did not) which provided the excuse to wield the axe. When Bismarck refused to yield to the Kaiser’s way of thinking his resignation was demanded. It was duly received and accepted on 20 March 1890. Count Otto von Bismarck’s long and distinguished political career was over – the Iron Chancellor was no more.

Wilhelm did not require advice and in any case doubted the significance of diplomacy in foreign affairs, there were few difficulties on the world stage that could not be sorted out between Emperors and especially those who were close relations.  He believed himself to be on good terms with his cousins both in Britain and Russia therefore, any problem could be resolved over dinner or via an exchange of telegrams and private letters.

Likewise, opponents in the Reichstag, or the Monkey House as he preferred to call it, might well squabble with his representatives but could always be assuaged by his words and would never fail to condescend in his presence - he was Kaiser, after all.

But he was not a figure as admired and respected throughout the world as he imagined. Neither was his authority ever quite what it seemed at home. The realisation of both these facts would come as a profound shock to a man not given to introspection.

It was true that he could manipulate his cousin Tsar Nicholas but then so could everyone else while his relationship with his British cousins was in fact often strained and his frequent visits to England not always welcome.  Likewise, an invitation to visit him in Berlin was held in dread for he was never less than overbearing. But he could also be charming when the mood took him, and both offensive and sentimental in equal measure, at one moment berating perfidious Albion for her many misdeeds, the next waxing lyrical about the many happy days he spent at Osborne House and the love he felt for his English family.  He could barely speak of his grandmother Queen Victoria without a tear in his eye, and to his mind it was only fitting that she had died in his one good arm. Not that she had intended to do so.  It was instead the result of the doctor repositioning Her Majesty to make her more comfortable.

He was also a great admirer of his ‘Uncle Bertie,’ who succeeded to the throne in 1901 as King Edward VII, though he thought him as much a rival as a friend and was not averse to belittling him should the opportunity arise. Once at the Cowes Yachting Regatta when asked if he knew of the whereabouts of the Prince of Wales, who was in fact having lunch with the tea magnate and businessman Sir Thomas Lipton, he replied:

”I believe he is dining with his grocer.”

It was intended more as an insult than a joke. He wasn’t after all, a man known for his sense of humour unless it involved a bodily function, someone else’s misfortune, or, a ritual debagging.

In truth he could be unbearable, Queen Victoria had long before described him as a petulant child and his constant craving for attention and rigidity of demeanour even at the most informal of occasions drove many to distraction. Even in a world where blood was thicker than water and it certainly was among the Royal Families of Europe, he was a difficult man to stomach.

Yet he was proud of his British blood and envious of their customs and traditions, though he hated the Monarch’s purely ceremonial role; but he was also envious of its longevity, of the Empire it represented and he would seek to challenge the authority of Britain at every turn, and in increasingly reckless ways.

Still, if Wilhelm was not beloved by a vast swathe of his relatives he remained popular with his people who liked their assertive and vigorous Kaiser so firm of speech and strident of manner. They appreciated his love of display (few men enjoyed a parade more) and were emboldened by an army over which he took such pride and the powerful navy he had created – he made them feel good about themselves.

Yet even with their ebullient and self-confident Kaiser in charge Germany without Bismarck was like a ship with a functioning engine and no rudder, forging ahead, going around in circles, careering out of control, and getting nowhere – Kaiser Bill was to prove a poor Captain and certainly no navigator.

In foreign policy he threatened, and bullied, and provoked crises in Morocco (twice) and in Algiers that brought Europe to the brink of war. He nurtured a relationship with the Ottoman Empire that actively sought to promote anti-British sentiment in the Islamic world and boasted of building a Berlin to Baghdad Railway that would directly threaten Britain’s control of the Suez Canal.

He also supported the Boers in their war against Britain, and did so publicly by sending a telegram of congratulation to Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, and later provided them with arms and financial assistance.

In 1902, he embarked upon a naval arms race with Britain determined to create a Kriegsmarine that could compete with the Royal Navy both for control of the North Sea and across the world. Much to his surprise the gGovernment in Britain accepted the challenge forcing him to abandon his ruinously expensive project eight years later still far behind in Dreadnoughts and other armoured vessels

No one quite knew what this Kaiser was going to do next, where his interest might be drawn, or to whom he might pledge his own and Germany’s support. The uncertainty it caused in the corridors of power made it appear as if Europe was always on the cusp of another crisis.  His often ham-fisted attempt at alliance building first with Britain against France and Russia and then with France and Russia against Britain only made matters worse. Yet when the confrontation finally came it saw the great powers of Europe arraigned against Germany which could only call upon the support of a reluctant Italy that soon reneged on its obligations and a besieged Austro-Hungarian Empire desperate merely to survive it.

Unlamented though he undoubtedly was by those who’d had the temerity to oppose him the once all-powerful and all-knowing Bismarck was sorely missed. The ineptitude of those who had succeeded him as Chancellor and of the man who had appointed them would destroy all he had so meticulously created – from the other side of the veil he must have been turning in his grave.

Shortly before his death in July 1898 he had remarked:

“One day the Great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

On 28 July 1914, a bucolic young Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.  It was yet another Habsburg tragedy and as such, barely merited front page news but its repercussions would soon become apparent.

In Britain, Irish Home Rule dominated the news cycle while France was once more mired in scandal.  In Germany, as elsewhere, people were departing for their summer holidays and most of Europe was distracted in one way or another, but not Austria-Hungary and neither, monitoring events closely, was Russia.

The murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife was an outrage but not one deeply felt in the Habsburg Court, at least not on a personal level.  The heir to the throne was not popular among those who worked for him and the aged Emperor Franz Joseph disliked his nephew intensely, a man he considered a dangerous radical and had never forgiven for marrying Sophie Chotek, a commoner he thought little better than a serving wench.

Their murder and Princip’s links to the Serbian secret society the ‘Black Hand’ did however provide the opportunity long sought by the Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Army Conrad von Hotzendorff to teach the upstart Serbia a lesson and send a harsh message to Slav nationalists throughout the Empire - but would the professed defenders of that very same Slav nationalism, Russia, stand aside?  Given their humiliation when forced to back down over the Habsburg annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, it seemed unlikely.

The threat of Russian intervention meant the Austrians dare not punish Serbia militarily unless they could depend upon German support and so it was that on 5 July, Count Alexander von Hoyos arrived at Potsdam from Vienna with two notes, one a formal representation to the German Government the other a personal letter to the Kaiser from the Emperor Franz Ferdinand, both requesting support for any action Austria might pursue in punishing Serbia the country they believed was behind the assassination of the heir to the throne and his wife.

The murder of one of their own never failed to send a shiver down the collective spine of the royal dynasts of Europe, and the murder of Franz Ferdinand was no different.  He was also a close friend of the Kaiser’s which made it personal, and given what we know of Wilhelm’s character his response then was not unexpected. He was bellicose and eager to help -the Emperor could rely upon his full support, he declared - but with the proviso that the Austrian’s march at once, there must be as little time as possible for the conflict to escalate. When soon after it became apparent they were in no position to do so he began to demur – he would have to consult with his Chancellor and the Foreign Ministry, the army would have to be notified, plans put in place, he would say. But for now that was not the case. On 6 July he wrote to his Austrian counterpart:

“The Emperor Franz Joseph may rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary.”

It was the notorious ‘Blank Cheque’ and Count Hoyos was able to return to Vienna with it firmly in his pocket.

In the meantime, Wilhelm set off for his summer cruise of the Norwegian fjords oblivious to the path of destruction upon which he had inadvertently set the Continent of Europe.

The embers of war still barely flickered for much of that hot July imbued as it was with a sense of gaiety and ennui. But in the musty corridors of power from London to Paris and Berlin to St Petersburg increased diplomatic activity was stoking those very same embers and a frantic exchange of telegrams was ramping up the pressure.

Aboard the Hohenzollern Wilhelm was becoming increasingly frustrated at Austrian inaction. Upon his return to Berlin he curtly informed their Ambassador that had they acted sooner the looming crisis could have been avoided. His mood hardly improved when told that Austrian mobilisation had been paused while the harvest was gathered in.

The likelihood of a European conflict involving Germany in a two-front war had long been anticipated and planned for. Indeed, the strategy to be adopted in just such a scenario, with various revisions, had been in place since 1905. The Schlieffen Plan, so-named after its chief protagonist General Count Alfred von Schlieffen, called for the bulk of the German Army, some 1.5 million men, to advance into north-western France via neutral Belgium where, with its right-flank hugging the coastline, it would cut deep into the French countryside before turning east then north, encircling Paris from the rear and trapping the main French Army they felt sure would be attempting to seize back the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine between itself and the German Army stationed on its western frontier.

The entire campaign in the west was expected to last just six weeks during which time Germany’s eastern frontier would be held by a mere 275,000 fighting men of the Tenth Army. It being assumed the sluggishness of Russian mobilisation would see that there was no fighting to be done.

Only with France defeated could the full might of German arms be turned upon its real enemy, Russia.

It was a bold plan.

As for Britain, would she fight? Her defence of Belgian neutrality suggested she might.  It remained a concern despite the Kaiser’s dismissal of her ‘contemptible little army.’

In the meantime, as the clouds of war loomed large and grew ever darker a series of increasingly desperate telegrams were exchanged between Willy and his cousin Nicky, the Russian Tsar, each begging the other not to take the fateful step to full mobilisation.  But regardless of the fraternal greetings and words couched in the language of friendship neither could halt nor even slow the momentum towards catastrophe.

On 1 August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Two days later it would likewise declare war on France. But its demand that the Belgium Government surrender its sovereignty and allow the German Army to traverse its territory unmolested had been rejected. Even so, Britain had still not revealed its hand leading the Kaiser to rejoice - without British support the French would not fight there would be no two-front war.

“Now we need only wage war against Russia. So we simply advance with the entire army East.”

But despite his demand for more champagne and that the attack upon France be halted his exultation would be brief. Informed that with the trains rolling west, Luxembourg already invaded, and troops massing on the Belgium border the Schlieffen Plan once implemented could not be stopped he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, then do as you will. He would later remark:

“To think that George and Nicky should have played me false, if my grandmother had been alive she would ever have allowed it.”

 

On 3 August, from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Berlin he addressed his people:

“This is a dark day and a dark hour. The crisis which is forced upon us is the result of an envy which for years has pursued Germany. The sword is being forced into my hand. This war will demand of us enormous sacrifice in lives and money but we will show our foe what it means to provoke Germany.”

The following day he likewise addressed the Reichstag:

“I have no knowledge any longer of party or creed, I know only Germans, and in token thereof, I ask all of you to give me your hands.”

Attempts over the previous decade by socialists across Europe to unite and organise against war were now forgotten in the wave of patriotic fervour that swept the Continent.  The Socialist Party, the largest in the Reichstag, the place the Kaiser had mockingly referred to as the Monkey House, now declared, “We shall not abandon the Fatherland in its hour of need,” and voted unanimously for the unprecedented War Budget of £265,000,000.

As he reviewed the troops parading through Berlin on their way to their way to the front Wilhelm told them, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” It was to prove a popular refrain in all the combatant countries. They would be home before Christmas – it wasn’t to be.

It appeared for time as if the Schlieffen Plan might work as the Belgian forts that hindered the advance were swiftly turned to rubble by artillery pieces of immense power borrowed from Austria-Hungary catching the French unawares and forcing the British into hasty retreat; but moving so many troops in such a narrow corridor was to prove a logistical nightmare for the Germans and make rapid reinforcement almost impossible.  When in September near the River Marne the arc of the advance was changed so the attack broke down. The war of movement on the Western Front was over as both sides now dug-in and a line of trenches soon stretched from the Swiss frontier to the French coast.

The Kaiser who had so often rattled the sabre was nervous at what he had unleashed, now having unsheathed the sword he would have to use it – he would prove no Frederick the Great.

There was to be no swift victory as there had been in 1870 and the longer the war continued the less interested in its detail the Kaiser became; he would attend military briefings, peruse the maps, and make suggestions but the war would increasingly be run by others most notably Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich von Ludendorff.

Only in naval affairs did he continue to assert himself rejoicing in ‘German Victory’ at the Battle of Jutland - the legend of Nelson at Trafalgar had been surpassed, he declared – but his mighty navy would remain bottled up in port for most of the remainder of the war and do nothing to break the blockade that was strangling Germany and starving his people.

He rarely visited the front and when he did the cameras were always present. In one such publicised event he was seen surveying the battlefield of Verdun from a safe distance through an armoured viewfinder. He declined to visit the wounded preferring the company of his Generals to that of the men they led, not that he was wholly unsympathetic to the hardships endured by the troops at the front he just didn’t know what they were. Likewise, as his people starved so the champagne continued to flow at Headquarters and the Royal Palaces of the Kaiser Reich.

But while the war stagnated in the West it developed a momentum towards inevitable German victory in the East that could not be prevented by Russia’s large, ponderous, poorly trained, under-equipped and badly led army.  By the time the punitive peace of Brest-Litovsk was signed the Bolsheviks were in charge in Russia and his cousin Nicky and his family were their prisoners.

Wilhelm was sympathetic to his cousin’s plight and his wife urged him to do something, perhaps make the safe delivery of the Romanov family and their relatives into German hands part of any peace settlement.  But the proposal of asylum gained little traction, and how could it, Russia had only recently been the enemy in a war that had cost a great many German lives. In any case, peace overtures had been rejected not once but many times, so why now should Germany be gracious in victory? Whatever the Kaiser’s personal feelings, nothing would be done.

When in July 1918, he received the news that Tsar Nicholas, his wife, and his children had been murdered tears were shed but not by Wilhelm – Nicky was weak, if he had taken his advice it would never have happened – but by Dona, her ladies, and others who had known the family personally.

The lesson of their murder was also not lost on the recipients of such bad tidings.

The conclusion of the war in the East freed more than 600,000 men for the Western Front giving the Germans a numerical superiority for the first time since the opening weeks of the conflict but it could only be temporary.  General Ludendorff told the Kaiser the army must strike, that the British must be defeated before the American Army then gathering in northern France could become fully operational.  It would be the last great German offensive of the war.

Operation Michael, or the Kaiser’s Battle, began on 21 March 1918, and it seemed for a time that the breakthrough had at last been made as the first line of trenches fell, then the second line, a significant breach had been made in the defences and tens of thousands of troops were killed and captured. By the end of the third day of the offensive the British Fifth Army was in full retreat.  It was the deepest penetration on the Western Front since the summer of 1914.

His interest in the war reinvigorated on 23 March Kaiser Wilhelm pronounced:

“The battle is won the English have been utterly defeated.”

He declared a public holiday and that church bells be rung the length and breadth of the country.

But Ludendorff’s master plan for victory lacked a strategic objective; did he seek to capture the railway terminus at Amiens the pivot of the Allied line, did he wish to capture Paris, or did he want to threaten the Channel Ports and force the British to withdraw to the coast? As a result, a desperate situation for the Allies was squandered as he switched the direction of the attack to wherever a breakthrough appeared imminent. By July, exhausted and having lost a quarter of a million men the German attack began to lose momentum and peter out.  On 8 August, the Allies counter-attacked. The German Army remained a formidable foe and some of the hardest fighting was to be witnessed in those final months of the war. Even so, they were surrendering in unprecedented numbers, desertion had reached dangerous levels, and Germany’s cities were crammed full of soldiers absent without leave.

On 8 August, during the Battle of Amiens 16,000 German soldiers were taken with barely a shot being fired. Ludendorff referred to it as the ‘Black Day of the German Army.’ By September it was clear that Germany had lost the war, Hindenburg knew it, Ludendorff knew it, only the Kaiser it appeared did not, but even he felt compelled to remark:

“The troops continue to retreat. I have lost all confidence in them.”   

Fearing the army was on the verge of collapse on 29 September, Ludendorff informed the Kaiser that they must seek an immediate armistice. Wilhelm agreed but he wanted an assurance that any approach to the Allies would not entail surrender. It was not an assurance he could give in good faith, but the General did so anyway.

Well might the Kaiser remark, “the war has ended quite differently, indeed, from how we expected.” Not that he would take any responsibility, “the politicians have let us down miserably,” he said.

Despite Ludendorff’s worst fears the German Army continued to fight hard on the Western Front but at home where military discipline did not apply the situation was dire; famine conditions existed in many cities, anti-war sentiment was widespread, and the disorder that resulted increasingly unmanageable with street protests, food riots, and strikes becoming a daily occurrence – political radicals it seemed were everywhere, the plague of Bolshevism was spreading.

At his headquarters in Spa, Belgium, the Kaiser seemed oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. He still dreamed of leading his army to Berlin in person and restoring order by force. When he was verbally abused by troops on their way to the front who shouted that he was a murderer and butcher he was genuinely shocked – these were not his soldiers, these were not his guards!

On 28 October, the German High Seas Fleet received orders to put to sea and break the British blockade in what was widely seen as a suicide mission. The order was ignored and so repeated a further four times. Still the crews refused to budge instead threatening violence, imprisoning their officers and establishing ship board soviets.

Wilhelm was dismayed to learn that his beloved navy had mutinied, their unwillingness to fight he found incomprehensible, he put it down to the ‘Reds.’

Informed that he no longer had the confidence of the army, that they would follow Field Marshal von Hindenburg but no longer the Kaiser, he refused to believe it. When told that the Allies would not negotiate a settlement while he remained on the throne and that order could only be restored in Germany if he abdicated, he demurred. Could he not abdicate as Emperor but remain King of Prussia? The answer was no, the constitution did not allow for it - still, he refused to sign any abdication document.

On 9 November, his Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden announced the Kaiser’s abdication without informing him. He then resigned from his post later the same day.

Wilhelm was furious with his nephew Prince Max but there was little he could do and time was short if he wished to evade capture and so on 10 November he boarded a train bound for the Netherlands. Fearing it might be stopped by the radicalised troops of his once loyal army and that he might suffer the same fate as the Tsar, and Nicky was very much on his mind, the train was soon abandoned and the journey completed by car.

The Kaiser’s presence in their country wasn’t entirely welcomed by the Dutch Government and Wilhelm worried with good reason that they might bow to international pressure and hand him over to the victorious Allied powers - and for a time that pressure was intense - in Britain his cousin King George V had already referred to him as ‘the greatest criminal in history’ and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George had recently won re-election on the slogan ‘Hang the Kaiser.’  While in France their Premier, Clemenceau, for whom everything was personal, thirsted for revenge. His prosecution was even called for in the Versailles Treaty but in the end wiser counsel would prevail particularly that of the United States President Woodrow Wilson who saw no benefit in pursuing the vanquished Kaiser.

The Dutch eager to maintain their position of neutrality, especially in the event of any future European war, were unlikely to extradite him an any case but neither would they allow his presence to embarrass them. He would remain under surveillance and require permission to travel.

In May 1920, he moved into what would become known as the Huis Doorn, a country estate situated in the safety of the central Netherlands where he could live free from the fear of abduction. It would be his home for the remainder of his life and it was from here as a celebrity from a bygone era that he would hold court with, aside from those who merely came to gawp at the ex-Kaiser, eminent citizens from across Europe and elsewhere who visited to pay their respects. But it was tragedy that was to mark the early months of his exile.

On 18 July 1920, his youngest son Joachim committed suicide while less than a year later Dona, his wife of 40 years died. Wilhelm was devastated struggling to understand the former and greatly mourning the latter. Yet he was not one to let the grass grow under his feet and on 5 November 1922, he married Princess Hermine Reuss, a young woman who had become a frequent visitor to Huis Doorn and had long ago caught his eye.

Unlike the Kaiser who appeared willing to accept his fate Hermine remained ambitious for her husband  and was determined that he should be restored to the throne, if not as German Emperor then certainly as King of Prussia even if the role was to be a purely ceremonial one. There was little prospect of either as long as the Socialists remained in power but an opportunity appeared to present itself when in January 1933, Adolf Hitler assumed the Chancellorship  and Hermann Goering became one of the many prominent Nazis who were to pay homage at the Court of the ex-Kaiser.

Hitler may have fought for the Kaiser but it seemed doubtful that he would be willing to share power with him even if it were only the power of history and tradition. Nonetheless, Hermine remained hopeful and informal talks were to continue for a time.

Any thoughts of a restoration were soon dismissed as illusory however, much to the relief of Wilhelm no doubt, who had no desire to wear a paper crown. Instead, he would remain at Doorn to work on his memoirs, relish the hunting, chop down trees, drink champagne, and pontificate at length over dinner on why and where it all went wrong and what might have been - to his mind the fault lay with the Jews.

As early as 2 August 1919, in a letter to General August von Mackensen he had written:

“The deepest, most disgusting shame ever perpetrated by a people in history the Germans have done unto themselves. Egged on and misled by the tribe of Judah, whom they hated, whom were guests among them! That was their thanks! Let no German ever forget this, nor rest until these parasites have been destroyed and exterminated from German soil, this poisonous mushroom on the German oak tree.” 

He later told his doctor:

“The English, French, and German Jews were all in cahoots with one another. Their sole aim was to establish the Jewish domination of the world. Therefore they first had to enslave the German people completely.”

Such anti-Semitic rhetoric was to become a regular refrain throughout his exile yet in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of November 1938, he was to say:

“For the first time, I am ashamed to be a German.”

His relationship with the Nazi Regime would always be a fractious one. In private he considered them an abomination to German culture but he was careful not to rile them even if his praise for the Fuhrer was often sparse and rarely unconditional.

When Nazi Germany achieved in just six weeks what the Kaiser had failed to do in four years of bitter conflict and force France’s capitulation he sent Hitler a congratulatory telegram. It was perhaps, more significant for what it didn’t say:

“Under the deeply moving impression of Frances capitulation I congratulate you and all the German Armed Forces  on the God-given prodigious victory  with the words of  Kaiser Wilhelm the Great of the year 1870. “What a turn of events through God’s dispensation.” All German hearts are filled with the chorale of Leuthen which the soldiers of the Great King sang in 1757. Now thank we all, our God!”

What Hitler made of that exactly remains unknown but he was to express on more than one occasion that he thought the Kaiser mad.

Following their occupation of the Netherlands the Nazis for the most let the Kaiser be, though Dutch police at the gates of Doorn were replaced with SS Guards and he was once again placed under close surveillance. People who sought to visit him now required permission and those who continued to venerate him did so in private.

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, Wilhelm II King of Prussia and last German Emperor died of a blood clot on the lungs on 4 June 1941, aged 82. The Kaiser Reich he had ruled over lasted 47 years the Thousand Year Reich that replaced it survived barely 11.

The question remains however, was the Kaiser to blame for the war? Perhaps, if any one man could be blamed but there were many factors that contributed to the tragedy which ensued. – Austro-Hungarian belligerence, Russian intransigence, a complex series of treaties and alliances, pre-determined military planning, even railway timetables. Yet it cannot be denied that brinkmanship had been the hallmark of Wilhelm’s foreign policy almost since the time of his succession, that it was a dangerous game, and not one he played well.  There is little doubt that the Blank Cheque he issued to the Austrian Imperial Representative on that fateful day in July 1914 was pivotal in leading the Great Powers of Europe into a war the magnitude of which was unforeseen and ill-prepared for. If any blame attached itself to him then he chose not to see it and certainly not to apologise for it. Even so, any prosecution of the Kaiser could only have been viewed as victor’s justice, a vindication almost of the persecution he believed had been his to endure since childhood. Better perhaps, a long and uneventful exile as a man from an age long past and committed to memory lost in the swirl of history, and cast into the wilderness of irrelevance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

G.K Chesterton: Lepanto

Born on 29 May 1874, in Kensington, London, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a colossus of a man at 6’4” tall, with a girth no less substantial, unquenchable appetites and a genius to match according to some.

A doyen of Catholic apologetics  long before he converted from the High Church Anglicanism with which he had become increasingly disillusioned in 1922 aged 48, he was to be a controversial figure in particular with regards to his barely disguised anti-Jewish sentiments.

Most famous now as the creator of the Father Brown detective stories he was in fact a prolific essayist, prose writer, and journalist of renown but perhaps one more revered within the Catholic community than he is remembered by the general public.

Of the many poems he wrote none is more admired or cherished than his Lepanto. Indeed, there was a time when it would have been taught in schools, recited at church services, and quoted in newspapers; but this was when the Battle of Lepanto, the naval engagement fought off the coast of Greece in 1571 when the Catholic Holy League defeated insurgent Islam and halted its advance west, remained at the forefront of European thought and memory embedded as it was in the Christian consciousness.

Written in 1906 with a broad historical brush it is as epic in its way as the chivalric ballads it no doubt sought to emulate and no less unequivocal in its allusions to faith, salvation, and eternity.

Both Chesterton and his poem Lepanto, much like the battle itself have been temporarily relegated to the backburner of relevance for like any religious apologist his popularity waxes and wanes according to the stock of the faith he espoused.

That is one reason, of course.

G.K Chesterton, so many of whose friends remained firmly on the left while he moved further to the right, died in Beaconsfield on 14 June 1936 aged 62.

 

Lepanto

 

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,

And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;

There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,

It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,

It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,

For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.

They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,

They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,

And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,

And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,

The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;

The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;

From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,

And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

 

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,

Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,

Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,

The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,

The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,

That once went singing southward when all the world was young,

In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,

Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.

Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,

Don John of Austria is going to the war,

Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold

In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,

Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,

Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.

Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,

Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,

Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.

Love-light of Spain—hurrah!

Death-light of Africa!

Don John of Austria

Is riding to the sea.

 

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,

(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)

He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,

His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.

He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,

And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,

And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring

Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.

Giants and the Genii,

Multiplex of wing and eye,

Whose strong obedience broke the sky

When Solomon was king.

 

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,

From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;

They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea

Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;

On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,

Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;

They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,—

They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.

And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,

And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,

And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,

For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.

We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,

Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done,

But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know

The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:

It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate ;

It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!

It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,

Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”

For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,

(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)

Sudden and still—hurrah!

Bolt from Iberia!

Don John of Austria

Is gone by Alcalar.

 

St. Michael’s on his mountain in the sea-roads of the north

(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)

Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift

And the sea folk labour and the red sails lift.

He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;

The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;

The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes

And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,

And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,

And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,

And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,

But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.

Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse

Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,

Trumpet that sayeth ha!

      Domino gloria!

Don John of Austria

Is shouting to the ships.

 

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck

(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)

The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,

And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.

He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,

He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,

And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey

Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,

And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,

But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.

Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed—

Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid

Gun upon gun, ha! ha!

Gun upon gun, hurrah!

Don John of Austria

Has loosed the cannonade.

 

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,

(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)

The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,

The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.

He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea

The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;

They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,

They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;

And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,

And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,

Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines

Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.

They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung

The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.

They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on

Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.

And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell

Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,

And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—

(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,

Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,

Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,

Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,

Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea

White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Vivat Hispania!

Domino Gloria!

Don John of Austria

Has set his people free!

 

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath

(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)

And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,

Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,

And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....

(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

 

)

 

 

 

 

The Great Siege of Malta (1565)

On 29 May 1453, after seven weeks of siege warfare the city of Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman forces of the Sultan Mehmed II, and with it the Byzantine Empire which had stood for over a thousand years as the gateway to the East and defender of the faith in lands far removed from the influence of Rome. Its demise had dealt a tremendous blow to Christian Europe even if few had been so distressed as to come to the assistance of the great city of Byzantium in the hour of its need.

Constantinople, or Istanbul as it was soon to be renamed, was to prove more than a mere bridge across the Bosphorus from Asia Minor to the European shore, it would become the centre of Ottoman power in the world, provide control over much of the Eastern Mediterranean, and serve as the base for 250 years of Islamic expansion West.

Muslim incursions into Christian lands would not proceed uncontested of course, and at the forefront of the resistance were Military-Religious Orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.

The Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Order of St John the Baptist, had long been a thorn in the side of Islam, though it hadn’t always been that way. Founded in the 1060’s by the Italian merchants of the Amalfi, they had received permission from the Sultan of Egypt to establish a hospice in Jerusalem and it wasn’t until the Crusaders captured the Holy City in 1099 that they became a warrior caste dedicated to the protection of Christian pilgrims in the East.

Made to leave Jerusalem after it surrendered to Saladin in 1187, they were forced to abandon the Holy Land altogether following the capture of the last great Crusader fortress at Acre in 1291 and the virtual elimination of the Outremer, or Christian presence in the region.

The Knights Hospitaller settled on the island of Rhodes but having successfully resisted siege sixty years earlier they were finally ejected by the Ottomans in 1522. The Order was to remain itinerant for the next seven years during which, with no base to operate from, they were to lose much of their wealth and most of their property. Indeed, so diminished had their status become that there was talk in Rome of dissolving the Order just as the Knights Templar had been 250 years earlier, if for very different reasons.

They were rescued from seemingly terminal decline by the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who granted them rights in perpetuity over the islands of Malta and Gozo along with the city of Tunis in return for their guarantee of protection for all three. The Charter made clear their obligation was to:

“Perform in peace the duties of their religion, for the benefit of the Christian community, and employ their forces and arms against the perfidious enemies of holy faith.”

The Emperor’s reward for his largesse was a single Maltese Falcon delivered to his person every All Saints Day, November First.

With no home of their own and little prospect of finding one the Knights Hospitaller had little choice but to accept the Emperor’s offer, even though they knew it to be a poison chalice for even the merest glance at a map of the Mediterranean would identify the strategic significance of Malta, situated as it was some 60 miles south of Sicily and almost equidistant between the Italian mainland and the North African shore. It commanded the main channel by which any shipping east to west or vice-versa must pass and with one of the best natural harbours in the Mediterranean was a haven for those raiding Ottoman shipping. It was already marked for conquest and any further Muslim expansion west would make it a prime target.

The Maltese Archipelago consists of two main islands, Malta some 18 miles long and 9 miles wide and Gozo some 8 miles long and 4 miles wide. They are separated by a narrow channel in which lies the small isle of Camino. It was a hot and dry landscape, 120 square miles of barren limestone and rock but what it lacked in comfort it more than made up for in importance and should it fall to the Ottoman’s it would not only give them control over the Mediterranean but be a stepping stone to the conquest of Sicily and an invasion of southern Italy, possibly even an advance on Rome itself.

By the 1550’s, the Mediterranean and its invaluable trade routes long fought over was a place of almost perpetual conflict as the Barbary Corsairs operating from ports on the North African coast increased their attacks on Christian shipping with one man in particular more feared than any other.

Turgut Reis, also known as Dragut or the ‘Drawn Sword of Islam,’ was almost 80 years old and had terrorised the Christian West for decades both as a Barbary Corsair and as an Admiral in the Ottoman Fleet and servant of the Sultan. Time and again he had defeated opponents more powerful than himself capturing hundreds of enemy ships and repeatedly landing on the shores of Italy and elsewhere to pillage and burn taking captive thousands for sale in the slave markets of North Africa.

Dragut and the other Corsairs had become such a problem, even raiding along the coast of Spain, that Philip II had raised a fleet to destroy them once and for all but the campaign ended in disaster when they were routed at Djerba off the coast of North Africa in May 1560.

The Ottoman Empire now had almost total control of the Mediterranean and an attack upon Malta appeared imminent but for the next five years little happened as Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent dithered. Either complacent in victory or distracted by problems further east he failed to exploit his dominance during which time the Catholic nations recovered their strength.

In 1557, the Knights Hospitaller elected the 62 year old French nobleman Jean Parisot de Valette as Grand Master, an ill-tempered man of violent disposition who had once been sentenced to four months in a ‘guva,’ quite literally a hole in the ground, for beating to death a man who had dared cause him offence. He did not then suffer fools easily but as a member of the Order for more than forty years and a veteran of many campaigns against the Turk including the fight for Rhodes he was both trusted and admired, if not much loved. He had also made himself a wealthy man attacking and capturing Muslim galleys during which he crossed swords with Turgut Reis many times, even on one occasion being taken prisoner and forced to serve as a galley slave upon one of his vessels before being released in a prisoner exchange.

When the previous Grand Master Claude de la Sengle died unexpectedly he was the obvious choice to replace him - it would prove a wise decision.

Regardless of Suleiman’s dithering Valette was not naive to his intentions and preferring coercion to persuasion he now co-opted Malta’s populace into rebuilding its fortifications and ordered that Knights Hospitaller elsewhere in Europe return to the island and make ready for war.

In the meantime, the Order’s galleys continued to attack Turkish shipping and in June 1564 its most notorious raider Mathurin d’Aux Lescout, known as Romegas, captured a number of ships that not only carried a great deal of treasure but many high-ranking Ottoman officials and one of the Sultan’s beloved daughters. Suleiman was furious and rumours soon spread that he was preparing for war, rumours Jean de Valette knew to be true for his spies in Constantinople had told him so.

An Ottoman Fleet comprising 193 ships carrying 40,000 troops set sail for Malta on 22 March 1565, under the command of Piyale Pasha, the victor at Djerba; but he wasn’t to be in sole command, responsibility for the campaign was shared with the Chief of the Army Mustafa Pasha, and the friction between the two was clear from the outset.

Piyale Pasha, whose primary concern was the Fleet, insisted that it be moored in Marsamxett Bay as near to the Grand Harbour as possible where it would be sheltered from any adverse weather and be protected from enemy attack but this would mean having to subdue Fort St Elmo which stood as the mouth of both harbours. Mustafa was no less adamant that the army should be landed on the other side of the island where it could advance on the weakly defended town of Mdina, gain control of the centre, and assault Fort St Angelo and Fort St Michael from the rear. It was a sound strategy but Piyale Pasha was adamant that the Fort would fall in just a few days and it was his argument which prevailed.

Valette had under his command some 500 Knights Hospitaller, 400 Spanish regulars, 800 Italian mercenary soldiers, and 3,000 Maltese volunteers, fewer than 6,000 men in total. A motley collection perhaps, but it had at its core well-trained and divinely inspired warriors for Christ.

By focussing his attention on Fort St Elmo, Piyale Pasha had inadvertently played into Valette’s hands. The Grand Master knew that he did not have the resources to be strong everywhere at the same time and now he didn’t have to be, at least for the time being.

The bombardment of Fort St Elmo began on 27 May from guns placed on Mount Sciberras overlooking the Fort and from batteries deployed north of Marsamexitt Harbour, some 60 guns in total including among them the ‘Great Bombard’ which fired a 155ib cannonball from a range of 3,000 yards.

In response, Valette sent more than half his cannons to the Fort which despite being of much smaller calibre firing a 10ib cannonball some 800 yards were to prove numerous and effective but he did not increase its garrison of 150 Knights, 400 regular/mercenary troops, and 1,000 militia instead sending reinforcements and supplies across the bay from his headquarters in Fort St Angelo at night and only when required.

Fort St Elmo was to come under the most intense and protracted bombardment then known to history but as long as it held out it bought Valette valuable time, time to strengthen his defences elsewhere, and time for the Viceroy of Sicily Don Garcia to assemble his forces and come to their relief as promised.

Turgut Reis arrived in Malta on 31 May, too late to change the strategy already adopted (though he did try) and angry that the Fort had not already fallen. He immediately ordered St Elmo completely invested and that galleys patrol the harbour to prevent its resupply. He also added his 30 guns to those bombarding the Fort directing them to target those defences already weakened by the barrage.

The Turks had stormed the ravelin and outer defences early during in the siege but any further advance stalled against the massed ranks of pike and musket they encountered at every breach made in the walls, and they too came under heavy bombardment. Francisco Balbi, a Spanish soldier who witnessed events from across the bay described the scene:

The darkness of the night then became as bright as day, due to the vast quantity of artificial fires. So bright was it indeed that we could see St Elmo quite clearly. The gunners of St Angelo were able to lay and train their pieces upon the advancing Turks, who were picked out in the light of the fires."

With supplies running low and little prospect of relief some in St Elmo began to despair but Valette ignored the reports of low morale and a breakdown in discipline determined that the Fort must be held as long as possible. When on 8 June he received a request that St Elmo be abandoned he was unequivocal in his response:

“If you will not die defending the Fort, then I shall send men who will.”

Shamed into remaining where they were, the siege continued.

Spirits were raised among the defenders when on 18 June Turgut Reis was mortally wounded by a cannon which having lowered its aim on his orders fired directly into the trench where he was standing. The legendary old Corsair died a little later plunging the Ottoman Camp into mourning and a deep sense of foreboding.

The pressure on Fort St Elmo continued however, and with more than 70,000 cannon balls having been fired at them so many breaches had been made in its walls it was no longer possible to defend them all.

On 23 June, after almost a month of bitter fighting Fort St Elmo fell - the defenders had fought almost to the last man just as the Grand Master demanded with only six who managed to swim the bay to safety surviving.

The following day was the Feast of St John the Baptist, Patron Saint of the Hospitallers, and Valette regardless of events insisted that the festivities go ahead as usual. The sound of hymns being sung and the torchlight processions as night infuriated Piyale Pasha who ordered the corpses of those Knights who had fallen to be decapitated, tied to rafts in imitation of the crucified Christ and floated in the bay with their chests and stomachs ripped open. Valette responded by ordering that all his Turkish prisoners be similarly decapitated before firing their severed heads into the Ottoman lines.

Piyale Pasha’s frustration had only been increased by the 6,000 men, many of them elite Janissaries who had been killed capturing a fort he had confidently predicted would fall in days.

The loss of St Elmo was greeted with dismay across Europe. If Malta should fall so might the entire Mediterranean. In England Queen Elizabeth wrote:

“If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.”

But no help was forthcoming from the Protestant States of Europe but 600 troops did arrive from Sicily. They were a welcome addition but too few to change the dynamic.

There was now a lull in the fighting as Piyale and Mustafa Pasha redeployed their forces for an assault on Fort’s St Angelo and St Michael. Meanwhile, Valette had put to good use the time gained by the heroic defence of Fort St Elmo; walls had been reinforced with earthworks, ramparts constructed, traps set, a chain laid across the channel that separated the Forts to prevent Turkish ships from entering, and a pontoon bridge hastily built. He had also drilled his troops in how to defend a fixed position – they were disciplined and they were ready.

On 15 July, Mustafa Pasha ordered an amphibious landing to be made on the Senglea Peninsular in preparation for an assault on Fort St Michael – it did not go well.

As the slow moving flotilla of 100 small craft carrying 1,000 Janissary troops and weighed down with supplies passed within 200 yards of Fort St Angelo and the 5 cannon that had been sited at ground level specifically to counter just such a move they were sitting targets. Unable to manoeuvre or make haste chaos ensued as again and again the cannon fired their shot ripping into the boats, tearing them apart, and smashing them to pieces. Not one survived to land its cargo and 800 men were drowned.

The disastrous attempt at an amphibious landing was just part of a more general assault, however.

The bombardment was sustained by the ships moored offshore some of which had been dismantled to make siege engines which they then covered in leather strips and doused in water to protect against fire while troops attacked the two forts from the landward side. Valette ordered his artillery to focus their fire on the siege engines while any breaches made in the walls were defended by a mass of pike and musket.

Impeded by fire loops (wheels covered in combustible materials and set alight) rolled down from the hillsides on the approaches to the forts the Turkish attacks were repulsed time and again. With casualties mounting the Turks now began to mine beneath both forts but the rocky terrain rendered their efforts fruitless.

Unable to make progress against the forts on 18 August Mustafa Pasha shifted the focus of the attack to the less well defended town of Birgu to their rear. He had probed the town’s weaknesses earlier on 7 August in an attack that had been so successful it appeared it might fall there and then but they had been forced to withdraw fearing an attack from the rear following a fearful massacre at the Ottoman Field Hospital carried out by a cavalry detachment commanded by Vincenzo Anastagi skirmishing out of Mdina.

Anastagi had been fortunate in stumbling across the main Ottoman Field Hospital and finding it undefended but for many of the Turks it was the final straw and their morale never recovered. Even so, Mustafa Pasha would try once more and this time it appeared he might succeed as the town’s fortifications were easily breached and panic soon took hold of the defenders. Indeed, so bad was the funk that as the Turks swarmed into the town it was only the personal intervention of Jean de Valette who took up a pike and led his men in a desperate last ditch defence that saved the day.

The Turks had finally been ejected from Birgu but only after hours of bitter hand-to-hand fighting but encouraged by how close they had come to success they would try again the next day and this time they would bring their siege engines to bear. It was not something that could be done in secret and Valette forewarned acted accordingly. He had the stone chipped away from the walls where the siege engine stood and placed cannon in the space that had been made armed with chain shot. As the fighting reached a peak of intensity he had the cannon blow away the base of the siege engines causing them to collapse killing hundreds of men and creating chaos. A bloody debacle now ensued as Valette ordered a counter-attack and the Turks fled in panic and confusion.

A deep depression now descended upon the Ottoman Camp, a campaign that had been expected to be decisive and short had now dragged on for three months and with casualties mounting, ammunition low, supplies dwindling, and disease rife there was still no prospect of an end in sight.

Despite the victory of 19 August with much of the town reduced to rubble the elders of Birgu demanded that Valette allow them to withdraw to Fort St Angelo. He refused telling them the Turks were at breaking point and that it was no time to show weakness – he was right.

By the beginning of September the winds and the tides were changing and if they did not leave soon they would be forced to winter on the island where they would surely starve. Unable to remain any longer the Turks began to disembark their army. A week later after repeated pleas to do so Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily landed on the north of the island with a relief force of 8,000 men who attacked with fury and little mercy a weary enemy desperate merely to flee and survive.

By 13 September the Ottoman Army had departed leaving behind 15,000 dead while many of those evacuated were malnourished, sick with disease, and carrying wounds – their defeat had been total.

Behind their defences Maltese casualties had been much lower with some 2,500 killed, though this amounted to around one-third of the total a high percentage of which were Knights Hospitaller.

Some 7,000 civilians had also been killed either in massacres or while labouring for the Turks.

A sense of relief swept Europe upon the news Malta had survived, and also a feeling of pride for it was in many respects the last great Crusader battle. It had been the Warriors of Christ not the soldiers of a King that had defeated the Muslim menace - it was then, God’s victory.

Following the siege Jean de Valette was much lauded but he declined the many honours that were offered including the Pope’s desire to appoint him a Cardinal. Instead he remained on Malta to supervise the building of a new fortified town that was to be named Valetta in his honour.

Old and worn out by his exertions he did not live to witness its completion. He died amid much lamentation on21 August 1568 aged 73, a hero of his time.

Piyale and Mustafa Pasha squabbled over who was to blame for the defeat but neither was singled out for punishment. Indeed, Piyale Pasha was promoted to the rank of Vizier and would go onto command what remained of the Ottoman Fleet following its defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The failure to capture Malta had halted further Islamic expansion west but it had not dimmed their ambitions and they would return again and again over the next century and a half – there was still much fighting to be done.

Battle of Lepanto

The onset of the Reformation and religious schism had divided and seriously weakened a once unified Christendom and left it vulnerable to the ambitions of an insurgent Islam; a previous attempt by them to seize control of the Eastern Mediterranean and secure a base from which to invade Southern Europe had been thwarted by their failure to capture Malta in 1565, but this was to prove a temporary setback only, and five years later the Ottoman Empire would try again this time with an attack upon the island of Cyprus.

A possession of Venice since 1489 and a mere 280 miles or so from the southern shore of Turkey, Cyprus’s strategic significance could not be ignored dominating as it did the trade routes of the Levant and having grown rich as a result - not only would its capture greatly reduce Venetian power and influence in the region but the seizure of its assets would immeasurably increase the coffers of the Ottoman treasury - it was then, a mature fruit ripe for plucking.

The campaign against Cyprus should have come as no surprise to its defenders but when In June 1570 an Ottoman Fleet of 400 ships carrying 200,000 men was sighted off-shore it did, and it created panic for little preparation had been made to resist a siege and so behind poorly manned and dilapidated fortifications one town after another rapidly fell until by September the conquest of the island was almost complete. Only the city of Famagusta remained to be subdued.

 

Yet despite overwhelming odds and no prospect of relief the city’s Venetian Commander Marcantonio Bragadin refused to surrender. He had a garrison of only 8,500 Italian and Cypriot troops but they were to hold at bay 200,000 or more Turks for eleven long months.

It was a defiance that earned the defenders little respect from the Ottoman Commander Lala Kara Mustafa who was increasingly being seen as an incompetent braggart whose repeated declarations of victory had proven both hollow and without foundation. Finally on 5 September 1571 with their fortifications breached and his garrison reduced to fewer than a thousand ragged and exhausted men close to starvation, Bragadin agreed to surrender, but only under terms.

Such had been the humiliation endured Mustafa professed a willingness to negotiate, anything to bring the conflict to an end, and the terms he offered were generous.

 

The Ottoman Commander agreed an honourable surrender in which the defenders were promised their liberty and a safe passage to Crete, but no sooner had they laid down their arms than their Senior Officers were brought before Kara Mustafa and accused of a series of crimes among them the massacre of Turkish prisoners. Bragadin declared any such charges to be false and accused Kara Mustafa of cowardice, deceit and bad faith. In a no doubt somewhat contrived rage, Mustafa ordered the Venetian’s ears and nose be cut off and the Officers who had accompanied him beheaded before his eyes.  He was then thrown into a windowless dungeon where with his wounds allowed to fester and fed barely enough to keep him alive he was regularly beaten and deprived of sleep. In the meantime, those Christians remaining in the city were put to the sword while the troops who having surrendered had been promised their freedom were instead delivered into slavery and chained to the oars of the Turkish galleys.

Two weeks after his arrest Bragadin was taken from his dungeon his body weighed down by sacks of rocks and marched through the streets of Famagusta to the Ottoman Camp where paraded before the troops he was forced to crawl to Kara Mustafa’s tent and made to eat dirt. Then taken to a ship moored offshore he was bound to a chair and hoisted up the yardarm from where his degradation could be witnessed for miles around. After some hours subjected to the searing heat of the afternoon sun he was hauled down and taken to the town square where stripped naked and tied to a pillar he was flayed alive.

Death must have come as a blessed relief to the abused Bragadin but his humiliation did not cease with his passing; first his body was decapitated and quartered the various parts distributed among the Ottoman Army before his flayed skin was sewn back together, stuffed with straw, dressed in his military tunic and sent, along with the heads of his immediate subordinates, to the Sultan in Istanbul as trophies of war.  Selim the Drunkard as he was known, had neither the dignity of office nor generosity of spirit to decline such a gift.

Bragadin’s fate had been a horrible one but his heroic defence of Famagusta had provided time, invaluable time for the Pope to form a Holy League to defend against further Islamic incursions into Christian Europe - to do so was easier said than done but Pius V was to prove the right man at the right time.

Unlike his predecessor in the Vatican, Pius V was a man of God who disavowed the pleasures of the flesh. He wore a hair shirt under his plain Dominican robes and frowned upon those who did not do likewise and life at St Peter’s ceased to be sumptuous; the food served was of simple fare, wine became sparse, and the Court Jester was dismissed.  He passed his days on matters of state and his nights in deep reflection. He also took a keen interest in the activities of the Inquisition often attending interrogations and rarely missing an execution.

As Pope he worked hard to organise a unified Christian response to the threat posed by Islam but the diplomatic missions despatched to the Royal Courts of Europe to elicit support met with only limited success at best with both Portugal, concerned for the vulnerability of its lucrative slave outposts on the coast of West Africa, and France, which saw the Ottoman Empire as a potential ally in its ongoing struggle with Spain and the Habsburgs for mastery in Europe being notable absentees from what would be an entirely Catholic Coalition - the Protestant States of Northern Europe having decided to remain aloof from the fray uncertain as to who exactly was an ally and who a foe.

The Coalition that emerged was less than was hoped for but it would suffice.

The treaty formalising the creation of the Holy League was signed in Rome on 24 May 1571, its signatories were: Spain, Venice, Genoa, Urbino, Tuscany, Savoy, the Knights of Malta, and the Papal States.

Immediately upon the ceremony’s conclusion Pope Pius appointed Admiral Marco Antonio Colonna to form a fleet under the Banner of the Cross.

Colonna may have had the responsibility for the formation of the Holy League’s Armada but its command would fall to Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the previous Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and half-brother to Philip II of Spain, who despite his youth (he was 24 years of age) was an experienced naval officer and veteran of previous campaigns against the Ottomans.

As Spain financed the Holy League and provided it with most of its manpower and resources Pope Pius had little option but to comply with Philip II’s choice for its commander.  Even so, old rivalries die hard even in moments of the greatest extremity and though Don John was well-qualified to command there were others within the Holy League who thought themselves better able to do so.

When Don John arrived to take command he found many of the Venetian ships seriously undermanned and immediately ordered that Spanish troops make up the numbers but he had done so without first consulting Colonna. Furious that his authority had been undermined in a fit of pique the Venetian Admiral had a Spanish Officer arrested on trumped up charges and hanged from the yardarm of his own ship.  The row that ensued threatened to disrupt the cohesion of an always fragile coalition was eventually patched up but the two men did not speak again for the entirety of the campaign.

Venice was the city most immediately threatened by Islamic aggression. It had long been a thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire competing as it did for control for the Levantine trade routes and domination in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was on paper at least an unequal contest but what the Venetians lacked in manpower and resources they more than made up for in experience, endeavour, and invention.

The confrontation when it came they knew would be at sea and both the arms designer and shipbuilder Francesco Duodo along with Admiral Sebastiano Venier had been endeavouring to improve the city’s capacity to wage such a war. Working closely together and in great secrecy they had designed and constructed the first Gallease which unlike the galleys of the day which rarely carried more than a gun at the front and perhaps two or three at the rear utilised the entire length of the vessel providing it with an immense armament of 40 guns or more. When galleys came alongside one another their guns were rendered useless but with a Gallease able to fire broadsides this was no longer the case. They had also been constructed with a heavier reinforced wood and had raised sides making them almost impossible to board, the Turks favoured tactic – Venice then, would be ready.

Spain, which would provide the largest contingent of troops and was still smarting from the annihilation of its mighty fleet at the Battle of Djerba ten years earlier, was also ready.

The Christian Fleet sailed from Messina in Sicily on 16 September 1570 through the Straits heading east to seek out and destroy the enemy. By 7 October it had reached the Gulf of Patros off the western coast of Greece where it sighted the Ottoman Fleet. An emergency War Council was immediately held where Don John decided to engage without delay – there were no objections.

The same unity of command was not to be found in the Ottoman camp where the Fleet Commander Muezzinzade Ali Pasha, no less eager to fight, was challenged by his subordinate Uluc Ali Pasha who thought it foolhardy to sail and engage with the enemy when they could remain where they were under the protection of the guns of the various fortresses that dotted the shoreline. Indeed, it might even be possible to lure the Christian Fleet further into the Gulf and destroy it piecemeal. Ali Pasha disagreed, not only would it be dishonourable to refuse battle once it had been offered  but he had strict orders from the Sultan in Istanbul to meet with and destroy the enemy for the greater glory of Allah not hide away and allow it to destroy itself.

As the two fleets formed up on uncertain waters beneath a brooding sky and with a storm brewing they did not appear to be evenly matched, and nor were they. In both ships and manpower the Ottoman Fleet was clearly the superior. It consisted of 278 ships (56 of which were Galiots, small, fast, and manoeuvrable vessels used for harassment and boarding) and 35,000 men.

The essential warship of its day and the one that made up the main component of both fleets was the galley, a vessel of slender construction some 120 feet long and in some places barely 6 feet wide with 25 benches of oars operated by 3 to 5 men on either side. On the Ottoman galleys these were for the most part Christians kidnapped from their homes, taken while at sea, or captured in battle who had since been sold in the slave markets of North Africa. There were some 30,000 at the Battle of Lepanto and chained to their oars there was little chance of survival should their ships be sunk or set afire.

With two large sails for long distance travel the galley could reach speeds of up to 12 knots and the optimum speed would be sought to fully utilise the ‘beak’ at the prow of the vessel intended to ram and snare the enemy in preparation for boarding. Its armament was often just one large gun sited at the front of the ship but with a great many anti-personnel weapons with which to clear the decks of enemy ships.

The Holy League had fewer ships just 212, with 115 provided by Venice, 49 by Spain, 27 from Genoa, 7 from the Papal States, 5 from Tuscany, and 3 each from Savoy, the Knights of Malta, and a further 3 licensed Privateers.

They were likewise outnumbered with just 28,000 troops – 7,000 Spanish, 6,000 Italian, 5,000 Venetian, 2,000 Croatian, 2,000 Slavs, and 6,000 sundry others. But they had many more guns 1,815, and among their ships were six of the new and formidable Galleases. Also their Spanish troops were among the finest in Europe and they were well equipped with helmets, breastplates, and many were arquebusiers while the Turks were perhaps over-reliant on bowmen whose arrows could often not penetrate the Spanish armour.

Much like the Ottoman Fleet their ships were powered by sail, oar, and slave.

A little before noon the two fleets formed up facing one another in a line stretching for four miles or more. It was important for Don John to get as close to the shoreline as possible to negate the Turks favoured tactic of developing a crescent like formation so as to be able outflank the enemy in a wide arc before enveloping them in a vice-like grip.

At the centre of the Christian line was Don John himself aboard his flagship the Real along with 61 other galleys. On the left nearest the shoreline was the Venetian Agostino Barbarigo with 53 galleys while commanding the right of the line was the Genoan Giovanni Andrea Doria. All three Divisions had 2 galleases at their forefront able to lead the charge and bring down a heavy fire.

Ali Pasha aboard his flagship the Sultana flying the Banner of the Caliphs, a huge green flag embroidered with text from the Qu’ran would confront Don John in the centre with 61 galleys and 32 galiots. On the right of the Ottoman line was the Barbary Corsair Mehmed Scirocco, a man of brutal and uneven temper with 57 galleys and 2 galiots while on the left was Uluc Ali Pasha with 61 galleys and 32 galiots. But whereas John Don had provided for a powerful Reserve of 39 galleys under the command of Alvaro de Bazin no such provision had been made on the Ottoman side, just a handful of undermanned galleys and sundry other craft – it was to prove significant.

Having formed up in order of battle with horns blaring and banners waving the commanders met with their subordinates, finalised their orders, and said their prayers.  Don John had just completed a tour of his ships in an open boat exhorting their crews not to flinch from the task that lay ahead and boosting morale. Now from the prow of his flagship he delivered the message:

“The time for talking is over. The time for fighting has come.”

Then with little further embellishment and no pretence to glory he informed them:

“There can be no paradise for cowards.”

Similar scenes were occurring in both fleets as decks were cleared, guns were primed, troops gathered, and Captain’s addressed their men. Perhaps with scant sincerity Ali Pasha promised all Christian galley slaves their freedom should they remain loyal. But for all the preparation and prayer complacency had been detected in the Ottoman camp. As one observer noted:

“They all went into battle with the greatest yearning although we believed that the enemy fleet was much greater than our own. Due to their victories achieved in the past they thought little of our strength.”

If there was any complacency it soon dissipated as it became clear the two fleets were more evenly matched than at first appeared.

In the centre of the line Ali Pasha, furious that he had not been made aware of the destructive power of the galleases, headed straight for Don John’s flagship seeking to kill his rival and end the battle early.

Picking up pace the Sultana rammed the Real with such force that the entire ship trembled and shook with many knocked from their feet and some thrown overboard, while the first four rows of galley slaves were killed outright; but the attempt to board was repulsed as elite Janissaries and Spanish infantry fought face-to-face and hand-to-hand. The struggle remained in the balance however, and had it not been for the timely intervention of Marcantonio Colonna who came alongside and boarded the Sultana it may have turned out very differently.

Outnumbered and attacked from both sides the Janissaries fought to the last man and among the killed was Muezzinzade Ali Pasha. Learning of the Emir’s death Don John ordered the body decapitated and his severed head placed upon a pole and paraded up and down the deck of his ship as the Banner of the Caliphs was lowered and that of the Holy League, raised in its place.

Elsewhere the two fleets converged with the galleases of the Holy League manoeuvring so as to bring their broadsides to bear taking a terrible toll of the lead Turkish galleys throwing them into disarray. The first ships to clash were those of Barbarigo and Scirocco nearest the shore and there was little time for seamanship or tactical genius as the two fleets rammed into each other at great speed seeking to ram and board. The ships being so tightly packed it was said that a man could simply step from one onto another. The author Miguel de Cervantes who fought at Lepanto losing the use of his right arm described the nature of such fighting in his epic novel Don Quixote:

“And yet, though he sees with a first heedless step he will go down to visit the profundities of Neptune’s bosom, still with dauntless heart the knight makes himself a target for all that musketry and struggles to cross the narrow path to the enemies ship.”

In a bitterly fought encounter that saw both Barbarigo and Scirocco killed, the former with an arrow to the eye, the latter beheaded on the deck of his own ship, the Holy League emerged triumphant but only just and largely as a result of freed galley slaves taking up arms and turning on their masters.

The death of Muezzinzade Ali Pasha and the lowering of the Banner of the Caliphs had greatly demoralised the entire Ottoman Fleet and as the battle turned against them those who were able to began beaching and abandoning their ships just as Don John had suspected they might.

Triumphant both in the centre and on the left of the line the Holy League’s victory appeared all but assured but on the right the story was very different. Here Uluc Ali Pasha had forced Andrea Doria to sail out of position thereby creating a gap that exposed Colonna’s left flank in the centre. This was the opportunity and Uluc Ali Pasha was quick to seize it as his fleet descended in force upon 15 or so of the Holy Leagues galleys clustered around the flagship of the Knights of Malta. They were hard pressed and it seemed for a moment that victory could still be snatched from the jaws of Ottoman defeat but it was now that the Christian Reserve Division would prove its worth.  Frustrated at having to witness events from afar its commander Alvaro de Bazan did not hesitate to act but there was little fighting still to be done. Witnessing Bazan’s onrushing galleys Uluc Ali Pasha decided discretion the better part of valour and disengaged heading for the open sea where he made good his escape.

After four hours of intense and brutal conflict the Battle of Lepanto was over - the Cross triumphant in victory, the Crescent humbled in defeat.

The Ottoman Fleet had been almost annihilated with 210 of 278 ships sunk, captured, or abandoned with many more badly damaged. Ships can be built of course and they were. Within a year of the defeat at Lepanto the Ottoman Fleet was similar in size to the one destroyed but the 30,000 experienced sailors and soldiers killed were not so easily replaced and they would shy away from any direct confrontation at sea for many years to come.

The Holy League had lost just 17 ships sunk and 7,500 men killed.

It was said that as Don John addressed his men from the prow of the Real and gave thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary hundreds of miles away in Rome the Pope rose from his chair went to a window and gazing east declared – the Christian Fleet is victorious! He then wept tears of joy and then just as Don John had he to attributed the victory to the direct intercession of the Virgin Mary.

Don John, Colonna, Venier and the others returned to Rome as heroes their triumph at Lepanto celebrated throughout Catholic Europe like none before and few since as Turkish prisoners were paraded in chains through the streets of the Eternal City to the peel of church bells, the incantations of priests, and the prayers of the people.

The reception in Protestant northern Europe was more muted. They understood the threat posed by Islam well enough but at a time of heightened tension which often spilled over into open warfare the presence of an aggressive Islam on the eastern flank of Catholic Europe was viewed favourably as an impediment to Vatican ambition.

The Battle of Lepanto would not prove decisive in the struggle between East and West, between Christianity and Islam but it was significant nonetheless and would be recognised and resonate as such for many centuries to come. The advance of the Ottoman Empire had been halted but it remained a formidable enemy and the situation was far from secure particularly following the fall of Cyprus and the re-emergence of old divisions within the Holy League that saw it dismantled barely a year later. Even so, its propaganda value was immense and it provided further evidence, if any were needed, that Christendom remained in the ascendant and that Roman Catholicism was the - One True Faith; an epic tale of physical courage, moral certainty and spiritual renewal to be retold again and again in music, literature, and art.  It is only now since the narrative has shifted and by those heedless of the fact the thread of history endures and remains unbroken that it has been relegated in our consciousness to the back burner of past events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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