The Siege of Mafeking

On 11 October 1899, the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had the temerity to declare war on the British Empire. It was the conclusion of a dispute that had been simmering for many years.

The Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers who had arrived in Southern Africa in the seventeenth century and would later farm the land of British ruled Natal and Cape Colony were a determinedly single-minded and independent people who would seek autonomy in all things including language and religion only reluctantly obeyed the strictures of their British masters. Indeed, it was Britain’s attempt to enforce the abolition of slavery that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

On 1 December 1834, they elected to move further into the interior and the ‘Great Trek’ as it was to become known was to see thousands of Boers in great waves leave those areas under British jurisdiction to make a country of their own, and numerous territories were initially formed which had by the early 1850’s merged into the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The British as pleased to see the truculent and recalcitrant Boers go as they were to leave had by 1854 recognised both States.

This mutual parting of the ways wasn’t always amicable particularly when diamonds were discovered in the disputed region of Kimberley in 1866, rights to which were finally ceded to Britain.

Twenty years later gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand region of the Transvaal and people from around the world, particularly Britain and its colonies, flocked to the Boer Republic to seek their fortunes.

The Government of the Transvaal requiring both the investment and their expertise accepted this influx of foreigners but with misgivings. There was a genuine fear that these ‘Uitlanders’ would soon outnumber the Boers in their own land and that they could effectively end up ceding their sovereignty to the British Empire by proxy, as a result they were denied all political and civil rights.

Their fears were not without justification, the British were indeed jealously eyeing up the great natural resources of the Transvaal but by denying the Uitlanders the right to vote the Boers had not only provided the British with a stick to beat them with but also with a reason to intervene.

Their worst fears were realised on 29 December 1895, when Leander Starr Jameson, an acolyte of Cecil Rhodes the diamond merchant and since 1890 Prime Minister of Cape Colony, crossed into the Transvaal at the head of 600 Matabeleland Policemen and volunteers with the intention of making for Johannesburg and inciting an Uitlander insurrection; but the raid was a fiasco from the outset, not only had the Boers been forewarned and able to mobilise, but Jameson had neglected to cut the telegraph wires and provided with out-of-date maps soon found himself lost. On 2 January 1896, having wandered around aimlessly for a few days they were surrounded and forced to surrender.

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Waiting for news in Kimberley, Rhodes who had helped plan and finance the raid with the tacit approval of the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain in London was devastated to learn that his plan to make the whole of Southern Africa a province of the British Empire had been thwarted.

Although the Boers were relieved to discover that there was no desire on the part of the Uitlanders for insurrection and Joseph Chamberlain was very quick to wash his hands of the entire affair the first steps on the road to war had been firmly trod.

Following the failure of the Jameson Raid the issue of the Uitlanders did not go away and negotiations between Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner for South Africa, and the Presidents of the Boer Republics Paul Kruger and Martinus Steyn, were to continue but with little sincerity on either side.

In June 1899, the pretence of negotiations broke down entirely and Chamberlain demanded voting rights for the Uitlanders with immediate effect. But on this issue Kruger would not budge as both Chamberlain and Milner knew he wouldn’t.

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To impede the build-up for war and pre-empt any hostile British action on 8 October, Kruger issued an ultimatum that all British forces withdraw from the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State within 48 hours. When they refused to do on 11 October he declared war.

To those British Imperialists in London and Cecil Rhodes in Kimberley it seemed that all their dreams had come true at once – 30,000 Boer farmers had just declared war on the mighty British Empire.

But the British, so eager for war, had made little preparation for it and neither had they learned the lesson of a previous short war with the Boers that had ended in ignominious defeat but they still held to the belief that it would be little more than another colonial police action.

Boer strategy was simple – swift action to eliminate the British military presence in South Africa before it could be reinforced thereby presenting the British Government with a fait-accompli. If they still refused to accept the reality on the ground then enough time should have been bought to allow the other Great Powers to intervene and force the British back to the negotiating table.

On 12 October, Boer forces invaded Natal and Cape Colony which didn’t at first go as planned but early British victories went unexploited and when Sir George White in command of the largest British field force of 12,000 cavalry inexplicably withdrew to the town of Ladysmith he had effectively yielded control to the Boers.

Ladysmith was soon invested and placed under siege as was the town of Kimberley with its great prize, the arch-Imperialist Cecil Rhodes himself.

The Boers now moved on to their next target, the strategically important railway junction at Mafeking.

Mafeking was a dusty little town with a population of around 12,000 some 7,000 of whom were black Africans residing in the Baralong district. Also resident in Mafeking were journalists from four London papers – The Times, Morning Post, Pall Mall Gazette, and Daily Chronicle and it was to be their dispatches slipped through the Boer lines by native runners to a British controlled telegraph office 50 miles away that would thrill the British public imagination and make a national hero of its Commanding Officer.

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Robert Baden-Powell was a professional soldier who had spent most of his career in the colonies but had also served for a time with British Military Intelligence where sent to survey military fortifications in the Ottoman Empire he posed as a butterfly collector to sketch detailed maps of gun emplacements and the terrain surrounding them, disguised as they were within larger pictures of insects and local fauna.

It was typical Baden-Powell, an eccentric character far removed from the traditional image of the British Officer he was in essence a frontiersman made in the same mould as those who had opened up the American West, never happier than when on his own, living off the land, surviving on his wits, making do and mend. He never doubted his ability to get by or to make the most of a bad job.

Since the mid-1880’s he had served in Africa where he fought in the Second Matabele War during which he continued his scouting and reconnaissance duties before being promoted to Colonel following his participation in the Fourth Ashanti War.

When hostilities with the Boers seemed inevitable Baden-Powell was ordered by the British Commander-in-Chief in London Sir Garnet Wolseley to recruit a mobile force to patrol the border with Transvaal and harass the Boer forces but they moved with such rapidity that he was forced to concentrate on the defence of Mafeking instead.

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Baden-Powell’s army was small and unimpressive – 300 part-time soldiers of the Bechuanaland Rifles, a handful of Cape Policemen, and 200 militia recruited from the town itself. Aware that as many as 8,000 Boers with artillery under the command of Piet Cronje were advancing on Mafeking, Baden-Powell hastily set about reinforcing its defences.

He immediately recruited a group of young boys to act as lookouts and couriers, and armed 300 black men to serve as sentries even though there was in place a tacit agreement, to be broken many times on both sides, that any future conflict would be kept a white man’s war. Learning of Baden-Powell’s arming of black troops Cronje sent him a harshly worded letter:

“You have committed an enormous act of wickedness – reconsider the matter even if it costs you the loss of Mafeking. Disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.”

No response was forthcoming.

Baden-Powell revelled in the art of deception and would often entertain guests with his own magic act, now he would perform similar in his defence of Mafeking.

With the Boers looking on he sent men to plant mines in the approaches to the town, except they had no mines. Instead, he had them bury metal boxes with a brick inside occasionally igniting a stick of dynamite to make it appear that one had exploded accidentally; similarly, he had barbed wire laid, though he had none of that either but knowing that from where the Boers were positioned any barbed wire would appear invisible he had his men to pretend to step over it, even to feign being cut by or caught on it.

He had a searchlight made from an acetylene lamp and an old biscuit tin which he had placed on a cart with wheels which he would have wheeled the entire length of the trench-works to make it appear that any part of the town’s fortifications could come under the gaze of searchlights at any time were it to be attacked.

From old and discarded rolling stock in the railway yards he built an armoured train which in an act of great audacity he was to man with sharpshooters and drive right into the middle of the Boer camp causing a number of casualties and great panic before returning it safely to town.

This would be typical of Baden-Powell’s defence of Mafeking – he would not simply hang on with a grim determination but would take the fight to the Boers when and where he could.

By the 13 October, having earlier rejected Cronje’s demand that he surrender, Mafeking, the town was not only under siege but under bombardment.

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The Boers were in no rush to storm Mafeking believing that it would either succumb to the bombardment by their ‘Long Toms’ or be starved into surrender and so in early December Cronje departed with many of his men for more active zones of conflict leaving his deputy J.P Snyman in command.

Cronje’s departure did not reduce the Boer forces significantly enough for Baden-Powell to contemplate breaking the siege and so both sides settled down to a prolonged period of bombardment, sniper fire, raid and counter raid.

Baden-Powell was beset with problems, though you would not necessarily have known it.

He could not return Boer artillery fire so he had a howitzer built and adapted an old 18th century cannon for use in the field. He had to secure a regular supply of clean drinking water and he was concerned with the deprivation of food stocks. He also had to combat the perennial shadow of fatigue and defeatism and worked tirelessly to keep up morale. He put on regular theatrical shows with, being a fine actor and mimic, himself as the star turn.

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He also issued a postage stamp with his image on it and even designed his own currency for use during the siege.
And every Sunday without fail there would be a cricket match. Indeed, after the wicket-keeper was decapitated at the crease he wrote to Snyman suggesting that a truce should prevail on a Sunday. The deeply religious Snyman agreed, though he objected to the British frolicking on the Lord’s Day. Neither did Snyman share or appreciate Baden-Powell’s sense of humour in particular the relentless stream of better luck next time letters littered with cricket and sporting references such as being bowled a googly or hit for six.

He would eventually yield a little and even suggest they play a game to which Baden-Powell replied that he still had to finish his current innings.

For all Baden-Powell’s well-publicised antics however the siege remained a serious and stark affair and it would be the black population that would bear the brunt of the hardship.

Baden-Powell had early on requisitioned all the town’s food stocks including the grain from the black district and implemented a programme of rationing the burden of which again fell on the blacks reduced to a pint of horse soup sold to them at 3d a day. Although there is little evidence to suggest that Baden-Powell deliberately sought to starve the black population there is little doubt that those not in service he considered to be ‘useless mouths’ not worth feeding and he encouraged them to leave and those unwilling he was not shy in trying to force to do so and the 750 who did so faced the bleak prospect of trying to pass through Boer lines before then embarking on a 100 mile trek on foot to safety. If caught by the Boers they could expect to be stripped and whipped before being forced to return when it was not unknown for them to be fired upon by the town’s defenders.

Such treatment seems particularly harsh in light of the black contribution to the towns defence for not only did they man the trenches but it was often female black couriers who smuggled out the reporters dispatches at great risk to themselves.

Equally damning to Baden-Powell’s later reputation was his complete omission of the black contribution to Mafeking’s defence in his official report on the siege.

None of this would have been of concern to a British public thrilled by BP’s exploits and anxiously awaiting the latest reports from the front – was BP still at the crease? Was he still playing a straight bat?

It was Boy’s Own Stuff, the novels of G.P Henty made real, and they loved him for it.

After all, the early months of the war had been a disaster for the British militarily and their reputation as a Great Power. Her army was being beaten in the field, vast swathes of territory had been ceded, and those towns in her possession had been locked down and were under siege. It seemed too many abroad that the greatest Empire the world had ever seen was being defeated by a bunch of Boer farmers. She might even be forced to come to terms.

And things were about to get much worse.

On 10 December at Stormberg Junction having blundered into an ambush 630 British soldiers were forced to surrender having barely fired a shot in their own defence; the following day at Magersfontein advancing over open ground the British suffered 810 casualties for no result before being forced to withdraw; and on 15 December at Colenso they endured yet another setback when they lost 1,645 men again for no gain. Moreover, the graphic and horrific images of the killing ground that was Spion Kop were to appear in the British newspapers a few days later.

What was to become known as ‘Black Week’ had made Britain the laughing stock of the world and was to see the British Commander in South Africa Sir Redvers Buller renamed ‘Sir Reverse’ and replaced by Lord Roberts.

Such was the humiliation of ‘Black Week’ however that not only was it to represent the high watermark of Boer success but it ruled out any prospect of compromise. The war would continue but it was only Baden-Powell’s exploits at Mafeking that provided any light at the end of what seemed a very long tunnel and it was to become a British obsession.

The siege soon settled into a routine that despite the shortages and the occasional intervention that led to arbitrary death was not too dissimilar to the one they were used to.

The Boer ‘Long Toms’ continued to bombard the town reaping their grim toll but they no longer kept people off the streets, neither did the fear of sniper fire or the threat of a sudden Boer attack.

On 26 December, Baden-Powell launched an assault on the Boer strong-point at Game Tree Fort. It was to prove a costly failure but he was not downhearted – well bowled! He would say. But then he would make such attacks not because he believed they would break the siege but rather that it was unhealthy for his men to remain idle.

On 15 February 1900, the town of Kimberley was relieved to be followed on the 28th by Ladysmith and it was believed that Mafeking would be next but it didn’t happen quite as soon as some perhaps expected.

Even so, rumours that a Flying Column of 1,200 cavalry under the command of Colonel D.T Mahon was closing in on Mafeking forced the Boers to act. Sarel Eloff, a confident young man and a grandson of President Kruger believed Mafeking could be taken by infiltrating it at night thereby causing panic and distracting the defenders sufficiently enough for an offensive by Snyder and the bulk of the Boer army to succeed.

He boasted that he would be dining in the Dixon Hotel by lunchtime.

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Just before dawn on 12 May, Eloff with 250 men slipped between two forts and into the black part of town where he set light to a number of huts as the signal for Snyder to begin his attack.

But Snyder did not attack.

Even so, Eloff overwhelmed by his own success, including the taking of 30 prisoners among them Baden-Powell’s second-in-command, now phoned him to boast of it. But Baden-Powell had already been made aware of events by the burning of the huts and had been quick to respond. He reinforced those troops barring Eloff’s further advance in the knowledge that more than 100 armed blacks who had laid low during the attack on the township were now also barring his retreat.

Aware that no general Boer attack was taking place and fearing that they were advancing into a trap many of Eloff’s men expressed the view that they should either retreat or surrender. Under the threat that anyone who did so would be shot many simply disappeared.

In the end he was forced to retreat with the men that remained to him to a police barracks where he was quickly surrounded. He resisted only for a short time and Eloff was to indeed dine at the Dixon Hotel that afternoon but as a prisoner and guest of Baden-Powell.

With the Flying Column closing in Snyder withdrew the Boer forces from around Mafeking.

On 16 May, as British cavalry rode down the main street of Mafeking, Baden-Powell queried what had taken them so long.

For all Baden-Powell’s theatricality and eccentric behaviour the Siege of Mafeking had been every bit as grim as that of either Kimberley or Ladysmith. The town had come close to starvation, Baden-Powell’s rule had often been oppressive and brutal, and the constant bombardment had reaped a predictably grim harvest.

The Siege of Mafeking had lasted 217 days during which its defenders suffered 812 casualties of whom 212 were killed. There are no accurate figures for the number of black victims. The Boers had endured around 1,000 casualties including perhaps 400 killed mostly in early attempts to storm the defences.

The Boer decision to besiege Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking had been a strategic error in tying up a substantial number of their troops and ordnance when with the British army at bay they could have been used more effectively elsewhere.

Also, the Boers, fine horsemen and marksmen who would prove formidable opponents in the mobile war to come were not trained to fight set-piece battles and their failure to truly understand the rudiments of siege warfare was to be their undoing.

But all this would be for the later consideration of historians.

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News of the Relief of Mafeking made headlines around the world and in Britain it was greeted with scenes of wild jubilation rarely seen before and way beyond its military significance as millions of people spilled onto the streets of towns and cities the length and breadth of the country in celebration.

In London as flag-waving crowds thronged the city centre theatres and concert halls interrupted their performances to announce the news – Mafeking Relieved! BP safe!

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As workers downed tools, the city ground to a halt, the pubs began to run out of beer, and the celebrations continued late into the night the Government fearing that the raucous crowds might get out of hand considered reading the Riot Act.

Baden-Powell was to return to Britain a national hero and promoted to the rank of Major-General in October 1901, he was received by the King at Balmoral.

The greatest hero since the Duke of Wellington his image was now to be seen everywhere as his fame was marketed to the hilt – there was BP Jam, BP Mugs, BP Sheet Music, BP Clothing, even BP Cigars, something he would have hated – he was the most famous man in the Empire.

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Unlike many who become the subject of such public adulation Robert-Baden Powell was to find even greater fame in later life when he used his love of the outdoors, his knowledge of field craft and reconnaissance, and his sense of duty and responsibility borne of his deep Christian faith to form the Boy Scout and Girl Guide Movements for which, along with his great triumph at Mafeking, he would later be knighted.

The Mayerling Incident

Early on the morning of 30 January 1889, in an isolated Hunting Lodge at Mayerling deep within the Vienna Woods the body of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was found slumped in a chair dead, before him on a table was a mirror and a glass, blood was still seeping from his mouth.

Stretched out on a nearby bed was the pale, cold, and lifeless body of his 17 year old lover, Baroness Marie Vetsera.

The Hunting Lodge was immediately sealed off and the body of Mary, as the Baroness was known, removed and taken away for burial. Indeed, she was interred with such haste that her family, though informed of her death, had no time to arrange, let alone attend the funeral.

The information emerging from the Mayerling was also to be vague and confused.

The Prince’s valet, who discovered the body, reported that he believed poison had been the cause of death.

The official communiqué announced that the Crown Prince had died of heart failure.

No mention of Mary was made in either account.

It is possible that the confusion was the result of an attempt to spare the feelings of the Imperial Family or a reluctance to reveal too much because of fears that it might create instability within the Empire.

Either way, it was perceived to be a botched attempt at a cover-up which only served to sow suspicion and doubt.

People did not believe the official version of events – that a healthy 30 year old man had simply died of heart failure and it appeared trite that a man so often as inconvenient as the Crown Prince should die such a convenient death.

As journalists from across Europe, and indeed the world, descended upon the scene their investigations were to reveal what was at best a partial truth.

Slowly it emerged that the likely cause of the deaths was suicide, that the Crown Prince had shot the Baroness with her consent before some time later turning the gun on himself.

But why would they do this?

The Austro-Hungarian Empire even in the 1880’s seemed a land that was out of step with the modern world. The grandeur, protocols, and strict formality of the Imperial Court, the suffocating embrace of custom and ritual, the grand processions, the glittering balls, the exotic titles, the myriad of gay and colourful military uniforms all presided over by the venerable and be-whiskered figure of the Emperor Franz Joseph provided it with an almost fairy tale sense of being at least to the outside observer or the reader of popular magazines.

But the myth was far removed from the reality and the Hapsburg Empire had been an entity struggling on the brink of collapse for decades.

This threat of dynastic extinction manifested itself in a fear of change so that when reforms did come, such as the Augsleich of 1867 which resulted in Hungarian devolution and the creation of the Dual Monarchy, they were invariably forced upon it.

Despite the vulnerability its instinct remained one of oppression, a stark and divisive policy in a disparate, multi-ethnic Empire of numerous languages and many religions in which the Austrians themselves were but a small minority and where the glue that held it all together was the person of the Emperor – forty years on the throne and to him alone could unambiguous loyalty could be sworn.

Upon his death this responsibility would fall to his only son.

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But the Crown Prince Rudolf was not his father, he did not share his politics, he did not feel comfortable shrouded in the cloak of Imperial Majesty but was instead stifled by it; he was neither steady nor sober but often behaved rashly, was arrogant in his manner, and discourteous of courtiers.

The two men could not bear to be in each other’s company.

He got on better with his mother, the Empress Elisabeth, but even she despaired at his behaviour and expressed concern at the company he kept.

He openly mixed in radical circles where he expressed views and opinions that were contrary to the policies of the Government both domestically and abroad and that were to see him effectively alienated from the decision making process.

To many the process of reform he advocated, in particular his cautious nod towards democracy and greater autonomy for the regions would lead to the dismantling of the Empire itself.

Also, his view that the Kingdom of Poland should be reconstituted, his criticism of Russia, open hostility towards France, and belief that Austria should become less reliant upon its German ally was considered not just reckless but dangerous.

These tendencies to behave rashly and speak out of turn had been evident from an early age and were reflected in his behaviour. A heavy drinker he displayed a love for the seamier side of Viennese life frequenting its bawdier theatres and cabarets along with an unquenchable thirst for its ladies.

This was unacceptable behaviour for the heir to the throne and both Franz Joseph and the Empress Elisabeth decided that he must be made to marry as soon as possible before he ruined himself and possibly the Empire.

This was easier said than done however, as suitable Catholic Princesses of child-bearing age were far and few between.

Rudolf’s refusal to countenance marriage to any woman whom he found physically unattractive decreased the available options even further.

Being touted around the Royal Houses of Europe was not an experience Rudolf enjoyed but even in his most irrational and recalcitrant of moods he recognised that for the sake of the dynasty an appropriate marriage was essential, though when he was to come to choose his bride it was, initially at least, to be the cause of some embarrassment.

On 5 March 1880, Rudolf arrived as a guest at the Royal Court of King Leopold II of Belgium.

The Royal House of Belgium had been established less than 40 years and Leopold was eager to lend it greater legitimacy by forging a marriage between his 15 year old daughter Princess Stephanie and the heir to the oldest Empire in Europe.

Having already declined the hand of both the Spanish and Portuguese Infanta’s, Rudolf last appeared to have settled on his choice.

He wrote to his mother with satisfaction rather than enthusiasm:

“I have found what I sought.”

Elisabeth was less than impressed believing her son to have chosen a bride from a parvenu dynasty well below the status of a Hapsburg but the Emperor believing marriage would calm the troublesome soul of the Crown Prince was quick to endorse it.

Princess Stephanie was sent to Vienna to be instructed in Hapsburg Court etiquette and customs but it was soon discovered that she had not even yet reached puberty. When she was told of what would be expected of her as a bride it became apparent that she had no understanding whatsoever of the facts of life.

Much to everyone’s embarrassment she had to be returned to Belgium.

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Nonetheless, the following year the marriage went ahead and for a short time at least it seemed as if the couple were happy but by the time Stephanie gave birth to their daughter Erszebet in September 1883, they had already begun to grow apart.

Princess Stephanie was not what Rudolf had been seeking after all, she had seen little of the world, was conventional in her views, and reactionary in her politics and she bored the often excitable and highly-strung Rudolf whose interest in her soon waned both inside and outside of the marriage bed.

He returned to his previous life of drinking and whoring late into the night.

Meanwhile Stephanie, ignored by the Emperor and shunned by the Empress who considered her beneath them, was left in isolation to raise their daughter alone.

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Mary Vetsera was only 15 years of age when she began her affair with the Crown Prince though to avoid scandal, always a priority of the Hapsburgs their first meeting was officially declared to have been two years later.

At the time Rudolf was already in a relationship with the actress Mizzi Kaspar whom as the true love of his life he showered with money and gifts and it was rumoured that he had already approached her with the proposal that they should join in a suicide pact.

It was only after she had rejected the very idea as absurd that he turned his attention to the younger and more gullible Mary.

By now frequently drunk and increasingly outspoken some talked openly of him being bewitched by whores, and that he was an embarrassment to the Crown.

Rudolf was also becoming a concern to Austria’s closest ally Germany.

Despite being beset by internal divisions and seemingly in terminal decline to Germany with a hostile France to its West and an always bellicose Russia to its East the Hapsburg Empire remained vital to its strategic interest.

The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had not been shy in expressing his doubts regarding the Crown Prince, dismissing him as weak, emotionally unstable, and a dangerous man to have at the helm of a great Empire in the heart of Europe.

Despite being a distant second in the Crown Prince’s affections, Mary was nonetheless thrilled to have attracted his attention. Her family less so, they were ambitious no doubt but for their daughter to be the Crown Prince’s whore only to be discarded later did little for her marriage prospects.

On 29 January 1889, Emperor Franz Joseph and the Empress Elisabeth gave a family dinner that Rudolf, much to their disgruntlement, absented himself on the grounds that he intended to leave early the following morning for his Hunting Lodge at Mayerling.

The rumour soon spread that earlier that morning he’d rowed furiously with his father over his affairs, the neglect of his wife and child, and his request for a divorce that was rejected out of hand.

Not that Rudolf needed an excuse to absent himself from an Imperial Court he loathed, that he believed resented his presence, and a Prime Minister Edouard Taafe who he believed was undermining him.

Unable to persuade him to remain Rudolf left in an ill-temper – there was little he did in good grace.

When he arrived at the Mayerling the following morning he found Mary was already there waiting for him, though he appeared indifferent to her presence.

After a long night drinking and talking Rudolf retired to his bedchamber with Mary telling his valet Loschek to wake him in good time for a mornings hunting.

The following day unable to elicit a response from the Crown Prince and unwilling to force an entry on his own initiative Loschek informed Count Hoyos and together they broke down the door to the bedroom where they discovered outlined in the semi-darkness the dead bodies of the Crown Prince and his lover.

Even before the cause of their deaths had been ascertained Count Hoyos was on a train bound for Vienna where on his arrival he reported the news to the Emperor’s Adjutant-General Count Paar.

After ordering Hoyos to speak no further on the matter he retired to ponder on exactly what to do.

It was not his place he felt to inform the Emperor of the tragic news but that it could only be done by the Empress and so he contacted the head of her household Baron Nopsca who in turn contacted her chief lady-in-waiting Countess Ida von Ferenczy upon whom the responsibility would fall.

By the time she at last summoned up the courage to inform her mistress of what had happened whispers were already being heard of tragic events and there was to be a further delay as Elisabeth broke down in tears at the news and was unable to control her emotions sufficiently to tell the Emperor for some time.

Reports of how Franz Joseph responded to the news of his son’s death vary. Some say he received it with stoic resignation, others that it was with an apparent indifference.

But then he was never one to express his emotions.

Un-distracted by grief his overriding concern seemed to be securing his dead son a Christian Catholic funeral. This could not be possible as a suicide and so a special dispensation had to be received on the grounds of his mental derangement at the time.

But the question of exactly how and why Crown Prince Rudolf and the Baroness Mary Vetsera died at the Mayerling remains a mystery:

1) Had they died in a suicide pact? He had after all expressed an interest in such things.
2) Rudolf had killed Mary during a row later taking his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions?
3) Mary had died following a botched abortion with Rudolf killing himself out of a sense of guilt?
4) It is known that Rudolf had infected his wife with syphilis. Had he likewise infected, Mary?
5) He had accidentally shot Mary during a brawl with members of her family angered that she was pregnant with his child.
6) He and Mary were murdered by agents of a foreign power.

Rudolf had apparently first shot Mary and then himself with a hunting rifle, a very difficult if not impossible thing to do.

But then why were the shots not heard?

Again, if there had been an argument or a brawl then it would surely have been overheard but there are no accounts of this being the case.

Were they killed by the Germans?

Empress Frederick, Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter wrote to her mother of the incident:

“I have heard things about poor Rudolf which may perhaps interest you. Prince Bismarck told me that violent altercations between Rudolf and his father had led to his committing suicide but the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin tells me there had been no such scenes. The Chancellor (Bismarck) does not I think deplore it, and did not like him.”

Empress Zita, the wife of the last ruler of Austria-Hungary Karl I, believed all her life that Rudolf and Mary had been murdered by French agents.

Rudolf’s death had changed the Hapsburg dynastic succession and the line of inheritance now transferred to Franz Joseph’s brother Karl Ludwig who being of a similar age relinquished his rights in favour of his son Franz Ferdinand.

No more popular than Rudolf had been the future Archduke Franz Ferdinand was in every other way the opposite.

He was stable, sober, and earnest but also understood the need for reform but not from any dreamy idealistic sentiment but for the sake of the Empire and its survival.

But like Rudolf he would never get the opportunity to implement his ideas for it was his assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, that was to ignite the tinderbox of World War.

Battle of Verdun: Hell on Earth

When war broke out in August 1914, both Germany and France believed they had the strategy that would bring the conflict in the West to a swift conclusion. But it was not to be:

The German Schlieffen Plan which saw two huge armies advance through Belgium before sweeping into France encircling Paris from the West whilst pinning the French Army to its Eastern frontier had at first stalled and then been turned back on the River Marne.

Similarly, the French Plan 17 designed to attack en-masse the enemy crushing them beneath the fury of their assault and re-capturing the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine before advancing into Germany itself had been bloodily repulsed.

Shocked by the casualties and the scale of destruction both sides had dug-in and by the winter of 1915 the mobile warfare of those early months had become a distant memory as a line of trenches protected by barbed wire and machine guns stretched from the Channel ports to the Swiss frontier scarring the landscape and dominating the battlefield. Attempts at a breakthrough had since floundered in the desolate and fragmented vistas of no-man’s-land and at a very great cost in human life.

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Another way to break the deadlock had to be found, and the German Commander-in-Chief Erich von Falkenhayn believed that he had the formula for doing so.

Verdun in North-East France near the frontier with Germany had been a fortress town and a bulwark against Teuton aggression since the time of Louis XIV, protecting as it did the route to Paris. It had provided one of the few glimmers of hope during the country’s disastrous war with Prussia 40 years earlier and in doing so had become symbolic of French defiance and pride.

Yet those early months of mobile warfare had left the town exposed at the apex of a vulnerable salient reducing its strategic value. Indeed, its abandonment would permit the French Army to shorten and thereby strengthen their lines but given its iconic status in the collective imagination of the French people this could not be countenanced – or so believed, Falkenhayn.

He told the Kaiser in December 1915:

“The strain in France has just about reached breaking point, a mass breakthrough, which is in any case beyond our means, is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”

Falkenhayn’s intention was to capture the French front-line trenches seize the high ground and break up and destroy the French formations with overwhelming artillery fire as they approached the town. He had already made the chilling calculation that defending Verdun would cost the French five casualties for every two Germans lost.

But it was never his intention to capture Verdun merely to threaten it sufficiently for the French to defend it whatever the cost and it was upon this premise that the success of his entire plan hinged.

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Verdun was defended by 20 large and 40 small forts the most powerful of which was Fort Douamont some 6 miles from the city and standing at the highest point for a 20 mile radius. Bristling with guns it had a concrete roof thirty feet thick to protect it from plunging mortar fire and walls similarly formidable. Surrounding it was a deep moat topped with thick barbed wire intended to trap any attacking force that would then be exposed to raking and sustained machine gun fire.

Inside it was a labyrinth of corridors with gun emplacements, arsenals, store rooms, kitchens and a barracks with accommodation for 500 men.

The other forts were built according to a similar plan and along with the front-line trenches that threaded their way through the woods along the banks of the River Meuse were believed to present an impregnable barrier of concrete, steel, and barbed wire. But the French High Command thought otherwise.

They had seen how the Belgian forts of Liege and Namur had been swiftly pulverised into rubble by the German heavy guns and now doubted the effectiveness of such fixed fortified positions and had since been stripping the forts of guns for mobile use on other sectors of the front. Similarly, the forces around Verdun had been reduced to around just 60,000 men many of them reservists considered fit for garrison duty only.

This denuding of the defences around Verdun did not appear important for with the exception of the opening months of the war it had been one of the quietist sectors on the Western Front. It was not considered a target for attack and certainly not on a scale that would threaten it with capture.

There were some however who perceived its vulnerability.

In late 1915, the Minister of War Joseph Gallieni wrote to the French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre:

“Reports have come to me indicating that in the Verdun region the line of trenches appears not to have been completed. If t enemy should break though not only would your responsibility be involved but also that of the entire government.”

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Joffre replied:

“Nothing justifies the fears you express in your dispatch.”

But Gallieni was not the only Officer to express his concerns.

Lieutenant-Colonel Emile Driant, a well-known author who had been a Deputy in the National Assembly prior to the outbreak of war but had re-enlisted in the army despite being almost sixty years of age used his and his political connections to warn repeatedly of the weakness of Verdun.

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Driant, commanding two battalions of light infantry at Verdun, was in a position to know but such doom-laden prophecies only served to anger further an increasingly irascible Joffre and yet again the warnings were ignored.

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Throughout the month of December and into January 1916, the German’s increased their forces around Verdun with troops brought from other sectors and ten railway tracks laid to bring the formidable artillery train of more than 1,200 guns – quick firing guns, naval guns, siege mortars, and heavy howitzers, along with a stockpile of more than 2.5 million shells. By the beginning of February, Falkenhayn had gathered 191,000 men and 25,000 tons of supplies.

Despite having long established air superiority in the skies over the Verdun sector the German’s nonetheless remained surprised that their build-up had gone unnoticed by the French until almost the designated time of the attack itself; but now the treacherous climate in that part of France intervened and the inclement weather and in particular the poor visibility forced the Germans to twice postpone the date of their intended assault.

At last, the French High Command woke up to the threat and though they remained ignorant of the scale and intensity of the intended assault they began to hurriedly repair and reinforce the defences around Verdun. But it was too little too late.

Operation Gericht, or Judgement, began at 4 am on 21 February 1916 with an intense three hour bombardment of the town intended to sow confusion in the rear areas before then switching to the front-line defences.

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The ferocity of the bombardment restricted to just six miles of front was like nothing witnessed before and utterly devastated the French forward defences obliterating many of the trenches entirely along with the frightened men huddling for protection within them. A survivor of that first day’s bombardment described what he saw:

“Men were squashed. Cut in two or divided top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out; skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.”

As German infiltration units armed with a fearful new weapon the flame-thrower advanced they met little resistance greeted instead by the gruesome sight of a shattered landscape littered with body parts.

The following day the main German advance began and though some French Units had recovered sufficiently to resist they were few in number and easily outflanked. As the Germans advanced more than 10,000 prisoners were taken. That same day Emile Driant, leading his men in the defence of the village of Omes was shot through the head and killed as he came to the assistance of a wounded soldier.

The German heavy guns had done their work and they had already advanced more than three miles for the loss of just 600 men killed and wounded.

In Verdun there was chaos as French troops flooded back into the city and panic soon took hold as the rumour spread that all was lost. Now only the forts barred the way to Verdun – but could they hold out?

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On the afternoon of 25 February, just four days into the campaign, soldiers of the 24th Brandenburg Regiment approached the citadel of Fort Douamont. They had no orders to capture it but meeting little resistance ten pioneers under the command of a Sergeant Kunze reached its walls where they found an open and unoccupied gun portal.

Fearing that a trap had been laid for them Sergeant Kunze entered the fort alone where he wandered its vast expanses somewhat lost before encountering the crew of the only gun that was firing (at targets far in the distance as it happened) he took them prisoner.

He was soon joined by 130 further troops who had entered the fort by other means and together they found the garrison of 56 elderly reservists huddling for safety in one of the cellars. They did not resist.

Fort Douamont, the most powerful fortress in the world, had been captured without a shot being fired in its defence.

In Germany church bells were rung and a national holiday declared as it at last appeared that a breakthrough on the Western Front had been achieved. The Kaiser rejoiced and convinced that Verdun was about to fall he visited the front to witness the devastation first-hand from a powerful, and heavily protected telescope.

In France the reaction was very different and the official communiqué published in the newspapers the following day adopted a tone of nonchalant indifference:

“A fierce struggle around Fort Douamont, an advanced outpost of the old defences of Verdun, the position carried by the enemy after several fruitless assaults which cost them very heavy losses has since been reached and surpassed by our own troops.”

Few people believed it and the rumour began to spread that Paris itself would soon be abandoned.

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As the German attack bore down on Verdun and it seemed increasingly likely that the town would fall the call went out for General Petain.

Dragged from the bed of his mistress in the dead of night Philippe Petain, the 58 year old peasant from Northern France who had retired as a lowly-Colonel before the war but since returning to the colours had been promoted to command the Second Army at Verdun was now given the onerous task of its overall defence and of saving French pride and prestige.

Considered steady, reliable and stubborn, if unimaginative, Petain’s motto at the French Military Academy had been ‘firepower kills’ and he would not be wasteful with the lives of his men. He was also considered a logistics expert and so it would prove.

Vain and costly counter-attacks would cease, he ordered. They would hold what they had, and if Falkenhayn sought to kill Frenchmen with his artillery then he, Petain, would kill Germans with his.

In the meantime, he would begin the urgent process of reinforcement and resupply, a much harder task that one might imagine for despite its designation as a strategically important fortress town communication and transport links to Verdun were poor.

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Verdun was linked to Bar-le-Duc, 50 miles to its rear by a single-track railway line and a heavy pot-holed road barely 20ft wide but it was to be this road, later named La Voie Sacre, or the Sacred Way, that would become the besieged town’s lifeline.

Petain ensured that a convoy of trucks carrying troops, munitions, and supplies ran ceaselessly day and night, a truck every 14 seconds. He also organised a rotation system intended to ensure that no Unit would spend more than two weeks in the front-line before being replaced and more than two-thirds of the French Army was to pass through Verdun at some time or other.

This was something that the Germans could not do on anything like the same scale and many of their troops who had been present at the battles outset would, if they survived, remain for its duration.

It was to be Petain’s mastery of logistics more than any battlefield genius or long-term strategic plan that was to save Verdun but he was also quick to recognise the value of artillery bringing their full-weight to bear on the advancing Germans who had made the strategic error of not capturing the high-ground on the East Bank of the Meuse thereby exposing their right-flank to the quick-firing French guns, and despite their early successes there were tensions within the German Command Structure.

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Crown Prince Wilhelm, the heir to the throne who was regularly lampooned in the British press as the ‘Kaiser’s Little Willie’ had in fact proved to be a competent Commander of the 5th Army that had launched the initial assault on Verdun, struggled to grasp the strategy that underpinned it and could not conceive of ordering his men to risk their lives attacking a position it was not their intention to capture.

But a battle has a momentum all of its own and success breeds ambition.

The capture of Fort Douamont, the Kaiser’s triumphalism, the cheering of the Berlin crowd beneath the din of Church bells had undermined the entire purpose of a campaign that was intended to see the French Army commit itself to a funeral pyre of its enemy’s making. A victory has to be seen not just imagined, he Crown Prince recognised this, Falkenhayn had feared it, but the tension between the two men eased as a result.

It would emerge once more as both armies became locked in a savage and unrelenting embrace in which neither could break free. A battle that the Crown Prince would soon insist could not be won and was a waste of German lives and resources. But it was also a battle that could not now be lost.

A combination of bad weather, stubborn French resistance, and the ample and effective use of artillery had slowed the German advance but on 6 March they attacked once more and with renewed vigour in an attempt to eradicate the threat posed by the French guns positioned on the aptly name La Morte Homme, or Dead Man’s Hill, that had been decimating the German right-flank.

Advancing behind an artillery barrage from 25 heavy guns firing 3,000 shells the Germans met stiff resistance and made little headway as no sooner was a position taken than it was counter-attacked by the French and retaken.

The Germans withdrew temporarily to re-gather their forces but on 11 March following a bombardment that saw 15,000 high calibre mortar shells fired in short order they renewed their assault but this time on the hills to the east and west of La Morte Homme and with some success this time digging-in to consolidate their gains; but even as they did so they were raked by the very French guns the assault had been intended to eliminate.

By the end of March the French had lost 86,000 men and it seemed as if Falkenhayn’s prediction that they would defend the sacred soil of Verdun at all costs was correct. As one French soldier wrote:

“An artery of French blood was cut on February 21st, and it flows in large spurts.”

But the Germans had also lost 80,000 men – the difference in the butcher’s bill was negligible.

This mutual bloodletting was not what Falkenhayn had envisaged and it was getting out of hand. He now began to doubt the soundness of his own strategy and when the Crown Prince requested reinforcements to compensate for his losses in the recent offensive it was denied.

Following the March attacks, though targeted assaults and incursions continued, the battle descended into an artillery duel of unparalleled proportions and hellish intensity infernal in its design as both protagonists appeared intent upon blasting the other into extinction.

The thunderous noise, the ground trembling beneath their feet, the shrieks of the dying and the maimed, the endless days without food, water, or sleep, the sight of bodies unburied and uncovered; the constant all-pervasive stench of death in a nightmare landscape of mud and blood where soldiers awaited imminent death – atomised, dismembered, or buried alive:

“To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact, but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is the fear that flesh cannot support and which is the great suffering of the bombardment.”

Another soldier wrote:

“You eat beside the dead, you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead.”

The nightmare of Verdun was etched on the face of every man forced to endure it, morbid expressions of eternal damnation in life. Even the usually insouciant Petain felt compelled to write:

“When they came out of the battle, what a pitiful sight they were. Their expressions seemed frozen by terror; they sagged beneath the weight of horrifying memories.”

Petain had stabilised the situation but the French remained under pressure particularly by the German preponderance in heavy guns and his constant demands for more men and resources when he had no plan for bringing the battle to a successful conclusion, and at a time when Joffre was gathering Divisions for the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme intended for August, saw him dismissed in May to be replaced by the more offensive-minded Robert Nivelle who informed Joffre that he didn’t require reinforcements just fighting spirit.

But that fighting spirit was being sorely tested as the frozen ground and cold of winter became the rains of spring and the heat of summer. Men once fearful of frostbite now dreaded exposure to the sun and disease as flies gathered on rotting corpses and the dysentery caused by parched throats seeking hydration wherever they could.

And all the time hunkered down in inadequate bolt-holes they awaited the shell that would obliterate them from history only to emerge briefly once more on the roster of the missing presumed dead.

As one German soldier wrote:

“Drum, fire, and bravery no longer exists only nerves, nerves, nerves.”

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Nivelle, who’d had some success on a small scale but in doing so had also acquired the reputation of being wasteful with the lives of his men, was eager to take the offensive once more, and his target would be Fort Douamont.

On 17 May, 300 French guns began a sustained bombardment of Douamont and for five days the fort and the trenches around it were plunged into darkness as filled with smoke and choking dust lines of communication were cut, food became scarce, water ran out, and sleep impossible but still these tortured, bedraggled, and exhausted men would be expected to fight when the assault came, and they would, as the German soldier always did.

On 22 May, French troops advanced on Douamont and despite taking heavy casualties from German small arms fire were able to penetrate and occupy a large part of the fort but the reinforcements sent to consolidate their gains were bloodily repulsed and those inside the fort cut off and surrounded were forced to surrender.

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Nivelle’s assault upon Douamont which had expended thousands of shells, killed many Germans, and had also cost the French 5,640 men, changed nothing. It was Verdun in microcosm.

Also in May, Falkenhayn, whose nerves had been seriously strained in the previous weeks, had his confidence restored by intelligence reports that the French had suffered some 500,000 casualties, more than twice as many as his own army. Encouraged by, as it turned out, flawed intelligence and the failure of Nivelle’s own offensive Falkenhayn now abandoned his policy of bleeding the French white and bowed to the demands of his Army Commanders to go on the attack and crush once and for all the French before Verdun and capture the town.

As a precursor to the main assault on 2 June the Germans attacked Fort Vaux, the most powerful fort in the Verdun defences after Douamont and which despite being under almost constant bombardment since the opening days of the battle had remained remarkably intact. It was now to resist a bombardment from German heavy howitzers intended to cave in its roof. They failed to do so but they cleared the way for the German assault troops to advance upon and penetrate the fort in a number of places.

Outnumbered 5 to 1 the garrison of 600 men commanded by Major Sylvain Raynal may have been expected to surrender but instead he erected barricades inside the fort’s narrow corridors. In semi-darkness and barely able to breathe in the choking dust and fumes Raynal and his men retreated from barricade to barricade holding out for five days and only surrendering when the water ran out. It is believed that the Germans had poisoned the supply.

For the loss of 163 men killed and 191 wounded Raynal’s heroic defence had cost the German’s 2,470 casualties but Fort Vaux had been lost nonetheless and was to be the stepping stone for the main German assault to follow.

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On 22 June, after a bombardment that included 120,000 phosgene gas shells that effectively silenced the French guns the Germans were able to penetrate to within 2.5 miles of Verdun. After months of bitter struggle it seemed that a German victory was at last within sight. Certainly Petain thought so telling Joffre that he intended to withdraw the troops of his Second Army from the East Bank of the Meuse and that unless the British brought forward the date of their offensive on the Somme then all was lost.

Joffre who’d had to withdraw the bulk of the French Divisions that had been assigned to assist in that offensive now demanded that the British attack as soon as possible to relieve the pressure on Verdun.

Lord Kitchener agreed despite the reservations of his Army Commander Field Marshal Haig. In the meantime, Joffre issued an appeal to his men:

“Soldiers of Verdun, upon your heroic resistance still depends our future victory. I make one more appeal to your courage, your ardour, your spirit of sacrifice, your love of country. Hold fast and strive with all your might to shatter the last desperate efforts of an enemy at bay.”

At the same time General Nivelle issued his famous order of the day that would resonate throughout Europe:

“You shall not let them pass.”

But a temporary shortage of shells hampered the German advance and continued French resistance saw the advance stall.

When the Germans resumed their assault on 9 July firing a further 60,000 gas shells they found that the French had equipped their troops with the most up-to-date gas masks and that other than causing a general discomfiture the toxic fumes had little effect. The 300,000 high explosive and shrapnel shells fired had a more telling impact but failed to silence the French guns which reciprocated reaping a rich harvest in killed and maimed Germans advancing on their new target Fort Souerville.

After much bitter fighting on 12 July a handful of German troops at last reached the fortress on the heights above Verdun, the last great obstacle between them and the town, and standing upon its roof could see its Church spires and deserted streets. It was a brief moment of triumph but Souerville did not fall, the French swiftly counter-attacked, and that glimpse of Verdun was to prove the high-water mark of the entire German campaign – they would go no further.

Throughout the Battle of Verdun the French soldier, noted for his dash, elan, and courage in attack had displayed characteristics of obduracy, fortitude, and a grim determination to stick-it-out that had surprised his German enemy.

Yet again they had resisted the shelling and at close quarters and in the narrow confines of trenches that were often little more than slits in the ground they fought furious hand-to-hands battles of brutal and merciless savagery. As Corporal Louis Barthas recounted:

“Woe betide anyone who fell into the hands of the enemy alive; all sense of humanity had disappeared.”

Instead of taking the town the German attack had merely created for themselves a dangerous salient vulnerable from three directions which the French were eager to exploit and Falkenhayn now halted all further offensive operations and ordered the German army to go over to the defensive. His decision to do so was not just the result of events on the battlefield but also external factors.

On 4 June, General Aleksei Brusilov had launched the great Russian offensive against the Austro-Hungarian Army in Galicia which in the first week alone took over 400,000 prisoners and not for the first time the Germans were forced to come to the aid of their ally who seemed on the brink of collapse including two Divisions of the 5th Army at Verdun. Similarly, the British offensive on the Somme brought forward to the 1 July saw the Germans fearing a breakthrough remove many of their heavy guns from the Verdun sector.

The tide of battle had swung firmly in favour of the French as the German forces at Verdun continued to be denuded of men and guns but they were in no rush to take the initiative and for a time at least hostilities eased a little and the death rate slowed.

It wasn’t until the 20 October that the French began their offensive to drive the Germans from the area around Verdun once and for all with their first priority the recapture of the iconic Fort Douamont.

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During the preliminary bombardment along the length of the German line the French fired 855,264 shells one of which penetrated Douamont’s roof igniting in its arsenal killing 53 German soldiers and triggering a secondary explosion that killed many more in a barracks nearby.

The fighting around Douamont was fierce but seriously damaged by further shelling and with many of its guns destroyed or inoperable on 24th the Germans abandoned it. Fort Douamont which had fallen in the first week of the battle without a shot being fired in its defence and was dismissed as insignificant had been recaptured at the cost of thousands of lives but also much glory and triumphalism.

With superiority in guns for the first time and having long ago regained control of the air the French renewed their offensive, determined to finish the job.

On 15 December following a six day barrage from 827 guns firing 1,169,000 shells the French advanced. As they did so the artillery switched to the German second line peppering it with thousands of shrapnel shells that prevented both reinforcement and retreat.

The German defence collapsed.

By 20 December, the Germans had been forced back 5 miles, all the forts secured, all the ground lost retaken, and 12,000 prisoners marched in triumph through the shattered streets of Verdun.

Fighting at Verdun, in the East, and at the Somme it was the German Army that was being bled to death.

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In a ten month struggle of attrition that need never have been fought but for the flawed strategy based on a calculus of death (a concept that would be repeated in Vietnam fifty years later) the French suffered around 474,000 casualties of whom some 162,000 were killed, the Germans 434,000 casualties with 143,000 killed.

But such was the degree of carnage that no figure given can be considered definitive, yet even at this admittedly conservative estimate it accounts for a casualty a minute throughout the entire ten month duration of the battle.

More than 70% of those killed and maimed at Verdun were the victims of artillery fire and during one four month period of the battle 24 million shells were fired or 2 shells every second day and night.

The Battle of Verdun, the greatest clash of arms then known to mankind, had ended in a French victory though some would say stalemate – so much destruction and death for so little gain on either side.

As one French soldier wrote shortly before he died:

“They will not be able to make us do it again another day.”

They were to be fateful words for when in May 1917, General Nivelle with the usual promise of ultimate victory and the demand for ever greater sacrifice launched the bloody shambles that was his offensive on the Chemin des Dames Ridge the French soldier had had enough. They would no longer march to the tune of human sacrifice, attack, and be butchered like cattle.

It would be General Petain who would once again ride to the rescue of the French Army reorganising it and restoring morale but he did so with the promise that they would remain on the defensive, and they were to do so for much of the rest of the war.

Likewise, the German Army following the bloodletting at Verdun were not able to launch another major offensive on the Western Front until March 1918, and only then in the wake of their defeat of the Russians in the East.

The Battle of Verdun was summarised at the time in the words of the future British Prime Minister David Lloyd George:

“One of the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile, and bloody fights ever waged -on those heights Gaul and Teuton fought out a racial feud which had existed for thousands of years. The concentrated fury of ages raged, and tore, shattered and killed in one intensive struggle that has no parallel in the history of human savagery.”

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome

With the assassins of Caesar defeated, Cicero murdered, Mark Antony and Cleopatra dead, the 33 year old Octavian was now the single most powerful man in the known world. No individual it seemed was in a position to challenge his authority, only the Senate could now stand in his way to supreme power.

Although he was no warrior, indeed doubt was cast as to his physical courage it being said that he had never personally shed the blood of another, not a recommendation for a Roman man of noble blood, but in the knowledge that there were always others to do the dirty work for him he was utterly ruthless in his pursuit of power.

And he was to prove no less ruthless in maintaining and increasing it – he was the consummate politician.

Octavian did not return to Rome until August 29 BC, a full year after his great victory in Egypt and to a rapturous reception. He had avenged Caesar, defeated the sorceress Cleopatra and her bewitched lover Mark Antony, brought the years of Civil War to an end, and all people now desired was peace and prosperity.

Praised in the Senate he was reappointed Consul without opposition and continued to be so every year until 23 BC, when it ceased to be required.

Lauded by the nobility and popular with the people Octavian could have been forgiven a little hubris but he had learned the lessons of his great-uncle Julius Caesar, whose name he now proudly bore. He too had been popular only to be laid-low by a handful of treacherous Senators who believed him a tyrant, people he thought were his friends and whose loyalty could be taken for granted.

Octavian would be careful to be seen to rule by consent whilst never loosening his grip on the reins of power.

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In 27 BC, Octavian announced to the Senate that he intended to stand down. He told them:

“The fact that it is in my power to rule over you for life is evident, but I am mild by nature and have no desire to dominate. The power I have now I lie down. Allow me to live out my life in peace.”

He had no intention of doing so of course, but he knew there were those in the Senate who still harboured political ambitions of their own and that the majority fearful of renewed civil war would be panicked by the likely power vacuum that would result from his intended resignation.

As he expected they begged him to remain, agreed to appoint him Dictator for ten years, and increased his power, just as he had intended. He was now effectively sole ruler and de facto Emperor, though he refused to be referred to as such during his lifetime, preferring the title Princeps Civitas, or First Citizen.

On 16 January 27 BC, he was awarded the title Augustus, or Illustrious One, and a month of the year was renamed in his honour, and to consolidate his power he now created his own private army, one that owed loyalty only to him – the Praetorian Guard.

He was careful throughout to ensure that the power he secured was voluntarily conferred upon him by the Senate and people of Rome and even after he had been appointed Dictator he humbly maintained that he would only govern the provinces whilst the Senate ruled in Rome.

But as his creation of the Praetorian Guard showed this was a sham, yet his public persona remained one of a man for whom power was a burden that brought with it great responsibility, and was not something to be sought after for its own sake.

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In the winter of 39 BC, Octavian was introduced to the 20 year old Livia Drusila, a slim, diminutive young woman who did not possess the fully-rounded figure that was considered attractive in Roman society but was nonetheless very pretty.

She had been married since the age of 15 and was already the mother to a son, Tiberius, and was pregnant with her second child, the future Drusus.

For most of her life her family had been on the wrong side of history, both her father, Marcus Claudianus, and her husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, had supported Pompey in his conflict with Julius Caesar, and later fought in the army of Cassius and Brutus.

Following the defeat and death of Pompey her father had committed suicide, but her husband had returned to Rome and requested clemency which had been granted.

Livia, with her noble bearing, was a resourceful woman who was not in the least cowed by her diminished position as the daughter and wife of traitors. She had her name, beauty, and wits, and was more than willing and capable of using all of them to get what she wanted and secure the future for herself and her children.

Octavian, who was neither an emotional nor a sentimental man, seems to have been enchanted with Livia from the first time he met her.

At a time when marriage amongst the Roman elite was just another means by which to acquire wealth, status, and power, there appears to have been little political advantage in Octavian marrying Livia, but he was nonetheless determined to do so.

He ordered her inconvenient husband to agree to a divorce, which given his parlous state he was in no position to refuse.

On 14 January 38 BC, Octavian divorced his own wife, Julia Scribonia, whom he complained nagged him, on the same day that she gave birth to their daughter Julia.

Three days later he married Livia.

They were to remain married for the next 51 years and go on to form one of the most remarkable working partnerships in history as the recently acclaimed Augustus, with Livia at his side, determined to remake Rome in his own image and that of his family who would set the standard by which the rest of Rome would be judged.

He resided at a modest villa on the Palatine Hill where it was said he lived a simple life, devoted himself to his work, and rarely entertained.

The historian Suetonius wrote that:

“As a rule he preferred the food of the common people. He ate the coarser kind of bread, white bait, hand-pressed cheese, and green figs.”

He rarely drank and slept on a camp bed.

The image of the simple man merely doing his duty was one he was careful to cultivate throughout his life, though it was perhaps not entirely true.

Although he never appeared in public garishly clothed he was nonetheless notoriously vain. No statue or bust of him appeared throughout his life that did not portray him in the full-vigour of youth, and that despite being physically unimpressive this provided him with an almost divine-like status.

He was also careful to appear graceful at all times, moving slowly, and rarely raising his voice.

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Suetonius described him thus:

“He had clear bright eyes, his teeth were small, few and decayed, his hair yellowish and curly, and people did not realise how small a man he was.”

It was also said that he could bear neither the extremes of heat nor of cold and that his body would become covered in spots and blemishes as a result. He was also terrified of thunder and lightning and would choose to hide in a sealed room during a storm of any ferocity.

In politics Augustus rarely missed the opportunity to adopt the moral high-ground publicly praising the fidelity of Roman womanhood, condemning adultery, and passing laws in favour of marriage while making divorce more difficult.

In all this he had a willing accomplice in his wife Livia.

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She too dressed modestly, disavowed the wearing of jewellery, and busied herself with the running of her household, like all good Roman women should. It was even said that she made the Emperor’s clothes for him. But she also carried out official duties on his behalf, greeting foreign emissaries, addressing women’s meetings, and taking an active role in the affairs of the Vestal Virgins.

She very soon became the model of the Roman Matriarch.

But all was not as it seemed.

The pasty-faced, short, and pitifully thin Emperor had taken to rouging his cheeks, wearing built-up sandals, and extra layers of clothing to give him more bulk. He was also a serial philanderer who enjoyed nothing more than to humiliate Senators by forcing their wives and daughters to sleep with him, though his friends were to say that this he did merely for reasons of state and to discover the secrets of his enemies.

Despite his many adulteries Augustus’s marriage to Livia remained strong and it was said that he was in awe of his Empress and once asked how she managed to control such a powerful man she replied:

“I remain chaste, do whatever he asks of me, and turn a blind eye to his many passions.”

At no time during their long life together did Augustus ever contemplate divorcing his wife despite her failure to provide him with a son and heir. Indeed, so close was the relationship they were in effect co-rulers.

Livia conversed with foreign dignitaries often making decisions on her husband’s behalf; she also administered religious affairs, ran Rome during the Emperor’s many absences from the city, and had the free use of the Imperial Seal. Only in military matters was she excluded from the decision making process.

Livia was more than just the devoted help-mate to her husband however she also had ambitions of her own.

Augustus had no direct heir, and Livia was beyond child-bearing age.

She was determined, therefore, that one of her sons, either Drusus or Tiberius, should succeed him. But Augustus had already alighted upon his nephew Marcellus. When this seemingly healthy and robust young man inexplicably died, apparently of food poisoning, Augustus was distraught. But his death did not move Livia’s sons up the pecking order. Instead Augustus looked to the sons of his daughter, Julia.

Julia had been married to Augustus’s oldest friend and right-hand-man, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The marriage had been a controversial one for not only was Agrippa twenty five years Julia’s senior but he was also of low-birth. However, another childhood friend, Macaenas had told him:

“You have made him so great that he must either be your son-in-law or be slain.”

Augustus had chosen the former and it was to prove a happy union with Julia having four children by Agrippa – Lucius, Gaius, Postumus, and a daughter, Agrippina.

All three of the boys would be next in the line of succession before either of Livia’s children would even be considered.

When Agrippa died suddenly and unexpectedly in 12 BC, Augustus adopted the two oldest boys and began grooming them for power.

Livia, in the meantime, petitioned Augustus for the recently widowed Julia to be married to her son Tiberius, her other son Drusus had since died. Augustus was reluctant to give his consent not so much because he objected to Tiberius marrying into the line of succession, he just didn’t like him.

Though he had proved himself, a good soldier, hard-working and a capable administrator he was also an ill-tempered and melancholic man whose brooding presence Augustus found depressing and objectionable.

But Livia remained insistent and for the sake of marital harmony if nothing else he reluctantly yielded to her demands.

Tiberius was no less reluctant to divorce his own wife Vipsania Agrippina with whom he was very much in love, and in the end had to be made to do so. I was not as auspicious start and in no time at all Tiberius and Julia came to loathe one another.

His sexual proclivities already went some way beyond the parameters of the marriage bed and he never forgave Julia for being the person responsible for him having to divorce the only woman he ever loved.

On her part, she never forgave him for his lack of sexual interest in her except, she would impart to friends, of the perverted kind – the marriage was a disaster.

Julia was also no friend of Livia’s, she thought her overbearing, condescending, and manipulative while Livia now saw her as an impediment to her ambitions.

In 2 BC, Julia became embroiled in a sexual scandal that brought shame not just upon her but the entire Imperial Family. It had been revealed, though by whom exactly remains a mystery, that she had been sleeping around, not just with Senators and prominent Roman citizens, but with slaves, and even gladiators. That she had in fact been behaving like a common whore.

Augustus was furious.

For years he had promoted family values, he had passed laws designed to improve Roman morals, and had carefully cultivated both his and his own family’s image. Now he had been betrayed by his own daughter.

Julia was promptly arrested on charges of adultery and treason.

Despite the promptings of Livia, Augustus was disinclined to order the execution of his own daughter. Instead he banished her, and it was to be a harsh banishment.

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She was exiled to the Island of Pandeteria which was little more than a mile in circumference. and denied wine and any male companionship, though she was not to be alone. Her mother, Scribonia, was exiled along with her for having given birth to such a whore.

Five years later she was permitted to return to Italy but barred from ever leaving the region of Reggio di Calabria. She was never to see Rome or her father again and was later starved to death on the orders of Tiberius after he became Emperor.

Not long after Julia’s banishment her two young sons Gaius and Lucius both died in mysterious circumstances, Gaius drowning in a boating accident, Lucius of food poisoning.

This just left Postumus as Augustus’s heir apparent, and he was neither popular nor respected.

As the third son little had been expected of him other than perhaps a career in the army and the prerequisite that he behave responsibly. He had delivered on neither.

He was arrogant, rude, and often drunk, whoring his way around the city and offending almost everyone he encountered. Nonetheless, following the premature death of his older brothers Augustus had nowhere else to turn and so in 4 AD, he adopted him as his son and legitimate heir.

Also, at the insistence of Livia, should anything happen to Postumus, he adopted Tiberius.

In AD 9, Postumus was accused of trying to rape his niece Livilla, and given his reputation it was an accusation easy to believe, and certainly Augustus did.

The 24 year old Postumus was banished to the tiny Island of Planasia where he was kept under constant guard.

During the long reign of Augustus Rome experienced unparalleled prosperity and the borders of its Empire expanded massively and almost unchallenged. Modern day Spain, Portugal, Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Albania, and north Africa were all absorbed into the Empire and came under Roman jurisdiction.

As a result trade links were established, the taxes rolled in, and commerce boomed.

But the Pax Romana that had been created was about to be challenged in the most brutal and savage way and for the first time the Rome of Augustus would be made to question its own vulnerability.

In the late Autumn of 4 AD, the Governor of Germania, Publius Quintilius Varus marched his entire army, three legions, a cavalry detachment, and 6 cohorts of auxillary troops, more than 20,000 men, into the Teutoburg Forest and straight into a trap set for it by Arminius, a Roman soldier and Chief of the Cherusci Tribe.

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In that dark forest, shrouded in mist and with the rain lashing down, Quintilius Varus committed suicide as his army was systematically picked apart and wiped out.

When the news reached Rome it wasn’t at first believed but as the facts were confirmed it had a traumatising effect as the people struggled to come to grips with the thought that a professional Roman army had been destroyed by tribes of heathen savages.

The city went into deep mourning, and no one was more despondent than Augustus himself.

Suetonius writes that:

“He was so greatly affected that for several months he cut neither his beard nor is hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying Quintilius Varus, where are my Eagles!”

Augustus sent Tiberius to shore up the western border and later dispatched Germanicus, the son of Mark Antony’s daughter Antonia, on a punitive mission to teach the German tribes a lesson and recover the Eagles.

He did both but from that moment on the Roman Empire’s northern border never stretched beyond the eastern bank of the Rhine.

The last years of Augustus’s life were spent as a man haunted by the events of his past.

Saddened by the death and banishments of so many of his oldest friends and family he could find little peace and wandered the corridors of the Imperial Palace at night unable to sleep.

An old man he also had to endure the many ailments that come with advanced age. He was hard of hearing, walked with a stoop, and suffered terribly from the cold. Indeed, his fingers were often so numb that he was incapable of writing, and it was said that in “winter he wore no fewer than four tunics and a heavy woollen gown over his undershirt.”

He also turned a deaf ear to the rumours that were sweeping the Imperial Court that Livia had been in some way responsible for the ill-fortune that had beset his family in the latter years of his reign; for gossip was rife that she displayed an unhealthy interest in poison and was determined that her son Tiberius would succeed to the Imperial Throne and no one else.

On 19 August AD 14, aged 78, Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor died. His last words were reported as being:

“I found Rome of clay and leave her too you of marble. If I have played my part well then applaud my exit from the stage.”

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Following Augustus’s death the Senate summoned Tiberius and offered him the Imperial Throne as Augustus’s adopted son and nominated heir.

Initially, he refused it much like the young Octavian had done so many decades before. But just like Octavian it was merely a ploy to force the Senate to yield even further powers.

Three days after accepting the Senate’s renewed offer and becoming Emperor he had the exiled Postumus murdered.

In his Will, Augustus had Livia adopted into the Julian Clan, left her one-third of his personal fortune, and provided her with the honorific title of Augusta thus guaranteeing her patrician status for the rest of her life and making her untouchable.

Tiberius was also to make any criticism of his mother a treasonable offence punishable by death.

Despite her own advanced old age Livia remained determined to rule alongside her son as she had her husband, and for a few years this seemed to work quite well, but the always brooding and ill-tempered Tiberius soon began to tire of his mother’s constant meddling.

Whenever they disagreed on an issue she would be quick to reproach him with the words:

“Were it not for me you would never have been Emperor.”

Their mutual loathing for one another merely increased over the years.

When the Senate proposed a motion to formally make Livia – Mater Patriae, or Mother of the Nation – Tiberius vetoed it.

In AD 26, Tiberius retired to the Island of Capri.

It was said at the time that it was to get away from his domineering mother but it was in truth so that he could indulge his increasingly perverted sexual cravings away from the public gaze.

In his absence effective power in Rome fell to the Commander of the Praetorian Guard Lucius Aelius Sejanus, and Livia’s influence as a result waned.

In AD 29, aged 86, Livia Augusta, Empress of Rome died.

She had dominated Roman life for more than 60 tears and tears were wept openly on the streets at her passing, shops were closed, even Rome’s bawdier entertainments were put on hold as the entire city mourned the loss of its Queen and Empress but not so her son who refused to return to Rome from Capri.

His mother’s body was preserved for a number of days in the expectation that he would at some time arrive to pay his last respects, but he never did. Neither did he attend the funeral.

In the end her body had to be buried because of the dire state of the corpse.

Thirteen years later in a formal ceremony her nephew, the Emperor Claudius, had her declared a God as had been Augustus before her, a last tribute that had been denied to her by her own son.

The Emperor Hadrian

Hadrian was the first Emperor of Rome to acknowledge that there were limits to is territorial conquests first shoring up its borders and then bringing an end to further expansion, the most famous example of which is Hadrian’s Wall, the 73 mile long fortification which stretched from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth and marked the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

The future Emperor Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus on 24 January AD 76, in Italica near modern day Seville in Spain. He came from a well-established but decidedly provincial family that had little direct contact with Rome, but he was a distant cousin on his mother’s side of the future Emperor Trajan.

Both of Hadrian’s parents died when he was aged 10, and as Trajan was his nearest male relative he became his ward travelling to Rome for the first time some four years later in AD 80.

At the time of Hadrian’s first visit to Rome his cousin Trajan was a successful Army General but in October AD 96 he had been adopted by the childless and unpopular Emperor Nerva in an attempt to curry favour with the army and secure his own position. When he died on 27 January AD 98, just two years into his reign, Trajan succeeded him.

Over the years Trajan was to become increasingly reliant upon Hadrian’s support but even so never adopted him as his son or formally named him as his successor, even so he worked hard, accompanied the Emperor on his military campaigns and rose rapidly through the ranks of the military and the Imperial Administration earning the reputation as an able and trusted politician and adviser but accrued little kudos as a result and it was only through his own persistence and the support of Trajan’s wife, Pompeia Plotina, that he was to place himself in the line of succession.

It was said that as Trajan lay dying he at last adopted Hadrian as his son and designated heir but the document of succession that resulted was not signed by the Emperor but by his wife. Nevertheless, when Pompeia Plotina delivered the falsified document to the Senate they accepted it without protest.

At the time of Trajan’s death on 9 August AD 117, Hadrian was serving as Governor of Syria and did not return to Rome immediately upon learning of his appointment as Emperor but instead appointed Publius Acilius Attianus, who had been his co-guardian along with Trajan and would be his future Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to rule in his absence.

He believed that his absence would provide the opportunity to flush out those in Rome who might oppose his succession, and he was right.

Not long after Attianus informed Hadrian that he had uncovered a plot against him and he demanded the Senate order the execution of the conspirators without recourse to a trial. Fearing the worst they reluctantly complied. But such ruthless and arbitrary use of power was not to be indicative of Hadrian’s reign, however.

His first major policy decision was to curb any future expansion of the Empire.

The continued acquisition of vast territories, often wastelands of little commercial value that had to be governed, administered, and policed was proving ruinously expensive. His own experience of war had convinced him that Rome was becoming dangerously overstretched. Much of its army was now made up of foreign troops recruited from the provinces and conquered territories whilst its enemies, particularly in the East, were becoming increasingly more powerful and better organised.

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Instead of going to war with Rome’s enemies he now made peace treaties with them, and he built fortifications that marked the boundaries of the Empire – Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the wooden forts that lined the eastern banks of the Rhine. In the meantime, Roman troops were withdrawn to the Euphrates and west of the River Danube where the only bridge spanning it was destroyed. But this was a dangerous strategy, and Hadrian knew it.

To forego the prospect of further conquest curbed the opportunity of glory for the ambitious and deprived the common soldier of valuable booty. He had to secure his support within the army and to do so he would not only prove he was one of them, but the best of them.

Visiting the Army on the Rhine he determined to keep them occupied by ordering them to remain on alert and keeping them in constant training. He also forewent Imperial grandeur to live the life of the ordinary soldier, dressing simply, eating alfresco, and sleeping out at night.

The troops admired and respected their new Emperor a physically imposing man tall and broad shouldered who was an avid hunter who possessed extraordinary powers of endurance which he wasn’t shy in showing off forever besting his troops in training. Even so, he remained careful to reward them whenever possible.

But despite his many years in the military, Hadrian never really considered himself a warrior but rather a scholarly man, a man of the arts. He loved Greek architecture, philosophy, and culture, and was an enthusiastic poet who grew a full beard and wore it in the Greek style at a time when Romans prided themselves on being clean-shaven to distinguish themselves from the Barbarians.

He also enjoyed nothing more than indulging in philosophic debate with the leading academics of his day though he was not a man to be argued with:

“Although he was adept at prose and at verse and very accomplished in all the arts, he used to subject the teachers in these arts to ridicule, scorn, and humiliation.

Those who were invited to his scholarly soirees were wary of his temper. When the philosopher Favarinus yielded to the Emperor on a minor linguistic point even though he was right he was criticised by his colleagues for doing so.

In response he said:

“You are urging the wrong course my friends when you do not allow me to regard the most learned of men the one who has thirty legions.”

Hadrian was married to Vibia Sabina but he was homosexual and showed little interest in her either physically or emotionally, and though she was to accompany him on his many journeys throughout the Empire, the marriage was never a happy one. Indeed, she was to say that she would never have children by her husband because as “monsters they would harm the human race.”

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Vibia Sabine would never forgive her husband for being in love with a 19 year old Greek youth named Antinous whom he constantly referred to as his beautiful boy, and although he never flaunted his homosexuality he took no steps to conceal it either. Affection between the men was displayed openly and Antinous was his constant companion.

In AD 130, Hadrian embarked upon an artistic tour of the Eastern Provinces. He visited Greece before moving onto Egypt where on a journey down the River Nile Antinous tumbled from the boat, got caught in reeds, and drowned before he could be rescued.

Hadrian was devastated and it was said that he wept like a woman with unbounded grief proceeding to build Temples in his honour, founding cities in his name, and having him deified as a God but it did little to assuage his pain and many believed that after the death of Antinous he changed becoming increasingly bitter and vindictive.

Despite his deep grief Hadrian continued onto the province of Judea.

Having taken a guided tour of the ruins of Jerusalem which had been destroyed during the First Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-73 he decided it should be rebuilt as a Greco-Roman city.

He constructed a large temple to the Goddess Venus on the site that would later be venerated as the Tomb of Christ and rebuilt by the Emperor Constantine as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and demolished all the remaining Holy Jewish Sites building instead temples to the Roman Gods all across the city.

He then abolished the ritual of circumcision which he considered a barbaric act of mutilation, banned Jews from living within the confines of the city, and renamed it Aelia Capitolina.

Having spent his reign assiduously avoiding conflict, Hadrian now brutally trampled upon Jewish sensitivities to the point where a violent reaction became almost inevitable but when Judea rose in open revolt astonishingly the Romans were taken completely by surprise.

Unlike the earlier rebellion against Roman rule when three separate Jewish armies fought one another for control of Temple Mount as the Romans advanced through the streets of Jerusalem, this time they were united and organised.

The XXII Legion was ambushed and utterly routed whilst others were badly mauled and under the leadership of Simon bar Kokhbar and Akiba ben Joseph the Jews out-thought and out-fought the Romans who badly shaken were forced to abandon Judea altogether which was free once more – but it was to be short-lived, the Romans would be back.

In his desperation Hadrian had been forced to call upon reinforcements from across the Empire and had ordered his leading General, Sextus Julius Severus, back from Britain to take command.

Rather than confront the Jewish forces in open battle he adopted a scorched earth policy destroying crops and slaughtering livestock, and some 50 fortified towns and 985 villages were raised to the ground and the population forced to flee with those who failed to do so in time killed without exception.

Finally in AD 135, after a year of bitter fighting the will of the Jewish people was broken.

After losing control of Jerusalem, Simon bar Kokhbar withdrew what remained of his army and a number of refugees to the fortress of Betar. When it fell to Roman assault shortly after all within were killed and the Romans were not to permit the Jews to bury the bones of the dead in Betar for seventeen years.

In the aftermath of the Jewish revolt, Hadrian was to prove himself as ruthless as any Emperor before or since.

It has been estimated that as many as 500,000 Jews were killed during the rebellion, some in the fighting but most slaughtered at its end. But this was not considered punishment enough and tens of thousands more were sold into slavery, and his persecution of those Jews who remained also proved relentless: the Judaic Calendar was abolished, the preaching of the Torah prohibited, and the Judaic Scholars rounded up and executed. The Sacred Scroll was ceremonially burned on the Temple Mount as the Jewish population was forced to look on, and the Province of Judea was renamed Syria Palestina. Jews were also banned from entering Jerusalem and from practising their own religion.

Even today when Jews mention the name of Hadrian the sentence will often end with the words, “may his bones be, crushed.”

For Hadrian however his suppression of the Jewish revolt was a pyrrhic victory; his peace policy had been undermined, his Legions had been humiliated, and casualties had been so high that he turned down his right to have a Triumph through the streets of Rome.

In his final years Hadrian was a lonely man caught in a loveless marriage, with no children, and never having fully recovered from the loss of his beloved Antinous, he spent much of his time alone in quiet reflection, reading and writing poetry.

He died on 10 July AD 138, aged 62, after a protracted illness that had often left him bedridden.

It was said that he simply stopped breathing after his heart gave out – his broken heart.

William Wilberforce, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

On 29 November 1781, becalmed in mid-Atlantic and fearing the spread of disease from overcrowding, Captain Luke Collingwood of the Slave Ship Zong ordered that 132 sick black slaves be thrown overboard.

Collingwood was well aware that should any slaves be landed dead or near death from natural causes then the cost would be borne by the ship’s owners and crew. If however they were to be disposed of at sea then the financial liability became the responsibility of the ship’s insurers.

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Having resolved his problem Collingwood sailed the Zong west successfully delivering the remainder of its cargo to the slave auctions of the Caribbean before returning to London where the insurance claim was duly made.

Collingwood stated that he had no choice but to dispose of the sick slaves aboard the Zong because of water depreciation but an inventory taken of the ship upon landing found that there many hundreds of barrels of water aboard, more than enough for the journey.

The ship’s insurers decided to contest the claim.

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It had not proved possible to keep the shocking events aboard the Zong a secret and they were soon brought to the attention of the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, who in the absence of Collingwood who had since passed away, tried to bring a private prosecution against the ship’s owners for murder.

This was not the first time Sharp had become involved in an anti-slavery court case.

Ten years earlier he had helped achieve a landmark ruling when a reluctant Attorney-General Lord Mansfield, after considerable prevarication, had to concede that an American slave James Somersett who had been captured and imprisoned by his master to await transportation back to America after 56 days on the run in London was being illegally held and should be released on the grounds that slavery did not exist in England.

As was pointed out the ruling applied only to the specific case under review and not generally but it was significant nonetheless, was to provide the reference point of precedence in all such future cases, and was a personal triumph for Sharp.

He was not to be so successful this time however with the recently appointed Attorney-General Sir John Lee dismissing the case out of hand:

“What is this claim that human people were thrown overboard. This is a case of chattels and goods. Blacks are goods and properties. It is madness to accuse well-serving and honourable people of murder. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

When the case eventually came to Court in March 1783 it would not be for mass-murder but for insurance fraud.

The attempt by the venerable Granville Sharp, who in previous decades had appeared almost as the lone voice of the anti-slavery movement, to bring a criminal prosecution against the ship’s owners though unsuccessful did generate a great deal of publicity for the cause.

The brutal murder by drowning of sick men, women, and children aboard the Zong caused shock and outrage and provided momentum to a campaign that had in recent times appeared almost moribund.

Whilst the morality of the slave trade could be questioned its commercial viability and profitability could not, and many of the fastest growing and most prosperous cities in England had generated their wealth from the traffic in human lives.

The first slave ship had sailed from Bristol for the African Continent in 1697, one of 2,108 that were to do so before 1807 carrying more than 500,000 black men, women, and children into captivity on the sugar and cotton plantations of the Caribbean and Americas, making Bristol for a short time at least the wealthiest city outside of London. By 1740 however, its pre-eminence in human trafficking had been surpassed by Liverpool which though coming late to the slave trade had a greater capacity which saw it expand rapidly. In 1792, for example, 131 slaves ships sailed from Liverpool, 42 from Bristol, and 22 from London.

Indeed by 1795, Liverpool controlled 80% of the British slave trade, and 40% of the European.

Despite this it never represented more than 10% of Liverpool’s overall trade and so did not, unlike in Bristol, contribute significantly to the city’s greater prosperity though it made its merchants of human misery very rich.

Many smaller ports also prospered from the slave trade as did the many business that provided it with goods and services such as merchants, insurers, brokers, its many investors, the banks, and any campaign to restrict or abolish slavery would have to overcome a powerful vested interest that had become sewn into the very fabric of British commercial life.

The campaign against the slave trade led in most part, though not exclusively, by the non-conformist religions such as the Quakers and the Methodists was rarely absent of passion and commitment but often lacked coherence, any sense of strategy, and more importantly influence.

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John Wesley, one of the co-founders of Methodism had long campaigned against the iniquities of slavery but though his voice was often heard it was rarely listened to.

In 1788, an old man and in ill-health he had travelled to Bristol to preach against slavery for one last time and though his body was weak his ardour remained as he made a passionate plea for justice and humanity:

“Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you, but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle to all men; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would he should do unto you.”

His message was not always well-received and the windows of the Chapel were installed in its roof to prevent missiles, and the pulpit raised high and blocked off from the congregation to protect its speaker.

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The outrage caused by the murders on the Zong had provided the anti-slavery campaign with a renewed vigour but its driving force was not to be the somewhat, cloistered, and other-worldly Granville Sharp but Thomas Clarkson, the son of an Anglican clergyman who had become committed to the abolition of slavery when at University in 1785 he researched what would become a prize-winning essay on the subject.

He would later write that completing the essay had been like a revelation from God:

“A thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the essay be true it was time for some person to bring their calamities to an end.”

He would dedicate the rest of his life to ending not just of the trade in slaves but the slavery itself.

It was his essay that was to bring him to the attention of Sharp and others, and it would transpire that the anti-slavery movement would need Thomas Clarkson.

Dedicating himself to the cause he toured the country visiting all the major ports, interviewing the sailors who worked aboard the ships, and purchasing the tools of the trade – the shackles, the manacles, the instruments of punishment.

He addressed audiences in the very places where he was least welcome, in the taverns overlooking the harbours from where the ships were moored waiting to embark for Africa, and the meeting houses where the deals were struck and money counted.

Often to great hostility he would remove from his bag and hold up for all to see the chains of human bondage and he wasn’t afraid to remind them from where came the money for their refined ornamentation, their delicate silks, their fine wines, and their gracious living.

Attempts were to be made on his life but the very fact that people were willing to kill for the right to enslave others was proof of slavery’s corrosion of the human spirit. It only served to embolden him further.

In May 1787, the ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ was formed with Clarkson, Granville Sharp, the businessman Josiah Wedgwood, and the playwright Hannah More amongst its more prominent members.

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That same year Wedgwood who had made his money in ceramics produced his famous medallion with the image of a slave and the words – Am I not a man and a brother. It would become the logo for the campaign.

As the title of the Committee indicates they were not campaigning to abolish slavery as such.

This, they believed, was beyond their means entailing as it would the deprivation of property, claims for compensation, and involve them in years of endless litigation. And that was if they were successful, which they doubted.

The immediate detrimental economic impact of slavery’s abolition guaranteed it would be fought tooth and nail by the plantation owners of the Indies so reliant upon black labour. Better to end the trade in slaves, to cut off its lifeline, and let it die a natural death. Not all agreed but it was at least a first step.

The formation of the Committee provided the anti-slavery movement with the cohesion it had previously lacked but they still remained outside the decision making process. They required a representative in Parliament, someone of influence who could carry the campaign into the corridors of power – but who?

William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, the only son of a wealthy merchant who unlike so many others in the city made his money trading goods not people.

When he was aged just 9, his father died and his mother struggling to cope with the loss of her husband sent the young William to live with his relatives in London. There he remained for three years before his mother concerned that he might be imbibing his uncle’s non-conformist religious views brought him back to Hull.

It made little difference for he was to prove non-conformist by nature and not just education.

In 1783, Wilberforce attended St John’s College, Cambridge where he was a contemporary of the future Prime Minister William Pitt at nearby Pembroke, who would become one of his closest friends.

Pitt was to prove a constant source of encouragement to his friend throughout his campaign to abolish the slave trade particularly during those dark moments of despair of which there were many; but either unwilling or unable to do so he did little to facilitate its progress through Parliament during his tenure as Prime Minister much to Wilberforce’s frustration and disappointment.

Sociable and independently wealthy as a result of a number of inheritances the young Wilberforce embraced the good life drinking, gambling, attending the theatre and despite being physically unimpressive, short, thin, and with the pallor of ill-health that made him appear sick even when he wasn’t, his undoubted charm and erudition saw him favourably considered.

He was as at the time far removed from the rather stern and puritanical figure we recognise today.

But he was also a young man who had a very high opinion of himself and believed he was destined for great things – he just didn’t know what.

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Aged just 21 he became the Member of Parliament for his home town of Kingston-upon-Hull with the intention of making his mark and doing good but the frustrations of parliamentary politics soon bore down upon him when he found that the private members bills he presented for among other things, the moral improvement of the people, were either rejected at their second reading in the House of Commons or were dismissed out of hand once they were introduced in the House of Lords.

Despite these early failures he remained an Independent refusing to join either of the two factions within Parliament, the Tories or the Whigs.

Disappointed he took solace in what he always had the card tables and bawdy entertainments of Georgian London.

In October 1784, he embarked upon a Grand Tour of Europe, a rite of passage for any young man or woman of means, returning a year later having seemingly undergone a religious conversion.

He now doubted whether the combative arena of politics was a suitable place for a man of God and considered resigning as an MP on the grounds of conscience. He was dissuaded from doing so by his friend Pitt and John Newton, the ex-slave trader turned clergyman who was the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. He could do more good inside Parliament than he ever could from without, they told him. So he would serve God but not in the cloistered world of solitude, prayer, and quiet devotion but in the sphere of public life.

Wilberforce’s reputation as an independent, his conversion to Christian Evangelism, and his subsequent joining of the Clapham Sect, a group of Christian social reformers and activists, soon came to the attention of those campaigning to end the moral outrage that was the slave trade.

It was suggested by Charles Middleton, a Naval Captain who was himself an MP but one of poor debating skills that the independent-minded William Wilberforce might be persuaded to take up the anti-slavery cause in Parliament.

It was agreed that Thomas Clarkson should contact Wilberforce which he did at his home in Old Palace Yard within sight of the House of Commons armed with his Essay and his familiar box of chains and manacles.

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Clarkson explained in detail the appalling conditions aboard the slave ships and the harsh treatment meted out to the slaves themselves.

Sailing at full capacity the men taken below would be chained to their bunks, unable to stand up or walk about, forced to urinate and defecate where they lay – the air was putrid, the smell foul, and disease quickly spread and became rife.

The women and children would be quartered on deck where exposed to the elements the conditions were hardly any better and at night were vulnerable to sexual molestation and rape.

Often slaves would be forced to perform for the crew’s entertainment, dancing or singing. If they refused or in any other way misbehaved they would be punished and more often than not made to bow in gratitude for having been so.

So awful was the journey from Africa to the Americas, the so-called Middle Passage, it has been estimated that as many as 1.5 million slaves died before ever reaching their destination.

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To illustrate the deprivations endured by these ‘poor unfortunate wretches’ Clarkson would later produce his famous lay-out of the Slave Ship Brookes:

Little of this was unknown to Wilberforce who’d had such discussions before but Clarkson with his power of persuasion, the facts, and the evidence, could convey the reality better than most.

The two men spoke for some time but Clarkson made no proposal other than to suggest they should meet again.

On 13 March 1787, Wilberforce was invited to attend a dinner party at the home of Bennet Langton a committed abolitionist along with other guests such as the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, and a number of fellow MP’s.

The conversation though it ranged over many things kept coming back to the theme of injustice – how could there ever be social reform or an improved morality when the original sin of slavery stalked the streets of every city and town in Britain, when its profits constructed their municipal buildings, when the blood of slaves signed the documents of every commercial transaction.

At the end of what had been a convivial if at times passionate evening of argument and debate the request was put to Wilberforce that he be the anti-slavery’s representative in Parliament?

The details of the role were left vague but though he listened with interest he remained non-committal for he was he was under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task should it be undertaken.

He would be opposing not just the commercial vested interest but a landed aristocracy that had in large part seen its wealth restored on investments made in a business that in public they would often shake their head at or shrug their shoulders as if in apparent ignorance.

On 12 May, sitting beneath the large oak tree that dominated the grounds of his estate at Holwood discussing the slavery issue and the request made to him by the Committee with his friend Pitt and another future Prime Minister Lord Grenville, Wilberforce was still prevaricating when Pitt interjected:

“William, why don’t you give notice of a motion on the subject of the Slave Trade? You have already taken great pains to collect the evidence and so are entitled to the credit that will come to you. Do not lose time, or the ground will be occupied by another.”

He had at last found the cause he had been looking for – his mind was made up.

On the 22 May, the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade took place delighted to have Wilberforce to campaign for them but also disappointed that he declined to join the Committee itself.

Despite this Wilberforce firmly believed that he had found a cause worth fighting for. He was to write:

“My first years in Parliament I did nothing, nothing to any purpose my own distinction being my darling object.”

His campaign however would be delayed by ill-health possibly the result of a nervous reaction to the burden he now knew he had to bear.

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In the meantime, the anti-slavery campaign was given a boost by the publication of the biography of the freed slave, Olaudah Equiano.

Equiano, who preferred to be known by his given name of Gustavus Vassa had either been taken into captivity from Africa when still a child or had been born into slavery in colonial South Carolina, his own account and the evidence appear to conflict, had laboured on the plantations but had spent most of his time at sea where he had been sold several times.

His last master was Robert King, a Quaker who perhaps feeling pangs of guilt at owning a slave at all permitted Equiano to earn the money with which he could in time purchase his own freedom which he did in 1766, aged 21.

Equiano was to spend many more years at sea before settling in London where he felt safer from possible kidnap and an enforced return to slavery than elsewhere, particularly the Americas.

In London he joined a group of fellow black men, freed and escaped slaves called the Sons of Africa formed to campaign against the slave trade.

The fact that there was a black campaign group within a heartbeat of the commercial centre of the slave trade was possible because of the many black grooms and valets in England and the thriving black communities in London and the other port cities. Indeed, the sight of a black face on the streets and towns of Georgian England wasn’t as unusual as one might imagine. In fact, it had been Equiano who first brought the case of the Zong to the attention of Granville Sharp.

Equiano’s vivid description of the conditions slaves were forced to live under, the sickness and disease, the punishments, savage beatings, and slave auctions caused a sensation and sold many copies running through six editions in very short time.

In the absence of Wilberforce from Parliament, William Pitt acted on his behalf cautiously introducing the motion for a bill on the abolition of the slave trade before concerned that he would lose support within Parliament were he seen to be too partisan withdrawing from the issue.

His health restored, on 12 May 1789, William Wilberforce stood up in the House of Commons to make his first great speech against the slave trade beseeching his fellow Members of Parliament to vote in favour of its abolition.

Adopting a tone of sadness at the injustice rather than one of anger or grievance he based his speech not merely upon a sense of moral outrage but evidence, the evidence so assiduously compiled over many months and years by, Clarkson, Sharp, and others.

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“I wish exceedingly, in the outset, to guard both myself and the House from entering into the subject with any sort of passion. It is not their passions I shall appeal to—I ask only for their cool and impartial reason; and I wish not to take them by surprise, but to deliberate, point by point, upon every part of this question. I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others; and I therefore deprecate every kind of reflection against the various descriptions of people who are more immediately involved in this wretched business.”

He detailed the cruelties of the institution of people taken forcibly from their homes and separated from their families, the hardships of the voyage, the cramped conditions, the filth and disease, and the arbitrary use of punishment to maintain control. He exposed the lies that were peddled to mask these truths to spare the feelings of those concerned, to hide the facts that could only prick the conscience of humanity, and he appealed to the common decency of the slave traders themselves.

The speech concluded to a lukewarm reception followed by the suggestion that before any vote, be taken on the motion the evidence he had produced should properly be scrutinised in committee.

Wilberforce agreed – a decision that was later criticised for having seriously impeded the anti-slavery campaign at a time when it appeared to have the momentum.

His opponents in Parliament led by the hero of the American Revolutionary War and MP for Liverpool Banastre Tarleton were delighted but if they thought Wilberforce’s decision had effectively mothballed the campaign they were to be mistaken for he was to prove a determined and relentless adversary.

Similarly, the aggressive pro-slavery lobby in Parliament were to fight a grim and protracted defence.

The moral case for the abolition of the slave trade had been made no doubt, but it was the opposition who had the Blue Books, the economic facts detailing the harm it would do to commerce, the letters and depositions of the plantation owners predicting economic ruin were any restrictions at all placed on the regular and safe delivery of robust slaves to replenish their always depreciating stock of labour.

But they too were willing to argue a moral case; servitude was the natural condition of the black race; slavery which had been in existence since antiquity was common to man; with slavery came the benefits of Christian civilisation, the means by which the black race would eventually be freed from barbarism; it was a pleasure to be in the service of a kind master and to be provided with all things.

In truth it was a battle of Gods – the God of profit, or the God of conscience.

Later in that year of 1789, revolution erupted in France and foreign affairs came to dominate Parliamentary procedure but nonetheless on 18 April 1791, Wilberforce once again introduced his bill in the House of Commons this time with an impassioned plea:

“Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country.”

Despite the well-chosen words when the vote was taken the bill was rejected by 163 to 88, a scale of defeat that surprised Wilberforce but it did not deter him and the following year he tried once again.

This time the Government proposed a compromise solution that would placate the slave owners but also lead to the slave trades gradual abolition. The motion was easily passed by 230 votes to 85 but Wilberforce was no fool and for gradual he read never.

He was to remain largely silent on the issue but there was a sense that he had been sold out by Pitt and his colleagues.

Despite the Government attempt to sideline the issue in February 1794, Wilberforce returned once more to Parliament and this time his bill to abolish the slave trade was defeated by just 8 votes.

It seemed that the anti-slavery campaign still had the momentum but this was all about to change.

In April 1794, Revolutionary France declared war on Britain, a ruinously expensive conflict that was to see any proposal that interfered with British trade as an unpatriotic act and those who advocated it as dangerous radicals.

The opponents of abolition in Parliament now seized their opportunity and all decorum was brushed aside as orchestrated by Tarleton his supporters heckled and jeered those speaking in favour of abolition accusing them of being Radicals and Jacobins, an accusation that appeared confirmed when the National Convention in France abolished slavery and Wilberforce suggested to Pitt that he seek a peace settlement.

Accused of treason by Tarleton and his friends every time they rose to speak in the House the anti-slavery campaigners began to absent themselves from its proceedings. When Pitt ordered the arrest of those who had been long been campaigning for Parliamentary reform on charges of sedition the message was clear.

By 1795, Wilberforce was exhausted and needed to rest, Clarkson suffering from ill-health had retired to the Lake District, the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade had ceased to meet, and many others had been intimidated into silence.

Wilberforce, refusing to be intimidated or indeed yield to despair continued to introduce his bill year on year but to waning public support and a much diminished audience.

The campaign to abolish the slave trade appeared moribund one more.

It only revived in 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte reintroduced slavery in the French colonies turning the campaign to abolish it in Britain from a treasonable act into a patriotic one.

The abolition of the slave trade would provide Britain with the moral high ground in a conflict they often seemed destined to lose. It would in effect be a war measure.

Wilberforce also now had the new Prime Minister Lord Grenville (Pitt had died in 1806) firmly on his side.

Grenville decided to force the abolition bill through the House of Lords thereby overcoming its greatest obstacle first so that when Wilberforce introduced his bill in the House of Commons he would be doing so almost as a fait accompli.

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On 23 February 1807, after ten hours of debate during which it seemed that Tarleton was now the lone voice it was announced that the bill had passed by 283 votes to just 16 as people crowded around a weeping Wilberforce to congratulate him.

Some now wanted him that push on and demand the abolition of slavery in its entirety but not wanting to jeopardise what had already been obtained he declined to do so.

The Slave Trade Act received Royal Assent becoming law on 25 March 1807, and it was to be rigorously enforced – between 1808 and 1860 the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron intercepted some 1,600 slave ships and freed more than 200,000 slaves.

Those rulers in regions of British occupation or influence who permitted slave trading were forced to comply with the new law or face arrest and possible execution.

After 20 years of constant campaigning, broken promises, frequent rebuttals, and vicious mudslinging the evil of the slave trade had been eradicated from British commercial life.

It would be far from Wilberforce’s only achievement but it would always be his finest, though throughout he had rarely been free of criticism and not just from his opponents.

Despite the fact that his relationship with William Pitt was to sour somewhat he remained loyal to his old friend speaking in his favour and supporting him in Parliament which meant voting for repressive wartime legislation.

Indeed, his politics did not appear to mirror his commitment to social reform.

Besides his opposition to the slave trade he also campaigned for animal welfare, legislation to restrict child labour, improved working conditions, and penal reform but at the same time he voted in favour of press censorship, the criminalising of trade unions, and against Catholic Emancipation and an Inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.

In 1821, Wilberforce handed over the reins of the anti-slavery campaign in Parliament to Thomas Fowell Buxton but remained its figurehead writing often in support of slavery’s abolition and from time to time once again taking up the cudgel of debate.

The last decade of Wilberforce’s life was blighted by ill-health and failing eyesight and though the argument against slavery had long since been won it appeared that he would not live long enough to see its formal abolition.

The 1832 Reform Act, of which he approved with some reservation, extended the franchise to many of the towns and cities of the industrialised north where abolitionist sentiment was at its strongest and many of their elected representatives to Parliament shared that sentiment.

In May 1833, the Whig Government introduced the Abolition of Slavery Bill to little formal opposition.

On 26 July, Wilberforce convalescing at home was visited by friends who informed him that the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire was certain.

Three days later on 29 July, aged 73, he died and was buried in Westminster Abbey not far from his friend William Pitt.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed into law on 28 August, 1833.

The Abdication Crisis

The Abdication Crisis that for ten days in December 1936 convulsed a nation has often been viewed through the comforting prism of a love story, a passionate affair of the heart that brought a King to forsake his throne to marry the woman he loved. But it was always more complex than that.

As Prince of Wales and long before he inherited the throne, the future Edward VIII had displayed a deep streak of selfishness that regularly saw him put personal desire and self-gratification before his Royal duties which along with his inclination to mock in private the strict protocols and rigid formalities of Court life and a tendency to speak out of turn made him appear unreliable to those in power.

It was a view that would only be reinforced in the years to come but the doubts expressed as to the future King’s character were not evident to the people with whom he remained popular.

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As a young man he’d had a good war serving with the Grenadier Guards and though he was not permitted to fight he was respected for not shirking his responsibilities and regularly visiting the Western Front meeting the troops and boosting morale. Now as Prince of Wales he exuded a relaxed informality preferring the latest American fashions to formal wear and military uniforms representing it seemed a new age and in the glare of the camera lens looking more like a matinee idol than the heir to the throne.

In private doubts persisted however, and his father King George V was appalled at his son’s behaviour – the drinking, the late night parties, and the whoring, particularly his many affairs with married women. He told the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin:

“After I am dead the boy will ruin himself in twelve months.”

The Prince’s Private Secretary Alan Lascelles expressed similar doubts. He wrote to his wife:

“I can’t help thinking that the best thing that could happen to him and the country would be for him to break his neck.”

In the hope of inducing the Prince to take his Royal responsibilities more seriously he was sent on a tour of the Empire but it appeared to change little.

Whilst in Kenya he was informed that his father had been taken seriously ill.

Lascelles recorded in his diary:

“Then for the first and only time in our association I lost my temper with him. I said, the King of England is dying. If that means nothing to you it means a great deal to us. He looked at me without a word and spent the remainder of the evening in the successful seduction of a Mrs Barnes, the wife of the local Commissioner.”

Despite the insistence of Lascelles and others that he do so, the Prince refused to cancel the tour and return to Britain.

On 10 January 1931 at Burrough Court, the Stately Home of the Viscount Furness, whose wife at the time the Prince was having an affair, he was formally introduced to the married, and already once divorced American, Wallis Simpson. It seems likely that this wasn’t the first time they had met but it is from this moment that their affair is generally believed to have begun.

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Wallis Warfield, the daughter of a Baltimore flour merchant and the soon to be famous Mrs Simpson was a well known figure in High Society on both sides of the Atlantic, very well known indeed, some would later suggest.

The Prince appeared smitten from the start and why this not particularly attractive middle-aged divorcee should so comprehensively win the heart of a man who’d had numerous affairs with far more beautiful and sophisticated women has continued to intrigue.

Wallis was described as being abrasive in manner, even rude and discourteous, and had little time for Royal etiquette, an impatience she shared with Edward. Indeed, she would often speak disparagingly of the Monarchy treating it as if it was an inconvenience, an absurd and archaic institution of little merit and out of step with the modern world. When in truth it meant everything to her.

Friends would describe how she spoke down to the Prince, how she bullied him, and how he seemed to enjoy, even relish doing so. It has been suggested that his sexual proclivities went beyond the conventional and indeed his own mother had written of her son’s sexual dysfunction, though did not elaborate further.

If so then it appears Mrs Simpson pressed all the right buttons.

No one could doubt that the Prince was utterly in her thrall, as if he had been bewitched, and he showered her with gifts of jewels and expensive clothes. If she was not yet Queen then she could still dress and behave like one.

For a long time the King and Queen refused to meet their son’s latest mistress until advised that this particular relationship was serious they finally relented and in early 1935 a private function was arranged for her at Buckingham Palace. They were not impressed and she was never invited to return with Queen Mary referring to her as that dreadful common American woman.

The Queen’s low opinion of Mrs Simpson was also shared by many within the Prince’s inner-circle who considered Wallis Simpson little better than a gold-digger and an old style courtesan of little regard and loose morals.

She’d certainly had a colourful past with a string of high-profile lovers that included not only the usual litany of wealthy businessmen and the well-connected but it was rumoured the Foreign Minister of Italy Count Ciano and the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Both Edward and Mrs Simpson were placed under surveillance by Special Branch while MI5 carried out investigations into Wallis’s past focussing in particular on her time in Singapore where rumours persisted that she had regularly attended brothels either as a prostitute or a Madame, that she had learned the dark arts of sexual seduction best left unspoken, unexplored, and relegated to the deeper recesses of the imagination in the rigid conformity of Edwardian Britain.

What they produced was the ‘China Dossier’ which seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears.

It is possible that the evidence produced in the ‘China Dossier’ was fabricated particularly as its source and details remain largely unknown but it was widely distributed to those who mattered.

The King and Queen would have nothing to do with her and she was refused access to the Palace whilst the wife of Joseph P Kennedy, the American Ambassador to London refused to have her dine with them.

The ‘China Dossier’ soon became the source of upper-class gossip and provided the first stirrings of a coup.

On 20 January 1936, King George V who had been ill for sometime died. His physician Bertrand Dawson who had issued the famous bulletin, ‘the King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close’, later admitted that he had hastened the King on his way with a lethal dose of morphine mixed with cocaine.

He had wanted to ensure that the King’s passing occurred at the right time for it to be properly announced in The Times newspaper and on the BBC.

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In many respects, George V had been the ideal Constitutional Monarch. He lived quietly spending his days on his estates shooting pheasants and any other wildlife unfortunate enough to cross his path. At night he would catalogue his stamp collection. He carried out his Royal duties without complaint or demur and did not interfere in politics or the day-to-day activities of Government.

Dull and controversial he had proved a stable and reliable figurehead around which the nation had rallied during the trauma of the First World War but he feared for the future should the ‘Playboy Prince’ inherit the throne and expressed the hope that his eldest son would never marry and produce an heir so that the children of his second son Albert, Duke of York, would succeed him.

On 21 January, Edward broke with Royal protocol by watching the proclamation of his own accession from a window at St James Palace. Caught on camera in the background could be seen a woman. It was the people’s first glimpse of Wallis Simpson but a still deferential British press refused to publish details of the affair.

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In August, Edward and Wallis embarked upon a ship-borne Mediterranean holiday that was to become the celebrity media event of the year, at least abroad, as crowds flocked to see the future King and his lover wherever they went. In the United States their affair played out in cinemas to enthusiastic audiences eager to see the future American Queen of England frolicking in the sea or drinking cocktails on the verandah with the King.

In Britain the press embargo continued but it was becoming increasingly obvious to those who knew him that Edward intended to marry Mrs Simpson.

On 27 October, Wallis was granted her divorce from her second husband and three weeks later Edward invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to dine with him at Buckingham Palace where he told him of his intention to marry Wallis Simpson and what had been a tryst for furrowed brows, acid tongues, and sordid gossip now escalated into full-blown Constitutional Crisis.

It had long been the cause of concern that the King was neglecting his Royal duties often claiming to be indisposed when he was in fact romping with his mistress and increasingly his brother Albert would have to step into the breach.

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Baldwin with all due deference curtly informed the King that the Government would not countenance his marriage to Mrs Simpson, and that though he could not and would not wish to prevent him from marrying whom he wished if he did so then he would have no choice but to call for a dissolution of Parliament thereby triggering a General Election.

If this were to occur then the election would inevitably be fought on the issue of the future of the Monarchy not only ending its neutrality in politics but threatening the Constitutional Settlement itself.

Also, though there was no specific law that prevented a ruling Monarch from marrying a divorcee to do so would jeopardise their position as Head of the Church of England which did not yet permit divorcees to remarry in Church whilst their ex-spouse remained alive. They also did not recognise the grounds upon which Mrs Simpson’s divorce had been granted.

Baldwin now sought the opinion of the Dominions regarding the marriage and though the responses were not uniformly hostile to the King’s intentions they were suitably doctored to make it appear as if they were.

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Opponents to the marriage now emerged which included not just Baldwin and his Cabinet but also Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Dawson, the Editor of The Times, and most of the King’s own family.

But the King was also not without his supporters the most prominent among them being the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who unfortunately was distracted by an affair of his own, his close personal friend Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and most significantly Winston Churchill.

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Publicly Churchill endorsed the line taken by the Conservative Government but worked behind the scenes to form an alliance within Parliament that would enable the marriage to be forced through. In the meantime, he begged the King not to act prematurely and abdicate.

On 18 November, the King visited the depressed mining areas of South Wales where he received a rapturous reception as the people turned out in their thousands to see him. Indeed, he was mobbed as if he were a film star. In Merthyr Tydfil such was the crush concerns were actually expressed for his safety.

It was the first time that a ruling Monarch had adopted the walkabout style as a means of meeting the people, and they loved him for it. Later when asked what he had made of the poverty and desolation he had witnessed he replied – something must be done. It was a remark that resounded not only in the corridors of power but throughout the country and was viewed not just as an unacceptable interference in politics but as a direct challenge to the Government.

It was yet another example of why this King had to go.

On 1 December, with the endorsement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Blunt of Bradford preached a sermon in which he condemned the King for his indifference towards the Church suggesting that it made him unworthy of his Coronation and that prayers should be said for him in his current dilemma. No mention was made of Wallis Simpson but the secret of the King’s difficulties had at last been made public – the secret was out.

The King’s affair now dominated the pages of the British press and the pressure was ratcheted up accordingly.

Concerned by possible press intrusion Wallis was advised to leave for the King’s villa in the South of France from where she wrote repeatedly to Edward begging him not to bow to pressure and abdicate.

Within the Royal Family Edward’s behaviour came as no surprise but caused great resentment and bitterness nonetheless.

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His younger brother Albert, the soon to be George VI, was a shy and intensely private man afflicted with a stammer so severe that it made public speaking a painful and frightening experience. He’d had little preparation or training to be King and had no desire to be so but it seemed more and more likely that the burden would become his – it was the cause of increasing friction.

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Relations between his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen Mother, and Wallis Simpson were particularly strained. Once at a dinner party approached by Wallis she refused to make eye contact and brushing her aside remarked in a loud voice so all could hear – I have come to dine with the King.

In private, Wallis made fun of Elizabeth referring to her because of her stocky build and holier-than-thou attitude as The Temple and her favourite daughter Lillibet, the future Queen Elizabeth II, as that silly Shirley Temple.

Elizabeth would never forgive Edward for forcing her husband to take on the burden of Kingship and pick up the pieces of his disastrous reign, the responsibility for which she believed hastened him to his premature death at the age of just 51.

The King’s mother was also deeply upset at her son’s proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson and would often descend into tears at the thought of it.

Meanwhile, the King continued to ignore Royal protocol and when he declined to invite the Archbishop of Canterbury to stay with him at his Scottish residence Balmoral, yet again it was his brother the Duke of York who stepped in to smooth things over.

Despite the Church inveighing against the marriage and The Times and other broadsheets such as the Daily Herald and Daily Telegraph being largely critical of the King’s behaviour the popular press were enthusiastic in their support and it was their view that appeared to most closely monitor that of the public.

His continued popularity encouraged the King to propose an alternative.

In a meeting with the Prime Minister he suggested a morganatic marriage whereby Wallis Simpson would not become Queen and that any offspring they may have would not be entitled to inherit the throne. Exactly what Wallis may have made of this proposal remains unknown.

He also suggested that he address the nation to explain his desire to be married but also his wish to serve both his country and his people and to fulfill his duty as King. He would then depart abroad, he would say, to give his subjects time to reflect.

Baldwin was appalled at the suggestion and would not countenance it for to do so would be to appeal for the support of the people against the decision of their own Government. Also, the Constitution demanded that the Monarch consent to the advice given by his Ministers and the Government had decided against the marriage.

Baldwin told the King that he had only two options: he could abandon Wallis Simpson and remain on the throne or he could go through with the marriage and abdicate, though he added the caveat in a manner that made him sound like the King’s pimp that if he wished to retain Mrs Simpson as his mistress the Government and the Church would be willing to turn a blind eye.

Whilst the King negotiated with his Prime Minister pressure was being brought to bear on Wallis in France to reject the King and it appeared that she might be willing to do so were the rewards commensurate to her sacrifice.

Back in London the success or failure of the King’s cause now lay in the hands of Winston Churchill and his efforts to forge a pro-marriage majority within Parliament.

Churchill had received many private messages of support but when on 7 December he stood up to address the House of Commons on the issue of the King’s marriage he was greeted with boos, jeers, and demands that he sit down – the Government had done its work well.

In the meantime, the Duke of York had been sounded out about his willingness to ascend to the throne in the event of his brother’s abdication. He replied it would be with great sadness but he would of course do his duty.

As far as Edward was concerned this was a betrayal, it also proved the final straw and when he asked Churchill was there anything he could do and was greeted with silence his mind was made up.

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At 10.00 am on 10 December 1936, in the drawing room of his home at Fort Belvedere and in the presence of his brother’s, Edward VIII signed the Abdication Document. The following day from Windsor Castle he recorded a message to the Nation and the Empire to be broadcast later that night:

“At long last I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything, but until now it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak.

A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart.

You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.

But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.

And I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone. This was a thing I had to judge entirely for myself. The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course.

I have made this, the most serious decision of my life, only upon the single thought of what would, in the end, be best for all.

This decision has been made less difficult to me by the sure knowledge that my brother, with his long training in the public affairs of this country and with his fine qualities, will be able to take my place forthwith without interruption or injury to the life and progress of the empire. And he has one matchless blessing, enjoyed by so many of you, and not bestowed on me — a happy home with his wife and children.

During these hard days I have been comforted by her majesty my mother and by my family. The ministers of the crown, and in particular, Mr. Baldwin, the Prime Minister, have always treated me with full consideration. There has never been any constitutional difference between me and them, and between me and Parliament. Bred in the constitutional tradition by my father, I should never have allowed any such issue to arise.

Ever since I was Prince of Wales, and later on when I occupied the throne, I have been treated with the greatest kindness by all classes of the people wherever I have lived or journeyed throughout the empire. For that I am very grateful.

I now quit altogether public affairs and I lay down my burden. It may be some time before I return to my native land, but I shall always follow the fortunes of the British race and empire with profound interest, and if at any time in the future I can be found of service to his majesty in a private station, I shall not fail.

And now, we all have a new King. I wish him and you, his people, happiness and prosperity with all my heart. God bless you all! God save the King!”

The Playboy Prince so feared by the Establishment had been ousted from the throne in what had been a very British coup. Soon after the ex-King departed for France to be with the woman he loved.

A political crisis had been averted and the country soon rallied behind their new King and even though some saw the now titled Duke of Windsor’s behaviour as a dereliction of duty most still considered it an affair of the heart.

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On 3 June 1937, Edward and Wallis married at the Chateau de Conde in France.

The Church of England under instruction from the Archbishop of Canterbury had refused to sanction the marriage but did provide a clergyman to preside at the service. The recently installed George VI had also ordered that no member of the Royal Family was to attend. The new King also ruled that although Wallis was to hold the title Duchess of Windsor she was not entitled to be addressed as Her Royal Highness. It was a snub that hurt the Duke deeply and one he would never forgive.

Also, the Duke was to be excluded from the Civil List and would henceforth be supported from the Royal Purse. and many of his future requests for money would go unanswered.

Under pressure from the Queen, Edward’s request to be allowed to return to England was also denied.

In the coming years the doubts that had been expressed regarding the Duke’s character and judgement appeared to be confirmed. In October 1937, Edward and Wallis visited Germany as the personal guests of Adolf Hitler and were feted in what was considered a great propaganda coup for the Nazi regime.

To those within the Duke’s inner-circle this came as no surprise as he and Wallis had often expressed pro-Nazi sympathies. Indeed, in March 1936 he had intervened to prevent a more forceful British response to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland.

A little after this the German Ambassador to the Court of St James Joachim von Ribbentrop inadvertently revealed discussions that had taken place in the British Cabinet earlier that same morning. This was reported to British Intelligence who following an investigation found that he could only have received this information from Wallis Simpson who was a regular visitor to the German Embassy and that the only way she could have learned of it was from the Duke.

It was ordered that in future sensitive information should be withheld from the Duke of Windsor.

Upon the outbreak of the Second World War as a Major-General, the Duke of Windsor was appointed to the General Staff in France. He was in fact a titular Field Marshal and had not taken kindly to his demotion.

Rather than join his Regiment however, he remained in Paris where he partied with fascist friends and it was said was drinking to excess and talking too much. The loose-tongued Duke was causing concern.

When the Germans invaded France he did not report back to his Regiment or contact General Headquarters but instead journeyed south to rejoin Wallis from where he travelled to Spain and then onto Portugal.

The many known fascist sympathisers who were regular visitors to their residence in the hills just outside Lisbon greatly concerned Churchill as did information he had received that they were in frequent correspondence with Nazi officials. Indeed, Wallis had requested that they return some personal belongings that she had left at their villa in France.

Despite repeated requests from the Government that he do so the Duke refused to return to Britain prompting a strongly worded letter from Churchill suggesting his actions could result in serious consequences. He was in effect threatening him with court martial for desertion.

Still the Duke remained non-committal about a return to Britain so Churchill sent a special envoy with a private letter and orders that the Duke take up the Governorship of the Bahamas. It is not known what the letter contained but within a few hours of receiving it the Duke and Wallis had boarded a ship bound for the Caribbean.

It was an insignificant posting for the former King/Emperor but as far as the Government was concerned a convenient one for it removed him far from the zone of conflict.

It was believed that he had been in negotiations with the Nazi’s to regain his throne in the event of a successful German invasion of Britain, and had accepted an offer of 50,000.000 Swiss francs for his co-operation from von Ribbentrop.

Broiling with frustration at their enforced exile away from the High Society they were used to the Duke and Duchess did not enjoy being big fish in a small pond. Neither did he enjoy the prospect of work spending his days playing golf and leaving the administration of the colony to his officials while Wallis arranged that night’s party.

Following the end of the war great efforts were undertaken to conceal what might be considered the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s unpatriotic behaviour.

In July 1945, incriminating correspondence between the Duke and Hitler were recovered from Germany by Anthony Blunt, a distant cousin of the Queen who would later be exposed as a Russian spy and one of the notorious Cambridge Four who was then an MI5 Officer.

The first on the guest list of any High Society function the post-war life of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor descended into an endless round of cocktail parties, Mediterranean holidays, and illegal currency speculation.

Though the Duke was to meet his brother the King and the rest of his family from time to time they were never truly reconciled and he returned to Britain only rarely.

He died on 28 May 1972, aged 77.

Following the Duke’s death the increasingly frail Duchess became an effective recluse as she descended into bed-ridden dementia.

She died on 24 April 1986, aged 89.

John Dillinger: Public Enemy One

John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis on 22 June 1903, the son of a humble shopkeeper who by the time he was killed thirty years later would be one of the most notorious men of his day and the first to be designated Public Enemy Number One, and though he robbed banks across the heartland of America he would die in that city most associated with gangsters – Chicago.

His mother died when he was still an infant and for a time he was raised by his older sister Audrey but when his father, also named John, remarried he decided to raise his son himself and he proved a strict disciplinarian who rarely spared the rod even if the harsh treatment only seemed to bring the worst out of him.

His reputation as a bully also made him unpopular with the parents of other children, so unpopular in fact that his father decided to move them all to Mooresville in rural Indiana. If he believed that life in the city was corrupting his son and that a quieter life might see him change his ways then he was to be sorely mistaken.

After leaving school Dillinger found work in a machine shop where he was acknowledged to be a hard but unreliable worker more interested in partying and girls who only ever turned up when it suited him.

In 1922, he was arrested for stealing a car and in an attempt to prevent a downward spiral into crime his father persuaded him to enlist in the United States Navy but he deserted after just a few months. His relationship with his father now began to deteriorate and he was to express regret later in life how he had treated his father who he recognised had only tried to do his done his best in difficult circumstances.

Returning to Mooresville he met a local girl Beryl Hovious and after a whirlwind romance they married on 12 April 1924, and for a while at least he would often be heard to express his desire to live a respectable life but his attempts to hold down a regular job failed. Finally, along with a friend, Ed Singleton, he decided to rob a local store. They botched the job, roughing up the store owner and making off with only $50. As they fled the scene of the crime they were recognised by a local priest and promptly arrested.

Dillinger’s father now persuaded him to plead guilty in the hope of getting a lighter sentence but throwing himself on the mercy of the Court didn’t work and he was sentenced to between ten and twenty years imprisonment.

His father never forgave himself for getting his son to confess but Dillinger himself did – it wasn’t his fault, he said. He had merely wanted him to find gainful employment and make a success of his marriage. He and Beryl were in fact to divorce five years later.

Upon entering prison Dillinger had told his wardens:

“I will be the meanest bastard you have ever seen when I get out of here.”

But he in fact took to prison life surprisingly well keeping out of trouble, toiling hard in the workshops, and he was in many respects a model prisoner but he also got to know and learn from the most notorious inmates in the prison and by the time he was released eight years later he was also a model criminal.

He was paroled on 10 May 1933, following a petitioning campaign organised by his father and he was to repay his father’s efforts by forming his own criminal fraternity.

The Dillinger Gang’s first bank raid took place in the town of New Carlisle, Ohio, on 10 June 1933, when they escaped with $10,000. They soon after robbed further banks in Daleville and Montpelier, Indiana, stealing another $10,000. But Dillinger did little to cover his tracks and by the time he robbed the bank in Bluffton, Ohio, on 14 August, Law Enforcement were already on his trail.

On 6 September, he robbed the Massachusetts Avenue State Bank in Indianapolis but just two weeks later on 22 September he and his gang were arrested in Dayton, Ohio, and Dillinger was taken to Lima County Jail to await trial.

While under arrest he was questioned about a document found on his person that appeared to indicate he was planning a prison break. He denied all knowledge of its contents but just four days later eight of Dillinger’s friends escaped from Indiana State Prison with guns that had been smuggled into them, killing two prison guards as they did so. On 12 October, four of these escaped prisoners arrived at Lima County Jail claiming to be Police Officers who had orders to return Dillinger to Indiana State Prison for previous parole violations. When Sheriff Jess Sarber demanded to see their credentials he was beaten and shot, dying a little later.

Sarber was to be one of more than a dozen Law Enforcement Officers to be killed by the Dillinger Gang.

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With Dillinger free once more the Gang now embarked upon an unprecedented series of bank robberies and they were no longer robbing just small rural banks where the take was small. On 23 October, 1933, they stole $74,000 from the Central National Bank and Trust Co. in Greencastle, Indiana; on 20 November, $28,000 from the American Bank and Trust Co. in Racine, Wisconsin; and on 15 January, 1934, $20,000 from the First National Bank in East Chicago, Indiana – and so it continued in Sioux Falls South Dakota, Mason City Iowa, and South Bend Indiana.

Following the bank robbery at Racine the gang holed up briefly in Chicago. There the police discovered that one of the cars that had been used in the robberies had been taken into a garage for servicing. They staked-out the garage. When gang member John “Red” Hamilton arrived to pick up the car he was approached by Officer William Shanley. Hamilton shot him dead and made his escape.

Likewise, as the gang had been leaving the scene of the robbery in East Chicago they had been intercepted by seven police officers. In the ensuing fire fight Dillinger shot dead Officer William O’Malley.

In a further humiliation for the Authorities Dillinger had raided Police Arsenals at Auburn and Peru stealing machine guns, ammunition, and bullet-proof vests.

As far as Law Enforcement were concerned John Dillinger was a ruthless criminal who killed without compunction but in Depression-era America his showmanship and flamboyant behaviour was earning him a reputation as a hero similar to Robin Hood. It isn’t unusual in times of great austerity and hardship for criminals who appear to be opposing an unsympathetic Establishment to acquire heroic cult status and no one was better at playing to the gallery than, John Dillinger. He revelled in his new-found fame comparing himself to his hero the movie star Clark Gable who he believed looked like him.

As such, he never even attempted to disguise who he was instead announcing his name upon entering the bank before leaping over the counter and proceeding to charm the female tellers. He always considered himself a lady’s man even if most of his ladies were in fact prostitutes.

Sometimes he would fire a shot into the ceiling before politely requesting that all present lie down. He would then proceed to rob the bank but was always careful never to steal from the pockets of the customers present and it was as much his bravado as the crimes themselves that so outraged the Authorities.

By the middle of 1934, Dillinger’s crime spree and netted him and his gang in excess of $300,000, and though policemen had been killed he was never the most ruthless of criminals. He was always wary of injuring innocent bystanders but he never shrank from defending himself against those who threatened his freedom.

Aware that the police were once more beginning to close in the gang decided to lie-low in Tucson, Arizona. The Congress Hotel where they were staying however caught fire and they were forced to flee in a hurry leaving their luggage behind. They then paid a number of the firemen present to retrieve their luggage for them, one of whom recognised who they were from the photos in the detective magazines he read.

He went to the police, and over the next few days the gang, Peter Pierpont, Charles Makley, Ed Shouse, Charles Russell, and finally Dillinger himself were tracked down and arrested.

Dillinger was separated from the other gang members who were returned to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Sarber and taken to the supposedly escape-proof jail at Crown Point. But it wasn’t secure enough to hold, John Dillinger and carving a fake wooden gun he took the janitor hostage before forcing the guard to open his cell.

The guard he then made to beckon his colleagues whom he took hostage one-by-one, locking them all in the cell before mocking them for being duped by a fake gun and making his escape in the local Sheriff’s new car.

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By stealing the car and driving it across the State line his escape became a Federal case and it fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Investigation (the forerunner of the F.B.I) and its enthusiastic and ambitious young chief J Edgar Hoover.

Dillinger now headed for Chicago where he immediately set about forming a new gang, one of whom was to the notorious George “Baby Face” Nelson.

He was by now sharing a small room with his girlfriend Billie Frechette but the constant comings-and-goings of the other gang members alerted his landlord who reported him to the police. The Department of Investigation immediately put the house under surveillance but when they decided to arrest one of the gang members as he left the house a gunfight broke out in which the gang member was killed and Dillinger wounded.

He managed to escape however and returned to the family home in Mooresville, Indiana, to recuperate.

When he heard that his girlfriend Billie Frechette had been arrested and fearing she would crack under interrogation he wanted to shoot his way into the police station to rescue her but was told that to do so would almost certainly result in his death. As it transpired Billie did not reveal his whereabouts.

Dillinger and his gang reunited at the Little Bohemia Lodge in the small town of Manitowish Waters in Wisconsin. The owners were assured that as long as they did what they were told they would not be harmed. But despite the gang monitoring their movements they managed to slip away long enough to alert the Authorities.

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A few days later the Lodge was surrounded by D.O.I agents under the charge of Melvin Purvis who was to bring more high-profile gangsters to justice than any other agent. On this occasion however he messed up.

The D.O.I agents were not in the mood to take chances and fired without warning on some people they thought were gang members. They turned out to be local residents who were unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time and three men were wounded, two of whom died later.

The gang now alerted to the agent’s presence came out firing and managed to make their escape with Baby Face Nelson killing an agent in the process but despite the gangs initial escape the agents remained hot on their trail.

The following day Dillinger was again involved in a gunfight, this time in Hastings, Minnesota, that saw “Red” Hamilton, who had since rejoined the gang, killed. On 7 June, another gang member, Tommy Carroll, was killed in a shoot-out.

Law Enforcement was closing in and Dillinger realised that if he wanted to survive the gang had to go their separate ways. He returned to Chicago where he took an alias, got a job as a clerk, and regularly made fun of his likeness to the notorious John Dillinger. His spare time he spent in the company of a prostitute, Polly Hamilton.

In the meantime, J Edgar Hoover, following the humiliation at the Little Bohemia Lodge remained more determined than ever to track Dillinger down and he created a special task force dedicated to doing just that.

But it was less rigorous police work that cornered John Dillinger rather that shadow that looms over everyone ‘betrayal’ that brought him down.

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Ana Cumpanas, also known as Anna Sage, was an illegal Rumanian refugee and prostitute who under the threat of deportation for being someone of low moral character, said she would tell them all she knew if they would look kindly upon her status.

She ran a brothel in Gary, Indiana, and knew Dillinger well, she said, and would be willing to participate in his capture if the threat to deport her was lifted. The Agency appeared to agree to her terms and so she told them that she was due to attend a movie showing at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago the next day 22 June, 1934, along with Dillinger and Polly Hamilton.

The theatre would be surrounded and she agreed to wear a bright red dress to make the party easily identifiable.

Melvin Purvis was again put in charge of the operation to apprehend Dillinger.

He had the area swamped with agents with all exits from the theatre covered and all the nearby roads blocked off.

The decision was made to arrest Dillinger as he left the theatre so as to minimise the possibility of civilian casualties in any shoot-out. The order was also given that Dillinger should be shot dead at the first sign of any resistance. Purvis would light a cigar to indicate Dillinger’s exit from the theatre.

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As the crowd tumbled from the theatre at the end of the nights entertainment and began to disperse Dillinger could be seen quite happily chatting to Ana and Polly oblivious of what was about to happen.

However, passing by Purvis he appeared to recognise him and stared for a moment. He glanced nervously down the street and began to distance himself from the two women. A few seconds later he began to run fumbling in his pocket for his gun as he did so. Almost immediately five shots rang out three of which ripped through his body, with one entering his head and exiting his face. It killed him instantly.

If Ana Cumpanas thought that her betrayal of Dillinger would allow her to remain in the United States she was to be disappointed for she was deported just a few months later. But as much as she was disappointed J Edgar Hoover was delighted.

The death of John Dillinger, America’s most wanted criminal, was a great triumph for the Department of Investigation which had often been seen as nothing more than an ineffective force of relatively powerless bureaucrats. Hoover was to ensure that its success was widely trumpeted and the following year he was to preside over its reorganisation and renaming as the Federal Bureau of Investigation with himself as its first Director.

Doubt was cast at the time that the man killed at the Biograph Theatre was John Dillinger at all. Some witnesses to the event later said that according to his widely circulated description he was too tall to be Dillinger. It has also been suggested that the fingerprints taken from the body did not match his and were to go missing for decades.

Also, upon seeing Dillinger’s corpse in the morgue his own father was said to have remarked – that’s not my boy.

Is it possible that the Agents present had killed the wrong man? To admit having done so would have been a huge embarrassment especially in light of the fact that they had already shot dead two innocent men dead from mistaken identity. Then again, such conspiracy theories are commonplace in considering the fate of those elevated to cult status.

John Dillinger was America’s first Most Wanted, its first Public Enemy Number One. Others were to follow just as famous, including Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, and Al Capone but few were as colourful and none were ever as popular as – John Herbert Dillinger.

Gilles de Rais: A Medieval Serial Killer

Gilles de Rais was a man of noble blood and a hero of the French Court who had fought alongside Joan of Arc and been present at the Siege of Orleans, the decisive battle of the Hundred Years War. Following this triumph he was permitted to wear the Royal Fleur-de-Lys on his coat of arms and after the successful Siege of Paris he was made a Marshal of France at the age of just 25.

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He was a model of chivalry, handsome, brave, and much admired but everything was not as it seemed. He also had a dark side but few could have imagined just how dark for besides the obvious, his frequent drunkenness and violent temper, he also dabbled in the occult, was a sexual sadist, and a child murderer.

He was born in 1404 at the family Castle at Machecoul, and was a bright child who learned Latin when still young and would illuminate manuscripts for his own pleasure but it was to the outdoor life that he was particularly drawn revelling in the rigours of physical exercise.

When he was still only eleven years of age both his mother and father died within a few months of each other and he along with his younger brother Rene de la Suze were placed in the care of their unscrupulous and ambitious grandfather Jean de Craon, who saw their adoption as an opportunity to enhance his social standing and personal wealth via the marriage bed.

On 30 November 1420, aged sixteen, Gilles was married to Catherine de Thouars, the Heiress to Poitou and the Vendee. They were soon to have a daughter, and the marriage was to make both Gilles and his grandfather very rich men indeed.

The young Gilles could be both charming and charismatic but his failings had not gone unnoticed yet it wasn’t to be long before he proved his worth on the battlefield and any doubts some held as to his character were forgotten.

Everyone agreed that Gilles was brave in the extreme and appeared oblivious to danger, that he was never than when blood was being spilled.

Decorated for his bravery in the war against the English his citation read: “For his commendable services and many brave feats.”

The stoicism and discipline he displayed on the battlefield was sadly lacking in the way he conducted his private life, however. He drank heavily, liked to entertain his friends lavishly, and purchased jewels and fine silks at great expense. As a result, he was often short of money but under the protection of the Duke of Brittany he felt secure enough whenever poverty loomed to simply take the property of others.

In 1434, he constructed a chapel for himself where he would preside at prayers and give Mass dressed in extravagant robes that he had designed himself. The following year he put on a theatrical extravaganza that had a cast of 150 actors and more than 500 others. It was all paid for from his own purse including the free food and wine he laid on for the spectators, some of whom he had already paid to attend.

The entire affair almost bankrupted him and he had to sell some family estates and much of his wife’s jewellery to ward it off.

By June 1435, his family had had enough and petitioned both the French King and Pope Eugene IV to curb his excesses. The Pope refused to get involved but on 2 July, a Royal Edict prevented him from selling any more of the family’s property.

Not just faced with penury but with his reputation impugned Gilles life now took an even darker turn when he began to dabble in the occult and came under the tutelage of a sinister man named Francesco Prelati.

He had been promised that the occult was the means by which he would restore his fortunes.

But his introduction to the dark arts had not predated his killing spree.

In the spring of 1432, he had abducted a 12 year old boy named Jeudon who had been working as an apprentice to a local furrier Guillaume Hilairet when he was approached by a man calling himself Gilles de Sille (possibly de Rais himself) who asked if he boy could take a message for him to the Castle at Machecoult.

The boy did not want to go and Hilairet was reluctant to let him but de Sille insisted – Jeudon was never seen again.

When de Rais was questioned about his disappearance he denied that the boy had ever been at Machecoult.

Over the next eight years a great many boys and girls would disappear in similarly mysterious circumstances and it was only by chance that their fate would come to light.

On 15 May 1440, in a dispute over money de Rais abducted a priest from the Church of Saint-Etienne de Mer Morte and
in an investigation into the incident conducted by the Bishop of Nantes details were revealed under torture by de Rais manservant’s Corrilaut and Henriet of events at Machecoult.

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With their testimony, and that of other witnesses the full horror of what de Rais had done was revealed and armed with this information the Bishop approached Jean V, Duke of Brittany, and demanded a trial under the law.

On 29 July 1440, De Rais, Corrilaut, and Henriet were arrested on charges of murder and the even more serious crime of heresy.

That a man of noble birth, a close confidante of Joan of Arc, and a national hero could be guilty of such heinous crimes was unthinkable. It was a scandal embarrassing to the Royal Court which demanded a speedy resolution.

According to the testimony of witnesses De Rais would invite young boys and girls to his Castle with promises of food for their families, or he would simply abduct them late at night from nearby villages.

Once in the Castle he proceeded to pamper them, they were bathed and dressed in the finest clothes before he would get them drunk and taken to his private chambers. There they were bound with ropes, or hung on hooks, and their mouths gagged to stop them crying out. He was sexually aroused by their struggling and the look of fear in their eyes and would proceed to masturbate on their stomach or thighs.

Corrilaut testified that his master would often masturbate on the bodies after they were dead, and that he disdained the victim’s sexual organs taking:

“Infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner than using their natural orifice in the normal manner.”

De Rais himself confessed that:

“When the children were dead I would hold up their heads of the most handsome ones to admire them.”

He also took great delight in splitting open their stomachs and admiring their internal organs.

Most of his victims were killed with a large double-edged sword known as a braquemard and the bodies were then dismembered by his servants and burned in the fireplace of his private bed chamber.

The room would then be heavily perfumed to disguise the smell of burned flesh.

The trial that had began on 15 September 1440, was often delayed for those present to fully absorb the horror of what was being relayed, and indeed so graphic was much of the testimony that the Judge ordered it struck from the records.

As so many of the victims remains had been burned it was impossible to do an accurate body count. The Court, however, estimated that as many as 200 young boys and girls had been killed during de Rais’s eight year reign of terror.

On 23 October 1440, Corrilaut and Henriet were condemned to death to be followed two days later by de Rais who was found guilty of murder and heresy.

He was to be hanged until choked and then burned to death in the presence of the relatives of those of his victims who could be identified.

The sentences were to be carried out on 26 October.

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Gilles de Rais requested to be the first to die and given his rank and his previous service to France his request was granted.

Before he was executed he addressed the crowd and begged their forgiveness. He then turned to his two accomplices and urged them to be brave and not fear death but to think instead of their coming salvation.

He was then hanged until barely conscious before being lowered back onto the scaffold which was then set alight.

It was reported that he made no sound and was quickly consumed by the flames.

The Wall Street Bombing

At twelve o’clock in the afternoon of 16 September 1920, a horse and cart pulled up outside the JP Morgan Banking House on Wall Street in New York.

A minute later there was a massive explosion and when the smoke cleared 34 people lay dead amongst the debris, a further 5 would die later in hospital and more than 400 people were injured, 143 of them seriously.

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Then, as now, Wall Street was not only New York’s financial district but stood at the heart of a global economy. That such a thing could happen here of all places was unthinkable and people, still clearly stunned, thought it could only be the result of a tragic accident.

The Board of the Stock Exchange resolved to continue business as usual the following day once the clean-up had been completed. But further investigations were soon to prove that it had been no accident.

The Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the F.B.I, discovered leaflets and flyers in the vicinity that threatened violence and destruction if certain political prisoners were not released.

A further search found traces of a bomb that it was estimated had been packed with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of large and small metal fragments that would have served as shrapnel thereby maximising the carnage.

The clean up ordered earlier however, hampered any effective forensic analysis of the crime scene.

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America at the time was not only undergoing a renewed surge in immigration from Europe as a result of the First World War but was in the midst of a “Red Scare” following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the ensuing spread of Communist ideology.

The former was thought by many to be the cause and consequence of the latter.

Some of the leaflets found at the scene had been signed The Anarchist Fighters of America, and suspicion immediately fell upon one anarchist in particular, Luigi Galleani.

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He was an Italian who had escaped imprisonment in his home country by fleeing to Egypt before making his way to America.

He was an active revolutionary and a powerful and persuasive orator who believed that only violent action could overthrow the capitalist system, a view he expressed in his Cronaca Sovversiva, or Subversive Chronicle, which had over 5,000 subscribers but it rarely reached an audience beyond those in the radical Italian-American community.

His was not just an intellectual call to arms however, but a practical one and he had written a bomb-making journal.

Advocates of Gallieni’s brand of revolutionary anarchism were already thought to have been behind a wave of terrorist attacks that had swept across America in the months and years preceding the Wall Street bombing.

In 1916, a mass-poisoning had been attempted at a lavish party thrown in honour of a local Bishop that had attracted the great and good of the city of Chicago.

The soup had been laced with arsenic and though no one was killed more than a hundred of the guests became seriously ill and had to be hospitalised.

The following year 9 policemen were killed in a bomb attack in Milwaukee.

In 1919, 30 mail bombs were posted to prominent politicians and businessmen. Many of these were intercepted but 8 bombs were delivered and detonated in 8 different American cities killing 3 people.

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The Wall Street Bombing was also believed to be linked to the arrest of two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti, who had been charged with a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts that had resulted in the murder of two people.

The evidence against both Sacco and Vanzetti was less than conclusive but both were known to be anarchists.

Many people believed them to be innocent of the crime and that they were in fact in prison for their political beliefs.

It was thought that they may have been the political prisoners the leaflets were referring to.

Whilst it was thought that Gallieni, or at least his adherents, were responsible for the Wall Street Bombing he could not be directly implicated as he had been deported back to Italy the previous year.

The prime suspect now became his bomb-maker, Mario Buda.

He had been present during the robbery in Braintree and was almost certainly responsible for the murder of the policemen in Milwaukee but even though he was known to have been in New York at the time of the Wall Street Bomb no attempt was made to apprehend him.

In November, 1920, he acquired a passport from the Italian Consulate and fled to Naples.

The Bureau of Investigation despite making a number of arrests were unable to secure enough evidence to bring charges, and the Wall Street Bombing remains an unsolved crime to this day.

Prior to the Oklahoma City bombing of 19 April 1995, when the Federal Alfred P Murrah building was destroyed and 168 people killed by terrorists linked to the American Militias, the Wall Street Bombing had been the most lethal single terrorist atrocity ever committed in the United States, though all such horrors have since been eclipsed by subsequent events.